Discovering the Roero: Arneis, Barbera, Nebbiolo, Birbét
by Mark Middlebrook
Train your gaze northwest, across the Tanaro River, and you’ll see a set of hills with a different name – the Roero. (Head there at dusk and you can look back at the Barbaresco tower in a majestic, brooding vista that Fred Seidman captured in one of the photographs hanging in our wine shop.)
The Roero hills, like those in the Langhe, are blanketed with vineyards – as well as orchards, fields, and truffle-yielding woods. But the Roero is less well known than the Langhe, despite its proximity and equally long winegrowing tradition. Geography and reputation conspire to draw most visitors south and leave the Roero hills looming behind. “Geography” is the Tanaro River valley and the Asti-Alba road that runs through it. Together, the valley and road make a beeline for Alba. “Reputation” is the pull of the storied vineyards and cantinas of Barolo – pilgrimage destination for wine-lovers and beneficiary of the majority of the area’s tourism.
And yet, the Roero yields what is arguably Piemonte’s greatest white wine (Roero Arneis), barbera of quality equal to the Langhe’s, and excellent nebbiolo – often at prices that are a notch below Langhe wines of comparable quality. It’s also a great place to stay, eat, taste wines, walk, and bicycle. (More on those activities later in this newsletter!)
An indigenous white grape variety called arneis is the Roero’s wine calling card. A little of it grows elsewhere, but it’s ubiquitous in the Roero, and even people in the Langhe agree that the sandy soils of Roero make the best terroir for arneis. Until the end of the 1970s, Roero winemakers used arneis primarily for blending with nebbiolo – a pinch of arneis softens nebbiolo’s notoriously hard tannins and thus yields a slightly softer, younger-drinking wine. Then a few dedicated producers such as Bruno Giacosa and Cerretto showed what arneis vinified by itself as a white wine could do, and the arneis craze was on.
Roero Arneis became a DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata – a wine of controlled origin and grape variety) in 1989. Just this year, it was elevated to DOCG status (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita – a designation usually reserved for the best regional wine types).
Roero Arneis is one of those remarkable Italian white wines that combine ample body with a crisp, refreshing quality. It smells of fruits and flowers, but then don’t most white wines? There’s a deeper core in there, like the richness of honey but without its sweetness. And then there’s a smoky note (from the grape and the terroir, not from oak), plus a minerally vein that runs through all the best white wines. Like so many excellent but less common wine types, Roero Arneis is hard to describe but easy to like.
To find out for yourself, take home a bottle of Marco Porello Roero Arneis ‘Camestrì’ 2003 ($11.99) or Matteo Correggia Roero Arneis 2003 ($16.50), or try a glass of Cascina Ca’ Rossa Roero Arneis ‘Merica’ 2003 at the Eccolo dinner on Monday night. All of these wines – and especially Corrregia’s – show the richness and weight of the 2003 vintage, with plenty of aromatic appeal. The 2004 bottlings of these and other Roero Arneis will be arriving soon, and they promise amazing aromatic freshness and lighter palate profiles.
Roero Arneis is a satisfying aperitivo and goes great with most antipasti, including the fishier, anchovy-laden dishes that are so favored by the Piemontese. Really, it’s hard to imagine any lighter fare, including summer pastas and salads, that Roero Arneis wouldn’t go well with.
Regular readers of this newsletter may remember my encomium to barbera in the March 2003 newsletter – it remains a favorite everyday red wine for most of the PMW staff and quite a few of our customers. What I’ve noticed since then, however, is how many of our best-selling barberas come from the Roero. That’s partly because they tend to have high quality-to-price ratios, and partly because they just taste so damned good!
Much of the Roero is steep hills composed of sandy soils. Steep hills are good for ripening, and sandy soils often give wines an extra dimension of aromatic beauty. The Langhe may make heftier barbera, but the Roero excels at producinglovely barberas. Or, you can ignore these subtle distinctions and just enjoy drinking them.
Barbera grown in the Roero falls in the Barbera d’Alba DOC (“Barbera from around the town of Alba”), as does most of the barbera from Barolo and Barbaresco. So you often can’t tell from the label whether a particular Barbera d’Alba is from the Roero or the Langhe, unless you happen to know where the producer or his village is located.
Our best-selling barbera without a doubt is Filippo Gallino’s Barbera d’Alba 2003 ($11.99). If there is a better pizza-pasta-lasagna wine in the world, I’ve yet to find it. It has that dark-cherry-and-berry barbera sappiness, with a hint of pepper and menthol to keep things interesting and snappy acidity in the finish to keep the wine refreshing. As our sign in the store says, this is bodacious barbera.
