Anthropology of Wine

Wine Blogger Wednesday #54: A Passion for Piedmont


Wine is personal. In particular, when I talk about Piedmontese wines I feel like I am telling a part of my own life history. Over the past ten years, I have spent a great deal of time wandering the hills of the Langhe, learning about this complex place and developing an appreciation for the excellent wine that is made in this part of Northern Italy. Keeping this in mind, I truly believe that tasting wine is about subjective tastes and unique experience. When we taste a wine it enters into our taste memory as a new sensation but it is also compared and combined with past sensations, smells and memories of all kinds. When I drink Nebbiolo from the Langhe it is a new, unique experience each time but somewhere in my mind it meshes with my memories, giving coherence to what I am tasting.

Objectivity eludes me when it comes to the subject of Piedmontese wine; the anthropologist takes over trying to understand the place, the people who worked the land and their stories. I can’t help but look beyond my glass. Last night when my partner Doug opened a bottle of 2001 Cascina delle Rose Barbaresco Rio Sordo, we felt as if we were having a conversation with friends. We both know the town of Barbaresco very well and have had our own adventures along these steep hills. Our memories of long Nebbiolo-filled lunches in little osterie in Neive and Treiso still make our mouths water. The best part of all is that we know Giovanna and Italo who made this wine and despite the distance between San Francisco and Barbaresco, we felt closer to them as we talked, ate our risotto con funghi and enjoyed this lovely wine. At moments like this I am struck by wine’s incredible ability to foster connections, the imagination and dreams.

The bottle that Doug chose was still young but it was very true to place and the people who made it. The Nebbiolo grape is notoriously difficult to work (from the vineyard to the cantina) and in particular it does not often express an intense colour despite its incredible tannic  structure. The Cascina delle Rose Barbaresco is a case in point–the ruby red colour lacked density and screamed Nebbiolo. There was a marked note of sour cherries on the nose and an earthy odour that reminded me of a walk in the vineyard when the seasons are changing from fall to winter. As I buried my nose in the glass, I could smell the decaying underbrush along the strada di Rio Sordo as it dips down off the main road and I shivered a little at the thought of the cold fog setting in. When I finally got my lips to the glass, I realised right away why Barbaresco has such a long life in the cellar: the tannins hit the front of my palate and the lovely acidity filled my mouth for a balanced finish. With the creamy risotto finished with Parmigiano cheese, this wine found its match.

My passion for Piedmont may be personal; it comes from having experienced the place and made friends with folks there over many glasses of Nebbiolo on chilly winter afternoons spent in the subterranean depths of a cantina. My view of wine is perhaps at times overly romantic but I can’t help but feel that each bottle of wine I open has a story to tell me and that my own imagination and experience are part of that sensory narrative. The wines of Piedmont have some of the most intriguing stories to tell and I most certainly won’t forget last night’s bottle of Barbaresco and what it said to me.