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Zig When They Zag: Nebbiolo and Arneis from Roero
By Michael Franz
Mar 23, 2021
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Everybody who knows anything about investing knows to run contrary to the crowd:  Sell when everybody else is buying and buy when they are selling.  This holds equally true for wine.  Chasing nothing but the hottest producers from the best vintages only makes sense if you’re a Trust Fund Baby.  For the rest of us who aren’t oozing money but who want to drink really good wine often—not just on special occasions—it is really important to learn about regions that are over-performing in relation to their current reputation and consumer demand.  Few regions in the world fit that description as well as Roero, where producers are making excellent reds from Nebbiolo and whites from Arneis within sight of both Barolo and Barbaresco, but at much lower prices.

I’ve been tasting these wines by the dozens for more than a decade with great admiration in Italy.  That has usually been followed by disappointment when returning to the USA, where I often struggle to find even 15% of the better wines offered for sale.  I know exactly why this is true, even though it seems that availability should rise in keeping with quality and value.  

Here’s the sad story:  Barolo and Barbaresco are so famous—and have had such a superb run of vintages since 2006—that ever more wine aficionados are learning about them and buying them as top wines from Burgundy and Bordeaux become too expensive.  Barolo and Barbaresco prices are creeping up too, especially for great vintages like 2016, but what’s also happening is that the names of rapidly improving producers are becoming much more widely known in the USA.  So, when consumers make purchases, wines from Roero are not only overshadowed by those from the neighboring regions, but also by Barbera and Dolcetto wines released by increasingly well-known producers based in Barolo and Barbaresco.  Importers and distributors who are impressed with Roero wines get frustrated when they don’t sell, and either drop them from their portfolios or shift their efforts to promoting other wines that move more quickly.

The sad result of this sad story is that the wines of Roero have enjoyed almost no improvement in their commercial profile in the USA over the past decade even as they hold quite steady in price while improving in quality.

That, my friends, is crazy, and rather than staying sad, I’m getting mad—and writing about the wines despite the difficulty of finding them for sale in the USA.  Now that it has become possible for most consumers to buy wines from retailers across the USA and have them shipped, we’re no longer captive audiences within our particular municipalities.  And now that websites like winesearcher.com have made it much easier to find retailers who are stocking wines of merit that are shunned by less adventuresome stores, savvy consumers can actually get results when running contrary to the crowd in search of quality and value.

On the red side of Roero, the Nebbiolo-based wines from good producers are often priced at roughly the same level as Langhe Nebbiolo or Nebbiolo d’Alba wines from producers based in Barolo and Barbaresco but are routinely higher in quality.  That should get your attention, but so too should this:  The best producers in Roero frequently outperform wines from both Barolo and Barbaresco when value is taken into consideration, and sometimes when value is disregarded in favor of straight-up comparison on quality.  Riserva renditions are often especially good, and higher percentage or producers in Roero make Riserva wines with extra aging than their counterparts in either Barolo or Barbaresco.  This is almost certainly because Roero producers are still straining to get consumers to try their wines and judge them on their merits, and seeing “Riserva” on a label enhances the odds that a shopper will take a chance when seeing a bottle in a store.

On the white side, Roero Arneis is one of the most delicious and versatile wines made anywhere in Italy, yet even the best can often be purchased for less than $25 (and some excellent examples for under $20).  In style, they are akin to very fine renditions of Albariño from Spain in several respects:  They’re usually medium-bodied or even a bit richer, but have excellent acidity to achieve balance enabling them to excel as sipping wines but also pair up beautifully at the table with a very wide range of dishes.  They’re also very faintly floral but never “perfume-y,” and often benefit from a few years of bottle age after initial release, again like top Albariño bottlings in both of those respects.

As you’d guess from what you’ve already read above, I fully intend to write again soon about Roero wines, so I’ll leave coverage of history and growing conditions for the next round, along with special emphasis on topography.  For now, let’s go straight to some wines worth a search:

Nebbiolo-based Roero DOCG and Roero Riserva DOCG:

Emanuele Rolfo, Roero DOCG Riserva (Piedmont, Italy) 2015 ($26):  This impressive wine shows the best characteristics of the 2015 vintage, leaning a bit more toward the style that many wines from Barbaresco displayed in this relatively warm year, though a few Barolo bottlings from that blessed vintage also show the same graceful, silky but sneaky powerful character that is the highlight here.  It shows plenty of Nebbiolo structure, but this offers such lovely, judiciously ripened fruit that the acidity and tannins just seem enveloped in dark cherry fruit.  There is noticeably more heft to this than you will find in the Roero Riserva wines from either 2014 or 2016, but the wine is not “hefty,” but rather just a bit more “meaty” in flavor and texture than the comparable wines from the vintages that sandwich this one.  For the longer-aged Riserva regimen, this riper style from 2015 works brilliantly, and I was very impressed to find that this wine was not remotely degraded by a full 24 hours between my initial tasting and a follow-up look.  Spicy, slightly savory and leathery, but still featuring sweet primary fruit flavors, this is looking extremely sturdy for now, and poised for significant improvement in the years ahead.  94

