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King of Wines

March 13, 2010

Thursday’s fog was so thick and visibility so poor that we weren’t quite sure where our evening’s drive would take us, so we began to fantasize. Would we wind up in a different era? A different country?

We wound up in Prairie du Sac, which is where we were headed in the first place for the latest in the ongoing series of monthly wine tastings hosted by Culver’s Blue Spoon Café. Thursday’s event promised us wines from Piemonte, one of northern Italy’s most notable wine regions.

“I am going to introduce you to the king of wines and the wine of kings,” said Stephanie, our wine hostess. Was she talking about Mike Boss, the Blue Spoon’s director of operations and planner of nearly a decade’s worth of such events? No, Stephanie was referring to Barolo, one of Piemonte’s best known wines and one of many wines to claim the lofty sobriquet. Apparently, our personal fog hadn’t yet lifted.

With our tablemates Dorothy and Mary – two lovely locals who proved to be delightful wine companions – we set out on our ten-bottle journey through Piemonte and the vineyards of Paolo Scavino. The wine estate, established by Paolo Scavino in Piemonte’s Langhe region in 1921, was now operated by Paolo’s son Enrico and granddaughters Enrica and Elisa. We would try the family’s wines made from the sweet Dolcetto, vibrant Barbera and noble Nebbiolo grapes. It was a journey we were looking forward to.

(Note: The prices listed from here on out reflect a discount for wine tasting participants, but they will give you some idea of the wine’s relative cost.)

Before arriving at Paolo Scavino, however, we had to temper our palates. We sipped a sample of Menabrea birra, a lightly refreshing, slightly malty beer produced in the region and winner of several World Beer Championship awards. From there we segued into a Moscato D’Asti from the Tre Donne estate ($16), a light, low-alcohol sweet wine with nice fruit and flower characteristics. Moscato is not normally our cup of…er, tea, but this was far more palatable than most.

Langhe, the hilly region south and west of the Tanaro River and home to Paolo Scavino, is best known for wines, cheeses and, especially, white truffles. The Blue Spoon had cheese and crackers on hand (no truffles, unfortunately) and an ample supply of the vineyard’s better bottles.

The 2008 Scavino Langhe Bianco DOC* ($15), a blend of 70 percent Sauvignon Blanc and 30 percent Chardonnay, was a bright, fragrant wine, its acidity balanced by the Chard’s strong fruit flavors. With more character than the average table white, the Bianco started us off on the right note.  The 2008 Scavino Rosso Vino da Tavola ($14), Bianco’s red counterpart, was a little more complex with its blend of Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. The Dolcetto has a particularly strong fruit presence – some may mistakenly label it “sweet” – which is this wine’s overriding characateristic. The balance of the blend, one of which was aged in oak, provides enough strength and character to make the wine successful.

Dolcetto came back in the 2008 Scavino Dolcetto d’Alba DOC ($16.50). The dry, earthy wine did better by its namesake grape, which still offered the same rich fruitiness, but in a more controlled fashion. It’s sister wine, the 2008 Scavino Barbera d’Alba DOC ($23), carried itself more regally, with bright fruit and low tannins that led to a velvety mouthfeel and clean finish.

Then it was on to the unblended Nebbiolos, the enological stars of the evening. The name of the grape, indigenous to Piemonte, is thought to have derived from the Piemonte word nebbia, or “fog,” in recognition of the dense fog that often descends on the vineyards during the October harvest. It also may have derived from the Italian word nobile, which means “noble” and befits the wine that often results. In either case, it’s a wine grape to be reckoned with.

The 2007 Langhe Nebbiolo DOC ($31.50) was dry, almost astringent on the palate, with a curious blend of berry notes, citrus tones and tobacco, which added an unusual counterpoint to the expected fruit. The wine delivered its palatable complexity with admirable style and a fine finish. The 2005 Colle di Venti Barbaresco DOCG ($26), from a neighboring estate and also produced from Nebbiolo, occupied much the same space, but its few extra years of aging softened its flavor profile resulting in an unusual essence of rose petals.

The 2005 Scavino Barolo DOCG ($47.50) proved to be the table’s favorite for the evening, even though it was not the most expensive wine we sampled. The wine capitalized on Nebbiolo’s best characteristics, producing a wine of significant sophistication with bright berry note and a rich fruit presence. The Barolo, delightfully approachable, was very dry, yet not astringent, leaving a palate poised to savor the fruit’s best characteristics.

The snob in me would like to say that the 2005 Scavino Barolo Carobic DOCG ($79) was better still, characterized by an evident strength, yet still supple and subtle. The wine wore its refinement proudly and deservedly. Although inviting, it did not seem as approachable as the Barolo that had preceded it. While the four of us well appreciated its artistry, we chose to spend the rest of our evening with the less expensive of the two bottles. Our previous fog had lifted, and delightfully so.

*DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, a classification that means the wine has been produced in specifically designated regions according to specific rules and using traditional winemaking practices. DOCG – Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita – is a similar classification, but with more stringent requirements, including the need for the wine to be approved by a formal tasting panel before ever being allowed to be bottled.

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