All too often it is Barbaresco’s more quixotic and highfalutin neighbor Barolo that wears the laurels and gets selected for that big dinner. Many of you are likely to have dined in a group, perhaps in a business setting or maybe a family gathering, in a better Italian restaurant and watched the one person who you had hoped wouldn’t be handed the wine list (but in the end you knew would wind up with it anyway) indeed tapped straightaway to make the selection. This is the guy (usually a guy) who wants to impress, but wants to choose something other than a big Cali. Cab., and knows just enough to know that Barolo is the Italian wine for conoscenti (or so they say, and so he believes), so he flips the thick plastic-covered pages to Piedmont, locates a familiarly-named Barolo that he can afford, and orders it. What our self-conscious selector does NOT know is that Barolo is way too big for almsot any pasta dish or appetizer, that it’s not a particularly good match with steak, and is likely to need at least an hour in a decanter (and likely a few more years in the bottle to boot) to really show at its best. Like Amarone and Brunello and the seemingly endless and chimeric parade of “Super Tuscans”, Barolo has become safe territory for those with more money than taste. To the power crowd, Barbaresco is an also ran, which leaves more for those of us who know better, but if it was indeed a profound Nebbiolo wine that our hapless gentleman chooser really wanted (or the dinner actually called for) Barbaresco would have been the far better choice.
Why? Well, let me first say that we’re clearly painting with a fairly broad brush here, but in my experience, Barbaresco is the far more relaxed and affable wine. Barolo will evetually tell more fantastic tales, but it may take hours or it may not come at all, and sometimes you’re just not in the mood to hear them anyway…Barbaresco chats and banters with grace. Barolo poses probing questions and sometimes veers toward a bit of pontification. Don’t take me wrong here, Barolo is absolutely a great wine, admittedly probably greater than Barbaresco when the dust settles, but it’s a far bigger prima donna and too often delivers less than it promises.
And so we arrive at the particular wine that led me to type all of this…I was looking for a match for a dish of turkey meatballs baked and then stewed in a lightish, delicately herbed tomato sauce, and there were a few “drink or hold” bottles that had gotten me curious enough over the last months of seeing them on the rack to think about pulling the cork on one of them…So the wine I eventually chose was a Marchesi di Gresy Barbaresco Martinenga 2000. This is a historic producer from what might be an even more historic vineyard. The Martinenga vineyard borders two other truly great vineyards, Asili and Rabaja`, and is considered by many Barbaresco freaks to be THE greatest vineyard period. But unlike Asili and Rabaja`, which are subdivided and owned by many different landlords and growers, the Martinenga vineyard is owned wholly and outright by Marchesi di Gresy. What’s more, though they are certainly entitled to sell off Martinenga fruit at super premium prices to other growers who could then vinify it and then of course label the wine as such, to my knowledge, they have never done so (at least not recently), and are unlikely to ever do it.
Let me clarify something. Using the word “reliable” as I did in the title makes this underappreciated appellation sound a bit dull and dowdy, which it’s decidedly not, but I’ve had FAR more poorly made Barolos (think about why – the commercial draw of the name “Barolo” alone allows less scrupulous or passionate producers to aim lower, and still make a tidy sum, while Barbaresco producers always have to do their best to truly compete) than Barbarescos, so a hypothetical random choice of an unknown Barolo and unknown Barbaresco would be more likely to put the Barbaresco in the pole position than not. Here are my actual tasting notes:
Marchesy di Gresy Barbaresco Martinenga 2000
Translucent, slightly “onion skin” garnet color. Layered and complex nose of berries, bark, wood smoke, juniper, licorice, and mushrooms. The palate, reflecting the heat of the 2000 vintage, is generous and mouth-filling with uncharacteristically prominent and supple fruit and a surprisingly well-balanced presentation of asian spice, dried herb, and cola syrup flavors. Not the last word in subtlety or “goose pimple” factor, but a confident and complete wine nonetheless.
If you’ll recall, the point of all this was to find a liquid partner for my meatballs – so how did that go? Very nicely, thank you. Nebbiolo-based wines are known to pair well with “noble birds” like duck, pheasant, and turkey, and the extra corpulence and fruit provided by the 2000 vintage allowed the wine to cope with the tomato sauce, a feat that in my opinion a more classically-styled Barbaresco would not have managed as well.
Far be it for me to tell you what to do, but the next time you reach for the Barolo, take a deep breath, put it back on the rack (or leave it un-ordered if you’re out), and select a Barbaresco and see if the “converstion” doesn’t flow just a little more freely, and maybe with a few more laughs as well…