Josh Eisenhauer grew up on a farm in Columbia County, PA, just a short drive from our own property. After working as a sommelier in some of New York City’s finest restaurants, he moved to Piemonte, Italy with his wife Sara, and he currently manages the restaurant of the boutique hotel Villa La Madonna.
Josh visited us at the farm last November on a visit home to see family, and we had an opportunity to not only conduct the interview but drink some special wines together as well.
In the interview, we discuss what it was like working in some of New York’s best restaurants, how he adjusted to living and working in Italy, and what makes the wines of Piemonte so special.
Justin Naylor: Good afternoon, Josh. I imagine you might be the only resident of rural Columbia County, Pennsylvania to have moved to Piemonte in order to pursue a career in food and wine. Could you start by giving us the highlights of this remarkable journey?
Josh Eisenhauer: Sure. I did my undergrad at NYU; I had grown up on a farm and my dad was an organic beef farmer in the mid-1980s, really ahead of his time and really into food. Other than that I didn’t have a lot of exposure to restaurants or wine, and certainly not to Italian culture. During college, I approached a lot of restaurants in Manhattan with a cover letter I had written about my passion for food and my desire to learn about it. I said I’d do anything! But I had a bunch of bad luck and no one got back to me. These were all Michelin-starred restaurants. Then I got lucky at Babbo. I met Gina di Palma, who was the pastry chef, and she told me to come back the next day. It was amazing because Babbo was five minutes from my dorm, while most people were commuting from the boroughs. They kind of threw me in the cellar as the cellar rat, just putting the bottles away and doing deliveries. But I was really curious. I was going to college, but drinking and tasting a lot of wine. I was so excited. Some of the sommeliers were Italian, and they were giving me tastes of wine – which I guess maybe they shouldn’t have been doing, but they were – and I didn’t know anything, I mispronounced Dolcetto… I was tasting these wines that no 18-year-old should be allowed to have. They saw that I was passionate and promoted me to wine runner. Through that experience I met Paul Lang, who was at that time the wine director at Il Buco, and he gave me my first sommelier job. I was working five nights a week at Il Buco while finishing up my senior year, and then I went full-time.
JN: Without any formal training, how did you get to the point where you felt confident taking a sommelier job at Il Buco?
JE: I had good teachers. I had really good teachers. Obviously, wine doesn’t teach itself. You have to be exposed to it through someone, whether in a formal setting or on-the-job training, and what was so exciting to me is that I found these people who were really happy to teach me: to take me out to dinner, do blind tastings, take me to importing tastings frequently. And in New York City you just have this constant exposure to these products. I sometimes joke that it seems there’s more Italian wine in New York City than in Italy.
JN: After Il Buco you ended up at Del Posto, the crème de la crème of the Batali/Bastianich restaurant group, at least in certain respects.
JE: It certainly was. In New York, one thing that counts as much or more than the Michelin guide is the New York Times 4-star restaurant list, and Del Posto was, and still is, the only Italian restaurant to have 4 stars. It was a big deal. I was 22 and they hired me. So I was really nervous. Really nervous. But it ended up being a great experience. I had never worked in fine dining at that level before. Babbo had a Michelin star, but it was totally different in its style of service.
JN: In your first weeks there, did you feel overwhelmed and inadequate, or did you feel up to the task?
JE: After two brief panics, I was fine. I wasn’t worried about my wine knowledge, but it was just such a rigorous style of service. It was over the top. Every little thing, every gesture was critiqued. They wanted you, literally, to move your hands in certain ways, which is very simple to learn but if you’re not used to it, it can be unnerving. But it was a really great skill set to learn. That environment was so special, because you have a lot of really important wine personalities coming in. Antonio Galloni, before he was ready to break off from Parker, did one of the first Vinous tastings at Del Posto. He was a regular; all these collectors… so, just all this exposure to wine that a 22-year-old sommelier had no business being exposed to, which was ultimately invaluable.
JN: Why do you think you gravitated to the wine side of the industry rather than the cooking side?
JE: [Laughter] Cooks don’t make too much money in New York City unless they’re the chef, so that’s probably the main thing because I love cooking. Also, I’m pretty social. I like speaking to people and explaining the little things I’ve been taught or learned, and to share this. After a few trips to Italy, after starting to wrap my head around what is Italian wine and culture, I was happy to share even my juvenile understanding with people who knew even less. I liked that contact.
