Nebbiolo and white truffles: two reasons to love Piedmont

The season for white truffles is winding down in the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy. Truffle season is my favorite time of year to visit. The weather is chilly, sometimes with rain or fog, so it’s a pleasure to duck into a warm restaurant and order a plate of hand-cut tajarin pasta with shaved white truffles.

You could drink a nice dolcetto or barbera from the region with such a meal, but the perfect pairing is nebbbiolo, the grape responsible for the famed wines of Barolo and Barbaresco. (If you want to save some euros and still drink the local nebbiolo, you could opt for wines labeled as Langhe nebbiolo or nebbiolo d’Alba, which have the added benefit of being more approachable at a younger age.)

Piedmont is probably my top destination in Italy. During late autumn, it’s a magical place. La nebbia – the Italian word for fog, it also lends its name to nebbiolo – blankets the valleys, and the region’s hill towns poke through like islands. During its recently concluded truffle festival, Alba — the city that sits between the Barolo and Barbaresco zones – is perfumed with the earthy scent of the pricey white tubers.

Serralunga d’Alba, one of the villages in the Barolo zone. (Photo by Steve Jankowski)

As good as the food is, it’s ultimately the wines that keep drawing me back. Nebbiolo’s tannins can make it a difficult wine, but its aromas of red cherries, rose petals, tar and forest floor are extremely seductive. Barolo and Barbaresco typically are powerful, but the best wines aren’t heavy. Rather, the descriptor that comes to mind is alluring.

Traditionally, Barolo and Barbaresco required many years of aging to tame the tannins. By the late 1980s and early ‘90s, though, some producers had moved to using more modern winemaking techniques, including aging the wines in small oak barrels rather than the traditional large casks. The barriques softened the wines more quickly and imparted non-traditional flavors of vanilla and spice to the wines. These “new” wines were a hit with many critics, but some nebbiolo fans thought the producers had gone too far.

Evidently, so did the producers themselves: Most have swung back to a more middle-of-the-road style, with wines that are a little more approachable but not overtly oaky. Some wineries produce a mix of traditional and more modern wines.

There are dozens of great producers in the area; a thorough visit would take weeks, and I just had a few days. So what follows is merely a snapshot.

The historic cellar at Pio Cesare in Alba. (Photo by Steve Jankowski)

Pio Cesare, founded in 1881, is one of the oldest wineries in the region. Most Barolo and Barbaresco producers are in the country or in one of the region’s small villages, but Pio Cesare still occupies its historic cellars in the city of Alba. (Much of the cellar has been modernized, but there is still a remnant of an old Roman wall.) The winery, which has remained in the same family for all those years, is run now by Pio Boffa, the great-grandson of the founder, and Boffa’s nephew, Cesare Benvenuto.

There’s a “classic” range of Barolo and Barbaresco — Boffa bristles if you call these wines “regular,” a sentiment that’s echoed on the label — as well as some single-vineyard wines. The “classic” wines are, indeed, classically styled, while the single vineyards are more powerful and a little more modern. The 2013 Barbaresco ($77) is quite floral, with red cherry, rose petals and fine tannins. (The elegant 2012 is still available in some stores.) For the Barolo, 2013 is the most recent vintage, but you can still find the lively, rich 2012 ($77). The single-vineyard Il Bricco Barbaresco and Ornato Barolo are much more powerful, with drying tannins. Again, 2013 is the current vintage; both are priced at $129. I’ve seen the 2012s for around $100-$120. I’ve also had the pleasure of trying some older vintages recently, including the velvety 2004 Barolo and the floral, very youthful 2000 Barolo.

Pio Boffa of Pio Cesare.

Vietti, in the village of Castiglione Falletto, is another favorite. The winery was sold in 2016 to an American owner of a chain of convenience stores, but Luca Currado, whose family founded Vietti, is still running the place, which has been making wine since at least the 1870s. It remains to be seen what the future holds, but the wines I tasted with Elena Currado, Luca’s wife, a few months after the sale are as good as ever.

Vietti produces several very expensive ($150-plus) single-vineyard Barolos; standouts in 2013 included the Lazzarito and the Ravera. There’s also the more widely available 2013 Castiglione Barolo ($50), which comes from a variety of vineyards. It’s classically styled and full-bodied, with lively red fruit and a rose-petal note. Elena notes that the 2013 vintage was so good, with such great potential for the single-vineyard wines, that it was difficult to decide what to put into the Castiglione and the even lower-priced Perbacco nebbiolo, which is essentially a declassified Barolo.

