Last year I was lucky enough to enjoy a sneak preview of the new Barolo wine museum. Recently I visited it again, after the official opening, and I was really impressed.

The visitor is initially taken to the third floor of the castle and the visit is structured like a descent into the depths of wine culture: the atmospheric concept of venturing into the myths and mysteries of Bacchus’ nectar is matched by the physical sensation of going down into the heart of the Falletti castle, as the route descends from the third floor to the basement.

WiMu Barolo Wine Museum 262x280 The Barolo wine museumBut the museum is not focused on the history and details of making Barolo. It seems like the main goal is to get visitors involved and engaged, and less to inform them. There is little factual information here and visitors looking to get an in-depth knowledge of winemaking are likely to be disappointed.

The main idea behind this wine museum is that nowadays wine tourists want more from their wine: in their search for high quality, they are interested in wine history, learning about production techniques, and understanding the characteristics of the area in question.

Music accompanies visitors as they walk through 25 rooms of the museum, from Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons to modern songs celebrating wine to which a special room is dedicated.
In another room, with leather club chairs, velvet curtains and movie posters on the walls, clips are running of films inspired by wine, such as “Sideways”, “Blood and Wine” and “A Good Year”.

At the end of the journey, down in the basement, there is a wine shop which displays rows of old dusty bottles and where visitors can finally taste barolo’s warm flavor and buy some of the best labels, from Vietti to Bruno Giacosa, from Sandrone to Gaja to Giacomo Conterno.

If you stay with us this year, the museum is only 5 minutes walk from TorreBarolo and we took many pictures. You can see them in TorreBarolo Flickr account.
 The Barolo wine museum

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Dolcetto is a black wine grape variety widely grown in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy. The Italian word dolcetto means “little sweet one”, but it is not certain that the name originally carried any reference to the grape’s sugar levels: it is possible that it derives from the name of the hills where the vine is cultivated. In any case the wines produced are nearly always dry. They can be tannic and fruity with moderate, or decidedly low, levels of acidity and are typically meant to be consumed one to two years after release.

San Luigi Dolcetto di Dogliani 2007 211x280 Dolcetto di Dogliani – Vini DOC ItalianDolcetto wines are known for black cherry and licorice flavours with some prunes and a characteristically bitter finish reminiscent of almonds. While the name implies sweetness, the wines are normally dry. The tannic nature of the grape contributes to a characteristic bitter finish.

Recently our friend Diana, who runs the great B&B Baur in Aqui Terme, about an hour away from TorreBarolo, visited the town of Dogliani and these are her thoughts:

“A few weeks before Christmas my husband had the idea to take a ride over to the Langhe to taste some wines.  He had a specific goal:  he wanted to go to the Bottega del Dolcetto di Dogliani, the regional enoteca that is snuggled below the Municipio, right next to the splendid Chiesa dei Santi Quirico e Paolo in the heart of the city.

We had been to the enoteca before; it was from there that we visited the wonderful Chionetti winery for the first time in 2005.  Dogliani was actually the center of our property search in  2001 and 2002 before we discovered our hill in the Monferrato.  Contructed in the 12th century, Dogliani lies at the basin of the Barolo Valley.  The nutrients  and minerals that help the Nebbiolo grapes to flourish wash down to provide the perfect conditions for  growing the Dolcetto grape.  Of the eight zones officially designated to produce Dolcetto DOC, Dogliani is one of the top two.  In 2005, Dolcetto Superiore di Dogliani received its DOCG status.  With a minimum of 12.5% alcohol content and a hint of oak (the level depending on the winery) aging, Docetto has moved from a sharp, high tannin, low acid,  quick-to-table wine with a slightly bitter residual flavor to a more rounded, softer wine that can sit in the bottle a few more years before being enjoyed with a variety of dishes typical to the region.Patrizi Dolcetto di Dogliani 2008 210x280 Dolcetto di Dogliani – Vini DOC Italian

Enzo Romano, who runs the bottega, greeted us and helped Micha find the selection of wines he had been searching for.  The Enoteca Regionale in Dogliani is one of the most organized and best run enoteche in the system.  It has a current selection of all the producers in the appellation and a good breath of different vintages as well.  Enzo helped Micha put together a healthy selection of twelve bottles of Dolcetto, both regular and superiore (wooded), for us to try.  After trying, we notate the bottles we like the best and make appointments to visit those wineries.

