There’s something to be said for opening a single bottle of wine and savoring it by itself over an entire evening, appreciating it for its individuality of character. At the same time, when I drink a really great bottle of wine, I often find that I enjoy it most when it’s drunk alongside another wine that relates in some way. This is not to qualitatively compare the two, as most people mistakenly believe when I say this. I’m not really interested in which wine is “better”. Rather, I find that it gives me a greater understanding of each wine, by establishing a wider context in which to place it. It might not sound like much, having a sampling of only two wines, but it’s surprising how often the conjunction of two wines will trigger an idea or a memory that might not have occurred if they were experienced alone.
Dinner at Castagna in Portland, Oregon, last night with a small group of friends is probably not a good example of this, as we were perhaps a bit decadently excessive, but I did think about this idea throughout the course of the evening. Our selected theme was nebbiolo, as it’s one of our favorite things in the whole world, and no further stipulations were given, so between the six of us, a rather haphazard and intriguing assembly of ten wines appeared on the table. In attempting to arrange some sort of reasonable approach to attacking all of these, we decided that it would be interesting to pair up a number of wines.
Getting directly down to business, we opened with two Barbarescos from 1964: a lovely, perfumed Franco Fiorina, which showed an amazing expansion of aroma on the palate and an intensely floral, rosy fragrance; and a Francesco Rinaldi, which was much more corpulent and meaty, possessing rich aromas of dried porcini and hung game. The 1964 vintage was outstanding in Barbaresco, with some producers considering it to be the finest of the decade, and I’ve always thought of it as having a somewhat generous and aromatic character, which was certainly expressed in these two examples. (A third Barbaresco, the 1961 Pio Cesare, seemed to be lonely and all alone without a partner, but it turned out to be terrible anyway, very pruny and stewed, with unpleasant volatility.)
We moved on to an unlikely pairing of Barolo, resulting from two stellar wines that didn’t have immediately obvious relationships to any others, yet this turned out to be one of my favorite periods of the evening. The 1978 Teobaldo Cappellano Barolo was superb, still youthful and far from optimal maturity, but showing a subtly graceful refinement and a kaleidoscopic, tar- and truffle-infused complexity. Even more viscerally alluring was the 1964 Marcarini Barolo Brunate Riserva di Famiglia, which, if I were tied down and forced to choose, would be my candidate for wine of the night. Utterly gorgeous in its silky, elegantly floral perfume, it finished with an amazing sense of dimension, complexity and completeness, a wine that seemingly takes over your whole body with its subtle grip and profound aroma. I was very surprised to see the alcohol listed on the label as 14.2 percent, as its perfect balance and harmony made it feel more like 12—in fact, it seemed distinctly lighter and more delicate than my memories of the “regular” Marcarini Brunate from 1964. At first glance, these two wines, while both delightfully thrilling to drink, might have seemed too completely different from each other to create any sort of dialogue between them, but as we savored them over the course of the evening, I realized that the relationship here was one of terroir—the Cappellano was likely all from the Serralunga side of the appellation, with its Helvetian soils of limestone and sand, while Brunate is on the Barolo side of the valley, where the soils are Tortonian limestone and marls. Even taking into account the wildly different personalities of the vintages involved, tasting these two wines together emphasized the somewhereness of place in each, highlighting the perfumed Brunate finesse in the Marcarini and pointing out the firm, rigid demeanor of the Cappellano, part of which was indicative of 1978, but another part of which seemed very Serralunga in character. I could be mistaken about the Cappellano’s origins, as I believe that he was purchasing grapes at this time, but as far as I remember the Barolo of the late ’70s should have come largely from Gabutti. Feel free to correct me if I am wrong. The wine certainly tasted like a Serralunga Barolo.
I could have spent all night with those two bottles, but we did have more wine to drink, after all, beginning with a pair of wines from 1958, my favorite Piemontese vintage of all that I have ever tasted. Nothing against other great years such as 1947, 1971, 1978, 1985 or 1989, but the wines from 1958 have a particular resonance, completeness and dimension that always makes my heart beat just a little faster. The 1958 Franco Fiorina Barolo demonstrated the character of the vintage perfectly, with its lithe, fragrant finesse and its seamless harmony, feeling like a perfect sphere in its balance of components. This was another of my favorites of the night, a magical, otherworldly wine. The next 1958 was a Gaja Barbaresco, which was missing its label—had the label been present we might have put it with the other Barbarescos, but having forgotten about it, I was happy to see it here alongside the Franco Fiorina. Silky, floral and elegant, it also clearly demonstrated the character of the vintage, especially in its perfumed and expansive aromas on the finish.
I’ve written before about older Barolo from Giacomo Borgogno, and I was very much looking forward to our next pair of wines, Borgogno’s 1958 and 1947. Unfortunately, this bottle of 1958 was flawed, showing an unpleasantly varnish-like volatility that rendered it undrinkable. It was a great pity, needless to say, as I’ve loved this wine in the past. While I thoroughly enjoyed the bottle of 1947, it was a good example of this wine rather than a great one—it showed finesse, youthfulness and grace, but not the complexity and profundity of aroma that I’ve experienced in previous tastings of this. But that’s just being nitpicky.
We closed the evening with a 1952 Monfortino from Giacomo Conterno, which was a lovely way to finish up. It was classic Monfortino in character, still primary and youthful, with a broodingly rigid build and a long, vividly intense finish. Yet while it was a fantastic wine, and thoroughly, insanely pleasurable to drink, it served to emphasize my point about drinking wine in pairs. It was a wine of obvious class, but I felt that it didn’t show quite the complexity or the multi-dimensional aroma that I remember in the 1955 or 1958 Monfortinos, and I feel that I would have had a more complete understanding of this wine if we could have tasted it alongside another vintage of the era. That’s just the purely selfish greed of my inquisitive curiosity talking, however, and as old vintages of Monfortino have become extremely rare and costly, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to taste it at all. Great wines are great all by themselves too, after all.