A sommelier friend and I were trading notes, figuratively speaking, at a birthday dinner recently. He's been in the business 30 years and trains people to become wine professionals in the restaurant trade - sommeliers. He knows his stuff and then some.
We tend to bore others - people who dare insist there's more to life than fermented grapes - into comas whenever we get together. "What's up with the malo in this Chablis?" I might say. "Dunno, Beppi, but that's hardly the worst of its problems; I think they overdid it with the SO2."
On this night, though, we found ourselves with an audience. People, pens in hand, wanted us to spell the name of an Italian red we had tasted recently and were rhapsodizing about. "Can you believe it? Twenty freakin' bucks."
At $19.95 in Ontario, Castello di Neive Barbaresco strains some people's definition of "bargain." But for a Barbaresco, one of Italy's regal wine styles, it constitutes theft. Barbarescos tend to cost upward of $40. And get this: This particular wine retails for an average of about $50 (U.S.) south of the border, where critics have been singing its praises as a smart buy.
I recommended the 2006 vintage last year when it was released here. The 2007, now on shelves, is better. I regret to say it's only available in Ontario and the Montreal region. But great wine tends to come in small quantities and have selective distribution (the curse for national wine columnists who would love to please readers in 13 completely autonomous wine jurisdictions). Sorry, I can't not write about this wine. Maybe by doing so a few more liquor boards will consider carrying it - or am I being presumptuous?
Barbaresco, named for a town in the Piedmont region, is made from the sturdy, acidic, astringent nebbiolo grape. So is Barolo, a more famous red from the neighbouring town of the same name. While Barolos are usually fuller and built for the long haul, Barbarescos tend to be lighter and more approachable in their youth though still worth cellaring for roughly five to 15 years, depending on producer and vintage quality, from the date of harvest.
Nebbiolo's firm acid backbone turns off people fond of "smooth" reds. But the acidity is inherent in the grape, not necessarily a sign that the fruit was picked underripe. A good Barbaresco is medium- to full-bodied, with flavours that can suggest cherries, roses and, as seasoned tasters are fond of describing it, tar. The wines often are paired with braised red meats, such as osso buco, and dishes heavy in mushrooms or truffle flavouring. The former export manager for Angelo Gaja, the most esteemed producer of Barbarescos, taught me that these reds can also sing with robust fish, such as grilled salmon or lobster.
Wines below are from Saturday's Vintages release in Ontario. Some may be available in other provinces.
Castello di Neive Barbaresco 2007 (Italy)
Medium-bodied and deceptively light in colour, it delivers good depth of flavour, hinting at fresh cherry, mushroom and cedar. The acidity is delicate, not vicious - a kitten's playful nibble rather than a dog's bite. The tannins are fine-grained and subtle. Serve it now or age it for up to four more years.
Domaine Seguin-Manuel Beaune 1er Cru Champimonts 2007 (France)
A delectable red Burgundy, expertly crafted, with delicate cherry, beetroot and licorice against a subtly earthy backdrop. The light hue is deceptive; this is flavourful wine from the concentrated fruit of mature, 35-year-old vines grown on a steep, well-drained slope. Drink it over the next three or four years. Available in Ontario only through the Vintages Classics special-order department (product No. 208686, www.vintages.com/classics, 416-365-5777 or 1-800-282-2197).
Château Haut-Bailly 2007 (France)
From a less-than-banner year, this Pessac-Leognan red overdelivered, with pure cassis, dark chocolate and a dusting of pencil lead, all in nice proportion. Roast beef is almost a must.
Domaine Jaeger-Defaix Rully 1er Cru Rabourcé 2007 (France)
The Rully appellation of Burgundy tends to get overlooked. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's the word, which can look un-French. Made from chardonnay, Rully is often well-priced next to comparable white Burgundy, as this one is. Silky with a notes of candied orange and nuts, it has a long, tangy finish. A versatile white, it would be especially nice with fish seared in butter.
Los Vascos Chardonnay 2009 (Chile)
Full-bodied, round and soft, it starts sweet with ripe tropical fruit but gets a dry lift from pleasant acidity on the finish.
Codorniu Pinot Noir Rosé Brut Cava (Spain)
For this kind of dough, it's hard to find a more serious bubbly. Speaking of dough, there's a delicious core of yeasty bread here to complement the fresh berries suggested by the bright pink colour. The fine-bubble effervescence is elegant.
Château Pech-Latt Corbières 2009 (France)
An organic product, this full-bodied red has a velvety, seamless texture framed by dry tannins and juicy acidity. I love the balance of fruit and savoury notes. Good for lamb.
Luigi Bosca Reserva Malbec 2008 (Argentina)
Deep cherry liqueur, herbs and fresh-roast coffee form the core of this full-bodied, bone-dry red. It begs for juicy red meat.
Ghost Pines Winemaker's Blend Merlot 2007 (California)
Smooth and crowd-pleasing, this full-bodied red has a sweet core of blackberry, cocoa and vanilla, with a toasty finish. It's the kind of well-made merlot people want when they say, "I'll have a merlot."
Foncalieu Le Versant Viognier 2009 (France)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $12.95
Medium full-bodied, here's a well-priced white with classic viognier flavours of orange peel and flowers. Solid acidity on the finish yields delectable balance. It would be a good match for Indian curries.
(Note: Two weeks ago I erred in listing the vintage date for Tawse Van Bers Vineyard Cabernet Franc. It should have read 2008, not 2007. My apologies.)