Next time you're in the wine shop trying to choose a really beautiful bottle from Italy, just remember the letter B.
You might have heard wine connoisseurs speak about the three Bs - Brunello, Barolo, and Barbaresco, three of the best and priciest Italian appellations. Is it just a coincidence that they all happen to start with B, or is Bacchus trying to tell us something? Brunello, the Tuscan member of the trio, is a Sangiovese-based wine. The Brunello grape is a localized clone of Sangiovese that thrives in the vineyards of Montalcino. The word means "brownish," from the tawny color of the grape skins. Some of the Supertuscan upstarts - Tuscan wines made with foreign (i.e., French) grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot - have tried to topple the venerable Brunello from its throne in recent decades, but they've only managed to nudge it slightly aside. Brunello is here to stay.
Unlike Sangiovese, which has had moderate success outside Italy, the Nebbiolo grape doesn't travel well. Fans of Barolo and Barbaresco have tried transplanting Nebbiolo to California, to Argentina, and to Australia to make New World wines in the style of Barolo and Barbaresco. So far, the experiments have been about as successful as trying to make foie gras out of chopped liver. Nebbiolo's true home is Piedmont, and the grapes seem to know it.
Brunello, Barolo, and Barbaresco are magnificent with food. (They're also great gifts: I'm sending a bottle of each to my attorneys, Bunkum, Bilkem, and Basham.) Here are three of my recent favorites.
PODERI COLLA 1996 DARDI LE ROSE BAROLO, BUSSIA ($47)
Tradition is a big factor in Italian winemaking, with family lineages going back hundreds of years in the wine trade. The name Colla carries quite a resonance in Piedmont. Back in 1703, Carlo Colla was working as a winemaker in the Langhe hills. His 20th-century descendant, Beppe Colla, became the driving force behind the highly regarded Prunotto estate when he purchased it in 1956. Three centuries after Carlo Colla's time, Federica and Tino Colla founded Poderi Colla in 1994.
Tenuta Dardi Le Rose is one of the three separate estates operated under the Poderi Colla umbrella (the others are Cascine Drago near Alba and Tenuta Roncaglia in Barbaresco). The 18-acre Dardi property lies in Bussia, which was already a historic area for the Barolo region when it was mentioned in a text dating to 1880.
The 1996 has polished tannins and beautiful red fruit notes. By the time you read this, the stellar 1997 should also be available at your local wine merchant.