This poor man’s Barolo is surprisingly rich

Barolo is the king of Italian wines. Made from the nebbiolo grape grown in a small, sharply delimited area surrounding the village of Barolo, near Alba in Piedmont, it requires a king’s ransom to put some in your cellar. Even after paying $50 to $100 a bottle and often more, you need plenty of patience because it’s a wine that needs many years of bottle aging before its complex glories emerge.

Unlike cabernet sauvignon, which thrives in many locales, nebbiolo grows poorly outside of Piedmont. Early experience with it in California suggests that the Italians don’t need to worry about competition from Americans. The combination of nebbiolo and climate makes Barolo unique and explains why its fans are willing to invest time and money to enjoy it.

However, nebbiolo also grows in down-market areas of Piedmont, where it can make delicious wines, especially in a hot year like 2003, suitable for those with thinner wallets and less patience.

Renato Ratti makes consistently lush, layered Barolo from its Marcenasco vineyards that sell quickly even at more than $50 a bottle. Ratti also owns a vineyard planted with nebbiolo, named Ochetti, outside of the Barolo area, across the Tanaro River in the Roero district. Since it comes from this less-exalted area, the wine can be called only Nebbiolo d’Alba. But in 2003, the weather transformed these grapes into a poor man’s Barolo.

Nebbiolo needs lots of warmth and sunshine, especially at the end of the growing season, to ripen adequately, otherwise the wines are hard and astringent. The 2003 growing season all over Europe was hot, which gave a big boost to the nebbiolo planted in the Roero district, a distinctly cooler area than the more renown Barolo zone across the river.

Ratti’s 2003 Nebbiolo d’Alba Ochetti is a terrific wine even without further aging and is an excellent introduction to this unique grape. Its robust flavors complement wintry fare such as stew or pasta.

Renato Ratti, Nebbiolo d’Alba Ochetti, 2003 (about $20, distributed by M.S. Walker, 800-238-0607) 

December 22, 2005