We’ve got two other Roero barberas in the store at the moment: Cascina Ca’ Rossa Barbera d’Alba 2003 ($15) and Cascina Val del Prete Barbera d’Alba ‘Serra de’ Gatti’ 2003 ($16). These are slightly more concentrated, complex, and longer on the palate than the Gallino. Both are irresistible.
It’s also worth noting that 2003 has turned out to be the Barbera Vintage. All of Europe sweltered during the summer of ’03, and many wines from the vintage don’t quite have the snappy freshness that we love. But barbera’s naturally high acidity kept the wines fresh and vivid, and the extra heat only deepened their irresistible fruit.
Although the Roero is a great source of fresh, everyday, under-$20 barbera, some producers are showing that they can make serious, barrique-aged barbera to rival those from the Langhe. (See the March 2003 newsletter article referenced above for more information about this style of barbera.) On Monday night at Eccolo, we’ll be drinking theCascina Ca’ Rossa Barbera d’Alba ‘Mulassa’ 2001, a single-vineyard barbera that Angelo Ferrio aged for 18 months in barrique. One of the benchmark “serious” Roero barberas is Cascina Val del Prete’s Barbera d’Alba ‘Carolina’. (At a certain tony restaurant in Los Angeles, the staff know Mario Roagna, the proprietor of Cascina Val del Prete, as “Mr. Carolina”.) The 2001 is long gone, and Mario didn’t make any in 2002, but keep an eye out for the 2003 vintage – it will be wickedly good.
What should you drink Roero barbera with? What shouldn’t you drink Roero barbera with? All things tomato-y. Antipasti. Anchovies and especially bagna caoda (the anchovy-based dipping sauce that serves as the ketchup of Piemonte). Chicken. Sausages. It even works with moderately spicy food and some Asian dishes.
Nebbiolo is the great wine grape variety of Piemonte, as our September 2004 newsletter describes. Although Barolo and Barbaresco are the most famous incarnations of nebbiolo, Roero nebbiolo has been held in high esteem since at least the 17th century. More importantly, there’s some genuinely excellent nebbiolo being made in the Roero right now!
As in the Langhe, the Roero bottles two kinds of nebbiolo. The first is a fresh, younger-drinking wine usually called simply Nebbiolo d’Alba or Langhe Nebbiolo. (As with Barbera d’Alba, the Nebbiolo d’Alba DOC doesn’t tell you where in the region around Alba the nebbiolo grapes come from – it could be the Roero or the Langhe). The more serious, structured wine is called simply Roero. Like Roero Arneis, the Roero DOC is being elevated to a DOCG this year. So “Roero Arneis” DOCG is white wine made from arneis, and “Roero” DOCG is red wine made from nebbiolo. Got it?
Roero (the region) has already made a reputation for itself with arneis. Whether it will take its place alongside Barolo and Barbaresco as the third great Piemontese appellation depends entirely on what Roero producers do with nebbiolo – and on whether the elevation to DOCG status causes critics to pay more attention to what producers are doing.
For now, we can ignore all of that and simply thank Bacchus (and Angelo Ferrio) for the Cascina Ca’ Rossa Langhe Nebbiolo 2003 ($16). This is what young nebbiolo should taste like – fresh but sophisticated, supple but with enough tannin to do meat justice. As is true with barbera, the sandy soils of the Roero lend a particularly pretty aromatic profile to Roero nebbiolos like this one.
Marco Porello’s Roero ‘Torretta’ 2001 was one of our favorite nebbiolos in the store about a year ago. The 2003 vintage of this wine should arrive before too long, and judging from how it tasted in Piemonte in March, it will be another winner.
Angelo’s Cascina Ca’ Rossa Roero ‘Audinaggio’ 2001 ($38) is excellent nebbiolo from an excellent producer in an excellent vintage. This wine impressed me mightily at a lunch in the Roero in March, and you’ll have the opportunity to drink it, as well as the 1999 vintage, at Eccolo on Monday 20 June.
Three other “serious” Roero nebbiolos are worthy of mention, even though we don’t have all of them in the store at the moment. Filippo Gallino’s Roero Superiore 2001 was still in tank when I tasted it in March, but it had all the makings of a superb wine. Mario Roagna makes two impressive single-vineyard nebbiolo wines: Cascina Val del Prete Nebbiolo d’Alba ‘Vigna di Lino’ ($38 for the 2001 vintage) and Cascina Val del Prete Roero. Both are widely acknowledged as being among the top Roero wines – we’ll be getting the Roero in as new vintages of it become available.
