Tuesday, February 14, 2012

East versus West

This is the year of wine wars! One of my goals this year is to do wine comparisons, so we can determine the actual difference terroir makes in the chemistry of a wine. The French define all the elements that can change the flavor profile of a grape as terroir. These elements include soil composition, precipitation, latitude, sun exposure, degree of angle of which the vines are planted and elevation.

This month we are comparing a Barbera from Italy’s Lombardy region, which is the northern most wine region of Italy, and a Barbera from Mendocino County in California, which is located just north of Sonoma Valley. The wineries we choose are Cantina di Casteggio from Italy and Fattoria Enotria from California. We chose these wines based on their geographical location and the quality of the wine, not specifically because of the winery.

Terroir is an interesting thing when discussed in the wine industry. Many winemakers will state that their ultimate goal is “to make top quality wines that express the true terroir of the vineyard.” Well, if every winemaker makes this statement what makes one wine better than the next? My answer is sustainability. In order for true terroir to be expressed, the most important thing a winemaker can do is make sure the vineyards are cared for without the influence of humans. This means doing without man made herbicides and pesticides to control the outcome of the crop. If terroir is nature nurturing the vine, than a wine made to define it should not be influenced by man!

Mendocino County (AVA), American Viticulture Area, is the northernmost wine-growing region of California. The landscape is a breathtaking span of rolling hillsides, monstrously tall trees and rugged coastline.  There are more organic vineyards located here than any other AVA in the country. Most of the vineyards are scattered across the foothills and the tree-blanketed mountains. The Barbera grapes grown here benefit from the shallow rocky soil, good drainage and sunny southern exposure. The trees and mountains shield the vines from strong winds and the average precipitation from bud break to harvest is 6 inches. The mean temperature year round only fluctuates about 10 degrees, with the average temperatures of 60°F during the day and 50°F during the evening. Compare this to the temperature fluctuation in Monterey, which can go from 102°F down to 50°F from one side of the valley to the other (yes that is at the same time of day). The last terroir factor for our Enotria is the latitude of around 40° that puts the vineyards on the same plain as Ohio, Portugal, Spain and Southern Italy. A huge contributing factor to this wine is the fact that is was aged for 24 months in French and American oak. This process brings soft tannins and a hint of smoke and oak to the bouquet of this wine. The resulting characteristics of this wine are a dark purplish-garnet hue with flavors of blackberry, boysenberry, plum, and toasty oak, the tannins are soft and the acidity is slightly racy. Recommended food pairings for this wine are pasta with ragu sauce (not the brand Ragu), grilled lamb chops or grilled Gorgonzola cheeseburgers.

Our second wine from Casteggio is located on the 45th latitude. That puts our Barbera in the company of Champagne France, the Ice wines of Canada and the elegant wines of Oregon and Washington. Lombardy is situated between the DOC (denominazione di Origine Controllata) of Piedmonte and Romagna in Northern Italy, Viticulture has been traced back 3000 years in this region. The vineyards sit on the foothills of the Apennines Mountains and the Po River just to the south. The vines in Oltrepo benefit from well-drained soil rich in clay, which supplies plenty of acidity to the ripe fruit at harvest. Pinot Noir is also grown abundantly here because of the terroir. Remember these vineyards are on the same playing field as Burgundy and Oregon the two most highly rated Pinot regions in the world. Rainfall in the Po River valley averages 21 inches from April through September, much more precipitation during the growing season compared to Mendocino County. The Po valley also contains morainic gravel left behind by Glaciers thousands of years ago. As for the temperatures in Lombardy, they are significantly higher than those in northern California are, with summer time highs in the upper 80s and nighttime temperatures dipping down into the 60s. I can tell you this; the Italian Barbera definitely has a distinctive nose and flavor profile that I associate with Italy. If you have ever been there you know what I mean. This wine never saw an oak barrel, it is 100% stainless steel aged. The wine shows a delicate ruby color. Aromas of ripe cherry and bramble berry turn into flavors of dark fruit and spice with a slight minerality component. I need to mention that Casteggio is a co-op of 50 growers and together they made a great wine. Food pairings for this wine are ham and salami, as well as barbecued meats and vegetables.

I went back and forth with these two terrific wines and I love both of them. However, I would decide which one to serve according to the meal prepared.

Overall, I think the California Barbera is richer in flavor than the Italian version, even though it is grown in a cooler climate. However, I feel the Italian Barbera is more elegant and food friendly.