Vineyards in Roero, Piedmont, Italy
Improved viticulture, better control of fermentation thermodynamics and the ability for winemakers to fly and work throughout the world have all been factors that have elevated the quality of international wines during the past 30 years.
The Piedmont (Piemonte) region of northwest Italy has long been—deservedly—associated with high quality Barolo and Barbaresco wines made from the red Nebbiolo grape. Today, however, less tannic, often fresher and very affordable versions of Nebbiolo produced in the Roero appellation—north and across the Tanaro River—include some wines with head turning ratios of quality to price. Also, Roero whites made from the Arneis grape are notching up in versatility and gaining deserved respect.
The Roero Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) wine appellation is 2,860 acres (1,158 hectares) in size—or about three and a half times the size of New York’s Central Park. The DOCG includes 19 municipalities and produces seven million bottles of wine annually, of which 60% are exported. Its red wine (from the Nebbiolo grape) accounts for 23% of production, while the balance comes from white Arneis. The title ‘Roero Arneis’ means that wine is made 95% from the Arneis white grape, while the title ‘Roero’ refers to red wines comprised of at least 95% Nebbiolo.
Roero vines in winter
Although Roero, Barolo and Barbaresco form a geographical triangle and each is less than a half hour drive from the other, the Roero’s position north of the Tanaro River provides it with distinct vine growing conditions.
A quarter million years ago the Tanaro River changed course from flowing northwest to instead meandering eastward—cutting through sediments and forming steep hills that characterize much of today’s Roero. Soils are generally loose and permeable—hence poor in organic materials but rich in mineral salts (having been a seabed in the past). Rainfall, at 25 to 28 inches (650 to 720 millimeters) a year results in a semi-arid climate. Unlike vineyards south of the Tanaro River—many Roero vines are integrated into a patchwork of woodlands and orchards. This bramble of biological interconnections appears to be reflected in the rich diversity of tastes found within these regional wines.
The white Arneis grape—grown in the region since the 15th century—was a viticultural staple during the Medieval era. It was mentioned in writing in the year 1442 in the archives of the Malabaila family. It was once planted in proximity to Nebbiolo to lure birds away from nibbling on that more reputable fruit, or else it was grown to produce sweet wines. In the 1960’s—according to sommelier Andrea Dani—winemakers experimenting with steel tanks and controlled temperatures began producing more distinct white wines to better express inherent characteristics of the Roero. This led to an explosion in interest and consequent plantings. In 1970, about 50 acres (20 hectares) of Arneis grew in Roero, while today there are more than 2,200 acres (900 hectares) planted.
Nebbiolo grapes from Roero, Piedmont, Italy
Lucrezia Povero, a fourth-generation producer from Tenuta Fratelli Povero, considers ‘delicate freshness and light minerality’ as key characteristics of Roero white wines. Producers at Filippo Gallino believe that large quantities of sandy soils north of the Tanaro River give Arneis its elegant expression.
Arneis can be light and racy, but also honeyed and calm. It’s more an elegant traveler wearing a pashmina scarf than a downhill skier. It can have medium body and glows as well as shines with fruit flavors—often including green apples.
The red wine of Roero—Nebbiolo—was first mentioned in the year 1303 in a notary document that served as a receipt for someone paying rent with two carts of wine—of which one was Nebbiolo.
Characteristics of Roero Nebbiolo include elegance and more distinct cherry flavors than those from neighboring appellations. Lucrezia Malabaila of Cantina Malabaila characterized the wine: ‘Elegance; tannins through the sand give smoothness, a sensation of velvet.’
Vineyard travel in Roero, Piedmont, Italy
Wine producer Daniele Pelassa believes that ‘Roero has interesting verticality due to its sandy soils, which provides minerality, cleans the palate and makes the wine food friendly—not just with truffles, but with a wide range of dishes.’