Antica Cascina dei Conti di Roero, Roero DOCG Riserva (Piedmont, Italy) Vigna Sant’Anna 2016 ($28):  I almost never see a bottle of this producer’s wines in the USA (importers please take note), but I’ve been fortunate to taste some really delicious ones during my annual tasting trip to Alba.  Yet, this Riserva release from the fabulous 2016 vintage is surely the best bottle every from this house on account of its wonderful sophistication and elegance.  The weather conditions in the Langhe (also home to Barolo and Barbaresco, no less) were essentially perfect during 2016, especially late in the growing season, when the weather was so even and un-threatening that producers could basically pick whenever they wished – to make wine styled however the wished.  This is on the light side of average for Riserva bottlings, but very expressive aromatically and in terms of flavor, with aromas of violets and spices leading to flavors recalling dried red and black cherries that are enlivened by fresh acidity and ultra-fine-grained tannins.  Once fully opened after aeration for a couple of hours, this shows a balance of structural elements (fruity, wood, acidity and tannin) that is virtually perfect, and after four hours the wine was amazingly integrated in light of its relative youth.  The tannins were virtually “invisible” in sensory terms, yet still supporting the wines fruit, which became ever more vivid, with a streak of fruity sweetness that marks great renditions of Nebbiolo, and enables them to stay delectable for years as they develop savory notes from time in bottle.  After giving this a thorough examination over a long evening, I tried in vain to buy it.  But I’ll keep trying.  94

Daniele Pelassa, Roero DOCG Riserva (Piedmont, Italy) "Antaniolo Pelassa" 2016 ($32):  Daniele Pelassa made a sleek, stylish 2016 Roero Riserva, taking full advantage of a growing season the likes of which we may not see again soon.  Although I stand by my initial descriptors, this packs some punch to underlie its stylish profile, with expressive fruit showing red cherry and berry notes with a fresh — not dried — character.  There is a lot of tannin in the finish, but so fine in grain that it doesn’t foreclose the fruit at all, nor make the wine seem anything less than silky until the very end of the finish, when a touch of astringent grip sets in.  This is hardly a flaw, and Nebbiolo without some grip would be weird, like a hairless cat.  If anything is weird about this, it is that the wine can serve so well as a sipping wine, thanks to those fine-as-dust tannins.  Panning out for a last observation, with prices for Langhe Nebbiolo and Nebbiolo d’Alba now routinely hitting or exceeding the $25 mark, Roero and Roero Riserva are starting to look like bargains, because they are.  Their only disadvantage is that their competitors in this price range have better name recognition because the producers also make Barolo and Barbaresco.  However, the smart money should be turning toward Roero for wines around or under $35.  93

Malabaila, Roero DOCG (Piedmont, Italy) Bric Volta 2018 ($22):  According to the front label, this producer has been at it since 1362, which — in case you weren’t keeping count — is well before either France or Spain existed as we know them, and 130 years before Columbus’ voyage.  All you’d need to see to make this “compute” is to see the beautiful steep slopes of the hills in Roero to see why vines have been cultivated in Roero for so long (difficult as that is, due to their often very sharp verticality).  Some informed observers believe that the sheer severity of Roero’s hillside vineyards places then at a disadvantage relative to neighboring Barolo and Barbaresco, but that is as yet unproven, even after all these centuries.  The key question here is:  Is Barolo in the lead followed in order by Barbaresco and Roero in that order because that’s the pecking order for quality of growing conditions, or is this a “nothing succeeds like success” situation, with Barolo benefiting from more fame resulting in higher selling prices that translate into more investment capital for better winemaking talent, lower yields, better barrels, etc.  This is a very “live” debate regarding the relative merits and commercial standing of Barolo and Barbaresco, but Roero belongs in the same conversation — for the same reason, and based on the same rogue variable in the equation.  Moving to this wine, it shows appropriately tight aromas and flavors for Nebbiolo when initially uncorked, but responds quickly to aeration.  As it opens, it shows moderately ripe aromas of red cherries with light floral and spice topnotes, with very fine tannins and extremely well integrated wood notes offering a bit of firming without any astringency or abbreviation of the finish.  Silky in feel but not formless, with some emerging leathery notes foreshadowing the savory scents and flavors that will soon make this a complete wine, this is a thoroughbred that will hit its stride in another year or two.  92

Matteo Correggia, Roero DOCG (Piedmont, Italy) “La Val dei Preti” 2016 ($40):  I hate to throw cold water on this prospect from the outset, but only 767 cases of this were made, so you might not want to get overheated about the prospect of finding this (retailers in Texas and Colorado have the wine in this vintage).  Still, at an absolute minimum, this wine shows how interesting Nebbiolo from Roero can be.  It displays a “dusty” quality both aromatically and in terms of super-fine tannin feel that I associate with nothing but Sangiovese from the heart of the Chianti Classico district, but here it is, quite unmistakably (and un-mistakenly, I might add, as I had just washed and dried the high-end glass an hour before, so no cabinet funk explanation for this).  These are different phenomena that make sense under the same term, as Tuscans will tell you – but let’s get back to Piedmont.  With medium-plus palate weight and a lovely layer of fruit sweetness running through the persistent finish, this is a charmer but also a serious wine that has years of positive development ahead of it.  There’s rather low acidity from a great vintage that generally provided a lot of it, but there’s nothing remotely ponderous or over-ripe about this, and it will surely benefit from at least another five years of aging.  92

