Recently I had the privilege to attend a special library tasting of Pio Cesare wines. There was a fascinating line-up of excellent Barolo and Barbaresco wines from the current 2006 vintage all the way back to 1990. As I contemplated the wines, several thoughts came to mind. When we hastily pick up a bottle of wine at the store, how often do we contemplate its story? Do we even consider that it might have a story? Pio Cesare wines certainly do. Definitively and distinctively Piedmont, tradition, authenticity and four generations of family are but a few thoughts that came to mind.
In 1881 Pio Cesare founded his eponymous winery in the beautiful historic town of Alba. Four generations later it is in the hands of winemaker Pio Boffi, great-grandson of the founder. Here tradition and vanguard meet to craft wines, which, according to Pio's philosophy, can be appreciated in youth, but can also age for a very long time.
Piedmont, or Piedmonte, as it is locally called, is in northwestern Italy and synonymous with some of Italy's greatest wines, notably Barolo and Barbaresco, made from the 'noble' Nebbiolo grape. Remote, rugged and hauntingly beautiful, Piedmont is surrounded by mountains on three sides — the Alps on the west and north and the Apennines on the south, leaving only the eastern side, toward Lombardy and Milan, with easy entry and exit access.
Authenticity, artisanality, and place are deeply embedded in the wines of Pio Cesare. The family owns about 110 acres of vineyards, which include some of the most famed Barolo and Barbaresco vineyards.
Barolo and Barbaresco
For anyone not familiar with the Nebbiolo grape, it is one of Italy's most noble varieties and considered to reach its apogee in the rolling hills of Alba, in the area of Barolo and Barbaresco. Like Pinot Noir the wines are never very deeply colored, but have much more tannin and acidity. Aromas and flavors range from tar, roses, cherries, damsons, wild plums to leather, truffles, and fried herbs as it ages. The best are pure, fragrant, focused, tightly structured and complex. Often a little austere in youth, they are capable of extraordinary development over time, as the Pio Cesare library tasting strongly highlighted.
Barbera and Dolcetto — A wealth of everyday wines
As you can imagine, Barolo and Barebaresco wines carry a hefty price tag. Duly merited, these are wines to gift, or for a special occasion, when the wine really matters. But for most days of our busy week, we seek wines that require less intellectual involvement. Instead we look for wines to relax casually with family and friends, to go with a bowl of pasta, a simple salad, or to enjoy with pizza. Piedmont also offers plenty of these more everyday wines.
For reds there is a host of wines to choose from, including Barbera, Dolcetto and Grignolino. For whites, there is Gavi, made from the Cortese grape, as well as Arneis, an almost forgotten grape, that is enjoying a strong, duly merited revival.
In general these lighter reds are vibrant and juicy packed with cherry-berry fruit, refreshing and with softer tannins. The whites are deliciously mineral, crisp, and citrussy with delightful savory, spicy notes. Wines to easily embrace and savor without breaking the bank.
Having been treated to Pio Cesare's most noble wines, I tracked down some of their more modestly priced offerings in one of our local wine stores. These exceeded my expectations, providing excellent quality at very affordable prices. And they offer a great introduction to the diverse wines of Piedmont.
Pio Cesare Wines to Try
• 2008 Pio Cesare DOC Cortese di Gavi, $18 – Subtle citrussy nose with hints of toasted nuts. More vinous and richer textured than many Gavi I've tasted in the past. Delicious with savory, earthy minerality. Medium bodied, a perfect fall or winter white.
• 2007 Pio Cesare Arneis, DOC Langhe, $22 – Again, invitingly savory and minerally on the nose. Moderately rich in texture, a very honest, earthy wine. Medium-bodied, creamy, with flavors of dried fine herbs and dried orange and lemon peel. Long savory finish.
• 2008 Pio Cesare, DOC Barbera d'Alba, $22 – Inviting floral, laurel leaf nose with aromas and flavors of red cherry, raspberry and wild blueberry. Refreshing with soft, succulent tannins and delicious juicy finish that begs another sip.
• 2008 Pio Cesare DOC Dolcetto d'Alba, $22 – Brimming with vibrant black cherry-berry fruits, creamy coffee and spice. Lots of juicy flavors with smooth tannins and a lingering earthy finish.
Highlights from the library tasting
While each and every wine tasted had a different story to tell, it would take too much space to discuss them all. Hence I've chosen three of my favorites from the 14 wines tasted. It is all too rare that we have either the occasion or opportunity to taste older vintages, where all the component parts are integrated and in harmony.
• 2001 Pio Cesare DOCG Barolo – Enticing complex nose showing wonderful aroma evolution – savory earthy notes, dried herbs and fruit, leather and very earthy. Still deliciously crisp, firm well-integrated tannins. Very elegant, excellent flavor intensity and persistence across the palate and a long meditative finish.
• 2001 Pio Cesare 'Ornato' DOCG Barolo – Quite a complex, intense layered nose. More densely textured and taut on the palate than the regular 2001. Oozes minerality, depth of flavor and intrigue. A wine with a long future ahead.
• 1998 Pio Cesare DOCG Barolo – Classic older Barolo, showing all the hallmarks of a beautiful evolution. Opulent, perfumed, lots of savory earthy minerality. Seamlessly integrated tannins. A big wine, but graceful and elegant rather than muscular.
While Piedmont is often a daunting wine region for the novice, it offers such a diverse range of wines, for every palate and every budget. Have fun exploring.
Until next week.
Mary Gorman-McAdams, DWS, is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. She holds the Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), and is a candidate in the Master of Wine Program.
(Images: Mary Gorman)