An ideal combination of classic Piemontese food and wine might be.  brodo broth made from winter capon  served with boiled vegetables and agnolotti Piemontesi, alongside  a 2008 Dogliani Bricco  DOCG from the  Cascina Minella, a vineyard brought to new life in 2002 by Livia and Gianluca Marchisio. I love this wine.  It’s everything a good Dolcetto should be.  It has character and bite without being agressive.  Its 14% alcohol content and fullness of flavor speak of the patience and timing that the Marchisios exercised in picking the correct moment to harvest.

Dolcetto is not an easy wine to get right.  We’ve been experimenting with the wine (from the tasting perspective) for years. To find dolcetto that truly maximizes the grape’s potential requires a producer with excellent soil conditions, the willingness  to dedicate precious, southern exposure territory to a relatively humble wine, a sixth sense of timing regarding the harvest, the ability to stave off  the many diseases this grape can contract and strong cellar knowlege.  In our opinion, the two regions that have a concentration of these types of Dolcetto wineries are most likely to be found in Dogliani and Diano d’Alba.

Of course, there is tremendous enjoyment attached to searching out really spectacular wines from the bunch.  Especially when that search takes you through some of the most bucolic and historic growing regions in Italy.  We look forward to sharing our thoughts on the wines we’ve bought as we try them.”

Dolcetto di Dogliani Dolcetto di Dogliani – Vini DOC Italian

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Franciacorta sparkling wine comes from Lombardy, with DOCG status produced from grapes grown within the area of Franciacorta, south hills of Lake Iseo, in the Italian Province of Brescia. It was awarded DOC status in 1967, the designation then also including red and white still wines. Since 1995 the DOCG classification has applied exclusively to the sparkling wines of the area.

Grapes for Franciacorta are grown in strictly delimited vineyards in the communes of Adro, Capriolo, Cazzago San Martino, Cellatica, Coccaglio, Cologne, Corte Franca, Erbusco, Gussago, Iseo, Monticelli Brusati, Ome, Paderno Franciacorta, Paratico, Passirano, Provaglio d’Iseo, Rodengo Saiano, Rovato and Brescia, with soil conditions described as mineral-rich, granular-sized, calcareous gravel and sandy morainal soils that cover a limestone bedrock.

Cadel Bosco italian sparkling 157x280 Franciacorta sparkling wineThe DOCG declared vineyards extend 2,200hectares (5,400 acrres) and the distribution of permitted grape varieties are 85% Chardonnay, 10% Pinot nero and 5% Pinot bianco.

Nonvintage Franciacorta (NV) may not be released until at least 25 months after harvest, of which 18 months must be in contact with the yeast in the bottle (compared to 15 months in the case of Champagne). Franciacorta Vintage or Millesimato may not be sold until at least 37 months after harvest, of which 30 months must be in contact with the yeast (similar to Champagne). A Franciacorta rosé must contain at least 15% Pinot nero, and may be made by blending red wine. Franciacorta Satèn must be a Blanc de blancs with only the use of Chardonnay and/or Pinot bianco permitted, with only 4.5 atmospheres of pressure instead of 6.

Recently our friend and wine guru Gary Chevsky participated in a tasting event and these are his thoughts:

“On the heels of a great Champagne tasting this weekend at Santana Row’s Vintage Wine Merchants, I was itching for more sparkles. Kudos to Vintage for putting together an excellent line-up of Champagnes for a meager $40 ($25 for members) – they certainly packed the shop, and the punters were not disappointed.

Bellavista italian sparkling 210x280 Franciacorta sparkling wineThis was the first time I had the 1999 Dom Perignon, and it was probably my fave Dom P, showing the classical well-developed nuttiness. Compared to it, the just released 2002 was too young and simple at this stage. Other notables were the always reliable and incredibly inexpensive Hiedsieck & Co “Blue Top” ($25-30), the elegant Delamotte ($35, Salon’s little sibling), and the well-regarded higher-end Champagnes by Pol Roger (Reserve), Egly-Ouriet (Brut Tradition Grand Cru), and Gosset (Brut Grand Reserve).

