Tasting wine: Enjoying Italian vintages

I often write this column late at night or early in the morning, but today I am taking time on this rainy, cold afternoon to think about wine and wish that I had a glass within reach.

When I first seriously started getting immersed in the wine industry 17 years ago, I was drinking a lot of Italian wine, especially Barolos and Barbarescos from Piedmont. Back then I was able to get wines such as Produttori’s Barbaresco Asili, 1985, for $22 with my discount. Trust me, the current wholesale is way more than the high retail from 17 years ago. The first Piemontese wine that made this skeptic see God was the 1982 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Santo Stefano. I want to say it cost me about $40, but I’m not sure.

Although the prices of these wines have risen, I think that Barolo and Barbaresco are among the surest bets you will find. There are numerous great producers who make outrageously expensive wines such as Giacomo Conterno and Angelo Gaja. Even Giacosa is at the high end. However, I think that more than any other type of wine in a similar price category — $300 a bottle — they are worth it, as they age extremely well. Going down a notch are Sandrone, Enrico Scavino and Aldo Conterno, all well known and all who make excellent wines. Before I go any further, let me assure you that if your favorite producer has not yet been included, or is not mentioned elsewhere in this article, it is because there are too many good producers to mention. Big houses such as Chiarlo, Ceretto and especially Prunotto are always reliable and can even be shockingly good.

For me, the greatness of these wines, which are entirely made from nebbiolo, is the bouquet. They always follow through on the palate, but the truffle, tar, dried floral arrangement, licorice and spicy earth aromas bring me back to a time, the early 1990s, and a place, downtown Manhattan, that made me choose this career path. I guess then when people ask me, “Why didn’t you go to graduate school,” I can honestly say, in a word, “nebbiolo.” And if you were to ask me what kind of wine I wish I had sitting in a glass next to me as I write, it would be, in three words, “Barolo or Barbaresco.”

Here are three wines that I would be very happy to drink right now.

Roagna Barolo Rocca e la Pira, 1999: I didn’t mention Alberto Roagna’s wines previously because I knew I was going to include this one as a recommendation. Roagna is a maverick in Piedmont who makes wines naturally from both Barolo and Barbaresco. Of his current releases, I think this blend of two vineyards is drinking best. Actually, it is really tasty though it will age well for at least another 20 years. Full-bodied with pipe tobacco, tar and forest-floor aromas, deep, brooding fruit and firm tannins, it is a lovely young wine. Suggested retail: $58

Clerico Barolo “Pajana,” 2001: Of the modern-style producers in Barolo, I think Clerico is hard to top. Pajana is one of four Barolos Clerico makes and, given how young this wine is, I recommend it with caution. If you cannot wait, decant it a good six hours ahead of time — no joke. If patience is one of your virtues, put it away and forget about it for another 10 years. Suggested retail: $75

Produttori del Barbaresco “Moccagatta,” 2000: Even though this cooperative’s wines have gotten more expensive since the first time they crossed my path, they are still good values. Moccagatta is typically one of the lighter and earliest drinking of the single vineyards, but it still has plenty of layers and girth. Medium-bodied with dried flowers, rhubarb and a touch of Middle Eastern spices, this is an aromatic and elegant wine. Suggested retail: $55

Pamela S. Busch is the wine director and proprietor of CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen in San Francisco.

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