The area of Piemonte in northwestern Italy is known for producing some of the world’s greatest red wines in Barolo and Barbaresco. It is no coincidence then that Piemonte is one of the wine regions where terroir matters most.
In general terms, terroir is the combination of soil conditions, climate, altitude, angle to the sun and native flora and fauna that gives grapes, and ultimately the wine they produce, a unique sense of place. Terroir in Piemonte impacts vineyards so much that wines made from grapes grown just 100 metres apart can have a significantly different taste, even if they’re made from grapes of the same species, grown and harvested the exact same way in the same year and then made into wine and aged by the same people using the exact same methods.
For winemakers in Piemonte, the goal is to let the grapes speak for themselves as much as possible because they believe that ultimately, it’s the grapes that make the wine, not the winemaker.
One of the Piemonte producers which lets the grapes, and thus the terroir, do the talking in its wines is Michele Chiarlo, an eponymously named winery founded in 1956. Five Michele Chiarlo wines were tasted at the West Indies Wine Company “Somm Series” event on Nov. 28. On hand to lead the tasting was Larry Norcera, Caribbean/Cruise Lines/Latin America director for Kobrand Corporation, which distributes Michele Chiarlo and many other wines.
Piemonte is most know for its red wines, but it does produce some excellent white wines, one of which is called Gavi.
Made from the Cortese grape, Gavi is a light but well structured dry wine with refreshing acidity. Michele Chiarlo’s Gavi “Le Marne” is unoaked with clean, citrus flavours and floral aromas. It’s light enough for sipping by the pool, but structured enough to pair with a variety of foods, including most seafood dishes, charcuterie and cheese plates, sushi and even spicy Thai.
Gavi is an inexpensive white wine that will pleasantly surprise those who haven’t tried it.
One of the best-kept red wine secrets of Piemonte is Barbera, a prolifically growing grape that historically was used to make bulk wines. In the 1990s however, a group of winemakers decided to try to make Barbera into fine wines, mainly by reducing yields to concentrate flavours. It worked.
Although Barbera will never be as powerful or elegant as Barolo and Barbaresco, it is much less expensive and doesn’t require years of aging to be drinkable.
Barbera’s good acidity and soft tannins make it a very versatile, food-friendly wine. It generally comes with one of two designations: Barbera d’Alba or Barbera d’Asti. The former tends to be lighter and more elegant while the latter, which is the type Michele Chiarlo produces, is more concentrated and powerful.
Two different Barbera d’Asti wines were sampled at the Somm Series events: Le Orme Superiore, a good quality wine that is ideal to pair with pizza, tomato-based pasta sauces and white meats, and Le Court Superiore Nizza. Le Court is a example of what fine Barbera can be: fresh, structured, silky, with a long elegant finish. It will pair with a variety of meat dishes, including game, stews, cheeses and mushroom dishes.
Piemonte’s most famous two wines, Barolo and Barbaresco, are named for towns, not grapes. They are both made by a grape called Nebbiolo.
Even though the two towns are separated by a valley less than 25 miles across, and Barolo and Barbaresco are grown and produced the same way, there are significant differences in their characteristics due to terroir. Barolo is more powerful and elegant, but takes more aging before its prime drinking window. Barbaresco is softer and more feminine and opens up to enjoyable drinking at a much younger age. For these reasons, Barolo is known as the king of wines, while Barbaresco is referred to as the queen of wines.
In years past, Barbaresco needed at least five to seven years of aging before drinking and the window for drinking Barolo started at 10 years old and went for decades. Demand for wines that required less aging has led to some wineries, including Michele Chiarlo, to use modern winemaking techniques to reduce the length of aging while still staying true, as much as possible, to the idea of letting the wines speak for themselves.
The Somm Series tasting offered two Michele Chiarlo wines made from Nebbiolo: The 2011 Barolo “Tortoniano” and the 2011 Barbaresco “Reyna.” Predictably, the Barbaresco was shining at six years old, while the tannins in the Barolo were still so pronounced that it really required a bit of charcuterie to tame them in the mouth.
Both, however, displayed the elegant aroma and flavour characteristics that make Nebbiolo one of the world’s most intriguing wine-making grapes.