Over the past couple of months I've had four remarkable red wines from the Piedmont region of Italy. The Langhe---the region 30 or so miles south and southeast of Turin, whose hills, dotted with old castles and churches and commanding panoramic views, begin to rise just south of the wine, truffle, and nougat town of Alba, is the source of most of the best Italian wines made from the local Nebbiolo grape (a few other places in Italy, such as Ghemme and Gattinara in northeastern Piedmont, also traditionally use the grape). Three of the wines I'll discuss in this post are made from Nebbiolo: one from each of the two noble red-wine appelations, Barolo and Barbaresco, within the Langhe, and a straight Nebbiolo Langhe which, however, could legally have been sold as a Barbaresco. The fourth wine is a Barbera d'Asti, from the region roughly north of the Langhe, around the town of Asti.
The 2005 "La Loggia" Barolo, at around $15 from Trader Joe's (probably sold out in many TJ's), while not at the level of true greatness that the appellation is apparently capable of, is an excellent wine and a great bargain. It is on the light side of medium-bodied, somewhat tight or closed, but with some good raspberry flavor, hints of carameliness or vanilla in the nose and mouth, perhaps violets or rose petals or at any rate something floral, though only a hint, and most interestingly a definite rhubarb-ish note that I've found in some other Barolos and Barbarescos and that is very pleasant, becoming more noticeable in the finish. Reasonably well balanced and smooth. Tannins are noticeable, showing a bit of bite but not in a harsh way, and feel relatively fine-grained. This is not a blockbuster complex Barolo, nor does it exactly have a silky velvety feel that the lusher, more immediately appealing ones do, but it is not priced like high-end Barolos either. And it definitely gives a taste of some of the characteristics Nebbiolo exhibits in these high-end wines, and is a very enjoyable and interesting wine in its own right.
The 2009 "Rocca dell'Olmo" Barbaresco, $10 from TJ's, is an even better value. It doesn't show much in the nose, perhaps a bit of strawberry, but in the mouth is fuller bodied than the Barolo, opening up over time in the glass though still not acquiring much of a nose. Flavors are more intense, with strawberry, perhaps cherry, perhaps floral notes again, and darker, more mineral notes along with the pleasing and interesting rhubarb-like flavor mentioned in connection with the La Loggia above. The finish maintains the same flavors experienced with the wine in the mouth, but is extraordinarily long and flavorful, definitely the most impressive aspect of this wine. Tannins are a bit more pronounced and have a peppery, slightly coarser-grained feel than those in the Barolo, but are definitely under control and not coarse. This went extremely well with a vegetarian supper of quinoa and a salad of chopped red and green peppers, tomatoes, feta, and mint dressed with olive oil and lemon juice. The rhubarb-ish vegetal elements apparently echoed and complemented these tastes nicely.
I bought 5 or 6 more of these to age after trying this bottle. The finish on this is first-rate, what one would expect from a great wine, and if bottle-age gives it a significant and complex bouquet, as seems possible, it will in fact have developed into a great or near-great wine... for 10 bucks. We will see. If this works, I'm guessing it will peak at around 3-7 years (from now, i.e. 7-11 years from the vintage). An extraordinary value in any case.
The third Nebbiolo is a plain Nebbiolo delle Langhe 2009 from Sottimano. A bit more expensive ($22, not including mixed-half-case-discount, from the Casa Sena wine shop in Santa Fe). This is a really excellent wine. The description of the 2010 vintage, linked above, makes it clear that the wine could legal be labeled Barbaresco (from the "cru" area of Basarin, in fact), but has been downclassified by the winery to Langhe Nebbiolo because the vines are youngish (13-14 years old at the time of the 2009 vintage), and "cannot yet express the richness of polyphenols or all the aromas and the "nuances" that an important cru like this could have." That right there tells you something about the values and aims of this winery: many US wineries would have no problem considering vines that old more than ready for their higher-priced bottlings. When tasted just after opening, this wine seems a bit on the light and tight side, with fine but slightly aggressive tannins, but still quite flavorful and balanced, with much more of a nose (still red berries but also typical Nebbiolo floral elements) than the Rocca dell'Olmo. It rapidly opens up to become a bit more velvety and smooth on the palate than the Rocca, the tannins starting to carry the flavor around the mouth and make it stick, the flavors developing to include more definite notes of caramel and hints of minerality. Good length of finish, maybe less dark and mineral than the Rocca's, but still complex. I got the feeling from this wine's opening up to be fairly complex, but grapey and natural, and intense on the palate, that it was likely unfiltered. Sure enough, looking at it in the glass (the color is relatively toward the violet rather than red end of the red-wine spectrum) one can see a slight cloudiness of grapey particulate matter, and the Sottimano website confirms that it's neither filtered nor fined. A very good sign. From the website, it looks like the other wines they make are high-end Barolos and Barbarescos from named vineyards; Casa Sena has some of them, priced in the $60ish range. These probably are fuller-bodied, somewhat more tannic, and probably really need at least 7 years of age, perhaps substantially more. The Langhe Nebbiolo is good now, will likely benefit substantially from about 3-5 years of aging, but is not going to need (or perhaps, handle) the aging that the Barolos and Barbarescos do. Still, a very serious wine from what is clearly a very serious estate, a real taste of what serious winemaking with a light touch can do to grapes from an area with real terroir, and another excellent bargain even though not cheap. On my next visit to Casa Sena, I scarfed up the last two bottles for my cellar, and it looks like that may be the last of the 2009 around here. (Kokoman, at Pojoaque Pueblo, now has the 2010 though...).
Finally, there's the 2010 Rocca dell'Olmo Barbera d'Asti. Barbera makes fairly full-bodied, lusty wines with elements of leafiness, often fairly chewy tannins, and a bit of dark complexity. Matt Kramer has said it's rubber-like. Barbera from Asti (southeast of Turin---Barbaresco separates it from the Alba region and the Barolo appelation) is usually less expensive, and a bit more acidic, even sharper, than Barbera d'Alba. This wine has a bit of that sharpness, but also the full body, chewy tannins, and tasty autumn-leafy flavors that are usually evident in Barbera d'Alba. An excellent buy at $6. From TJ's again, of course; I'm guessing Rocca dell'Olmo is a label put together for them by some Piedmontese négociant with whom they have a big contract. Perhaps this négociant has the local connections to buy up lots of wine from producers in the high-end appelations, that end up being not quite up to the standards of the super-expensive producers, perhaps because they are lighter than desired, slightly unbalanced, or just didn't fit into the final blend. It seems to me that that may be one of TJ's major modus operandi in both Europe and California (though in the latter case, many of the wines get sold under TJ's own name). The somewhat lower standards and much lower prices, though, probably apply mainly to the high end appelations (Barbaresco and Barolo in this case). This Barbera d'Asti is in no way an inferior example: it is just what a Barbera d'Asti should be, not super-complex or elegant, but a good full-bodied wine tasting fully of the Barbera grape, with just the right hint of the Asti tartness and acidity, an excellent wine to have with strongly flavored foods, and priced, I think, at about what such a bottle would cost in Italy.