In Italy, wine grapes impart a sense of place in the wines they produce. In the Piedmont region of northern Italy, that sense of place also involves the people making the wine. Jacques Scott’s wine professionals sat down over lunch at La Dolce Vita Ristorante with Anna and Valentina Abbona from the Marchesi di Barolo winery to discuss the family-owned vineyard’s wines in advance of their appearance at the 2014 Cayman Cookout.
Trying to explain the word “terroir” to someone who doesn’t drink a lot of Old World wines isn’t easy. It’s a word borrowed from French and there’s no exact translation; it’s a word best learned by experience.
Terroir is the characteristic wines – and other agricultural products – get from where they are grown. These characteristics involve soil makeup, climate, the angle the sun hits the plant, and any other environmental factors that affect its growth. Some say the people who interact with plants through the growing, harvesting and processing stages also impact terroir.
When it comes to wines, some grapes show terroir better than others. In Burgundy, Pinot Noir is a classic example of a grape that shows a sense of where it grows. In northern Italy, Nebbiolo is the grape that displays its terroir best.
Nebbiolo is a beast of a wine grape. Concentrated, intensely tannic, and complex, the wines it produces aren’t for everyday drinking. Instead, they are wines for celebration, for conversation, and for contemplation.
“I think that more than any other grape, Nebbiolo tells a story in its wines,” says Jacques Scott’s Sarah Howard. “It tells a story of the vineyard, of the weather, of the winemaker.”
Of course, there’s always a story behind the story in the wine glass, and in listening to Anna and Valentine Abbona – part of the family that’s been making Marchesi di Barolo wines for five generations – tell the story of their wines, it’s easy to see that terroir can indeed be impacted by people.
The Marchesi di Barolo winery dates back to the days when Nebbiolo was first vinified as a dry wine in the mid-1800s. Prior to that, that late-ripening Nebbiolo made sweet wines. However, thanks to the help of a French oenologist, techniques were developed to allow for a dry vinification that helped Nebbiolo reach its full potential.
Around the turn of the 20th century, the Abbona family, which owned the winery next to the castle, bought the Marchesi di Barolo winery. Pietro Abbona then became one of the winemaking pioneers that helped bring Barolo to the attention of the rest of the world.
In an era where many wineries have taken on corporate structure and practices, Anna Abbona said the family is very proud of the fact that theirs is still very much a family-run business committed to following long-standing winemaking traditions.
“We still want to have the Marchesi di Barolo style,” she said. “This is very important to us.”
For that reason, the Abbonas don’t bring in winemaking consultants the way many other wineries do. Outside consultants could impart outside characteristics to the wines, something that would change the style of the wine. In this sense, Marchesi di Barolo’s long-standing winery workers, who have a deep understanding of the grapes produced in their vineyards, are a part of the terroir.
Food and wines
Barolo and Barbaresco get all the glory when it comes to Piedmont wines, but the Nebbiolo grapes that are used to produce both of those wines account for only about 6 percent of the grapes grown in the region. Other popular wines produced in Piedmont include Asti, Moscato, Arneis, Gavi, Dolcetto and Barbera.
Over lunch at La Dolce Vita, several of these wines produced by Marchesi di Barolo were tasted with the typical cuisine they would be served with back in the little town of Barolo. That the food would be typical of Piedmont cuisine was a given because the chef at La Dolce Vita, Ercole Musso, grew up in the town of Barolo and once even worked as a chef for the Marchesi di Barolo winery owners.
Italians in particular believe the wines of a region are meant to pair with the foods of that region. Historically, people in Italy sourced the ingredients for their food from within the region where they lived, and those ingredients could take on the same kinds of characteristics in much the same way wine takes on characteristics of the terroir. Although there is a lot of difference between the fresh ingredients available in the Cayman Islands and those found in Barolo, La Dolce Vita’s Chef Musso still prepared about as authentic a Piedmont meal as one can from more than 5,000 miles away, but using fresh ingredients from Cayman, like eggplant, fish and local pork tenderloin.
The meal started with gnocco fritto, which are delicious little fried dough puffs that are typical of Piedmont. Other typical dishes of the region that were served included carne crudo battuta coletta, which is a kind of beef steak tartare that is cut into small pieces with a knife, and homemade tajarin pasta, served with a Barolo meat sauce.
The wines served started with Marchesi di Barolo Gavi [Retail: $21.99]. This refreshing white wine, which is named after the area from which it comes, is made from the Cortese grape. It has floral and fruit aromas, with bright acidity, making a good pairing with seafood.
“I love Gavi,” said Howard. “What’s not to love about Gavi? It’s the perfect wine for Cayman’s climate.”
Madonna Di Como Dolcetto d’Alba [Retail: $22.99] is an everyday wine for Piedmont residents. It is a fruity, low-acid, soft wine that goes well with a variety of foods.
“This is very good with pizza,” said Valentina Abbona. “It has very fresh cherry notes. It is best young, but this wine can take a few years of aging, and then it becomes more earthy.”
Marchesi di Barolo’s Ruvei Barbera d’Alba [Retail: $22.99] is unique in that it is blended with 15 percent Nebbiolo grapes, giving it more tannin structure than most Barbera wines from the region. This wine, which still has Barbera’s classic acidity, is also produced from old vines and aged in oak.
“It’s more rich than a regular Barbera,” said Anna Abbona, adding that the tannins also give the Ruvei the ability to age longer. “It can pair with so many things because of the Nebbiolo. It’s more versatile.”
Marchesi di Barolo’s 2008 Barbaresco [Retail: $42.99] and 2007 Barolo [$50.99] both offer good value for money when it comes the king [Barolo] and queen [Barbaresco] of Piedmont wines. Even though the two wines are made from Nebbiolo vineyards located less than 20 miles from each other, there is a bit of difference in the terroir as a result of soil makeup and climate. Because of this, Barbaresco tends to be a little softer and more elegant than Barolo, which is more full-flavored, powerful and tends to age longer.
Anna Abbona believes elegance is a common trait with all wines produced in Piedmont.
“They all have a certain elegance, from the Gavi right through the Barolo.”
Normally, most of the single-vineyard Barolos need at least 10 years of aging before the tannins soften enough for the wines to come into balance. Cannubi [Retail: $73.99] is a single-vineyard Barolo that the winemakers say needs only about six years of aging before it softens, and the 2005 vintage is drinking fabulously in 2014.
Because Barolo usually needs a lengthy aging, it often loses most of its fruit flavors before it is consumed. The Cannubi still has a strong showing of berry flavors, making it a good choice for wine drinkers who are accustomed to fruitier California wines but want to find out why people get a glimmer in their eye when they talk about Barolo.