Michael Bray

Wine Columnist Michael Bray

What’s been your favorite wine this year? Do you have one? The best wine I had this year was from a producer in Piedmont: 2006 Roagna Barbaresco Montefico. It was heavenly: extraordinary depth showcasing leather, tar, rose petals, mint and the traditional fruit, too — mostly brown ones such as figs, dates and plums — with just enough acidity to leave you refreshed and excited for another sip.

Throughout my wine journey, a large majority of my milestones and “aha” moments were from drinking wine from Piedmont, Italy. The wines express a depth of soul and precision of elegance that is hard to beat. Thirsty yet? OK, here goes.

Piedmont translates to “foot of the mountain.” This refers to the Alps and Apennines, which surround Piedmont on three of its sides.

The farmers, producers and proprietors of Piedmont are serious about one thing: the Nebbiolo grape. Nebbiolo is believed to be derived from “nebbia,” meaning “fog” in Italian, referring to the intense fog that settles into Piedmont during harvest time.

You may be asking: “Why Piedmont and Nebbelio? What makes the combination so special?” Perhaps it’s the same reason why New Jersey is home to the best tomatoes.

First, this grape variety won’t grow in many places in the world. The temperature needs to be moderate. In too cold an environment, the tannins won’t ripen and will be extremely harsh. If it is too hot, the refreshing acidity won’t be retained and the wine will be out of balance.

Second, like Pinot Noir, it adapts to its “terroir” (the French word which loosely translates to “sanctity of place”). Soil, sun exposure, altitude and slope of the vineyard all create different expressions of this noble Italian grape in the finished wine. Again, think Jersey tomatoes and what about our “terroir” allows for such a successful product.

Third, the grape provides a lot of structure, which is helpful for aging in your cellar. Nebbiolo is high in tannin, acid, fruit concentration and coloring matter, which all act as natural preservatives to allow your prized Barolo or Barbaresco to relinquish those aggressive tannins and harmonize with the wine, resulting in a softer, silkier texture. Over time, these wines go from fruity and floral to savory and seductive. Some can be cellared for more than 50 years. But, of course, if you don’t have that kind of time, you can always look for the wines marked “Langhe Rosso” or “Langhe Nebbiolo,” which will often be 100 percent Nebbiolo or a blend of Nebbiolo and another local grape, such as Barbera, which can be delightful in its own right. These Langhe wines will be more approachable in their youth with shorter fermentation and maceration times, as well as shorter oak aging for a fruitier, lighter experience with the Piedmont’s longest-lived grape variety.

But to be fair to Piedmont, there is life after Nebbiolo. Here are a few notable grapes producing some delicious everyday wines:

Barbera shows a versatility of style from light, juicy and vibrant to full, round and soft. Ferraris Barbera d’Asti shows the lighter style, while Oddero’s Barbera d’Alba shows the fuller, with a kiss of oak aging. No matter which style you prefer, your tomato-based pasta and pizza dishes will be very happy to meet Barbera.

Dolcetto, known as “the little sweet one” is jammier than Barbera, lower in acidicty and can be great with an antipasto platter. However, some examples give off peppery, savory characteristics that allow it to stand up to richer dishes, such as stews and roasted meats. Pecchenino’s “Siri d’Jermu” from the small commune of Dogliani is an outstanding choice.

While reds dominate Piedmont, let’s not forget the white grapes. Arneis, known as the “little rascal,” can be difficult to grow. However, it is very aromatic, floral and fruity, and a wonderful match with salads, lighter soups and even spicy Asian cuisine. Matteo Correggia is a prime example of how good Arneis can be, made with all organic grapes.

Sparkling wines are produced here. While Asti is better-known, Brachetto is the frothier red cousin that can be just as sweet. Asti works best with fruit-based desserts, while Brachetto can be otherworldly with dark chocolate.

Vermouth is produced in Piedmont. Break out the gin and concoct your best classic martini, which was named after the best-known vermouth producer, Martini and Rossi … We would be thrilled to help you find the ingredients.

My hope is that this inspires you to drink Piedmont. If you’re out to eat, consider Café 2825, Dock’s Oyster House and Knife & Fork (all located in Atlantic City) or, Steve & Cookies (located in Margate). Be sure to pop into your favorite retailer and ask for the Piedmont section. For a great BYOB, try Velentina’s Trattoria Italiana in Northfield.

Lastly, have fun and drink passionately.

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