Roero Nebbiolo can be aged for years, or opened immediately. Rich, but also light and easy to drink, it is a wine both for solo and social enjoyment. Winemaker Giovanni Correggia suggests that drinkers ‘Enjoy Nebbiolo with a book, or before the fireplace, perhaps with a light pasta dish.’ Producer Davide Chiesa is even more emphatic about the wine’s versatility. ‘Roero is both a meditation and a party wine. Best for Sunday lunch with the family.’
Since 2013 many of these wines have been promoted by Consorzio di Tutela Roero, which includes 233 members and which functions, basically, to protect and promote Roero DOCG wines.
‘Riserva’ Roero red wines must age for 32 months, and non-reserve reds for 20 months. For whites it’s 16 months aging for ‘riserva’ and four months for non-reserve. These time periods begin on the first of November of the year of harvest.
Below are notes on a dozen wines—six whites and six reds—from Roero producers. All are excellent and score from 89 up to (and including) 95 points on a subjective 100-point scale.
Vines in Roero, Piedmont, Italy
White Wines (Arneis)
Nino Costa. Roero Arneis. DOCG. 2019.
Alessandro Costa recalls how he once found an unexploded bomb—a remnant from the Second World War—in his cellar, and phoned authorities to defuse it. His wine includes generous and sweet aromas of green apples, limes and pears. It includes a taste of gooseberries on the finish. Generous but balanced acidity and low-key alcohol. Pair, perhaps, with smoked fish together with spring onions and beets, or a zucchini and pepper/turmeric pasta or a dessert of peach melba.
Monchiero Carbone. Cecu D’la Biunda. Roero Arneis. DOCG. 2019.
The great-grandmother of the current winery owners bought vines in 1918 when her husband (who had returned after 12 years of working in New York) went to fight in the First World War. This Arneis includes aromas of petrol, green grass, honey, green apples, menthol, lime, and grapefruit. In the mouth—almond and limes on the attack, honey and crème de menthe mid palate and a volatile finish. Exciting mouth feel that is both rounded and electrically acidic. Overall a green apple, mint and honey darling. This wine will transport you to an Italian village at 3:30 p.m., when you decide to spend the rest of the afternoon enjoying wine, and life. Pair with duck and roasted paprika potatoes, pasta with garlic and pesto or with a dessert of mint ice cream.
Tibaldi. Bricco delle Passere. Roero Arneis. DOCG. 2018.
Sisters Monica and Daniela, working with their father Stefano and grandfather Tunin, produce wine from 17 acres (seven hectares) of terrain near Pocapaglia village that includes extremely sandy soils. This wine, after vinification in steel, spends a year on lees. Aromas of lime, cream, grapefruit, guava, mandarin, rosemary. In the mouth a creamy mid palate and some mint on the finish. Juicy acidity with this suave green apple delight. Pair with cucumber gazpacho or fish.
Hills of Roero, Piedmont, Italy
Azienda Agriciola Chiesa Carlo. Quin Roero Arneis. DOCG. 2018.
From a fifth generation of family producers (who also raise 80 local gray/white Piedmontese cattle) comes this wine with a powerhouse of aromas that include white pepper, honey, citrics and peppermint. In the mouth a remarkably light wine with flavors that include mandarins and pineapple mid palate and white nectarines on the finish. Balanced acidity and low-key alcohol. Pair with breaded veal, scallops or a dessert of lime ice cream.
Tenuta Fratelli Povero. Roero Arneis. DOCG. 2020.
Soon to be renamed as Tenuta Laramè, this estate has been family owned since 1837 and the owners carefully tend neighboring woodlands, which help moderate microclimates and enhance biodiversity. This Arneis includes rich and supple candied aromas with tropicals such as guava, as well as peach, green apples and a hint of honey and incense. A beautifully smooth wine that will not let you stop after one sip. Crisp acidity, well structured. A creamy mid palate with hints of lime and even butterscotch. Delicious. Pair with truffles, anchovies, smoked salmon or seared tuna.
Filippo Gallino. 4 Luglio. Roero Arneis. DOCG. 2018.