JN: Yeah, definitely. But there are two basic approaches, I guess, to being a sommelier. One is to be a champion for remarkable but obscure winemakers, where you see your job as helping these beautiful artisans sell their wines. The other approach is to focus on making sure people drink wines they enjoy, which may or may not be from great vignerons. How did you and do you balance those two possibly conflicting approaches?
JE: Well, maybe I don’t always do a good job of balancing it! But a good sommelier is like a good DJ. A good DJ isn’t just going to play the top 40. A good DJ is going to mix that stuff in, but a good DJ will also play a song that’s going to catch your attention so that people say, Whoa, what is that? A good DJ on the cutting edge understands, first, who he’s playing to and what’s making people excited. A great sommelier is like a good tennis player. You don’t just take what they give you. You hit it back.
JN: Yes, but it starts with listening, right?
JE: Yes, because it’s a service job. You’re not a crusader or Malcolm X or someone who’s going to change the world. You’re a server. So you’re there to give your customer what they’re looking for, not what you think they should drink. Then you find the people who’ll let you be creative and play, who trust you. And those people you can take on a little journey, maybe aesthetically away from their preferences and what they’re used to. It may or may not be successful, but you can try.
JN: Turning to food, what did you learn about good Italian cooking at Babbo?
JE: Babbo was open in 1998, and I started working there in 2006, so the restaurant was still young. Mario [Batali] was one of the first people to cook real Italian food in New York. Before him, in the early 1990s, Italian in New York was still just red-sauce joints. It still is, in a lot of ways: linguine with clams, pasta with vodka and these strange things…
JN: Sure. The Italian American classics.
JE: Yeah, and some of that is lovely and amazing food, but it has nothing to do with regional Italian cooking. Mario was really a champion of regional Italian cooking. He was the first TV personality, the first really big celebrity, to talk about this and it began to catch people’s attention. In New York, for a restaurant to succeed it’s not enough to have good food. You have to have that something else. So he was doing all these recipes that Americans in the late ’90s didn’t associate with Italy, and it was based not on his interpretation of the culture, but on research, on him actually going there and staying. It was one of the first times a chef was able to do that. They were usually too busy working to take three weeks off to go study for their next book, or whatever.
JN: Yeah, I believe he actually quit his job and spent three years in Italy, at La Volta in the tiny town of Borgo Capanne, in the mountains south of Bologna.
JE: Right. Now these authentic dishes are commonplace in good Italian restaurants throughout America, but he was one of the first ambassadors of dishes like spaghetti alla carbonara, bucatini all’ Amatriciana. Everyone knows what these dishes are now, and everyone in Italy always did, but no one was cooking those in the US in the late ’90s, at least not at his level and with his degree of celebrity exposure. It was one of the hottest tables in New York City. For years, Babbo and Nobu were the two restaurants nobody could get into. It was exciting for me because I was keenly aware of that. Also, using parts of animals that in America we had forgotten about – cheek, offal – these sorts of things. This is what Batali celebrated. We were living a kind of post-1990s, lower Manhattan Wall Street – and these guys just wanted steaks. They didn’t want beef cheeks. And here’s Batali telling you, No, try this. So that was a big lesson for me.
JN: I imagine there was also a big risk for him. In retrospect it worked, but it must have been scary at the time, and I really admire that aspect of his career.
JE: Yeah, and it reminds me that one of the exciting things about working there was that to sell that kind of thing to the public, you have to have a very prepared waitstaff. We would have a service meeting every day that would last about a half hour, and it was about telling stories about Italian culture. About what cotechino is, for example. We had a lot of Italians on staff, and they’d tell us about their culture and where these recipes came from. So that when guests asked us, we had those stories to tell, and I was excited to tell these stories to people.
JN: Do you think Babbo has maintained its character and quality?
JE: Well, the menu is virtually the same. The chef, Frank Langello, has been at the restaurant since it opened, and has been executive chef since 2002, and he’s a partner now as well. He’s been doing that food his entire adult life. I’m most certain that things are going quite well because they actually lost their Michelin star back in 2007 or 2008, and they got it back two years ago — that’s an impossible thing to do.
[NOTE: Shortly after our interview, both Mario Batali and Frank Langello were accused of sexual harassment and have stepped away from Babbo and the other restaurants in the Batali/Bastianich Group.]
JN: So, you ended up working as a sommelier at Del Posto, which for most people would be a position to keep for the rest of your career. Yet you went in a different direction. What led you to leave and end up in Piemonte?
JE: A woman.
