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A Brief Meeting with Luisa Rocca

In between grazing my way through a well-judged collection of plates at ‘Beata te’, one of Taipei’s most believable Italian restaurants, I listened to and chatted with Luisa Rocca, daughter of Bruno, owner of the small, eponymously named estate in Barbaresco. Rocca’s wines are easy to like. Their Chardonnay has an edge that both cuts through and remains keen in the presence of food. Their Dolcetto, unlike the too often rustically bruising examples from other producers provides pleasing refreshment and their Barbera, high on acid yet silkily structured, rendered foie gras stuffed meatballs elegant and light, tempering their richness but not their impact.

The wines that I was most keen to try were of course those based on Nebbiolo, grape supreme here in the hills south of Alba, and they did not disappoint. The best, the single vineyard Rabajà, was all powder and perfume, scenting both the air and mouth with a graceful intensity expected from this region but particularly apparent in the wines that emanate from the vineyards and cellar of Bruno Rocca.

The evening ended with a traditional Piemontese dessert called ‘Bonnet al cioccolato, amaretti e oro’. This unfathomably fine pud (the best I have had since we arrived in this East Asian idyll) did what chocolate so often fails to do which was to be intense without being psychotically so, leaving me deeply satisfied.

Luisa was in Taipei for just one night. Recently arrived from Seoul (and only one stop removed from Sao Paulo) next on her itinerary was Singapore. The constant toing and froing has left Luisa’s ebullience undimmed a result she explained of promoting something that she loves. I can’t help think that the work of her brother and father in the vineyards and cellar must be an easier task than that faced by Luisa but she disagreed. Luisa took a quick selfie of the two of us framed by long tables decorated with fine wine, food and lots of happy guests. ‘I think my job’s pretty good’ she smiled. I think perhaps she’s right.

 

 

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Italy: More than pizza and pasta

Italy’s cuisine, founded on pasta, pizza and the concept of ‘cucina povera’ (simple but quality food), has seen Italian food garner global fame. It is rare to arrive in any town or city in the developed world without seeing the tricolore proudly displayed in the signage of the local trattoria, but what about Italian wine?

Most wine consumers will, at some point, have worked their way through a glass of Chianti or Pinot Grigio but that is just the tip of a very large ‘wineberg’ that remains relatively unknown to the majority. If you doubt my assessment of the level of consciousness that Italian wines have managed to prick, just examine the Master of Wine exams of the last three years (2012-2014). Of the 108 wines that candidates have been asked to assess: only eleven were Italian in comparison to thirty three from France. I don’t think this is evidence of some internal bias by the Institute of Masters of Wine, just a reflection of the lack of penetration in global terms for many of Italy’s offerings. This lack of recognition is partly due to what lovers of Italian wine cherish the most; namely the vast range of indigenous varieties scattered throughout the Italian peninsula. The ‘problem’ for many of these varieties is that they seem reluctant to flourish away from their homeland meaning that there is a concomitant lack of exposure. Hopefully Australia’s increasing desire to plant some of these varieties, a sensible choice considering the generally Mediterranean climate experienced in much of the wine growing South East, will help to redress this situation.

Monday saw the Gambero Rosso Italian wine tasting event arrive in Taipei. The raft of Italian producers in attendance, many as yet to find importers in this corner of Asia, provided a welcome opportunity to refamiliarise myself with the classic as well as the more esoteric offerings from this vinous heavyweight. Below are wines from four producers that I hope will have been successful in their search for representation, as I believe they have the necessary charm to delight not just me but also the increasing number of wine-drinkers here in Taiwan. Whatever the outcome for these four estates, be sure to explore Italy’s vinous heritage, it is as important and as impressive as their food and warrants your attention.

