Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Southern Exposure

Rémy Charest, author of The Wine Case, is today’s host for Wine Blogging Wednesday #55. He’s asked participants to consider the question of North vs. South in writing about two wines made from the same grape but hailing from different locations, one more northerly than the other. You get the idea…. I decided to take a slightly different approach.

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Have you ever found yourself enticed by the idea of a “bargain” Barolo? (Yes, I’m writing about Piedmont again, just like for last month's WBW.) Ever wondered what the difference is between those two theoretically regal Piedmontese reds sitting next to each other on the shelf, one priced around $30 and the other over $50? If you have, then you know there is a wealth of possible answers. One of the most meaningful, though, happens to be one that I’m guessing might not come immediately to mind: exposure. Not brand exposure, mind you, but vineyard exposure – the position of a site on a hillside and its correlating exposure to the sun’s rays.

You see, Nebbiolo, the noble grape from which Barolo must be produced, is notoriously difficult to grow. Nebbiolo is a very geologically demanding vine, performing best in soils of calcareous marl like that found in Barolo and Barbaresco. It’s also a late ripening variety, requiring a long growing season and plenty of sunlight to achieve full, natural ripeness. In a region as northerly and cool as Piemonte, that means exposure is key to success. Without a south or southwest facing vineyard, it’s all but impossible in typical vintages for Nebbiolo to attain the ripeness necessary for the production of natural, expressive Barolo. It’s no coincidence that the most privileged vineyard sites throughout the communes of Barolo are highly sought after, the land highly expensive.

Sergio Germano, standing atop the hill above his portion of the Cerretta cru in Serralunga d'Alba. It's mid-February and there's nary a trace of snow below, while the vines opposite his hillside are still blanketed with white.

Stand atop any of those south facing, vineyard dominated slopes and look across the valley to the opposite facing hillsides. You’ll almost always see more vineyards. And in many cases, those sites also fall within the geographical boundaries that allow them to produce wines called Barolo. The land on those northerly facing slopes will be less expensive, and all too often owned by less than completely conscientious growers. The fruit on those vines, if they are Nebbiolo targeted for the production of Barolo, is unlikely to ever achieve the levels of ripeness necessary for the natural production of Barolo.

That doesn’t preclude the wines made from those sites from being called Barolo. But it does greatly increase the likelihood that those wines are being made in the winery more than grown in the vineyard, achieving their expected impressive stature more through manipulation than natural fruit maturation.

Just something to think about the next time you find yourself pondering that 91 point, $27 Barolo. How do you feel about risk exposure?

A similar view, pictured on the same day, this time in Monforte d'Alba. In the foreground is Elio Grasso's plot of Ginestra "Casa Maté," fully melted; across the valley, snow covered vineyards owned by other Barolo growers.


Do Bianchi said...

awesome post, man... and the last image and caption are the reason why I keep on trekking down McDuff's Food and Wine Trail... truly great stuff... when you talk to the old grape growers there, they all tell you the same thing: too many have ripped out Dolcetto and Barbera to grow Nebbiolo where it should be planted... same thing in Montalcino, btw... great post...

Wicker Parker said...

Great post, and the pictures illustrate it perfectly.

Some years ago I was taken in by a review of that $27, 91 point Barolo you're probably thinking of. Turned out to be roadkill and not at all worth the price -- yet another reason I now read blogs and not that magazine.

The Wine Whore said...

Great point! I think a lot of overlook (no pun intended) factors like exposure when considering wine.

David McDuff said...

Thanks, all.

I heard the same thing from just about everyone we visited on that trip to Piemonte, Jeremy. And I know you meant to say, "...where it shouldn't be planted." In fact, you bring up a good point, one I may have managed to squeeze in if I weren't aiming for brevity (for a change).

It's not necessarily unconscientious to grow vines on those less than ideally exposed slopes. Dolcetto, in particular, has a decent chance of doing well on them as long as the soil type is correct. It's planting Nebbiolo, knowing that it can and will sell for more but will never reach its full potential, that is the sticking point.

Glad you dug the photos, WP. It's defintely a plus to be able to back up words with meaningful (and personal) images.

And WW,
I don't think consumers are generally at fault for overlooking exposure. It's a piece of information that's rarely available or apparent at the shopping source. Without doing a substantial amount of advance research (or visiting the vineyard), it's yet another good reason to rely on a trusted shop rat (or blogger!) rather than a shelf talker or major magazine.

dhonig said...

Fantastic post. I re-blogged it and linked it over at 2 Days per Bottle, and I don't think I've ever done that before.

David McDuff said...

Thanks much, Mr. Honig. Your gesture and kind words are both much appreciated.

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