- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Turin, the 2006 Winter Olympics host city, lies between mountains and vines. The Alps half-circle it to the north and west; vineyards lie to the south and east.

Turin is the capital of Piedmont, and this region’s wines — its light, perfumed whites, grapey spumantes and, most of all, its pungent reds — rank among Italy’s finest. The upcoming month of Olympics frenzy is a fine time to get to know them.

Start your evening of viewing winter sports with fizz. Asti, or Asti Spumante, is made from moscato grapes. A floral, peachy, unabashedly sweet wine, it has crisp acidity to balance all its sugar. With a low level of alcohol (about 8 percent), good Asti tastes fresh and lively and never costs all that much (around $10 to $15 a bottle). Reliable producers include Fontanafredda and Martini & Rossi.

Brachetto d’Acqui is another Piedmontese bubbly. Also fruity and floral, with plenty of sugar, it’s the rare sparkling wine of a different color — cherry red.

Like Asti, it has plenty of acidity and maintains balance and harmony. Banfi’s “Rosa Regale” (about $21) is consistently good and would be a delicious Valentine’s Day choice.

Vintners in Piedmont make a fair share of white wine, but just two types are exported in any volume to these shores. Arneis, particularly from the Roero region near Alba, is made from local grapes of the same name. Dry, with a stone-fruit character and a nutty undertone, it often displays a racy, springlike perfume. Ceretto makes a tasty one called “Blange” that sells for about $20.

The other important Piedmontese white is Gavi. Made from the cortese grape, Gavi can range from simple and crisp to subtle, nuanced and complex. Because cortese grapes have more acid than sugar, it’s a wine especially worth seeking in warm, ripe vintages such as 2003.

Gavi or Gavi di Gavi (identifying the heart of the region) is one of Italy’s most stylish whites, and prices reflect its popularity. The wines start at about $10 but quickly climb to more than $30. Contratto’s “Le Arnelle” for $25 is an excellent example.

Red wines, however, constitute Piedmont’s true claim to fame. This is a hilly, foggy region with cold winters and hot summers — just what the local red grape varieties like. Three in particular stand out: spicy dolcetto, potentially profound barbera, and the most regal of all, nebbiolo.

Though grown elsewhere, none of these grapes yields wines as good outside of Piedmont. They’re the region’s Olympic medalists.

Dolcetto means “little sweet one” in Italian, but the name is misleading, as the grapes do not have notably high sugar levels, and the wines taste dry. When compared to the two other noble Piedmontese varietals, however, dolcetto does tend to be little. The wines have relatively soft tannins and unobtrusive acidity. Most are best drunk young — within three or four years of the vintage.

Because dolcetto ripens earlier than barbera and nebbiolo, vintners tend to plant it in cool, marginal sites. As a result, quality can be dependent on the vagaries of the vintage. Luckily, 2003 and 2004 were good years — the former atypically hot (so some wines do taste raisined), the latter more classic. Though the occasional exception exists, dolcetto from 2002 is best avoided.

Dolcetto grows in many zones or appellations in Piedmont, but the wines from Alba, which are the easiest to find in the United States, tend to be among the best. Good examples taste of cherries, with a dusty, slightly bitter edge in the finish. Though relatively light-bodied, they offer full flavor. My favorite producers include Elio Altare, Conterno-Fantino, Marcarini, and Paolo Scavino. Expect to pay about $20 or so for their wines.

While dolcetto certainly is a common choice in Piedmont, its popularity pales when compared to barbera’s. That grape variety grows in about half of the region’s vineyards, and wines from it are ubiquitous in local restaurants, trattorias and cafes.

The source of plenty of everyday quaffing wine, so something of a workhorse, barbera also can be a thoroughbred. When grown with care and handled conscientiously in the winery, it can yield rich, flavorful wines with multilayered fruit and spice flavors.

As a grape, barbera presents something of a paradox. It has dark skin but little tannin. Wines made from it thus tend to seem zesty rather than firm and supple rather than mouth-drying. Many examples taste simple, with one-dimensional red berry flavors, but the best renditions, many of which are aged in oak barrels, prove sumptuous.

Because of their low tannin level, Piedmontese barberas almost always can be enjoyed young. Top examples, however, age gracefully for many years. Those from the Alba zone tend to be a bit weightier than those from Asti, but no matter the appellation, the great charm of these wines comes in their spicy vibrancy.

Prices for barbera vary considerably, with the very best oak-aged wines fetching $50 or more a bottle. You don’t need to pay that much, though.

Two delicious barbera d’Albas, Lodali “Bric Sant’Ambrogio” and Salvano, cost less than $15. Elio Altare’s barbera d’Alba and Contratto’s “Panta Rei” barbera d’Asti are both more complex, and they come in at less than $30. So even though prices have climbed somewhat recently, good Piedmontese barbera remains something of a bargain.

While dolcettos and barberas can be drunk young, the finest wines made from nebbiolo, Piedmont’s gold-medal grape, require time in bottle to show their best. Especially when coming from Barolo and Barbaresco, nebbiolo-based wines rank among the world’s very finest. They display an exotic, evocative bouquet, red and black fruit, and a rich medley of secondary flavors — notes reminiscent of leather, dried herbs, tar, black licorice and more.

Besides needing cellaring, however, Barolo and Barbaresco invariably are expensive. Prices begin around $30 and climb quickly over the $100 mark. The elite single vineyard offerings from producers such as Ceretto, Gaja, Giacosa, Scavino and Vietti (to name a handful of personal favorites) rank among the greatest red wines in the world. However, their cost, coupled with their inaccessibility when young, might not make them the best choices for drinking while watching the Olympics.

Happily, you can find some less expensive, more approachable wines made from nebbiolo that will provide tasty drinking this month. Those from vineyards near Barolo and Barberesco are labeled as nebbiolo d’Alba. Pio Cesare, Poderi Colla and Bruno Franco all make tasty ones for less than $30.

Another option is to look elsewhere in Piedmont — specifically, to the far north of the region, in the Alpine foothills and the Gattinara zone. The best wines made there display the same sort of haunting perfume as good Barolo or Barbaresco, but they have lighter tannins so they seem more approachable when young. Not that many people know about them, so they almost always offer good value.

Look especially for Gattinara from Nervi and Travaglini. While these producers’ reservas and single-vineyard offerings can get close to $50, their “regular” wines cost less than $30 — and there’s nothing regular about how they taste. A glass or two with pasta or osso buco while watching figure-skating promises to be just about perfect on a cold February evening.

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