Barone Pizzini, Franciacorta DOCG, Brut Nature, 2011
Grape: 70% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Noir
Wine-making: More than 24 months on lees and less than 3g of sugar per litre in the dosage.
Note: Buttered brioche with a little nectarine and citrus fruit, this was a decidedly precise yet still vinous glass of Franciacorta. If you like Champagne then the wines from this part of Lombardy offer similar levels of quality with a touch more generosity.
Score: 16/20
Available from: Not currently available in Taiwan

Bibbiano, Chianti Classico DOCG, 2012, 13.5%
Grape: Sangiovese
Wine-making: No oak
Note: Benchmark Chianti Classico, all crisp, pithy and with the scent of sour cherries gives this a thirst quenching quality that makes it alarmingly easy to drink.
Score: 16/20
Available from: Not currently available in Taiwan 

La Raia, Gavi DOCG, ‘Pisè’, 2012, 13%
Grape: Cortese
Wine-making: 12 months on lees
Note: This shows how good Cortese can be. Leesy, firm but with apple, almond and a subtle floral quality that is almost reminiscent of a good 1er cru Chablis. Break out the oysters.
Score: 16.5+/20
Available from: Not currently available in Taiwan 

Marchesi di Barolo, Barbaresco Tradizione, 2011, 14.5%
Grape: Nebbiolo
Wine-making: Short maceration (helps retain fruitiness) and 18 months in large oak.
Note: This is as juicy and approachable as young Nebbiolo gets. Fruity, floral and generous and tame enough to enjoy without food.
Score: 16.5/20
Available from: Not currently available in Taiwan

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Glitterati: collective noun for Piemonte’s famous producers?

Last week Taipei played host to Angelo Gaja and this week we have Franco Conterno and Luca Currado of Vietti.

The presence of such significant signori suggests that Taiwan’s wine-drinkers are succumbing to the charms of Piemonte’s finest. Poderi Aldo Conterno and Vietti are viewed as ‘traditionalists’ in Barolo’s firmament in that they eschew the use of new French oak for their most prestigious wines. Instead they rely on long maceration times (often four or five weeks of contact with the skins from the start of fermentation to the point where the young wine is drained off) to extract the material necessary to enable their Nebbiolo based wines to age gracefully. This practice does not make for instantly approachable wine. Tannins are mouth-puckering, acidity is high and alcohol levels hover between 14.5 and 15%. This ensures that time is necessary to allow these wines to relax, integrate and then achieve the rather complex harmony of which they are capable.

Piemonte’s most famous wine, Barolo, is also increasingly expensive. Limited production (approximately 7 million bottles per annum) and a growing global appreciation has seen the price of land rise sharply to roughly €1 million per hectare. If you want cheap in Italy it is better to look further south. To ease one’s cashflow it is necessary to consider some of Piemonte’s less famous but similarly delicious gems: Langhe Nebbiolo from a good producer (like the one from Vietti below) can be great value as it often declassified Barolo i.e. wine that conscientious producers don’t want to add to their best as it originates from young vines or a less prime site. Barbera, with its much softer tannins and berry-like fruit style provides sophistication, suppleness and much earlier drinking pleasure than its more illustrious neighbour. Lastly Piemonte is not just about red wine, as Arneis’ increasingly fashionable demeanour demonstrates. Unusually for an Italian variety it is moderate in acidity (rather than high) but has enough weight, texture and pear and lemon peel fruitiness to more than satisfy the majority.

Any of the wines below will improve the quality of your evening.

Roero Arneis DOCG, 13%
Grape:
Arneis
Wine-making:
Note:
Citrus peel and pear skin, very Italian. Fantastic acidity, minerality and with a refined intensity and persistence evident. Very moreish.
Price: 1,000NT
Score: 15.5/20
Available from: Titlist

Barbera d’Asti DOCG Superiore Nizza, La Crena, 2010, 14.5% (old vine)
Grape:
Barbera
Wine-making: 3 months in barrel, 12 months in large old oak casks
Note: Restrained nose but with lovely palate weight, brightness and intense raspberry/cherry fruit flavours. Supple tannins, well managed alcohol and a pleasing length of finish.
Price: 2,000NT
Score: 16.5/20
Available from: Titlist

Nebbiolo Perbacco, Langhe DOC, 2011, 14.5%
Grape:
Nebbiolo
Wine-making: 4 months in barrel, 20 months in large oak casks.
Note: This is a very approachable Nebbiolo, full of fruit and very fine tannins that are relatively supple. It lacks a little of the floral perfume that helps distinguish this variety but this remains a quality introduction to Nebbiolo for a bargain price.
Price: 1,200NT
Score: 16/20
Available from: Titlist