JN: [Laughter] It always is, isn’t it?
JE: There are two reasons men cross oceans: war and women. Fortunately for me, it wasn’t war. Yeah, I met my future wife Sara in New York, she was from a town in Piemonte near Acqui Terme. After two years being together, we were starting to think that maybe this wasn’t just a relationship but maybe a partnership for life. We started thinking about what kind of life we wanted to live. We were making good money in New York, but we always had a small apartment. If we had two days off, it’s like, Where we gonna go, Connecticut? So we started thinking that maybe we should try to work the truffle season in Piemonte. Sara got in touch with a family who had a Michelin star restaurant near Barolo, for the better part of the last century. They said, Sure, we’ll take you on for the season and try it out. So we did, and we stayed there for four years.
JN: What was your position?
JN: Was it a restaurant which catered to Italians or tourists?
JE: It was in a Relais Chauteaux property, this five-star luxury hotel called Relais San Maurizio. It was very international in terms of clientele, especially during truffle season, October/November. Then during the rest of the year it was a reference point for Piemontese food, a well-known family who know a lot of people in the community; so we were open 12 months of the year, but with more Italians during the non-truffle part of the year.
JN: What was it like as an immigrant working with the Italian clientele? Were they skeptical of taking an American sommelier in their country seriously, or were they receptive and welcoming and all of those things?
JE: Eighty percent of the people were really nice and encouraging, but my Italian was really bad when we first moved there, and as a sommelier you try to be really specific with language, and so it’s really embarrassing at the beginning to be saying things like “a really full red.”
JN: Sure, sure.
JE: So it was difficult linguistically and culturally. Most people were so kind, and I told them about my wife, and they were so happy. But twenty percent of the people were kind of rude, and I remember I had these two old guys and maybe they didn’t think I understood, and they said something like, The Americans sell us wine now. Think about that. They said it right in front of me. But this type of response represented a small minority.
JN: Even though you learned a lot about regional Italian food and wine in New York, when you arrived in Piemonte, did you feel like the things you learned were confirmed, or did you feel like you had to start over again?
JE: A little bit of a mix. Sometimes I had an experience where I realized, Ah, that’s what that means. There are things I’d learned but not really internalized. You see it in practice and you understand it better. And then there are certain dishes and traditions which just wouldn’t work in America.
JN: What would be an example of one of those?
JE: Bollito misto. There are places in New York that do it, but it’s never successful. We had the hardest time selling it at Babbo.
JN: Yeah, I have some friends, actually, who told me once about ordering it at Babbo and Mario himself came out, he was so full of gratitude.
JE: Yeah, same thing with tripe and these kinds of dishes. You can only ever approximate these dishes in the US. Ingredients are just so different. You know this better than I do. It comes down to flour and the eggs and the water in so many cases. I didn’t feel overwhelmed or underprepared, though. I certainly had a very good idea of the cuisine.
JN: How would you characterize the personality of Piemontese cooking?
JE: It’s interesting because, in Italy, Piemontese cooking is regarded as one of the highest forms of cooking in the country. There’s a lot of meat, and a specific Piemontese beef/veal breed that is very lean but very tender. Vitello tonnato, for example, uses that veal with a sort of tuna emulsion, we might say. The agnoletti al plin are a sort of ravioli filled with that meat. And then, braised meat.
JN: Because Piemontese was a more affluent area which could afford the cost of meat, unlike some other regions?
JE: Yes, and that’s still the case today. One thing they didn’t have was access to saltwater fish. But as you mentioned, Piemonte has always been an affluent area and so they could have preserved fish. This is one way they could show wealth. So they could buy canned tuna, but they didn’t know what to do with it.
JN: [Laughter] Sure, it was a foreign ingredient.
JE: Yeah, but they said, Let’s smear it on the veal, you know, and this was a way of showing the neighbors, Hey, we have fish here. You find salted fish like anchovies and baccala in Piemontese cooking quite a lot. Some people say, Well, we’ve always had eel or river trout, but I find that not to be a really big part of the culture. And not a huge amount of vegetables.
JN: What about bagna cauda?
JE: Well, while bagna cauda is very traditional, it is the exception to the rule. Bagna cauda means hot bath and it’s an assortment of seasonal vegetables; you dip them in a garlic, anchovy, and oil bath.
JN: Is risotto quite traditional, as well?
