Appearing in today's Abq Journal North edition.
Some Northern Italian Esoterica
(for Journal North May 18 column)
Italian wines are some of my most favorite of wines. I love and cook Italian food.
Italian wines seem the natural accompaniment for that food. But from there, my
tastes are widely divergent from most lovers of Italian wine. I should explain.
Most Italian wine connoisseurs seem to focus on the classics. Nebbiolo from the
Piedmont, namely Barbaresco and Barolo, are regarded by many as one of the world's greatest
wines. Chiantis from the Tuscany region, made primarily from the Sangiovese grape, also has
its adherents for that title. But, for me, I'm coming to the realization that these are
two wines I... just...don't...get; they just don't give me the satisfaction I get from many
Despite its lovely scents, Piedmont Nebbiolo fails me badly on my admittedly California
palate. I find the acids and tannins can often be ferocious. I liken drinking Nebbiolo to
stuffing violet petals up one nostril, lilac petals up the other, sealing both with a plug
of fresh road tar, then sticking your tongue out betwixt the jaws of a vise and torquing it down.
Tuscan Sangiovese is not much better. I like the lovely cherry/rose petal aromas of the
wine; but I find it, too, not that attractive on the palate; often showing a harsh astringency
and a bitey acidity.
Though I've not given up trying these Italian classics, I find myself focusing more and more
on some of the lesser known regions and grape varieties. In today's column, I'll take you
to a few of my favorite vinous backwaters of Northern Italy.
Italy is rife with grape varieties that are seldom found elsewhere in the world. To me,
these obscure grapes offer some of the most interesting drinking coming out of Italy.
Over the last 10-15 years, there has been a serious effort by many Italian winemakers to
bring back some of these indigenous varieties from near extinction.
One of the best resources for these grapes is "Wines of Italy" by Patricia Guy. Burton
Anderson's "Pocket Guide To Italian Wines" is another.
One of my favorite regions is Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, in the far Northeast, bordering
Slovenia (a rising star in the wine firmament). The area, for some reason, produces a river
of undistinguished Merlot, Cabernet, and Pinot Grigio. But, among the whites, varieties like
Tocai Friulano, Verduzzo, and Ribolla Gialla can all be quite tasty. The rare Picolit can make
lovely, if overpriced, dessert wines.
Of the reds, the Refosco (dal Peduncolo Rosso) is easily my fave; with its aromatic black
cherry/plummy scents and a tart, slightly bitter, bite on the palate. Much rarer, the Forgiarin,
Pignolo, and Schioppettino have occasional piqued my interest with their sometimes wild
fragrances and slightly rustic taste.
High in the Italian Tyrol lies the Alto Adige and Trentino regions. This is, in fact, the
origin of Alsace's Gewurztraminer, near the village of Tramin. Called here the Traminer
Aromatico, they can often rival the best from France with their leaner profile on the palate.
This is also home to two of my favorite reds. Lagrein shows powerful floral/earthy scents
with a rich black cherry rusticity in the mouth. More exotic and rare is the native Marzemino.
It has a perfumey fragrance much like wild alpine strawberries, but a light lively character on
the palate that blows away any Beaujolais I've ever had.
Continuing to the west takes one into the mountainous district of Lombardy. Although the
whites can be quite pleasant, the reds here excite me the most. To my taste, this is where
some of the best Nebbiolo in all Italy can be found. Called Chiavennasca here in the Valtellina,
these wines have a lushness seldom found in the Piedmont versions, especially the late harvest
Sfursat (gesundheit!!) wine.
At lower elevations, the Oltropo Pavese wines from varieties like Barbera, Bonarda, Croatina,
and Uva Rara can all be quite good and match well the hearty cuisine of the region.
Finally, we reach the famed Piedmont; home of the (so-called) great Barolo and Barbaresco,
made from the Nebbiolo grape. I must admit that I've had some magnificent examples of these
wines. But you also have to pay some pretty magnificent $$'s to buy them, alas. Yet, for me,
the other, more modestly priced, reds are what I enjoy most.
Though the Barbera can have a searing acidity on the palate, modern winemaking techniques
have resulted in much more attractive wines, at very reasonable prices. The sweet grapiness
on the nose of wines from the Dolcetto grape often belie the screechy acidity and spiky
tannins on the palate. Nonetheless, with food, I find this wine can be quite pleasurable. The
Dolcettos from the Dogliani district are particularly appealing.
Much rarer and exotic are the Piedmontse wines made from the Brachetto, Freisa, Ruche
(or Rouchet), and Grignolino. They all have lovely floral aromas and a bright lively character
on the palate that is uncommon for Piedmont.
This region also is the source of one of the world's most bizarre wines, the Barolo Chinato.
Made from Barolo wine that is sweetened and then steeped in quinine, the bark of the chinchona
tree; it has a medicinal character that is....very much an acquired taste. For those who relish
the potent Buckley's Cough Syrup, this is just your drink.
This trip across the Northern tier of Italy covers some of my most favorite and exciting
drinking. Yet, it barely scratches the surface of some of the interesting wines coming from
that country. Inproved winemaking has allowed the Southern regions to produce wines
that compare favorably with those of the North. There has also been a renewed focus on many of
the indigenous varieties, like Sicily's Nero d'Avola. I've got much drinking work ahead of me,
Alas, some of these interesting wines can require a bit of a search. But if you're willing to
forego the standard Chardonnay/Cabernet paradigm; they are well worth the search.
TomHill, a White Rock resident, transports neutrons and wields an epee in real life.