What do Barolo, Barbaresco, Bramatera, Carema, Caramino, Fara, Gattinara, Lessona and Sizzano have in common, aside from the fact that they are the names of northern Italian villages? They are also wines made from the nebbiolo grape, considered Italy's noblest, and the backbone of wine production in Piedmont. The wines will be revelations to those who have yet to sample them, and they are ridiculously cheap, considering their breed and distinction, when compared with the stars of France and California.
Nebbiolo poses a double problem for the enophile who comes late to the heady bazaar of Italian reds: the variety of styles, names and blends based on the nebbiolo grape can be monumentally confusing, and some of those wines are concentrated and flavorful enough to stagger the unsuspecting palate. As Hugh Johnson writes in the Modern Encyclopedia of Wine, "The inexperienced, the timid and the claret lovers should start with nebbiolo in its less explosive manifestations." All manifestations, if they are well made, have character and individuality, regardless of their weight.
Piedmont, tucked under the Alps, touching France and Switzerland, is the truffle center of Italy. It enjoys cool, humid summers and a recurring autumnal fog (nebbia) from which the grape gets its name. The most famous wine made from it is barolo, big and tannic, usually requiring a decade of age, and a roast as accompaniment. (I first drank barolo in its infancy, with some cheese and no real meal to blunt its power, and woke up the next morning regretting it.) According to the laws of the DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), Italy's regulatory body founded in 1963, barolo must have at least 13 percent alcohol and three years of barrel aging.
To sample barolo now in all its majesty and depth, buy an older one -- from the '71 and '74 vintages. (For cellaring, buy the '78.) A good '74 barolo costs about $12, which may seem expensive until you compare it with a similarly aged bordeaux; barolo has equal class and will nobly match the finest meal. It is best with red meats, particularly wild game, and with the potent cheeses of Piedmont.
The producer you choose is very important, as with all wines. Three good producers of barolo and other nebbiolo wines widely available in Washington are Dosio, Pio Cesare and Prunotto. (Dosio makes a slightly lighter-style barolo; the '79 is already quite approachable.)
Barbaresco, made in the region next door to that of barolo, has similar qualities and perhaps more delicacy. Gaja is the most renowned producer and the most expensive; Ceretto is also a good producer, but hard to find.
Nebbiolo d'Alba is much less demanding than barolo or barbaresco and requires only a few years for a fruity, characterul perfection.
Spanna is another name for wine made from nebbiolo. Most wines called spanna are ordinary table wines, although things being what they are in Italy, quality can go from awful to superb. Gattinara is one style of spanna, full bodied and complex. Good gattinaras are made by Antoniolo and by Travaglini. Another good spanna blend (nebbiolo, vespolina and bonarda grapes) is sizzano.
Lighter versions of the nebbiolo grape include ghemme and carema. Gaja makes a relatively inexpensive, beaujolais-style nebbiolo called Vin like the French version. Even the lightest nebbiolo has taste, and often alcohol, to spare.