Meat and game are the classic matches with nebbiolo. Lamb and nebbiolo play well together, and I particularly like gamy birds such as pigeon with Roero. See our September 2004 newsletter for more suggestions.
After all this talk of “serious” wines, it seems suitable to end with a purely fun wine. Birbét is the Roero’s version of Brachetto d’Acqui - a light, low-alcohol, slightly sweet, frizzante red wine for after dinner. (It’s a red analogue of Moscato d’Asti, made from the Brachetto grape rather than from Moscato.) “Birbét” is a Piemontese word meaning lively, fun, and a little bit mischievous – you’ve been warned! It smells of strawberries, rose petals, and cinnamon. Midwestern grandmas and sommeliers love it. It goes down easy and doesn’t intoxicate (much), but still makes everything and everyone look prettier.
The one that we have in the store and that Eccolo pours is Cascina Ca’ Rossa Birbét 2003 ($19). Drink some and watch your life improve.
by Mark Middlebrook
The Gallino dinner came at the end of day in which Domenico Servetti, our host at Le Cicale B&B in the Roero village of Vezza d’Alba, spent six hours driving all over the Roero with us, showing us his favorite Romanesque, Renaissance, and Baroque churches in the area – after tracking down the key for each one from a local caretaker, policeman, or municipal employee. Many of these small churches contain wonderful frescoes in various states of restoration. The night before, Domenico’s wife, Maria, cooked a traditional Roero dinner for us and their other B&B guest, and Domenico presided over the table, pouring Roero Arneis, Barbera, and Nebbiolo d’Alba made by Maria’s brother, Franco Bruno. None of this appeared on the bill – it was simply, as Domenico told me when I asked – “out of friendship”.
Domenico also took us to Pollenzo, a lovely Roero town built on Roman ruins, some of which still peak through. We stopped to admire the new Università del Gusto (the “University of Taste”, a.k.a. la Università di Scienze Gastronomiche) – a true university established by Slow Food. Next door is Ristorante Guido, one of the most famous restaurants in Italy. Next to Pollenzo, on the western edge of the Roero, is the small city of Bra, which is home to the world headquarters of Slow Food.
The day after the grand Gallino feast, we visited Angelo Ferrio at Cascina Ca’ Rossa near Canale, the main town in the Roero. After our tour of the cantina and tasting, he insisted on taking us out for “just a little bite”. It turned out to be a full lunch at Villa Tiboldi, a swank new restaurant and small hotel in the middle of a vineyard above Canale. Chef Stefano Paganini does wonderful, creative cuisine that remains well-grounded in Roero tradition.
After lunch and a stroll in Canale, we stopped in to visit Mario Roagna at Cascina Val del Prete. The cascina, or farmhouse, and Mario’s vineyards around it sit in a perfect bowl. The soils and exposure of that bowl, along with Mario’s dedication, have made his barbera vineyard ‘Carolina’ (named after his mother) and nebbiolo vineyard ‘Vigna di Lino’ (named after his father) among the most recognized in the Roero. Mario is one of my favorite people to talk to – he projects the intense calm of someone who is continually but patiently observing, asking, and testing. He’s decided to convert to biodynamic winemaking, so he’s taking classes to learn how to do so. In spite of the high reputation of his wines both in Italy and abroad, he’s a modest, low-key guy. And he’s also wonderfully funny, with a sly, ironic sense of humor.
We spent several nights at Agriturismo Cascina San Bernardo in Magliano Alfieri. Over breakfast, I asked the proprietress, Silvia, about her family’s history in the area. She told me the story of her work as a young woman in a factory in Alba, and the family’s subsequent purchase and restoration of the Cascina San Bernardo and surrounding farm. We talked about the economic changes in the area wrought by the switch from lira to euro, of the fox who had carried off most of Silvia’s chickens during the winter, of why the donkey brays every time someone walks by. It was, in objective terms, a fairly ordinary conversation, but as we chatted and I savored Silvia’s peach jam and homemade bread, I felt like I was really learning about a place, its life, and its people.
On our last day in the Roero, we visited Marco Porello and his parents at their cantina just outside Canale. Visiting the Porellos gave us a great sense of Roero winemaking – the combination of tradition and innovation. Marco is my age, and he went to enology school in Alba, as have many sons (and a few daughters) in the area. His parents take primary responsibility for tending the vineyards, as they’ve done since they were a young married couple, I imagine. As we sat in their dining room tasting wine, they teased Marco about being an “enologist” who spends all his time in the cantina while they’re toiling in the vineyards. It was a good-natured ribbing, though – the family works well together, and Marco spends plenty of time in the vineyards himself. He’s an energetic, articulate guy who has raised the quality and reputation of his family’s cantina considerably.