JE: Yes, you have a lot of big rice production in the flatlands, and so lots of risotto eaten. Of course the most famous Piemontese food is the white truffle of Alba – the most expensive in the world. This is shaved over pasta or risotto. You don’t find much dried pasta in Piedmont, mostly fresh pasta with a high percentage of egg yolks, sometimes 45 yolks for 1 kilo of flour. So it’s very rich, eggy pasta. And one of the traditional shapes is tajarin, which could be translated as tagliatelle, but it’s not as wide.
JN: How does that high egg-yolk pasta differ from the whole-egg pasta of Emilia Romagna?
JE: It’s a fresh pasta that can be more al dente, with a lot of spring. That’s the big difference – but also the color, of course.
JN: Moving on from food, how would you describe the culture and character of the Piemontese people?
JE: It’s a big region. Towards Lombardia, it’s flat with a lot of rice production and milk. In Southern Piemonte where I live, there’s a lot of rolling hills and beautiful landscape. We’re close to the Alps – thus the name Piemonte [foothills] – and they look like they’re right on top of us. So you have these rolling hills covered in vines, a little piece of woodlands here and there. Really a quite dramatic landscape and one of the most beautiful places in the world, with these little sprinkles of medieval architecture with these castles looming in the distance. I’m not just saying this because my wife’s from there and I’m living there. It really is one of the most special places I’ve ever traveled to.
JN: How about the people?
JE: There’s a saying in Italian about the Piemontesi, and I don’t like it, though there’s some truth to it: false and courteous. I wouldn’t say it’s an accurate description, but they are guarded. One reason Piemonte isn’t as commercialized as some other regions is that the people tend to be a little more exclusive; not less accepting, but a little less willing to let people in. They also haven’t sold themselves the way, say, Tuscans have. Piemonte for me is much more beautiful than Tuscany, if we’re talking about landscape. The wine is certainly better. No one’s going to dispute that. Yet, Tuscany remains this food and wine destination while Piemonte remains largely undiscovered. And I think this has to do with the pride the people have that the traditions and secrets are passed down by generations, and they’re very hesitant to let people, certainly foreigners, participate fully in them. Now that’s changing. They’ve realized that Tuscany was quite admirable in how they’ve marketed their region, and there’s been some jealousy there too. I think they’re studying the Tuscan model a little bit, but they’re still hesitate to really open up.
JN: In your case, it was easier to find acceptance because you married a Piemontese woman?
JE: Yes, I was lucky to marry into a family that has been so accepting of an American in the family. It’s kind of a novelty. There aren’t many foreigners living in Piemonte, especially Americans. There are immigrants from North Africa, but unfortunately they’ve been marginalized and are sort of a culture apart. I was really motivated to fit in and learn the language and participate in the culture. I had an easier time than maybe some others would have. In some ways other Italians, especially Southerners, have an even harder time.
JN: How long did it take you to become fluent in Italian, and what made the difference?
JE: Necessity. I actually got in a motorcycle accident two months after I moved and broke my hand. I couldn’t work for a month and a half and I spent a lot of time with my in-laws, who speak no English. So that was a turning point. After six months to a year I felt pretty comfortable, and after two years I felt like nothing was getting past me. But then just when you think you know everything you meet someone from the country who talks in a funny way…
JN: Yeah, that happens here too.
JE: Yeah, I’m sure it happens in Benton!
JN: So we’ve covered the food, we’ve covered the people. So now let’s turn to what’s maybe the main attraction for most people, and that is the wine of Piemonte.
JE: Sure. I had traveled to Piemonte by myself back when I was working in New York, and even before I met my wife or imagined living in Piemonte, these wines were the most captivating. I’m speaking above all of the Nebbiolo grape and its expression in Barolo and Barbaresco.
JN: So let’s go through the list, starting with a red wine from Piemonte that almost no one knows: Grignolino, the little light, refreshing red wine that seems to me like such a foil to wines of meditation like Barolo and Barbaresco.
JE: Grignolino, like you said, is always light in body. Refreshing. Fruity. Some people wrongly like to compare it Gamay, but it’s even fruitier and lighter, and sometimes with a cracked pepper sensibility that you don’t find in Gamay. And what’s great about a grape like Grignolino is that – we mentioned the Piemontesi being proud – there’s this idea that just because it’s growing in my backyard, it’s worth being preserved. Unlike in France, where a lot of indigenous varietals were marginalized for economic reasons, the Piemontesi people are proud of what occurred naturally and evolved in their backyards. Their grandfathers cultivated it and so they cultivate it, not for economic reasons but for tradition. They’re so proud of it. Some people like it lightly chilled. They was a lightly sparking version that was very popular in the ’70s and ’80s. It’s a refreshing summer wine. I certainly keep it on my wine list at the restaurant.
