Whereas in most of Europe it would be a sin to serve a glass of wine without something to eat, many North Americans still enjoy their wine without any culinary accompaniment. While there is nothing wrong with sipping on a glass of wine on its own, there are those wines in the world that truly require food to show their fullest potential. Barolo is just such a wine.
To new wine lover’s or those who have not yet been acquainted with it, their first sip of Barolo may be an alarming experience. Barolo is a small region in the Piemonte region of North-West Italy made exclusively from the Nebbiolo grape and it is one of the worlds greatest wines. Prized for its ability to age (and often priced accordingly), in its youth Barolo can be unforgiving. The tannic nature of a young Barolo can leave you feeling like you’ve received a Chuck Norris spinning roundhouse kick to the teeth. The main cure for this calamity is time. Although Barolo must by law already have a minimum of four years of age before it hits the shelf, the general rule of thumb is that you should wait a minimum of ten years from the vintage to drink a good quality example (although improved technology and winemaking are producing Barolo’s that can be enjoyed much younger). I know you may not get it. Why would anyone want a wine that is simply painful to drink young or that requires a full decade’s worth of patience before drinking? Sometimes you need to go straight to the source to find out.
The hills of Langhe (of which Barolo is a part) may well be one of the most beautiful places on earth. The majestic Alps serve as a stunning backdrop as winding roads snake their way through hillside vineyards and sleepy towns displaying beautiful Roman architecture. Along with its reputation for world-class wine this area is also revered for its culinary delights. Piemonte is the source of the rare and prized white truffles which are harvested each fall and promptly shipped to the those restaurants and consumers lucky enough to receive them (and to afford them). This area also claims to have started the slow food movement and the people are fiercely passionate about using local ingredients and maintaining their culinary tradition.
Although I had been fortunate enough to taste some beautiful aged Barolo’s prior to my trip, it wasn’t until I sat down for lunch in a small trattoria in the tiny town of Barolo, accompanied by my brother Cody, that things really clicked. We were greeted by our dark-haired, olive-skinned server (did I mention I love Italy?) and after sheepishly stumbling through the language barrier we managed to place our order. I wasn’t really sure what I had ordered but was told the appetizer was a prized local specialty. As my first course arrived I realized I had come face to face with a vegetarians worst nightmare. The dish consisted of a generous helping of raw ground veal, garnished only with a dash of olive oil, salt and pepper and a lemon wedge. This was Veal Tartare on steroids and I have to admit it was delicious. It was also at this moment that it clicked. Cuisine this simple and rugged requires a wine with enough power to match its bold character, yet with enough finesse that the subtle nuances of the dish are not lost. Where a young Barolo may seem too tannic to enjoy on its own, when married with a dish such as the Veal Tartare the tannins are diminished and the complex fruit, floral and earthy components of the wine sing through.
The theme of raw veal and generally rustic cuisine persisted through the rest of our trip, as did the theme of amazing wine. It is truly refreshing to find a place with such a fierce sense of identity and passion for tradition. The wines of Piemonte are some of my favourite in the world and although Barolo may reign as king this area produces a wide range of amazing wines from interesting grape varieties. Try the red wines made from the Barbera and Dolcetto grapes if you’re looking to experience Piemonte without the price tag of Barolo. Although they can be hard to find there are also some excellent white wines made from local varietals such as Arneis and Cortese.
So the next time you’re faced with an “old-school” wine that may not make sense, remember to give it a chance with an appropriate culinary pairing before you pass final judgement. And the next time you’ve got a plate of raw veal in front of you, do yourself a favour and grab a bottle of Barolo!