The trip in March was my second visit to the Roero. I went for the first time, alone, last fall. One night during that first trip, I found myself the dinner guest of the four winemakers I’d visited (whom I’ve come to call “I Quattro Grandi Roerini”). They took me to Ristorante All’Enoteca, in the center of Canale. I later learned that this is one of the great restaurants in the Roero. Everything about the place was exquisite and yet comfortable. As we gathered in front of the bar before going into the dining room, chef Davide Palluda came out to share a glass of bubbles with us. Although he’s a young man, he’s old friends with all of the winemakers around Canale, since they grew up together. I don’t remember everything we ate that night, but I would fly back just to eat Davide’s pigeon dish again.
At the table next to us, Angelo pointed out, was a group that included wealthy locals descended from Roero nobility. They were drinking a super-Tuscan wine – with Roero cuisine. Next to me was Filippo Gallino, his farm-hardened hands still stained with grape must, drinking the perfect Roero wines with this exquisite food.
There is, of course, more than just wine and food and churches and frescoes in the Roero. It’s a great area for hiking and biking. I Sentieri del Roero, four major, well-marked trails snake through and over the hills, and it’s easy to organize anything from a short stroll to multi-day walks. The rolling hills make for excellent bicycling, as a small but avid collection of Germans and Austrians have discovered. (We Americans can rent bikes there.) You can get specifics about the hiking and biking activities (and all other things Roero) when you’re there by stopping into the Roero Regional Enoteca in Canale, Via Roma, 57, 0173.978228. In addition, Domenico Servetti of Le Cicale B&B is a wealth of information, especially about bicycling and local art and architecture.
Although the culinary, cultural, and outdoor appeal of the Roero is considerable, the deep attraction of the area comes from its people. As in the Langhe, your sincere expression of interest in local culture and a little effort to speak some Italian can lead you into some wonderful experiences. You might even want to bring your mom – and maybe a handkerchief or two, just in case.
Places to Stay
Le Cicale B&B
via Montaldo Roero, 46
Le Cicale is my favorite place to stay in the Roero, mainly because of Domenico and Maria’s hospitality, generosity, and friendship. Domenico offers a boundless amount of information about hiking, biking, and seeing the artistic and cultural features of the area. Domenico particularly caters to bicyclists, and he can help you arrange rentals and provide you with detailed route maps for his favorite rides all over the Roero and Langhe. Doubles cost about 55 euros per night, including breakfast – with honey from Domenico’s own bees.
Agriturismo Cascina San Bernardo
Via Adele Alfieri, 31
This is a true agriturismo – a B&B located on a working farm. Proprietress Silvia and her husband restored the 19th century San Bernardo farmhouse, which is gloriously sited on a hilltop with great views out over the Roero and Langhe. In addition to running the agriturismo, they grow peaches and raise some chickens. The rooms are lovely, and Silvia, like most agriturismo owners, makes a spectacularly good breakfast from local farm products (including some of her own, of course). Doubles cost 70-80 euros per night, including breakfast.
Case Sparse, 127
Villa Tiboldi is the swank, new option in the Roero. Nonetheless, prices are still quite reasonable:
Doubles cost 50-150 euros per night, not including breakfast.
To reach any of these phone numbers from the U.S., dial 01 39 first.
If you want restaurant and other travel suggestions in the Roero, stop in the store and ask for me. (I’m usually there Thursdays through Saturdays and occasionally on other days.) We also can help arrange visits to some of the producers whose wines we sell.
Authentic Experience: Paul C in Europe
by Paul Courtright
My partner Wade and I traveled from the Costa Brava in northeastern Spain, through the French Alps and Geneva to Strasbourg, and finally to Paris. It was a twelve-day trip, and we covered a couple thousand kilometers. We ate in all sorts of restaurants, from tiny little sandwich counters in Barcelona to an excellent pizza place in the 13th Arrondissement of Paris. We were served everyday wine in crappy glasses out of unmarked pitchers as well as some fine vintages poured into crystal.
In Spain we ate at restaurant El Bulli. I think it’s safe to say that it’s currently one of the most famous restaurants in the world. Ferran Adrià has built his little seaside spot into a conceptual salon that raises more questions than it answers. In a lot of ways it’s the polar opposite of the Chez Panisse idea of taking the best possible ingredients and not messing with them too much. Yet El Bulli is not so much a pinnacle of classical culinary technique (French, Catalan, or otherwise) as it is an extension of the very nature of technique itself - taking the art of cooking and combining it with meticulous science.