The Fontanafredda estate in Serralunga d’Alba, also in the Barolo zone, was established in 1858 by Italy’s first king, Victor Emmanuel II. The estate is now owned by the partners in the Eataly chain of Italian markets. They’ve turned the estate into a great tourist destination – unusual for the region – with tours, tasting, dining and lodging.

It’s a worthwhile stop, because the wines are very good, too. The 2012 Silver Label Barolo ($40) is quite aromatic and pretty, while the 2012 Serralunga d’Alba Barolo ($50), with its distinctive striped label that echoes the architecture of the estate, is more powerful and structured with a somewhat more modern style. (The 2013s are appearing in stores now.) The single-vineyard 2010 Vigna La Rosa Barolo ($100) is also quite powerful and floral with slightly finer tannins.

Ceretto is another tourism-minded winery with excellent wines. The main estate, which is just south of Alba, offers tastings, and the company also operates two restaurants in Alba, including Piazza Duomo, which has been awarded three Michelin stars.

Ceretto is one producer that is moving away from using so many small French oak barrels. “Using new barriques was the perfect way to cover” differences in the vineyards, Roberta Ceretto says. It shows in the wines, especially the single-vineyard bottlings, where the oak used to be particularly apparent. The 2013 Barbaresco ($50) is fresh and elegant, while the 2012 Barolo ($45) is more structured, with a note of tobacco leaf. The single-vineyard 2013 Bernadot Barbaresco ($90) is velvety and fine, with ample red fruit. The single-vineyard Barolos get pricey: The 2012 Brunate Barolo ($100) offers ripe, warm fruit, hints of rose petals and earth and firm tannins, while the 2012 Bricco Rocche Barolo ($195) is powerful but elegant with a very long finish.

Interestingly, despite its reputation for Barolo and Barbaresco, a white wine – the Blangé Arneis – is actually the biggest-production item at Ceretto.

Three more wineries I visited in the Barolo zone are Renato Ratti, Damilano and Prunotto. (Prunotto also makes Barbaresco.)

Pietro Ratti of Renato Ratti.

Renato Ratti produces very good wines, but the winery is perhaps best known for its founder’s research into the subzones and vineyards of Barolo. Renato Ratti created an important map of these features in the mid-1970s, and soon followed that with a similar map of Barbaresco. His son, Pietro, runs the winery now and has built an impressive modern cellar. The 2012 Marcenasco Barolo ($50) is classically styled, while the 2012 Rocche dell’Annunziata Barolo ($85) is richer, more powerful and quite floral.

Like Ceretto, Damilano has rethought its use of oak in an effort to preserve the distinctiveness of its various vineyards. The 2012 Lecinquevigne Barolo ($35) is very aromatic, and it’s surprisingly easy to drink for Barolo. There are also four single vineyards, which cost around $80; I’m partial to the 2012 Cannubi Barolo, with its warm, spicy flavors.

Prunotto, founded in 1904, has been owned by Tuscan giant Antinori since 1994. The 2012 Barolo ($45) is lively and fairly tannic but shows good potential. The 2010 Bussia Barolo ($90) is Prunotto’s flagship Barolo, and it’s delicious: lively, floral and powerful yet elegant, with a persistent finish.

Barbaresco is a much smaller appellation than Barolo. The conventional wisdom is that Barolo is more powerful, but power these days is often more of a function of winemaking and farming practices. Aldo Vacca, director of Produttori del Barbaresco, once told me that Barbaresco can actually taste more tannic because it tends to have less richness in the middle.

Produttori, situated across from the church in the town of Barbaresco, offers some of the best values in the region. It’s a cooperative, with 54 growers and more than 260 acres, or nearly one-third of the Barbaresco zone’s total acreage. Unlike some cooperatives, Produttori del Barbaresco exercises stringent quality control, so quality is extremely high.

The 2013 Barbaresco ($37) is very classic, with lively red cherry, anise, rose petals and a hint of tobacco. There are also nine single-vineyard wines, though they aren’t made in lesser vintages. “We always want the basic Barbaresco to be very good,” Vacca says, so he doesn’t want to divert the best grapes. One of the single vineyards, the 2011 Pora Riserva Barbaresco ($60) is plump and fresh, with red cherry, anise, a hint of cedar and fine tannins.

Barolo and Barbaresco, obviously, are pricey, but as I mentioned earlier, there are nebbiolos from the area that are much more affordable, usually around $25. Look for the Prunotto Occhetti Nebbiolo d’Alba, the Vietti Perbacco Nebbiolo and the Produttori del Barbaresco Langhe Nebbiolo.