Roll out the barolo

By: Anthony Rose

Roll out the barolo

There are at least three colourful reasons for heading for the north-west Italian Alpine foothills of Piedmont in the autumn. First is the magnificent vineyard tapestry of green, red, russet and gold with the snow-clad Alps glistening in the sunshine behind. The second is white, because although the manic truffle fair that draws tourists to Alba has packed its bags, the tuber magnatum (500 a kilo at Selfridges, thank you) is still making its odorous presence felt. Shaved wafer thin over risotto or buttered tagliarini, it evokes pungent odours of earth.

Nothing goes better with white truffles and the primi piatti of Piedmont than the intensely flavoured barolo and barbaresco. These grand Italian reds are made from the nebbiolo grape, so-called for the autumn mists that shroud the hills in thin veils of white gauze. Red is the third good reason - and not only in November - when, in addition to the grander reds, there are the more everyday but no less mouthwatering barbera and dolcetto wines, as well as fragrant whites like arneis, gavi and gently sparkling moscato.

There are few big producers or brands here, which is why Piedmont is the "burgundy of Italy". With the exception of Angelo Gaja, whose fabulous barbaresco is as much a status symbol as Chteau Lafite or Krug, this isn't giant ego country.

Nor will you spot any wine consultants lurking behind the bushes in Piedmont. Like the vines themselves, growers are deeply connected to the white chalky clay vineyards once farmed by grandparents scraping a living off the land. Today, labour and production costs are high, but such is the demand for great barolo and barbaresco that the terrain, worth 1m a hectare, can reap rich rewards.

In the early 1990s, the traditionalists and modernists both had their followers. "Barolo was great but you had to decant it two days in advance," said one grower on my visit last month. That was the muscular style espoused by traditionalists like Bartolo Mascarello. By maintaining a lengthy fermentation and extracting monster tannins, which were then held in big barrels of old Slavonian oak till the fruit dropped out, too many barolos were fruitless caricatures.

The younger likes of Giorgio Rivetti, Marco Parusso, Domenico Clerico and Chiara Boschis set out to create enjoyable wines. They shortened the fermentation time, using small new French oak barrels. Today, there's close co-operation, with growers tasting each others' wines blind and discussing techniques. According the great Aldo Conterno's son, Giacomo: "We got tired of people dividing into the two camps, so we opted for all the pleasures of the old style but using modern techniques".

For a taste of Barolo, Tesco's 2003 Finest Barolo, 12.99, and Sainsbury's slightly more traditional Taste the Difference Barolo, 12.99, both from Ascheri, offer an affordable glimpse of the grape's potential. If you can spend a little more, the 2004 Morassino Barbaresco, 22, Marks & Spencer, displays rich, dark character, while Waitrose has the fragrant, seductively cherry-juicy 2004 Cantina del Pino, 20. For mature, classy barolo, try the intensely scented, tarry flavoured 2000 Barolo Santo Stefano di Perno Mascarello, 43.50, Berry Bros & Rudd (0870 900 4300).

The upshot of the 1990s clash is a huge improvement in quality and drinkability, along with increased global and investment into the vineyards and cellars. The main shift has been a focus back on the vineyard, with each producer working hard to extract the maximum expression and drinkability from the nebbiolo grape in particular. If there were a song to sum up the approach of today's Piedmontese grower, it would be "I did it my way." E

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