In the Trenches of Barbaresco and Roero
The first day of Nebbiolo Prima: 20 Roeros and 57 Barbarescos, all from the 2010 vintage. So much for a soft opening.
The games begin in Roero, the black sheep of the three great nebbiolo appellations. While both Barbaresco and Barolo are in the Langhe, the Roero is on the other side of the Tanaro River. Both Barbaresco and Barolo must be made from 100% nebbiolo; Roero can have up to 5% of other grape varieties added to it. And while the Barolo and Barbaresco areas were formed in the late Miocene Epoch (about 16-11 million years ago), the Roero is the newer kid on the geologic block, dating back five million years (more or less) to the Pliocene. The Roero hills are lower and more spread out but pointier—cone-heads compared to the Langhe’s elongated ‘tongues’—and the soil in the Roero is loose and sandy compared to the Langhe’s more compact clay and limestone. This makes for exceptionally tasty fruits and vegetables—Roero strawberries, pears, asparagus and artichokes are famous—as well as exceptional wine grapes.
Due to the loose sandy soil and hills with good drainage and ventilation, Roero nebbiolo is typically lighter-bodied than Barolo or Barbaresco, with a more diffuse color and a distinct mineral element, adding up to wines of understated elegance, grace and personality.
There were 20 Roeros in today’s line-up and they fell into three main camps: those that showed promise—ripe cherry, tart acidity and shiny color—but were currently overshadowed by tightly wound tannins; those that were lovely classic examples of Roero, albeit it at a very early stage in their evolution; and those that were dark, muddy, overly concentrated and sorely lacking in aroma and fruit.
Given this disparity, I spoke with Angelo Negro of Negro winery in Monteu Roero: “2010 was a good season,” he said. “There was abundant rainfall in the spring and moderately warm daytime temperatures during July and August with cool evenings. The grapes at harvest time were ripe and healthy, creating wines with fresh fruit, crisp acidity and firm tannins capable of developing for some time to come. A classic vintage.” In fact, Negro’s two wines in the tasting demonstrate this.
When I asked him about those in the third camp, he offered two possible explanations. First, he pointed out that the Roero area is quite large and diverse; while sandy areas predominate in certain parts of the zone, there are other areas with deposits of clay and red sand, making wines that are considerably darker and more concentrated. He also suggested that there may be some wineries that make a bigger, more concentrated Roero in an attempt to emulate the style of the more famous Barolo. “Everyone’s free to make the style of wine they want to,” he said, “but for me it’s a mistake to try to be something you’re not. We’re happy with what we have here.”
Angelo Negro’s 2010 Roero San Bernardo was one of the standouts. It has a transparent red color and an inviting gravelly aroma. Gentle yet firm, this is balanced with a core of cherry and black plum flavors articulated by saline minerality and a scent of green tea. The wine is framed in firm tannins, which start out quiet but grow to prominence in the dry finish. An elegant wine with restraint, this gives an impression that there’s much more here than presently meets the eye.