Right now is an amazing time to be into wine. Tastes are shifting, small producers are thriving, and it seems like every few days we discover some new gem to share with our fellow Nashvillians. In this case, two stunners from the outposts of the Italian Piedmont.
Typically, when we think of the grape nebbiolo, we think of Barolo and Barbaresco (the jewels in the Piedmont crown). And with good reason. These wines, at their very best, combine power and grace in ways that define the outer limits of what a wine can achieve. But just a little farther north in places like Lessona or Carema, nearer to the alps where tall mountains fall to rugged slopes, where farming requires constant care and tireless labor, nebbiolo sings under another name, its voice just as sweet.
In Carema, nebbiolo (here called picotèner) only ripens to an essential point, and so takes on brighter, higher notes. While in Lessona (where it's called spanna) the slightly longer season creates a nominally broader taste and feel.
Luigi Ferrando is the great representative of Carema. In a land of narrow interests, his wines explicate the full range of possibilities of the local terroir. And when I say local, I mean really local. The entire DOC area is only 40 hectares, about a third of the size of Shelby Park. But while the amount of land planted to vine is a small fraction of that in Barolo, the wines here are every bit as inspiring. Eric Asimov put it well in a recent article in the Times. They aren't the same as Barolo or Barbaresco, but that's beside the point, he says. "They deserve to be considered and evaluated on their own terms." And their terms are phrases like Mama Mia! or Sweet Jesus what did I just taste?
Lessona is half again the size of Carema. Tiny. Massimo Clerico reigns there, creating affordably rich and yet delicately balanced expressions of his village. The Sesia river flows nearby tempering the warmest days and lending a brilliant acidity to the wines. Still not exactly a by-the-pool sipper, but a relaxed version of top nebbiolo nonetheless.
When we talk about wines like Ferrando or Clerico, we're talking about wines that present a fresh (or really old, depending on your vantage) take on a widely known entity. We're talking about new ways of seeing, or feeling. We're talking about surprise.
You can get some low cost Big Bs for around the same price range as these from farther afield. But again, that's not the point. These aren't low cost versions of something else. They are stoically their very own thing. These are for the adventurers, the diggers, those of you who like to follow the trail just to see where it goes. And when the trail leads to places like these, it's a clear reminder why you started out in the first place.
Ferrando Carema DOC ($65)
Clerico Spanna Coste della Sesia DOC ($40)