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Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. Steven is co-author of Exploring Wine, which has sold more than 125,000 copies, and was nominated as Best Wine and Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation. Steven is also co-author of WineWise, a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world, which won both the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Beverage Book and the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Award for Best Wine Book of the Year. He is also the author of A Sense of Place, a history of Napa Valley's Niebaum-Coppola / Rubicon Winery (foreword by Francis Ford Coppola) that received the prestigious Versailles Award for Best American Wine Book in 2000. He is a contributing editor and the wine columnist for The Valley Table and Salon.com. In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years. Steven Kolpan lives just outside of Woodstock, New York.

The Wines of Piemonte, Italy

About ten years ago, I (along with almost 1,200 other lucky professional and avocational winos) had the pleasure of attending a career-defining tasting. Angelo Gaja, widely known as the most admired – and arguably the best – wine producer in the Piemonte region of Italy, presided over a tasting of his wines at the New York Wine Experience. The Gaja wines, all single-vineyard estate wines from the villages of Barbaresco and Barolo, were glorious, and so was his homage to the grape that brought him to the party and wine-world prominence, Nebbiolo.

Starting with the near-perfect 1997 vintage, Angelo Gaja no longer anoints his acclaimed single-vineyard estate wines with name of DOCG zones, Barbaresco or Barolo. Instead, as would be the case of the Grand Cru wines of Burgundy, he opts to emphasize the terroir of the sites: Sori San Lorenzo and Sori Tildin (in Barbaresco) and Sperss (in Barolo), adopting the more-humble DOC of Nebbiolo delle Langhe.

Warming to his already-rapt audience, Gaja decided to compare the dark and mysterious Nebbiolo (named for the fog, the nebea that seems to consume the hillside vineyards of Piemonte’s southern Langhe region) to the ubiquitous and ever-popular Cabernet Sauvignon.

"Cabernet is to John Wayne what Nebbiolo is to Marcello Mastroianni. John Wayne is a strong personality. He speaks in a loud voice. He is reliable. When he comes home to his wife at night he does his duty; reliable but not exciting. Marcello Mastroianni would never be in the center of a room. He is shy. He is a closed book. He is not so reliable, but so much more exciting. And women become beautiful beside him. This is the beauty of Nebbiolo."

Gaja, standing in front of giant photo-projections of the two cinematic icons, entertained the appreciative crowd with his wit and informed them with his insight into two very different vinous imperatives. I was about to taste some of the most exciting wines of my life, my own la dolce vita, transported from Manhattan to Rome’s Trevi fountain, splashing with Anita Ekberg under the watchful and soulful eyes of Marcello Mastroianni. And the wines were very bit as mesmerizing as Fellini’s magnificent film.

Gaja, revealing extraordinary generosity, presented Sori San Lorenzo 1999 and 1978, Sori Tildin 1997and 1974 and Sperss 1998 and 1990. Just when the murmurs of pleasure and respect were about to become a near-roar, the crowd was treated to the extraordinarily vibrant 1961 Gaja Barbaresco (the same year that La Dolce Vita was released in the United States), a wine made by Angelo’s father, Giovanni Gaja. A momentary hush came over the entire ballroom, soon followed by a spontaneous and well-deserved standing ovation.
“Il vino è rosso” (“Wine is red") is an old Piemontese adage that has contemporary resonance, as Piedmont's winemakers struggle to work primarily, and in many cases almost exclusively, with native red varietals, especially Nebbiolo, Dolcetto, and Barbera - in a world market that thirsts for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Pinot Noir. However, while the finest red wine producers of Piedmont are steeped in tradition, they are not standing still.

Barolo and Barbaresco are often respectively referred to as the "King and Queen" of Piemontese wines. Both wines are made from 100% Nebbiolo grapes, grown in the communes of the Langhe surrounding the small city of Alba - Barbaresco to the north, and Barolo to the southeast. Barolo, the "King" is traditionally the most assertive and complex wine produced in Italy, tannic in its youth, and elegant in old age. This profile is moderating, as the wine, which was most often made from very ripe grapes and fermented in contact with their skins for months in large chestnut casks, where the wine aged for years before bottling, has virtually disappeared from the Barolo landscape. Today, Nebbiolo grapes are picked in small bunches from cooler areas, and skin contact is limited to weeks, not months, often in a combination of stainless steel fermentation tanks and small French oak barrels for aging. Modern-day Barolo is ready to drink in from three to five years, rather than the 20 years required for the classic version.

