Thu 18 Mar 2010
Last Tuesday — that would be March 9 — our group of bloggers, aka The Barbera 7, along with other journalists and people in the trade, were bussed to the town of Canelli in the Nizza sub-region of Barbera d’Asti winemaking. First there was a presentation about trellis methods and then a discussion that went on too long for people who had been up since 6:30 (me, anyway) and had already been simultaneously tasting and posting to our blogs all morning, and finally we got to sit down to lunch in the charming Ristorante Enoteca Regionale di Canelli, where the chef is Riccardo e Diego Crippa. The multi-course lunch he offered illustrated, generally, all that’s great about how eating gets done in Italy, with simplicity and freshness.
First, to whet our appetites, little dishes of breaded and fried anchovies and green olives, salty, briny and savory. With these nuggets we sipped glasses of Michele Chiarlo’s Pietro Chiarlo Brut Blanc de Blancs, made from 50 percent cortese grapes and 50 percent chardonnay, in the champagne method. This immensely appealing and spicy sparkling wine featured notes of pears and peaches, smoky almond and almond blossom, with hints of quince and ginger and candied lime peel. It made a fine accompaniment to the bracing effect of the anchovies and olives.
Next up, a sort of deconstructed Nicoise salad with tuna and marinated vegetables and fresh herbs served in — your eyes do not deceive you — a plastic globe. Yes, we had to take the top off the contrivance to eat the salad, a device that must had seemed to the kitchen, what?, clever, witty, innovative, who knows? I think I may safely speak for the Barbera 7 when I say that I would have been happy to eschew the Snow-Globe in favor of an honest salad plate. Hence the title of this post, “An Almost Perfect Lunch.” (Actually, though, I suppose this course is a visual pun on the phrase “salad bowl” or maybe “salad bowling.” Would that work in Italian?)
The following course was a beautiful little vegetable terrine with a green pea sauce. The waiters were fairly short on food explanations, and there wasn’t a written menu, so I can’t tell you what vegetables went into the terrine, but the dish was lovely: mildly flavored, slightly earthy, fresh and remarkably Spring-like on a day when it began to snow at about 3 in the afternoon and didn’t stop for 24 hours. This was a warm terrine, by the way; notice that the top is crusty from the broiler, a nice touch.
A triumph of the Italian sensibility — nothing fancy, nothing wasted — the next course brought a plate with about 10 small ravioli stuffed with (probably) veal and a touch of (perhaps) ricotta or some other soft, slightly tangy cheese. That was it, and you could not have asked for anything more satisfying or complete. Well, a scant sprinkling of Parmesan was helpful in this spare landscape.
Naturally we indulged in a cheese course, and if I had been industrious, I would have tracked down a waiter or manager and recorded the name of all four cheeses and spelled them correctly, but lunches like these tend to go on for about two hours, and by this time my primary consideration was a nap. Suffice to say that the cheeses were excellent and that they provided the proper contrasts in scent, flavor and texture. In fact all the regional cheeses we sampled last week — and most wineries we visited put out a glorious spread of cheeses and local salamis — were intriguing and delicious in their different ways. The smidgeon of La Brea Tar-Pits in the middle of the plate is cogná, a sort of mustard made from grape must. Its effect is appropriately primordial.
Finally, dessert. There it is. A scoop of chocolate gelato and a scoop of something bright yellow and half a pear that tasted not altogether ripe (or too processed). Again, an almost perfect but not quite perfect lunch. I would have been happy with a plate of cookies to go with the powerful espresso — like a train engine in a tiny cup — that followed.
Were we allowed the nap we all desperately needed? No, friends, we were trundled off to another venue for a tasting of 26 Nizza Barberas that concluded in the acrimonious dust-up about Barbera philosophy and techniques that several of my colleagues have (or are) posting about, followed by another grand dinner and more wines and arrival back at the hotel in Asti around midnight.
When the group sat down to lunch, the tables held four bottles of Quorum, a Barbera d’Asti made in collaboration among the houses of Michele Chiarlo, Prunotto, Braida, Coppo and Vietti. Launched in 1997, the consortium is called HASTAE, after the Roman name of the city of Asti. The wine is produced only in the best vintages from a hectare of each of the five members’ best vineyards, and the winemaker is always someone from outside Piedmont who has not worked with the barbera grape before, an interesting if slightly bizarre (and surely unnecessary) concept designed to level the playing field, so that none of the five producers dominates the others. Profits from Quorum are donated to charity.
We sampled Quorum from 2005, 2004, 2001 and 1999. (Not the ’03 of the image here.)
The 2005 and ’04 make an immediate impression of what the wine’s American importer, Folio Fine Wine Partners, calls “star power.” The wines are indeed incredibly seductive, rich, resonant, vibrant and lively, with deep black fruit flavors, deeply-rooted spicy elements and the soft, cushiony oak and soft velvety tannins that we associate with so-called “icon wines” from around the world. The ’04 brings out more smoke and tobacco and black olive, as if it were a cabernet sauvignon and merlot blend from St. Julien. The 2001 did not show well; the color is already ruddy garnet with a brick-red rim, and its primary features are brown sugar, baking spice and old leather. The ’99 was much better than the 2001, firmly-knit, smooth and mellow.
So that’s fine, but where’s the juicy, flinty, vivid barbera grape in all of this international styling? The problem with collaborations and wines pepped up with oak is a certain sleek and polished sameness, a “seen-it-all-before quality” that precludes regional integrity and authenticity. In one sense, the Quorum wines are impeccable; in another sense, they’re boring. They offer character but lack personality. And they were too “important” for our lunch. We really needed something lighter; a young, delicate, bright-cherry, acid-powered and thirst-quenching Grignolino would have been ideal.