A sea breeze of fresh and energetic aromas—Queen of the Night florals, peppermint candy cane, green apples, macadamia nuts and wet sand. In the mouth a crisply acidic and assertive wine that is rich and plush on the cheeks. Delicate fruit that balances well with acidity. Grapefruit and guava mid palate and a gooseberry finish. Pair with steamed mussels, linguini with a lemon cream sauce or with a shortbread dessert.
Arneis grapes in Roero, Piedmont, Italy
Red Wines (Nebbiolo)
Matte Correggia. La Val dei Preti. Roero. DOCG. 2016.
This family producer is somewhat unusual in that their Roero wines are comprised more of red grapes (two-thirds) than whites. This 15% alcohol wine is light ruby and strawberry colored. Pungent Nebbiolo aromas of prunes, cherries, crème de cassis. In the mouth this includes flavors of raspberries and eucalyptus. A slippery, distinct, jazzy and fruity juice with the presence of balanced acidity and tannins that provide heft and maturity. Pair with brasato (braised beef cooked in wine), coco chicken or a dessert of strawberry flan.
Cascina Val Del Prete. Bricco Medica Roero. DOCG. 2017.
Aged for six months in oak barriques and another 12 months in concrete, this wine comes from the Bricco Medica vineyard, with clay soils that produce more structured wines than those typical of Roera. The Nebbiolo nose includes soft but pungent aromas of almonds, strawberries, unripe raspberries, cherries and mild lemon as well as earthy aromas—wet hay and ferns. In the mouth—lively and energetic flavors of blueberries, biscuits, cherries, tangerines, peaches and plums. A gorgeous well sorted assembly of spring fruit on the mid palate. A beautiful shy beauty, even though the alcohol is 15%. This is a wine to jump start Friday afternoon. Pair with goat cheese and creamy rigatoni, veal with a leek sauce or a dessert of hazelnut/blackberry tart.
Cantina Malabaila. Bric Volta Roero. DOCG. 2018.
From a winery that has been family run since the year 1362 (!), and which today is run by three women, comes this 14.5% alcohol wine that is a happy fruity narrative—including aromas of soot, Oreo cookies, prunes, limes, licorice, blueberries, blackberries and incense. In the mouth—flavors of wheat bread, blueberries, cola and cocoa. There is an undertow of black and blue fruit—a wine clafoutis. Rum and cranberries on the attack, licorice and black cherry mid palate. A beguiling and beautiful wine. Pair with duck, wild game or a bunet dessert—chocolate custard with rum.
Antica Cascina dei Conti di Roero. Roero Riserva Vigna Sant’Anna. DOCG. 2016.
This strawberry/cherry colored Nebbiolo ages for eight months in French oak and includes aromas of light fruit—red plums, strawberries, as well as a hint of cola and salt. In the mouth—cherries and licorice mid palate and biscotti on the finish. A light wine, despite its 14.5% alcohol. Firm and juicy with low-key tannins. Easy to drink now or in 10 years. Pair with a sesame and chicken salad or a simple pasta.
Wines of Tenuta Fratelli Povero, Roero, Italy
Emanuele Rolfo. Roero Riserva. DOCG. 2015.
This cherry colored Nebbiolo includes firmly structured aromas that include cedar, mint, red plums, cherries, brick and biltong. In the mouth an endearing and finely structured Nebbiolo with chewy acidity, a little mint and mocha. Commanding and well structured. Pair with a beef dish, a hearty tajine or hard cheeses.
Antaniolo Pelassa. Roero Riserva. DOCG. 2016
From the northern portion of the Roero comes this light cherry colored Nebbiolo that ages 18 months in oak and another year in bottles. Aromas include blueberries, cherries, chestnuts, tobacco and coal and some mild but fine herbaceousness. In the mouth this is a silky ribbon of cherries with elegant acidity and a hint of cola on the finish. A well-made wine where tannins are unobtrusive and light fruit dominates. Pair with wild game or hearty Piemontese pasta. Producers suggest you might enjoy it while listening to Beethoven.