That was Sunday. On Monday, my faith in Champagne re-affirmed, it was now Italy’s turn to impress.

I am a big fan of Franciacorta. Italy’s answer to Champagne, it can be every bit as profound. Made in the traditional method (aka Champagne method) where the second fermentation and ageing on the lees take place in bottle, Franciacorta can evolve beautifully over many years, especially vintage examples, and can also be enjoyed young. Last night my wine/tennis group had a re-union (after I tore my achilles tendon earlier this year) at our local de-facto standard seafood hole-in-the-wall – the legendary Old Port Lobster Shack in Redwood City. To grease the wheels, we brought two of the most highly regarded Franciacorta producers – Bellavista and Ca’del Bosco. And the good news – Franciacorta, although being unknown in the non-wine circles, is readily available in this country. I got mine from (Bellavista and Ca’del Bosco). Seafood, fries and sparkling wine – how can you go wrong with that combo?!
Cadel Bosco Bellavista italian sparkling 202x280 Franciacorta sparkling wineWe didn’t. The Lobster Shack’s naked lobster roll is fabulous, and their beer-battered fish and chips are out of this world. But the dish that both Franciacortas really shone with was steamed mussels – petite, tender, flavorful in a great broth begging for dipped bread. Eric suggested that the wine really brought out the minerally tones in the mussels. I thought it went well even with the creamy New England clam chowder – another not-to-be-missed beauty from the Shack.

I gotta say – on a relatively quiet Monday night, we spent three hours chilling at this characterful joint. The folks there, especially the hostess Shay, are so friendly, she reminded me of my mom. Everyone had a great time, and with tongues un-tied, we reminisced of the old tennis follies and the crazy things that happen in the wine circles.

Bellavista is an old classic Franciacorta producer, and their non-vintage cuvee was a more serious expression than Ca’del Bosco’s floral and lemony entry level cuvee “Prestige” – an all-time dependable friend, that I always keep stocked in my cellar. Just for the heck of it, we followed with beers, and agreed that Franciacorta was a better, lighter, more elegant match. Enjoy!”

Franciacorta 2 Franciacorta sparkling wine

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One of the best regarded Italian wine guides, Gambero Rosso Vini d’Italia, was realised last week. It is a survey of the best Italian wines and winemakers, divided by region. The best are awarded stars, between 1 and 3, depending on the quality of their wines and its continuity year after year. In this year’s guide there were 402 wines awarded stars, as opposed to 391 last year.

In terms of producers, 386 of them were awarded stars by Gambero Rosso’s experts, as opposed to 366 last year.

Particular attention was given this year to wines with great quality/price ratio, with 52 of the wines awarded 3 stars offering great value, with a retail price of €15 or below.

This is the regional ranking: Piemonte (81) followed by Toscana (69), Veneto (35), Friuli (31), l’Alto-Adige (27), Lombardia (21), Campania (19), Marche (17), Sicilia (15), l’Emilia Romagna (13) Abruzzo (13), Sardegna (11), Puglia (10), Trentino (9), Umbria (9), Liguria (7), Valle d’Aosta (6), Basilicata (3), Lazio (3), Calabria (2) and finally Molise (1).

Gambero Rosso Vini Italia 2011 144x280 Vini d’Italia 2011   Gambero Rosso’s celebrated wine guideBelow are the results of this year’s special awards:

Winery of the year: Cantina Valentini of Abruzzi

Red wine of the year: Brunello di Montalcino Riserva ‘04 Biondi Santi

White wine of the year: A.A. Sylvaner R ‘09 Köfererhof

Sparkling wine of the year: Franciacorta Brut Secolo Novo ’05 Le Marchesine

Sweet wine of the year: Albana di Romagna Passito Ris. ‘06 Fattoria Zerbina

Wine-maker of the year: Walter Massa

Oenologist of the year: Ruben Larentis

Emerging Italian winery: Polvanera of Puglia

Best quality/price ratio: Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Cl. Sup. ’09 Pievalta

This is the second year the Vini d’Italia guide is solely produced by Gambero Rosso, after its split from SlowFood in 2010. Other distinguished Italian wine guides include: L’Espresso’s I Vini d’Italia, Duemilavini of AIS (the Italian Sommelier Association), I Vini di Veronelli and Slow Wine of Slow Food Group.