JE: There is one producer of Grignolino for you to check out: they’re called Acornero. They have a vineyard with 80-year-old vines. They make a singular Grignolino that doesn’t really remind you of any Grignolino you’ve ever had. It almost approaches Pinot Noir in intensity, in terms of weight on the palate and in terms of complexity. It’ll totally change your idea about Grignolino. But that’s one wine in thirty people that [make it].
JN: And I love that style; again, like Bardolino, it’s a style of wine that I think actually deserves a lot more respect than it gets.
JE: It’s right for certain occasions.
JN: Exactly, in a way other wines might not be. But now on to the big boys: Dolcetto.
JE: This is my bread and butter. Dolcetto used to be, in the Barolo area, the most cultivated grape, and we’re not talking about a long time ago. We’re talking about fifty years ago. People were making Dolcetto and selling it primarily in Torino. Having a harder time actually selling their Barolo, sometimes they would give the Barolo away if people bought a lot of Dolcetto. Certainly, the farmers – that’s the grape they were drinking on their tables. Everyday wine – really, really dark color, very intensely tannic, which is confusing about it — when you hear “Dolcetto” people think it’s going to be a slightly sweeter wine. Actually, a lot of producers are moving to stop using the name Dolcetto on labels because it’s creating a misperception. For example, in Dogliani, where they make one of the more intense, long-lived Dolcettos, they’ve actually stopped using the word Dolcetto. You can now just write Dolgiani.
JN: What is the history? Was it at one point in its history made into a sweet wine, and thus its name?
JE: The grape itself is quite sweet. The grape itself is one of the more delicious things you’ve ever tasted. As a table grape, incredible – except that it has quite a lot of seeds and tannin. So that’s where it gets the name.
JN: You mentioned the dark color and the significant tannin. What other character does Dolcetto have? What place does it have today? As a sommelier, where do you recommend serving it in the meal?
JE: Unfortunately, Dolcetto is falling out of favor in Italian markets, even in Piemonte, because people see it as the wine that their parents and their grandparents were drinking, because it was affordable and accessible. It’s what a lot of people were drinking at home and in restaurants, so they have this idea about it being an older person’s wine. It’s a great wine, though, perfect but safe for primi courses – pasta, risotto, these kind of things. It has relatively low acidity, which makes it very easy drinking. As a sommelier, you have to be careful where you’re using it, because it has this low acidity, big body. And very tannic. So it works better with richer dishes, but again, when you’re missing that acidity, sometimes then the dish tends to take over, you have too much of a heavy sensation. You want a sense of levity in there. So, Dolcetto can be not as friendly as Barbera, for example. This is a reason that maybe sommeliers aren’t using it so much, which is a shame. I love Dolcetto; I drink it frequently, I order it frequently at restaurants. It’s going out of style on this side of the ocean and on the other. On this side of the ocean, maybe it was never in style; it’s always had a hard time, marketing-wise.
JN: Speaking of Barbera, let’s move on to that next.
JE: As Dolcetto can be a little trickier to pair with food, Barbera is the opposite. It is so friendly, because it has this buoyant, bright acidity, and very low tannin, almost none. It doesn’t fight with foods, it cuts through them. This bright acid stands up to rich pasta dishes. Don’t tell any Italians this, but I like to pair it with pizza.
JN: It’s not too much acidity, the double acidity of the tomato and the wine?
JE: No, I like that. Because, think about the pizza, the dough can be kind of a heavier thing – the Barbera kind of inviting you to eat a little bit more than you would. Barbera is booming. Economically, it’s the most accessible representative of the indigenous Piemontese grapes. Maybe from some of these famous Barolo houses, even their Nebbiolos can be a little pricey, but Barbera will be accessible. That, coupled with the fact that it’s so friendly with food. You can drink it through an entire Piemontese meal. Barbera is having a really, really strong moment, marketwise. Even amongst young Italians – typically, if you see a younger Italian couple at a table, they’ll usually order a Barbera or something if they want to drink local.
JN: For better or worse, unlike Dolcetto, there’s a new tradition – in the last two decades or so – of having the Barbera see some time in barrique, which maybe isn’t the worse thing, seeing as it has this low tannin character, and maybe it picks up some structure from the wood, so maybe it’s not such a bad use of barrique. What do you think of that style of Barbera?
