I have no way of knowing whether time exists or not without me, I suspect it does, but that morning it did at least appear to stand still before me. Rows of undulating hills crammed every inch with vines should have greeted me benevolently. Instead, a sea of fog envelops every sight and strangely, sound. If there is a God, then it would appear that they’ve just pressed pause on all things living.
Nebbiolo may be the only grape named after a weather event. “Nebbia” being the Italian for fog, it is the consequence of cooler air pushed down from the Alps greeting warmer currents up from the Mediterranean. It is also most common late during harvest time when Nebbiolo is the only grape left to pick, hence the association.
Such is the fog’s density, I’m left encased in my room for the morning to wonder what is and what might have been. I have an afternoon tasting scheduled less than 3km away at the winery of Roberto Sarotto. A journey which I now approach with the same level of planning as Hannibal did when he crossed the Alps. I endeavour to persevere and with the fog clearing in the mid-day sun I make my appointment in good time.
To get the most out of a tasting requires a number of things including an open mind, pen and paper, patience, attention to detail and discipline. The last may be the most important of all, lest you walk straight in the front door and crooked out the back, having learned nothing.
The wines on the table before me are a reflection of what makes this region so special. Nebbiolo both Barolo and Barbaresco, Barbera both Asti and Alba, Dolcetto, Arneis, Gavi and finally Moscato both sweet and sparkling. The epicurean in me can barely contain himself. It bears repeating that there are a wealth of other grape types indigenous to the region that are essentially arcane to the Irish palette. I have my hands full with this lot as it is.
A tasting is a form of time-travel. Tasted individually, each wine is like a diary of its given year. Grouped together, a chronology emerges. Certain years are marked out with ’13, ’16 and ’19 being notable in the region. A Barolo and Barbaresco tasted side by side may appear as twins in their youth but watch them cleave off into different directions the older they get. Paradoxically, the converse can also be true. Vintages leave their mark like rings on a tree. Warm and recent years can be marked by riper fruit and high ABV’s while freshness, tension and restraint may be hallmarks of cooler or classic years.
Nebbiolo is still at the core of everything here. There are at least 47 different synonyms for the grape but the Piedmontese demand only one thing from all of them and that is Elegance. I hear it repeated time and again.
Previous to my trip I never really understood why the Nebbiolo grape and Pinot Noir could be mentioned in the same breath amongst polite company. On the surface they do certainly have some shared characteristics. Both have a red-fruited earthiness, are difficult to manage in the vineyard, have incredible aromatics and were considered fit for the aristocracy. It was the behemoth-like tannins of our young Italian friend that always set it apart for me.
Now I can see that aged Nebbiolo, particularly Barolo, is Pinot Noir in slow motion. Over time the tannins evolve from gripping and austere to moreish and sensual. These days only thing that seems to set them apart is the price tag. High-grade Barolo being much more pocket friendly than its Burgundian counterpart.
How long the tasting lasted I'm not sure, but how do you measure time in a dream anyway?