March 01, 2006

Beyond Barolo: Piedmont's Other Great Wines

Between truffles and Barolo, the Piedmont region of Italy has developed a reputation for expensive cuisine. But you can bet that the natives aren't showering their risotto with the stinky white tuber every night, nor are they knocking back goblets of Barolo with every dinner. The region produces a wealth of wines beyond Barolo, and it pays to get acquainted with them.

This isn't to say that Barolo isn't worth its steep price; the rose-scented, truffley flavors of aged Barolo are one of the greatest pleasures in the wine world, and because of Barolo's cool, damp climate and the pickiness of the nebbiolo grape, the wine is undisputedly difficult to make.

But it is to say that there are other Piedmontese wines worth seeking out - crisp whites suited to fish and vegetables; juicy reds for mindless imbibing; lean, earthy nebbiolo from regions less exalted than Barolo and less pricey; and dessert wines to finish off a meal.

The region offers wines for every occasion, and wines that allow you to save up for that bottle of Barolo. Here are a few of the best and easiest-to-find alternatives.

Arneis: This grape makes bone-dry white wines with a nutty, minerally flavor rich enough to stand up to pasta in a Gorgonzola-walnut sauce.

Barbera: Barbera can make everything from juicy little $10 quaffers to bold, rich masterpieces suited for cellaring. The price tag typically announces the intentions of the producer: For less than $20, expect a juicy, cherry-berry red ready for pasta with sausage; above $20, expect the heft and structure for a crown roast.

Brachetto: Lightly sweet, lightly bubbly and fragrant with floral berry character, brachetto takes a little getting used to, as it's red. But when it comes to chocolate desserts, it's one of the few wines that work well.

Cortese: This grape tends to make light and fresh white wines with a delicate pear flavor. It's most commonly available in wines from Gavi, and often labeled Gavi di Gavi. These are often overpriced or dull, so ask before buying.

Dolcetto: Like barbera, dolcetto comes in versions ranging from light and easy to big and brooding. Its flavors, however, tend to be less meaty, more fruity.

Friesa: At its simplest and most fun, friesa makes fizzy red sparkling wines; at its most complex, it can smell like roses, taste like wild strawberries, spice and earth. It's sometimes slightly sweet.

Gattinara: If you like chewy, leathery reds, Gattinara is for you. The wine is named for its region, which is north of Barolo and west of Milan. Like Barolo, it's based on nebbiolo, only Gattinara's reds can also include bonarda. Its earthy, dried cherry flavors are typically fairly tannic, which means that the wines benefit from age, or at least beefy, rich dishes.

Langhe: Langhe is the name of the greater region in which Barolo falls. A vintner can label a wine Langhe if he wants to use grapes from outside of the demarcated appellation of Barolo, or if he wants to use grapes grown in Barolo but made in ways that don't meet the requirements for the appellation.
Thus it's possible to get a Nebbiolo di Langhe that has flavors similar to Barolo, though they are typically less concentrated - and more affordable.

Moscato d'Asti: This lightly fizzy, gently sweet sparkling wine is one of Piedmont's best contributions to the world - and its cheapest. Pour it, slightly chilled, on its own for a sweet ending after a heavy meal, or pair it with fruit desserts, cookies and light cakes.

This article first appeared in the Denver Post.

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