 Vini d’Italia 2011   Gambero Rosso’s celebrated wine guide

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Our wine guru Gary Chevsky enjoyed a tasting event for Italian red and white wines back in August, and shared his views with us:

“At the Chambers & Chambers trade tasting this week, I had a chance to visit and revisit many wines from all over Italy. Gourmet thin-crust pizzas from Lulu restaurant in the SOMA district of San Francisco complemented what seemed like 80-100 wines. About half the wines at the tasting were imported through Dalla Terra, founded by Brian Larky, a very funny dude. But funny is obviously not all he is – because Dalla Terra is a clever concept. They essentially eliminate one of the tiers in a 4-tier wine import distribution system, through their Winery Direct program.

Brian Larky of Dalla Terra 280x187 Italian reds and whites tasting with Brian Larky of Dalla TerraIn 1989 Brian returned to the U.S. after five years as winemaker at one of my favorite sparkling wine producers in the world – Italian estate Ca’del Bosco, who makes the top Franciacorta (in Lombardy) that easily rivals top Champagne. Even Ca’del Bosco’s entry-level cuvee “Prestige” is a perennial great value sparkler. Brian founded Dalla Terra Importers in 1990. Before working in Italy, he’d earned a UC Davis Fermentation Sciences degree and held production jobs in Napa Valley wineries such as Far Niente and Domaine Chandon. Don’t be fulled by the effusive smile – the dude is clearly not just a funny dude. Whereas a usual importer markup could be 30-40%, Dalla Terra’s fee is only 15%, and that’s enough for them to run a profitable business for the past 20 years. That’s because unlike a traditional importer who has to buy and hold the inventory from the producer, Dalla Terra are a broker.

The concept is relatively common with domestic wines, but quite innovative (and difficult to implement) with imports. They never buy the wine – they connect the winery with a local US state distributor (like Chambers & Chambers), so they never have to shell out the big bucks necessary to hold the wine. Nor do they take the risk of inventory not selling. That is, the risk sits with the winery; therefore it’s reasonable to assume that the winery would retain a larger piece of the pie by quoting a relatively higher price to the distributor than they would to an importer. It’s hard to say though. I went to – the world’s most trusted wine comparison shopping engine – to compare local US prices to those on the Italian market of some of Dalla Terra’s wines, such as Casanova di Neri and Vietti. I found there is about a 40-50% markup in US over Italy. I then looked at some other high-end Italian producers, such as Il Poggione, Fattoria di Felsina, and Marcarini imported though Southern Wine & Spirits, Wine Warehouse, and Empson USA respectively. US prices were 40% to 125% above the Italian prices. So the price benefits of Dalla Terra were not obvious to me, but this is by no means a scientific study, and I welcome comments from folks in the wine industry. In an interview, Brian told me that Dalla Terra have about 18 producers in their all-Italian portfolio, and in 20 years they haven’t lost one. “That speaks volumes for the type of business partner we are and the type of business we bring.” said Brian.

Here are the wines I particularly enjoyed at the tasting.Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino 2004 280x187 Italian reds and whites tasting with Brian Larky of Dalla Terra

The Reds

Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino 2004. This was their basic “white label” Brunello. (The 2001 Casanova di Neri Brunello made a splash with their higher-end “Tenuto Nuova” cuvee by being Wine Spectator’s #1 wine of the year in 2006.) Had this basic Brunello at the tasting and, more importantly, at a dinner next day. The wine is from the excellent 2004 vintage and is showing very well – juicy fruit, good acidity, tasty tannins. Exploding with aromas and fruit flavors, the wine is light enough to even go with fish, thanks to the excellent acidity and medium body. Delicious.