JE: The thing that’s exciting about that is in 2017 producers aren’t as afraid to experiment as in the past, and some are making a barrique Barbera and a stainless steel Barbera and a third one aged in botti, so they’re not tying themselves down to one style. The most age-worthy Barberas tend to be aged in barrique. That tannin which they don’t naturally have, they need if you want longevity in the wine. The complex structure takes more time to break down. So I’m not afraid of those wines, though I don’t like them when they’re young. Just to make a gross generalization, obviously there are producers which make barrique Barbera which you can drink young and others who make barrique Barbera which don’t stand the test of time. Good ones, when they’re young, taste too much of vanilla and these sorts of things, but after ten years of aging, that has fallen away and you’re just left with the taste of the variety. Some are afraid of them because when it started it was so against the tradition – Oh, that’s not what we do here – and some people, for better or worse, cling to that tradition, that uncompromising identity. It’s a problem, but it also makes it interesting.
JN: Sure, and that’s how culture is passed on, right? Without that tenacity or even stubbornness, culture is easily lost.
JN: On to Nebbiolo. Let’s start with Nebbiolo, but not from Barolo or Barbaresco.
JE: The grape actually represents less than 10% of vines in Piemonte. So there’s this misconception. Certainly it’s the most important and popular Piemontese red grape, but it represents a really small acreage of vines. In that sense it’s quite rare. The reason it isn’t planted everywhere is that it’s such a temperamental varietal. It’s actually the first grape to flower in the spring and the last to be picked. As such, it’s exposed to the elements for a long period of time, and there’s more opportunity for things to go wrong. It always catches the frost in the spring. Of course, the hail in the summer and the cold in the winter. You can’t grow it everywhere. And Nebbiolo varies dramatically depending on where it’s planted. Barbera, by contrast, is one of those grapes you can plant anywhere and it still tastes like Barbera. When Nebbiolo gets planted in a soil that doesn’t have the right symbiotic relationship and the right nutrients the vine needs, its character will change dramatically. For example, my father-in-law grows Nebbiolo at his home in Bistagno. If you tasted the wine, it’s almost unrecognizable. But if you taste his Barbera you know right away what it is. There are only a few places in the world where you can plant Nebbiolo, for this reason. It has a really temperamental nature. Usually it’s only planted on southwestern-facing slopes because of this problem it has ripening. It needs all the sun it can get. The reason that the ripening is so important for Nebbiolo is that it is naturally so acidic and tannic. Historically these wines were harsh. That’s why the grape needed to be aged before consumption. It was so aggressive on the human palate. You had to wait until they calmed down a little bit. Now that’s changing a little bit with global warming, making the wines a little bit more accessible in their youth, but maybe less able to be aged as long. Of course, the most famous places Nebbiolo is grown are Barolo and Barbaresco, but as those wines continue to increase in price beyond the reach of many, people are looking to other places where Nebbiolo has been grown historically but maybe didn’t have the economic success for a variety of reasons. So regions like Carema, Gattinara, Lessona – cooler climates. Now as the climate is warming up, these regions are emerging as being very interesting for Nebbiolo, whereas maybe 50 years ago it was just too cold. The wines were quite pale and acidic. Now they’re a little fuller on the palate. A little brighter. A little fresher. More satisfying on the palate. People are really starting to invest in these towns. Also, it’s an alternative to these extraordinarily expensive wines from Barolo, which could be $70 or $80. But for a great bottle of Carema you might just pay $35. For someone who doesn’t need to have a famous name, it’s a great alternative. So these other Nebbiolo wines are starting to blossom, but mostly abroad. In Italy they’re really marginalized.
JN: How does the colder climate affect the character of Nebbiolo?
JE: These cooler temperatures generally give a thinner but more elegant body. Also less capacity for aging. They lack the complexity of Barolo or Barbaresco, but they have a greater freshness about them. This isn’t just the climate but also the soil. There’s no coincidence that the white truffle and Barolo grow in the same soil. The soil in the Langhe gives a special thing to the plants, to the fruits, to all the flora that grows in the area. The soil in other areas where Nebbiolo is grown is good soil, but it doesn’t have the complexity. So those wines will never reach the Langhe in terms of intensity, in terms of mystery.
JN: Let’s delve deeper into Nebbiolo from Barolo and Barbaresco, in whichever order you prefer.