Colonnelo (a mixture of sand and clay, single vineyard), Barolo Bussia DOCG, 2009, 15%
Grape:
Nebbiolo
Wine-making: 28 months in large, old 25 hectolitre Slavonian oak
Note: Smelling of flowers, iron (blood) and cherry, this is the most delicate and easily approachable of these three single vineyard wines from Conterno. The superfine tannins are delightful as is the persistence of finish.
Price: 7,500NT
Score: 17.5/20
Available from: Ascent Way 02 2533 3180

Cicala (limestone 20%, 80% Clay, single vineyard), Barolo Bussia DOCG, 2009, 15%
Grape:
Nebbiolo
Wine-making: 28 months in large, old 25 hectolitre Slavonian oak
Note: Licorice, dark fruit, elevated acidity and alcohol coupled with fine but firm tannins gives a more structured wine than the Colonnelo but one no less
fine. Persistent.
Price: 7,500NT
Score: 17.5/20
Available from: Ascent Way 02 2533 3180

Romarisco (40% clay, 60% limestone, single vineyard and old vines, 65-70 yrs old), Barolo Bussia DOCG, 2009, 15%
Grape:
Nebbiolo
Wine-making: 30 months in old 25 hectolitre Slavonian oak
Note: Huge complexity, the wine of the day. Stony/mineral nose, smoked cherry, scorched earth, mushroom/truffle, and a little balsamic. Great density of ripe tannins, full body, fruit power and generosity give a wine of considerable harmony even though it is a decade away from its apogee. This Barolo is a step above. Stunning.
Price: 9,850
Score: 18.5/20
Available from: Ascent Way 02 2533 3180

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Something for the Weekend 6

The nobility of certain grape varieties is beyond doubt. Of the black grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Pinot Noir are the most famous, in part because of their success beyond the boundaries of France, their home. Of all the major wine producing countries, Italy is perhaps the most unique. Whilst making some very fine wines from the well-travelled grape glitterati above, it has built its reputation on indigenous varieties. None more so than Nebbiolo.

Having never owned a Ferrari (but having spoken to a friend who does) I feel that Nebbiolo is the equivalent of Maranello’s automotive legend. Neither are inconsistent or unreliable in the way less able examples can be, but they both require a great deal of fine-tuning to enjoy them at their best. Nebbiolo’s home is on the slopes of the Langhe hills in Piemonte. If the vintage is kind, the grapes picked at optimum ripeness and if the winemaker knows what he or she is doing, the result can be…well, noble.

No other grape can be so haughty in youth or so magnificent in its prime. The best come with a price-tag that pains both face and wallet but if you want red wine at its most aromatic, complex and downright fine then Nebbiolo deserves your attention.

Below are three examples that given the opportunity you should try.

Cogno, ‘Brico Pernice’ Barolo, 2007, 14%,
Grape:
Nebbiolo
Wine-making: 24 months in large old oak
Note: This is still a baby and will need another five years more bottle age to truly shine. A ‘traditional’ style of Barolo with significant amounts of ripe, layered powdery/grainy tannins. The fine aromatics are beginning to show with violet, spice and licorice. Be patient and this wine will reward.
Price: 4750NT
Score: 17/20
Available: Ascent Way

Poderi Aldo Conterno, Barolo, 2004, 14.5%
Grape:
Nebbiolo
Wine-making: 26 months in large old oak
Note: More overtly aromatic than the Cogno, this is both floral, fruity and imbued with exotic spices. Bright acidity and powdery tannins flesh out the palate giving a harmonious whole. Elegance, perfume and power, this great producer provides the drinker with a lesson in what Barolo is all about.
Price: Not sure how easy it is to find the 2004 anymore but the 2009 is currently available for 4250NT
Score: 18/20
Available: Ascent Way

…And just to show that Nebbiolo is capable of greatness outside of Italy…

Giaconda, Beechworth, Nebbiolo, 2012, 14%
Grape:
Nebbiolo
Wine-making: 36 months in large oak
Note: ‘Perfumed, chalky, pert and persistent’. These were my notes on tasting the 2012 from barrel in December 2013. One can add, black cherry and rose to this and one can see that Nebbiolo is alive and kicking in the hands of the great Rick Kinzbrunner, owner and wine-maker at Giaconda.
Price: In Australia it retails for approx. $110 (Australian)
Score: 17.5 at the moment…
Available: Not currently available in Taiwan and only around 2,000 bottles are made per year.

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