Marchesi di Gresy Barbaresco “Martinenga” 2006. Sweet, charming, red fruit, beautiful strawberry / cranberry color, gentle Nebbiolo texture, and the most accessible of any 2006 Barbarescos/Barolos I’ve tried so far. Marchesi di Gresy Barbaresco Martinenga 2006 280x186 Italian reds and whites tasting with Brian Larky of Dalla Terra

Vietti Barolo “Castiglione” 2006 – structured with slight menthol character, complex. It was the best wine match with the gourmet sausage pizza. The 2006’s are starting to open up. The 2005 “Brunate” didn’t have the menthol, but was also good. Dependable, top producer of Barolo, Vietti’s Barolo Lazzarito 2005 impressed me at the 2010 Tre Bicchieri tasting earlier this year. Their Barbera and Arneis are good too.

Vietti Barbera d’Alba “Scarrone Vigna Vecchia” 2006. Wonderfully balanced, rich, plush Barbera that tips to the much-maligned modern style, yet the delicious factor is undeniable. The most expensive Barbera I’ve ever seen ($75-100 retail). Rare, from a tiny lot in the prime Nebbiolo-caliber vineyard in Castiglione. More of a curiousity item, in my opinion, since in that price range, the wine has to be hand-sold to affluent buyers, looking for something “different”, and will be competing with high-end Barolos and Brunellos. For those who are willing to shell out big bucks for “something different”, there are options in Taurasi (from Campania), Sagrantino di Montefalco (from Umbria), and Etna Rosso (from Sicily) that come to mind before Barbera. Good wine, tough sell. Vietti Barbera dAlba Scarrone Vigna Vecchia 2006 280x187 Italian reds and whites tasting with Brian Larky of Dalla Terra

Roccolo Grassi Valpolicella Superiore “Roccolo Grassi” 2007. Single vineyard. Solid.

Roccolo Grassi Amarone “Selezione Antonio Castagnedi” 2006. All three of the Roccolo Grassi wines (including a white, mentioned below) were excellent. A producer to pay attention to. The 16-17% alc. the Amarone didn’t taste hot at all.

Selvapiana Chianti Rufina Riserva “Bucerchiale” 2006 – from a great vintage in Tuscany, excellent structure and texture, medium body. The detractor was notable heat on the palate – and lo and behold, the wine was a whopping (for a Chianti) 14-15% alc.

Cherchi Cannonau di Sardegna Rosso 2009 – good example of the native Cannonau grape of Sardinia. Very drinkable and food-friendly.

Vignalta “Gemola” 2004 – “Super-tuscan” from Veneto! (blend of Merlot and Cab Franc) – flagship of the Vignalta portfolio, well-balanced fruit/veggie, right-bank-Bordeaux like. Liked it both times. Nice effort. Vignalta Gemola 2004 280x186 Italian reds and whites tasting with Brian Larky of Dalla Terra

The Whites

Italian whites are a myriad of grape varietals and regions. Generally unoaked or low-oaked, crisp, food friendly, and quite interchangeable. I find Soave (from Veneto), Arneis (from Roero, Piedmont) and Ribolla Gialla (from Friuli) generally to my highest liking. But I enjoy many others depending on the particulars.

Vietti Arneis 2009 – good.

Roccolo Grassi Soave “La Broia” 2007. All three Roccol Grassi’s wines (including two reds mentioned above) were good.

Inama Soave Classico Superiore “Vigneti di Foscarino” 2007. More generous (but tasteful) oak treatment made this wine richer, more complex, more serious than a typical Soave, clearly showing the range of the Garganega grape of which Soave is made. Very good.

Marco Felluga Collio Bianco “Molamatta” 2008. Blend of Pinot Bianco, and the native Tocai Friulano and Ribolla Gialla.

A tasting like this reminds me how much I love Italian wine. And the photos of those pizzas next to the above-mentioned vino make me salivate. It’s almost lunch time here. I’m hungry. How about you?”

 Italian reds and whites tasting with Brian Larky of Dalla Terra

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Barbera Gallina La Spinetta 73x280 Aging Barbera wines from PiemonteOur wine guru Gary Chevsky, back in November 2009, experimented with some Barbera wines from Piemonte:

“Unclear why anyone would want to drink aged Barbera, a wine grape that is associated with easy quaffing and everyday meals. In the land where Nebbiolo is firmly the king, why mess with that? Let Barbera and Dolcetto play their lowly part in the food chain. Affordable, refreshing, satisfyingly easy drinking table wines. What would the world do without them, no?

