James Dickinson photo
Mentions of three wise men conjure frankincense and magi for some (or Johnnie, Jim, and Jack for whiskey drinkers), but in Italy's Piedmont region, Barolo, Barbaresco and Barbera are a holy trinity. This year, before the spring thaw, make sure you slip these reds into heavy rotation around the dinner table.
Barolo and Barbaresco are two villages barely 15 miles apart in the mountains of northwest Italy's Langhe zone. Both specialize in growing nebbiolo. One of the world's great grapes, its layered perfume reeks of cherries, roses, tar and black fruits. Known for high acidity and profound tannins, the wines are exceptionally long-lived. Barbera is not a place, but a grape. It produces wines that are deeply colored, with lush red fruits, high acid and low tannins. The two traditional homes of Barbera are Alba, which sits between Barolo and Barbaresco, and Asti, just 20 miles north.
"Standing around drinking Barolo? Impossible!" says Luca Currado, the colorful fifth-generation winemaker at Vietti who "learned English working the vineyards with Mexicans." With 16 vintages under his belt, he's been at it since he was "born in the winery" at age 5. Fans of voluptuous, juicy, California cabernets are used to soft tannins and buttery wines that are easy to drink in their youth, but Barolo is a feisty Testarossa that doesn't show its sex appeal until maturity. And once the wine is ready, its proper place is on the table alongside foods of the region: Bra Duro cheese, frittatas with rapini and speck, and beef braised in nebbiolo. "We don't have food without wine … or wine without food," Currado added — fork in one hand, a glass in the other — over agnolotti with butter and sage at Enoteca Sogno, where owner/sommelier Gary York features a deep selection of Vietti.
Currado's philosophy, "one ton per acre, one bottle per vine," is simple yet strict, curtailing yields while fomenting complexity. And you can taste it, but no one comes out of the womb loving Barolo. Nebbiolo compels patience: By the time a Barolo made the year of your birth is ready to drink, you'll be ready to drink it. "Barolo is not easy. It's not just a wine, it's a culture that takes time to acquire," Currado says. "We're not born knowing the opera song. Barolo is like to a beautiful girl running on the stairs, but she's always one step ahead of you."
Barbaresco is Barolo's more accessible and less tannic younger sister. Also, the village itself is much smaller, with more uniform quality, increasing your odds of blindly landing a gem. In the days of Italian royalty, Currado says the monarch would send wine to European heads of state on their birthdays: "one barrel of Barolo to each king, and one barrel of Barbaresco to each queen."
In the 17th century, before nebbiolo gained popularity, Barbera was the most famous. "Barbera was for the real people, and Barolo was for the nobility," says Currado. Barbera d'Asti tends toward lighter texture and higher acidity than the meatier Barbera d'Alba, but excellent producers abound in either area, with Vietti an undisputed stalwart in both.
Even though they produce a relatively small amount of wine, Vietti is well represented in Richmond. One hard-to-find beaut is the Barolo Rocche, a single-vineyard wine from sacred acres vaunted for centuries. Currado is humble about how he makes this wine according to the dictates of Rocche's terroir: "How can you be so arrogant as to impose your ego upon this vineyard? Our impact in one lifetime is like a small fart."
Where to Find the Killer B's
Vietti at River City Cellars
2931 W. Cary St., 355-1375 or rivercitycellars.com
2006 Barbera d'Alba ($29.99); 2004 Barolo Castiglione ($44.99); or 1998 Barolo Rocche ($89.99)
Vietti at J. Emerson
5716 Grove Ave., 285-8011 or jemersonfinewine.com
2006 Barbera d'Asti Tre Vigne ($21.95); 2005 Barbera d'Alba Scarrone Vigna Vecchia ($44.95); 2001 Barolo Lazzarito ($99.95); 2001 Barolo Villero Riserva ($399.95)
Vietti at Enoteca Sogno
2043 W. Broad St., 938-6880 or enoteca-sogno.com
1998 Barolo Rocche ($120); 2004 Barbaresco Masseria ($140)
Owner/sommelier Gary Yorks has a terrific line-up of Killer B's, plus an off-premise license — wines for takeaway are typically 20 percent less.