To drinkers with a predilection for smooth, fruity reds, Barolo can seem like a glass of pain. Made from the tart, tannic nebbiolo grape, it first slaps you with bracing acidity, then swiftly returns with a backhand of gum-sucking astringency. Toss in a nuance of tar, a nebbiolo hallmark, and you've got a wine with acquired taste written all over it.
I should say: That's how the wine is sometimes tarred and feathered, and that's unfair. Barolo was one of my first wine epiphanies, a red that proved grapes are not just fruit; they are capable of intellectual conversation. That was way back in my beer-thirsty university days, though I'll concede the girl on the other side of that bottle may have helped accentuate the wine's charms.
I think many tender-palate wine newbies are instantly drawn to Barolo. I've seen it happen. And why not? Besides the whiff of tar, there are essences of sweet cherry liqueur and flowers. The perfume can be glorious.
The wine's name derives from the town of Barolo in the northwest region of Piedmont, home to the Slow Food movement as well as the similarly styled nebbiolo reds of Barbaresco. In Piedmont, nebbiolo is often paired with braised meats, such as osso buco, whose proteins and fat tend to relax the grape's tannic grip, and dishes involving the local white truffle, because there's often an earthy-mushroom character to the wine.
Absent a fatty piece of red meat, those tannins can take years to soften, which is why people, particularly outside Italy, prefer to cellar Barolo for a decade or more. Barolo is the consummate Slow Food wine. Yet a few Italian winemakers I know say that the locals don't feel nearly as obliged to lay down their Barolos for eternity because Italians almost invariably drink wines with food. Besides, they're accustomed to bitter radicchio and strong espresso. Tannin fear is for foreign wimps.
I suspect what more people find off-putting is the colour. Thin-skinned nebbiolo lacks the deep pigmentation of such globally popular grapes as cabernet sauvignon and shiraz. The wine, though powerful, is deceptively transparent. In the case of some old-school offerings aged for an extended period before release, it may be brick-hued or rusty orange by the time it reaches shelves. In other regions, winemakers will often blend small quantities of dark-skinned grapes with lighter varieties merely for appearance's sake, because too many consumers naively equate colour saturation with quality and bang-for-buck flavour. That blending practice is banned in Barolo. It's always 100-per-cent nebbiolo.
One entirely legitimate rap against the wine is price. It's expensive, rarely less than $30 and often way above $40. That's why I'm featuring the first selection below. It's not just good, it's a steal. Collectors can and will disparage its pedigree. It's made by a large co-operative that sources fruit from hundreds of growers, not a single estate with prized vineyards on Piedmont's best slopes. But it's true-blue Barolo, with classic flavours that offer a fine introduction to one of Italy's iconic styles. It's got another thing going for it, too. The tannins are so tame, you can enjoy it with tonight's dinner. Pain-free Barolo, almost.
Cantina Terre del Barolo Vinum Vita Est Barolo 2006 (Italy)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $23.90
A big scent of violet and tar hint at what's to come on the palate, though the tar evolves into shoe polish, and – trust me – that's a good thing, especially if you're fond of Italian shoes. The core of cherry liqueur is answered by a tight little tug of astringent tannins and lively acidity. Available in Ontario.
Mastrojanni Brunello di Montalcino 2006 (Italy)
SCORE: 94 PRICE: $46.95
One could call this an old-school Brunello for its dried-fruit character, but it's far from prunelike or oxidized, as are so many of its Tuscan kin that spend too much time in wood. The pretty, floral character is compelling. Drinking well now, it could improve with a decade in the cellar or pair blissfully with wild boar sausage or grilled flank steak with sautéed mushrooms. Available in Ontario.
Quails' Gate Pinot Noir 2010 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $24.99 in B.C.
A B.C. leader in pinot noir, Quails' Gate does a splendid job here. It's medium-bodied, with sweet, jammy berries in the foreground, joined by tobacco, cinnamon, dark chocolate, a hint of charred wood and good snugness from fine-grained tannins. Try it with grilled salmon or pork tenderloin. ($25.99 in Sask., soon to be released for $22.99 in Man., various prices in Alta.)
Reif Estate Meritage 2010 (Niagara)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $26.95
Niagara's outstanding 2010 growing season was a special gift to late-ripening Bordeaux varieties, notably cabernet sauvignon. You can taste the sunny weather in this Bordeauxstyle blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc. Full-bodied, with plum, black currant and vanilla, it's smooth in the middle and framed by herbs and slightly sticky tannins. Think of California merlot crossed with Loire Valley cab franc. Try it with steak. Available directly from the winery, www.reifwinery.com.
Blason Casa in Bruma No. 23 Friulano 2010 (Italy)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $14.95
There ought to be more friulano in our market. The lean white grape from northern Italy offers up an invigorating tingle, yet it's usually more complex and intellectually scintillating than popular pinot grigio. Here it delivers notes of crisp apple, citrus and blossoms, with good concentration on a light frame. Suitable for simply prepared fish or roast chicken. Available in Ontario.
Château Beauséjour Fronsac 2009 (France)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $14.95
A bargain Bordeaux red, it's made from merlot and cabernet franc, with ripe dark berry supported by earth, charred wood and spice. Very dry, with solid acid grip. Food match: roast beef. Available in Ontario.
Tyrrell's Brookdale Semillon 2001 (Australia)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $19.95
Hunter Valley semillon, one of Australia's underrated wines, tends to be refreshingly low in alcohol. This one's 11 per cent, and it shows in the lean body.
Fresh melon harmonizes with tangy lemon in this ideal white for grilled shellfish.
Mission Hill Reserve Shiraz 2009 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $23.95
Full-bodied and tough for a shiraz, with tight tannins and notes of woodlot and earth elbowing out the blackberries for attention. It could use three years in the cellar but would be nice now with braised red meats. Decant if possible. ($22.99 in B.C., $24.99 in Sask., $22.99 in Man.)