The Big Bs of wine
Invited to lunch with Gaia Gaja, the comely and accomplished daughter of Italy’s groundbreaking winemaker Angelo Gaja, I was hoping to drink one of the winery’s famous Barbarescos. In retrospect, it was foolish to expect to be served a So
ri Tildin or a Sori San Lorenzo, single-vineyard products that have established the Gaja name all over the world. These are staggeringly expensive.
We did the next best thing. Have many agreeable sips from a bottle of a very elegant red, with equal proportions of Nebbiolo (the celebrity grape of Piedmont), Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
No one has done more than Angelo Gaja to spread the word about the quality of Barbaresco. His campaign to promote wines from what was a sleepy region in Piedmont achieved two things.
It promoted the grape varietal used in Barbarescos — the noble Nebbiolo.
And it spread awareness about another wine from the same region in the Langhe hills of south-eastern Piedmont — the Barolo.
Barolos and Barbarescos — two Big Bs of Italian wines — are big, forceful, compelling reds. Masculine is a term often associated with them and food pairings inevitably suggest heavy red meats, but there is a calm and unruffled undertone to them.
In an earlier column, I suggested they evoked a handsome middle-aged pinstripe-suited banker, someone you could reliably trust your money with.
If these wines were dogs, there surely would be Mastiffs — gentle giants that are docile but also capable of great courage.
New wine-making technology has played a big role in contributing to the popularity of the wines.
Up to a couple of decades ago, Barolos and Barbarescos needed to be aged for at least over ten years to rid them of their heavy tannins. Anything less risked extreme astringency, the feeling that moisture is being sucked out the mouth, and of course uncertainties about when and how quickly the tannins would mellow posed a lot of challenges.
Today, quicker and more stable fermentation techniques have reduced the severity of the tannins and contributed to the making of wines that need to be aged for much shorter periods. You need to barrel for three years to earn the tag Barolo, two for Barbaresco.
Both wines are made from 100 per cent Nebbiolo and both originate from pretty much the same area of Italy.
But Barolos are regarded as more robust and brooding while Barbarescos are laced with a touch of femininity, which (at best) lends a touch of desirable grace and (at worst) takes away something from a certain robust wholeness.
I ask Gaia, which B she prefers — a difficult question for someone who comes from a winery that is more famous for its Barbaresco but from a region that has made Barolo a household name (in wine-drinking households anyway).
I receive an ambiguous answer about how different wines appeal during different moods and how there is no such thing as one wine for all occasions.
It isn’t surprising at all coming from someone from a family that makes both and makes them very well.
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