What: One of the most important decisions when drinking wine is what food to serve with it. Often the answer is obvious or traditional. Many times, though, you just have to make a guess.
Safe bets are pairing the food to the varietal: cabernet sauvignon with a steak, or zinfandel with a pizza. An even better match is looking at the region where the grapes are grown, especially in Italy and much of the rest of Europe. Most European wines seem to perfectly match the favorite food from the areas around the vineyards.
That is especially true in the northwest region of Italy known as the Piedmont, which is famous for the big, muscular reds of Barolo. If you have a bottle of Barolo, you know it’s going to be loaded with tannins and ripe fruit.
There is another region next to Barolo that makes wine just as powerful and often more elegant. Barbaresco might be less well known, but it’s wines are making a splash.
So when I was trying to find something to drink with one of my favorite Italian-American foods (or more precisely a Chicago Italian-American food), I immediately turned to the Martinenga Barbaresco. I’m glad I did because it is a fantastic wine.
It is a brilliant garnet in the glass, with intense aromas of strawberries, violets, black cherries and a hint of spice. The first sip tells you this will be a memorable wine. Complex flavors of black cherry, red berries and a hint of licorice swirl around your mouth. The finish is long and elegant. Even though I opened the bottle an hour before dinner, the wine kept developing all through the meal.
This is a single-vineyard wine, coming from the famed Martinenga vineyard, considered the finest single vineyard in Barbaresco. The wine is made from 100 percent nebbiolo grapes.
For most of us, this is a special occasion wine, and it’s worth spending the money. But if you want an everyday, more affordable alternative, you should try the Nebbiolo Martinenga Langhe DOC. It comes from the same Martinenga vineyard, but sells for $21-$23.
The Langhe Nebbiolo is essentially a second wine for producers in Barbaresco and Barolo, allowing them to sell an early-drinking-style wine at a more affordable price.
The Martinenga Langhe is much less intense than the Barbaresco, but has many of the same full fruit characteristics and smooth finish as the more expensive bottle. I tried the 2014 vintage and loved it. It didn’t spend as much time in oak and won’t last as long (perhaps 6-7 years in the bottle), but it is a terrific wine for the price.
I have enjoyed many Barolos, but only a handful of Barbarescos. They are similar, both coming from the nebbiolo grape, but the wine from Barolo seems more powerful while the Barbaresco seems more elegant.
Much more wine is produced in Barolo than in Barbaresco, so wine drinkers have become more familiar with those wines. Both have been known through the ages as powerful, heavy wines that weren’t fit for drinking until they had been cellared for a decade or more.
Changing consumer tastes and warming of the climate have made Barbaresco wines more approachable. This current release is five years old, but it is ready to drink right now. It likely will continue to age well in the bottle for another decade or two.
If you have tried Barolo and liked it, odds are good that you will enjoy Barbaresco, especially since Barbaresco wines are much less expensive.
Winery: The Tenute Cisa Asinari dei Marchesi di Grésy, made up of four estates situated in the Langhe and in the Monferrato areas, is recognized for producing many of the greatest wines in the Piedmont region.
The company has been owned by the di Grésy family since 1797. During much of that time they grew grapes and sold them to other producers. In 1973. Alberto di Grésy decided it was time for the family to make their own wine.
Their vineyards are in the Langhe and Monferrato areas, where some of the best wines of the Piedmont are grown. Grapes from four estates are brought to the central winery at Martinenga where wine is produced with modern equipment and old-fashioned ideas about making wine that reflects the area where the grapes are grown.
The Martinenga estate in the Langhe area is the crown jewel, known in Roman times as “Villa Martis.” The 29.5 acres is one of the most famous vineyards in the Piedmont. Nebbiolo is the primary grape, but the company also grows cabernet sauvignon, barbera, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, merlot, dolcetto d’Alba, moscato d’Asti and barbara d’Asti.
These wines are imported by Dalla Terra Winery Direct, an unusual importing model that keeps prices down by bypassing the national importer in the traditional three-tier system. Distributors buy directly from the producers and pass the savings, which average 25 percent, along to us consumers.
Brian Larky formed Dalla Terra in 1990 to import some of the fine Italian wines he had experienced while working as a winemaker there. His team now works with about two dozen Italian wineries.
Goes With: We had this great wine with one of my favorite Chicago dishes, Italian beef. Most of the time when you get an Italian beef sandwich, it’s at a fast food restaurant or a hot dog stand, so fine wine usually isn’t an option.
I thought it would be fun to see how these tasty delights would do with an elegant wine like this. It was a match made in heaven.
An Italian beef sandwich is made by taking thin slices of beef cooked in herbs and spices and putting them between halves of a crusty baguette, adding a little juice and cooked bell peppers. I can never get enough of these. When Dino’s Chicago Express was still operating in Columbia County, my family would pick up Italian beef and Chicago hot dogs on our way to the lake nearly every Friday.
Now I have to buy the beef from Chicago’s best known hot dog and beef franchise, Portillo’s. The beef, juice, peppers and bread come frozen, so I just thaw and eat. One of these days I’ll find a good recipe for this and make my own.
For now, Portillo’s beef is a great match for the Martinenga Barbaresco, with the rich fruit of the wine standing up to the complex, spicy beef. This is the kind of sandwich most people would pair with a beer, but after trying it with this powerful red wine, I will have a hard time pairing the beef with anything else.
This wine also would go well with lamb shanks, grilled meat, game and medium and mature cheeses.