Roero Arneis DOCG:

Nino Costa, Roero Arneis DOCG (Langhe, Piedmont, Italy) 2019 ($20):  This is gorgeous young Arneis that shows subtle but still notable aromatics recalling fresh stone fruits like nectarines.  It really comes into its own on the palate, displaying excellent richness and textural breadth, with deep flavors recalling white peaches and baked apples.  The fruit was ripened beautifully, leaving an impression of sweetness but not one of residual sugar, as the sweetness seems directly tied to the fruit flavors.  Also indicative of judicious harvesting is the acidity, which really freshens and lengthens this borderline opulent wine, preventing it from seeming too thick or ponderous.  Generous and stylish at once, this is a textbook rendition of a wine category that is definitely on the rise.  93

Carlo Chiesa, Roero DOCG (Piedmont, Italy) Arneis "Quin" 2018 ($26):  This is a rich, flavorful rendition of Roero Arneis that could serve very well as an introduction to the breed or a new option for those who already love it.  The wine shows good density that even seems just a bit oily in texture, but there’s still plenty of acidity running through the mid-palate and finish to keep this from seeming heavy.  The aromas show scents of green melon and stone fruits as well as a pleasant aroma reminiscent of straw, and the same fruit notes echo on the palate, but joined by a suggestion of ripe fig and a slightly bitter citrus pith undertone in the finish.  This is quite enjoyable as a sipping wine, but its heft and authoritative flavors make it a great choice for the dinner table — hopefully one graced by something along the lines of scallops or swordfish.  92

Filippo Gallino, Roero DOCG (Piedmont, Italy) Arneis "4 Luglio" 2018 ($19):  This fine rendition of the Arneis variety shows nice richness but is still fresh, which is impressive at 2.5 years since the grapes were picked.  The predominant notes are stone fruit-based, recalling peaches and apricots.  There is still plenty of acidity in this to enable it to display good length on the palate and provide a lesson in how stable Arneis from Roero can be, not only holding nicely, even improving over several years from when first released.  92

Fratelli Povero, Roero DOCG (Piedmont, Italy) Arneis 2020 ($16):  This very young release from the 2020 vintage is already showing beautifully, and though it may get a bit better in the months ahead (maybe longer), you’ll have a hard time keeping your mitts off it if you are lucky enough to taste it now.  The aromas are a bit less expressive than the flavors, but they still show nicely restrained floral hints as well as note of fresh nectarines.  The wine really comes into its own on the palate, with fully medium body or even a bit more weight than that, with excellent purity of fruit and integration of acidity.  Juicy flavors of ripe peaches are completely winning, and they prove very persistent, with the acidity hanging in with the primary fruit sweetness in basically perfect balance all along the way.  The roundness and juiciness of the fruit is a bit reminiscent of fine Condrieu, with the key difference being that this is less overtly floral, though that would be an advantage for this with many experienced tasters, who can’t cozy up to a 2nd or 3rd glass of a wine that’s overtly perfumed.  This is not yet all that complex, but it damned sure is delicious.  92

Cantina Tibaldi, Roero DOCG (Piedmont, Italy) Arneis Bricco delle Passere 2018 ($20):  Don’t let the playful label fool you — this is serious wine.  That doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with it, or just drink it unthinkingly, but it is drinking beautifully now, 2.5 years after the grapes were picked, which shows that Arneis need not be purchased from the most recent vintage to be at its best.  Aromas of acacia blossoms and freshly sliced nectarines get this off to a great start, followed by flavors recalling stone fruits with lift from acidity that fresh but not overly tart.  Medium bodied and fleshy on the palate, but with good “cut” and definition, this is delightful to sip, but also sufficiently weighty and serious (there’s that word again) to work with all sorts of fin fish dishes or even a roast chicken.  92

Monchiero Carbone, Roero Arneis DOCG (Langhe, Piedmont, Italy) “Cecu” 2019 ($23):  This is not the flashiest rendition of Roero Arneis I’ve ever tasted, as it is a bit closed when first opened, but it may be one of the more long lived, as it was notably more expressive after spending 24 hours without a cork in my refrigerator after an initial tasting.  When re-visited, it shows lovely aromas recalling wild honey, yellow melon and golden apples, as well as some stone fruit notes.  Medium-bodied, it has just enough acidity to keep it fresh, but still presents a broad, soft impression on the palate, and will surely prove extremely versatile at the table.  With that noted, it is very pleasant as a stand-alone sipper.  I look forward to tasting this again from an unopened bottle that has rested for a bit longer after the vintage.  91

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