JE: I hold that Barolo is the finest Italian wine made. That’s because of a couple of things. It has an extraordinary potential to age, that it has demonstrated. In a perfect year with perfect conditions and a perfect human being sculpting these wines, they can last for half a century. It doesn’t always happen, but it has happened and will continue to happen, and that’s something that fascinates wine lovers – the ability to drink a product that’s more than 90% rainwater that fell half a century ago in northern Italy, that’s still fresh, that still gives emotion, that still tastes good. There’s this myth that wines can age. But most wines can’t age. Only a few special ones can. Barolo is one. And this is something that fascinates the wine community about it. That’s one thing.
The other thing is that it’s so different and so strange, aesthetically, from others. If you look at all the big international varieties – Cabernet, Merlot, you know – dark color, round body, soft supple tannin. You see the wine and taste it, its identity is quite complete. It doesn’t surprise you. Pinot Noir might surprise you. It has this delicate color, beautiful bouquet, gentle tannin, high acidity. Whereas Barolo sort of combines the two, almost. It has extraordinary tannin, extraordinary acidity, but very pale color. You look at this wine and it’s perplexing. It surprises you. It changes very much over the arc of its life. And this is another thing the draws people to this wine and fascinates wine lovers. Compared to Barbaresco, Barolo tends to be more complex, and slightly fuller. It will typically come of age not as rapidly and ultimately age longer.
Barbaresco, of course, is very similar to Barolo. Like Barolo, it’s 100% Nebbiolo, and Barbaresco even has some of the same soil as parts of Barolo. In Barolo the are two main soil types, one a little richer and more fertile – these wines tend to be more aromatic. The other type is leaner, with more shale and marl, and these wines tend to be a little more tannic, fuller, more aggressive, and longer-lived than other Barolos. This first type is exactly the same soil you have in Barbaresco. So Barbaresco tends to resemble Barolo from these areas very much.
JN: Then why was the line drawn where it was, to distinguish Barolo and Barbaresco?
JE: Because geographically they’re quite far away from each other, 10 or 15 kilometers. For this reason, Barbaresco wasn’t considered the same. The royal family, the Faletti, were living in Barolo. Vittore Emmanuelle II, the first king of United Italy [c. 1860] had a vineyard in Barolo and was using it as a sort of calling card. He was pushing Barolo. Slowly its reputation built internationally. Whereas the commercial success of Barbaresco we can attribute almost entirely to the marketing genius of one man: Angelo Gaja, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He created more of a brand than a wine, and it exploded internationally. Luxury Italian wine become synonymous with a Gaja bottle, and luckily for the people of this little Italian town, the word Barbaresco was printed just below his name. And so people making Barbaresco today are aware of this debt to Gaja. People always knew there was great Nebbiolo coming from this area, but the market wasn’t there before Gaja.
JN: You mentioned the structural components – tannin and acidity – that contribute to the greatness of Barolo and Barbaresco. But what should one expect in terms of aroma and taste of well-aged Barolo or Barbaresco?
JE: That’s the thing that excites me the most about these wines, that they continue to surprise me, even after years of study and experience. Nebbiolo in general tends to be an earthy grape. It has smells of truffle and mushrooms. Amazingly, if you go to a Barolo vineyard and smell the soil, it has that smell. But it’s a special dirt. Not a stinky dirt but a perfumed dirt. So you have these gentle aromas of violet, something floral to it. Toward the end of the bottle it tends to be more medicinal, maybe spicy. Some people say they smell eucalyptus. Whereas when they’re younger you perceive more floral, more gentle spices. The more it ages the more complicated it gets, and the more the wine will change during the period you have the bottle open. This is one thing that’s so satisfying to wine lovers: that you pour another glass and the wine has significantly changed. It’s floral and delicate. Then at the end of the bottle it’s more medicinal. It doesn’t even resemble the wine you opened an hour ago. So it takes you on this journey.
JN: And though all wines evolve after being opened, few wines evolve like that.
JE: Exactly. So that’s the exciting thing about it. It continues to surprise, even those of us who taste it for a living.
JN: For me, Barolo is one of the only wines I prefer to drink without food, so that it can command my whole attention. Yet it is traditional to serve it at the table. What foods do you think pair well with Barolo?
JE: The best food and wine pairing in the world is Barolo with tajarin and white truffle. When you take a wine and food pairing class, they’ll say, Pair an earthy dish with an earthy wine. And as I say time and time again, there is no earth in the world like the earth of Barolo. So when you smell the Barolo and you smell the truffle, they’re reflecting each other, both telling the same story. They both have this really ethereal quality which not many foods have, so those two things together can make a person quite happy. This is the best pairing.