But of course someone is always ready to challenge status quo, try to make an eagle out of a sparrow, a Boeing out of a paper plane. Treat Dolcetto like a more serious grape, and you get Dolcetto di Dogliani, deeper, richer, more ageable. Treat Barbera like that, and what do you get?

On Monday, a small group of enthusiasts got together at a Ross Bott tasting in Los Altos to assess 1999-2001 Barberas by La Spinetta. La Spinetta has a “standard” or lower-end Ca’ Di Pian wine that costs in the teens, and a higher-end wine that costs $40-50. Having tasted Gaja’s 1995 Barbera “Sitorey” earlier this year and having found it a powerful, fresh, and nuanced wine, my expectations were mixed. After all, that was Gaja! Could anyone else approach that effort?

From the mailer by Ross Bott, the organizer:

La Spinetta Logo 280x223 Aging Barbera wines from Piemonte
“Barbera is the third most planted red grape varietal planted in Italy, after Sangiovese and Montepulciano. Although planted in many of the northern Italian provinces, it is at its best in the Piedmonte region area around Asti, where it has DOCG status, Italy’s highest classification.

The varietal is naturally high in acid and low in tannins, and, when vinified in a lighter style to be drunk young, is a fine everyday wine to complement pastas and other northern Italian dishes. However, when yields are kept low and the grapes are harvested at riper levels, the resultant wines can be deep, complex and long aging, and marry particularly well with new medium toasted (or charred) oak barrels. Ironically, this approach is a relatively recent phenomenon in Piedmonte. In fact, some of the earliest examples of this approach were in the Shennandoah Valley in California, where Montevina made some great old Special Selection Barberas in the late 1970s — to my view the most exciting wines ever to come out of the Sierra Foothills.

La Spinetta Campè winery from above Aging Barbera wines from Piemonte

In 1998, Giuseppe Rivetti began to make a Barbera Superiore under his La Spinetta label, a serious, high-end approach involving old vines, low yields, and aging for 12-18 months in new French oak. Rivetti was born in Argentina, but his family was Piedmontese, and he returned in 1977 to the Asti region, in an area then known for Moscato d’Asti, a fragrant, low alcohol wine made from a varietal in the Muscat family. After producing some landmark examples of this white wine, he ventured into reds in 1985, first with Barbera and later adding Barbarescos and Barolos. He produces three Barberas a year, a Ca’ Di Pian which is richer and riper than most Barberas, but sees less oak, a Gallina from a single vineyard which also provides the grapes for his Barbaresco, and a Superiore, which is a reserve bottling from a selection of his best barrels. Both of the latter get extended barrel treatment and are among the three or four best Barberas produced anywhere.

Tonight, we’ll try six La Spinetta Barberas, a pair from each of 1999, 2000 and 2001. One member of each pair will be the lightly oaked Ca’ Di Pian and the other an example of his highest end Barberas which get extended treatment in new oak.”

Barbera Ca di Pian 73x280 Aging Barbera wines from Piemonte
From what La Spinetta I have tasted, it seems to have a ripe fruity style, perhaps closer to new world than old. On the photos below, the wines are ranked right to left in the order of scores. Easily in our blind tasting, the group ruled that more expensive wines beat out the cheaper ones. Though drinkable, the lower-end ones obviously not built for aging were slightly pickled, dusty, and funky. The higher-end “Superiore” and “Gallina” were in perfectly good shape, maintaining fresh fruit.

While the top 3 wines still “showed” young, it is as if they had artificially been beefed up to last longer, and the age did not give them subtlety, complexity, and secondary flavors that I’ve seen develop in properly aged ageworthy wines. It seemed rather pointless to me to spend $45 a bottle, then cellar it for 10 years, when in that range one finds some wonderful Nebbiolo and Sangiovese options. While obviously we confirmed Barbera’s ageability, I would not call that ageworthiness. It bothered me that the wines lacked finesse and complexity, and the question that firmly stuck in my mind was – “What’s the point!???”

 Aging Barbera wines from Piemonte

pixel Aging Barbera wines from Piemonte
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