Saturday, February 23, 2008

Barolo vs. Barbaresco: Looking For Piemontese Terroir

In stark contrast to my Twelve Under $12 series was a towering wine tasting featuring some of the greatest, and priciest, wines of Piemonte. Our wine group went deep into our cellars to deliver the following, a mind blowing list of wines for Nebbiolo fans:

1996 Gaja Barbaresco
1996 Sandrone Cannubi Boschis
1997 Giuseppe Cortese Barbaresco Rabajà
1998 Prunotto Barbaresco Bric Turot
1998 Marchesi di Barolo Cannubi
1999 Sandrone Barolo Le Vigne
1999 Pio Cesare Barolo
2000 Paitin Barbaresco Sorì Paitin

Just to set the stage, our group's themes have rotated through the world's wine grapes and regions, but with a good basic command of the world's wines I now want to go deeper, really focusing on technique and terroir. With this in mind I "strongly suggested" that our next tasting dive deeper into a specific region, resulting in this high-end nebbiolo tasting to compare and contrast the wines of Barolo and Barbaresco.

Now, before I go into my review I want to highlight that it was extremely difficult to properly assess the wines - with 14 tasters, 10 decanters, 12 different wines (yes, there are eight above, but like all great athletes we needed to "warm up" for the big event and "cool down" afterwards) and 100 glasses (including water glasses) pressed into service, this was more of a wine party than a structured tasting, the assessment further complicated by one ounce pours of wines that needed hours to develop. In that context I reluctantly publish both my scores and the overall ranking by the group - here are my notes:

My two highest scores were for Cosme's 1996 Sandrone (fifth place) and the 2000 Paitin Barbaresco (seventh), both scoring 19/20. Once again, a Sandrone Cannubi Boschis wowed me with extraordinary depth and complexity - first showing a modern-styled nose of creamy cola notes, then bursting forth with classic cedar, musk, truffle, dark earth and rose. So soft and velvety smooth with dry dusty tannins, reserved fruit and seemingly infinite length. I was nearly alone in my praise for the Paitin Barbaresco - musk, leather, nutmeg, flowers and a late developing nutty smell were the olfactory foundation for a complex and beautifully textured wine, the very long finish hinting of many pleasurable years to come.

My next two highest scores were for Ash's Sandrone Barolo Le Vigne (first) and Chris' Giuseppe Cortese Barbaresco (eighth), both scoring 18.5/20. The Sandrone Le Vigne was very different, with inky vanilla and spicy nutmeg and cloves, but the highlight was a fine, well structured palate with silky tannins and gorgeous mouthfeel - the crowd favourite by a wide margin. The Cortese Barbaresco was another wine loved by Joe but disliked by the rest of the gang - very tarry on the nose, with nice secondary aromas from aging, hints of cumin, truffle, leather, venison, coffee and prunes. Very elegant, wrapping the palate in soft velvet and a never-ending idea why I was the only one who liked this.

My notes have three wines scoring 17.5/20: Cosme's Gaja Barbaresco (third), Lloyd's Prunotto Barbaresco Bric Turot (second), and my Marchesi di Barolo Cannubi (fourth). My Gaja rating probably stands out given the legend surrounding this estate, but this is the second Gaja Barbaresco that left me kind of flat. More floral on the nose, with musk, pepper, tar and cola notes. Elegant and balanced on the palate, with dry dusty tannins lengthy finish, but a bit thin and "hot". The Prunotto was tarry and flinty, with hints of cola and liquorice, but with less length and complexity vs. the other wines - very smooth and elegant, though. My Marchesi Cannubi was perhaps a touch less polished but more interesting than the two above - meaty prunes, cherry fruit, rose, truffle, leather and an odd industrial note that I couldn't quite place. Edgy, but interesting.

I scored Cam's Pio Cesare Barolo (sixth) last, score: 17/20. Pale cola and vanilla notes, but not much else on the nose. Edgy on the palate, to quote: "modern, simple, easy drinking".


(1) While not quite addressing my personal objective to define more clearly for me the difference between a Barolo and a Barbaresco, it was a fantastic, once-in-a-lifetime (I hope not!) flight of wines that paired perfectly with a great group of tasters and a decadent spread of regional cheeses, sausage and foie gras. A terrific evening - many thanks to Cosme and Rebecca.

(2) The quality level was so high that most tasters protested having to rank order their least- to most-favourite wines. These dissident tasters quickly flagged their best and worst, but were sloppy with their middling rankings. As these wines were all very good wines I am not sure that the ranking (or my scores) is helpful.

(3) I ignored a Barbaresco and Barolo that started us off, as well as the two late arrivals - I will add those details (and a photo) as soon as I get those.

(4) I tasted a 1990 Gaja Barbaresco a few years back and I found the 1996 tonight similar - very polished, but lacking the emotion and complexity I look for at this price point. Given that the Gaja sells at multiples of this extremely pricey flight of wine, I fail to see the excitement. This is not a comment against Gaja per se - I loved the Gaja Bruenello recently (I even named Gaja a deity), loved the Gaja Darmagi, but I just can't get my head around the Barbaresco.

(5) I CAN get my head around Luciano Sandrone, everything, love them all - Dolcetto, Barbera, Nebbiolo, Barolos...

(6) For those who need to know, all the wines were sealed with cork and cost 6-15 times that of my $12 cheapos...

Next up, we go back to Burgundy...


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