But also, with the high acidity and high tannin, Barolo pairs really well with meat: with Piemontese steak, braised meats. Although there is a delicacy to Barolo, the intense structure – high tannin and aggressive acidity – demand richness. You can’t pair it with something too delicate. Like Barolo and vitello tonnato – a disaster.
JN: Moving on to a very different grape, could we talk about Brachetto?
JE: It’s typical from the valley I live in, and the surprising thing about it is that it is red, but lightly sparking and sweet. There are not a lot of grapes that fall into that category. But it’s really traditional. In the old days, when they were fermenting the Brachetto, it would appear that the fermentation was finished. They would bottle it, but they’d open it in the spring to find that the fermentation hadn’t quite finished and so now it was lightly sparkling – frizzante. Now, by law, Brachetto d’Acqui has to be frizzante. It’s this lovely, fruity, refreshing grape, not something you find a lot in the international world of wine. There’s not a market for red, lightly sparking sweet wine. While in the valley I live in, it’s the most common dessert wine. It’s one of a myriad of indigenous grapes that the Piemontesi have kept alive. Really special. I like Brachetto a lot. It’s not a serious or overly complicated wine, but a satisfying wine. And then, some people make it into a concentrated passito wine using dried grapes, very sweet. You could age this style for 20 years. It really takes Brachetto to a different level. But there’s no market for those wines, unfortunately.
JN: Even in Piemonte?
JE: Yeah, no one says, Give me a Brachetto passito. No.
JN: Unfortunately our time is coming to an end, but I’d like to talk a bit about the few white wines of Piemonte.
JE: White wine doesn’t have a long history in Piemonte. The commercial wines we think of in Piemonte really only came about in the 1970s, made possible by technology that they didn’t have before. Temperature controlled fermentation. Stainless steel fermentation. People weren’t making wine with these things until the 1970s. This coincides with the first generation of true Piemontesi oenologists. Barolo producers after World War II who were starting to make a little money could send their kids to school to study winemaking. These kids enjoyed a technological boom and had new toys to play with which they didn’t have a generation ago. So they started experimenting with white wines. At first it was the international varieties like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Still today, Piemonte has great Chardonnay. But the Piemontesi were always a little unsatisfied with these wines because they were French grapes. There was a lot of money invested from the Regione Piemontese to identify indigenous Piemontese grapes and to see what you could do with them. The most famous has become Roero Arneis, this kind of fresher, fruitier wine. But today the style is a little different – they’re trying to coax a little more salinity out of the soil – and a little more mature. That’s the trend: not to make these fruity, international wines, but to make more saline, mineral wines.
The most interesting trend in white wine in Piemonte is Timorasso from eastern Piemonte, on the border with Lombardia, near the town of Tortona. There’s only about 150 acres of production at the moment, from about 30 producers. The greatest champion of the grape has been Walter Massa, who starting promoting it in the early 1990s. He demonstrated that not only is the grape extraordinarily unique, aesthetically speaking, with this dark color and big body, lots of intensity and minerality – but the more interesting thing is that he demonstrated that it is a white wine which can age, without being aged in wood. I’ve had examples of 15-year-old [wines] which have been extraordinary. People caught on to Massa’s genius and are starting to make really interesting wines. They’re quite unique. They have this big, oily body. Lots and lots of minerality. Sometimes a little bit of petrol. And a bright acidity. You taste them and you swear they’re aged in wood, but they rarely are.
JN: Timarasso is the name of the grape, I assume. So the wine is 100% Timarasso?
JE: Yes. Some people don’t want to use the word Timarasso on the label. I’m not sure exactly why. There’s some marketing confusion there. I assert that the most interesting white wine being made in Piemonte today is the Timarasso from the winery Marina Coppi. It’s a really young winery, only open since 2007, so they’re just beginning to see what they can do. They make this Timarasso called Fausto, only aged in stainless steel. His 2007 – this is a 10-year-old white wine that no one’s ever heard of – it’s just insanely good.
JN: Imported to the US?
JE: Yes, I was trying to connect him to an importer friend, Jan D’Amore, because I was obsessed with the wine. That didn’t work out, but it did get picked up by another importer, so it’s available in the US.
JN: Unfortunately we should end there, but thanks so much for your time.
JE: No problem. I really enjoyed it.