The meal was fascinating. I was thrilled to get a reservation, and I’m very glad I went. The experience really made me think about the nature of cuisine. The food doesn’t really speak of a place, but more of a time, and there were people from all over the world in the dining room that night. It seems almost to be food from the future (more than a few dishes reminded me of the astronaut food we’d get on school field trips to the science museum - but in a very good way). So much of what that food is about is exploiting food science and manipulating it in interesting ways - taking technologies that have been developed to preserve food and make it easier to mass market, and creating dishes so fragile and intricate they couldn’t travel outside the door of the restaurant (or sometimes even away from your table).
With our meal at El Bull, we drank 1990 Savennières Clos de la Coulée de Serrant, one of my favorite wines. It’s interesting that a wine made in such a reductivist, terroir-driven manner (biodynamic farming, hands off winemaking using wild yeast, and cement tanks) was the perfect accompaniment to such a meticulous meal. The wine changed with almost every course, and sang with most of the exotic dishes. Here’s where it gets tricky: We were in Catalunya, drinking French wine, eating space-age food, dining with people from all over the world. Was this an authentic experience?
In Barcelona we’d tired of running into Americans everywhere - it’s a shame that most of Europe’s first experience with Americans involves partying college students - so much so that I started to think that any place with a menu that had pictures and was printed in English couldn’t be good. We tried to go to a tapas counter recommended by a friend, there was an hour wait - English was the language that we heard outside the door as we moved on. The next day we were lucky to have friends take us to a small champagnería - a crowded bar in the Born district where we drank semisweet sparkling rosado out of tumblers and ate sausages on soft rolls. It wasn’t fancy, but it was one of my favorite experiences of the trip. The place looked like it had been untouched since Hemingway was in Spain, but the patrons were all wearing sneakers and Ray-Bans.
In the French Alps region of Savoie we ate in the restaurant of the small hotel where we stayed. We were the only people in the restaurant that weren’t French. We quietly sat with fork and knife and picked our way through the garlicky cuises de grenouilles, rich and creamy Gratin Dauphinois, and washed it all down with a bottle of simple local Mondeuse. There was a table of older French folks that ordered plates and plates of the frogs legs - that was all they ordered except for dessert - and ate them with their fingers, doused in Tabasco. Through all of this, there was hip-hop playing over the radio.
The next night on Lac Léman (Lake Geneva) we sat down at a Michelin one-star restaurant and nursed a bottle of 2001 Mondeuse (the lively local Savoiard red) from a small, ambitious producer named Bouvet, as we worked our way through a well crafted, very ambitious meal - none of which I could remember 5 days later. The owner of the hotel greeted us, saying that it was very rare for Americans to travel so far - indeed all the other diners were French. The wine was excellent, the cheese was the best we had on the entire trip, the old château was magnificent - but all we really wanted was the Gratin Dauphinois from the night before.
In Strasbourg we ate at one of my favorite restaurants - Winstub le Clou. It’s a warm (both literally and figuratively), small room - loud and convivial. We were greeted with glasses of wine and menus in English. We drank pitchers of nameless riesling and ate choucroute followed by fresh strawberries - we left the place high on the wine and the experience. Authentic or not, this was a wonderful evening.
In Geneva and Paris we found places that were filled with only locals and had good meals - of enchiladas and pizza. We sat in a typical Parisian bistro eavesdropping on the Americans sitting near us, and the next day we saw Star Wars in English with a few hundred Parisians.
I think most of us have this romantic idea about traveling; we fetishize food and wine and try to find “Old World” models to validate ourselves. But the world is a constantly changing place, so every culture is changing. Europe’s top chef Ferran Adrià uses liquid nitrogen in his cuisine, most people in Paris get a pizza to go now and then, locals in the Alps like their Tabasco. Who’s to say whether any of this is authentic or not - why the hell does it matter?
As we Americans drink more wine and pay more attention to the food we’re eating, we’re changing our culture. We’re moving away from the tea totaling of our parents’ generation and making eating a part of our culture again. We pay attention to the wine we buy, we shop at European style markets, and we stockpile cookbooks loaded with traditional recipes.
We need to remember what wine and food are - simple things that help us survive, both physically and spiritually. When we fetishize them - forcing them into our lives, into our culture - it makes them a lot less fun. Not all experiences need to be significant, authentic, or unique - sometimes we just need to have a good time. And having a good time - from laughing in delight at the dishes at El Bulli, to eating delicious soul warming lasagna in Paris - is what I think travel is all about.