Barolo, at its best, delivers ripe fruit enshrined in a wine of great complexity and depth and balance, with a bouquet of violets, spices, tobacco, and the heady white truffles for which the Piedmont region is so well known. Fine producers of Barolo are Ceretto, Clerico, Pio Cesare, Marcarini, Bartolo Mascarello, Elio Grasso, Vietti, Renato Ratti, Aldo Conterno, Bava, Altare, Lucio Sandrone, Giacomo Conterno, Giuseppe Mascarello, Scavino, the enigmatic Bruno Giacosa, and of course, Angelo Gaja.

Speaking of Gaja in Barbaresco, his three single-vineyards - Sori Tildin, Sori San Lorenzo, and Costa Russi - define the category, and retail for $200 or more, depending on the vintage. These wines are sold on a strict worldwide allocation basis. Not many Barbaresco wines are nearly as expensive as the Gaja, however, with most retailing at between $30 and $60. The "Queen" of the Piedmont is a full-bodied Nebbiolo-based wine, but is often a bit fresher and more graceful on the palate than the more ponderous Barolo, and might be perceived as somewhat more versatile with a wider range of foods. I have found Barbaresco also provides far more bang for the buck than Barolo, as it maintains much higher standards in its vineyards than its much larger and more famous Nebbiolo-neighbor to the south. Many of the producers listed for Barolo also produce Barbaresco, but be sure to look for Marchese di Gresy, Cortese, Cigliuti, Prunotto, Punset, Albino Rocca, Bruno Rocca, Mascarello & Figlio, Mocagatta, and the producer that most often provides great quality and great value, the Produttori del Barbaresco, a wine-making collective whose single-vineyard wines - Rio Sordo, Montestefano, Montefico, and Asili - sometimes rival the wines of Angelo Gaja, at less than one-quarter of Gaja's price, around $35 to $50, depending on vineyard and vintage.

Another wonderful Piemontese red, Dolcetto ("little sweet one," referring to the easy-ripening, tiny grape; the wine is fruit-driven, but dry) is most often medium-bodied, fresh and food-friendly, and may benefit from a bit of chilling, but Dolcetto d'Alba can be mouth-filling, complex, and even benefit from some aging. Dolcetto is another true crossover wine, an appropriate match for lighter meats, poultry, fatty fishes, vegetarian dishes (especially mushrooms), and various pastas. Fine Dolcetto d’Alba is made by many of the aforementioned Barolo and Barbaresco producers. Also look for Dolcetto di Dogliani from Abbona and Dolcetto d’Acqui from Villa Sparina.

Barbera is probably the most improved red wine produced in the Piedmont region. After generations of poorly made, oxidized wines, contemporary Barbera is a refreshing, medium-bodied wine with good acidity and balance, even elegance. Barbera from Alba, Asti, and Monferrato are held in high regard as wines that pair with a wide variety of dishes. Unquestionably, the finest producer of Barbera was Giacomo Bologna, who died in 1991 (he was much-beloved; 5,000 people attended his funeral), and whose daughter, Raffaella, continues to make his single-vineyard “Braida” Barbera d’Asti wines, Bricco dell'Uccelone ("Hilltop of the Loon") and Bricco della Bigotta (named for the gossips who sit in the chairs on the streets of Bologna's hometown, Rocchetta Tanaro). Michele Chiarlo is another fine producer, as are Bava (look for the barrique-aged “Stradivario”), Vietti, Prunotto, and Marriuccia Borio's “Cascina Castelet,” notably hard to find but worth the effort.

The classic wines of Piedmont appear on all of the best lists in America's Italian restaurants and are much admired by Italian wine aficionados, but they deserve a much wider audience. The wines are so adept at enhancing the flavors of so many styles of food that they can quickly become the exotic stars of a meal, and we can just as quickly become enthusiastic about these wonderful wines from Piemonte. We may even become obsessed, as the wines converse with and enhance the soul. Hopefully, obsession soon leads to enlightenment as we begin to understand how and why Angelo, Marcello, Federico, Sophia, and so many other Italian wine lovers commune with a glass of Piemontese vino di meditazione. Even John Wayne might admit “il vino è rosso.”

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