Saturday, November 27, 2010

Roero - the forgotten cousin of Barolo & Barbaresco, and oh - the dungeness crab cioppino frenzy

Amazingly, even serious winos don't seem to know Roero. Specifically Roero red wine, made from Nebbiolo, and in many vintages just as elegant, intense, and charming as Barolo and Barbaresco. A neighboring appellation (DOCG since 2004), Roero is better recognized for their white Arneis wine - the most famous white wine export of Piedmonte, which I love on its own right. But it's the red that I am happy for so many others to overlook, thus keeping prices down for those in the know. Here is a very good article on Roero from the Dehli Wine Club (of all places!). A quick excerpt is telling:
The aging periods required by law are significantly different - Barolo needs to undergo 3 years, while Barbaresco can age only for 2 years. Roero can do with a year and a half as it can be released on July 1, second year after harvesting. So the Barolo and Barbaresco producers would claim that Nebbiolo grape requires long aging to tame the tannins... The young Roero is too tannic, closed and not drinkable - so are Barolo and Barbaresco even when they are released. Nebbiolo turns softer slowly, adding complexity. But as the aging goes from 5-10 years, the difference between the discernible complexity for average drinkers also goes down. Naturally, Barolo and Barbaresco will age and live a lot longer, but Roero from good year can easily last 10-15 years or more.

Not sure if there is anyone in Roero making better Nebbiolo than Malvira.
I brought a bottle of their fantastic 2001 "Mombeltramo" for my friend Scott's (who is an absolutely spectacular gourmet chef) first dungeness crab dinner of the season. Dungeness crabs arrive every year in November, and are one of the glories of living in Northern California. Scott gets his directly off fishing boats in Half Moon Bay, cuts them in half and cleans while they are still live (butcher!), makes his slightly spicy cioppino sauce with bits of fish, and then stews the crabs in the sauce not for very long.

It's important to cut the crabs while they are still live, in order to keep the meat as soft and sweet as possible. He likes to eat dangerously, no doubt. If you cook them live, Scott tells me they release some sort of chemical as they heat up and don't taste as good.

Over the years, Scott has "scientifically" determined that nothing goes better with his dungeness goodness than a magnum of Tempier's Bandol Rosé. I attest - it's a wonderful marriage.

But what does it have to do with Roero?

Well, when foodies & winos get together, cioppino is just an excuse. First comes a Champagne starter - one of my faves - 1988 Rare Vintage Veuve Clicquot - so nutty, almondy, a bit oxidative, and incredibly energetic (due to late disgorgement) - this wine stops folks in their tracks and demands notice.

With palates primed, smells of the crab emanating, salivas flowing freely (what an image!), the cioppino is finally served. Eating these babies is a messy and lengthy affair, but all so satisfying. And why hurry?, let the guests work for it, by struggling through every single juicy morsel buried deep inside the sharp shell! In the end, not a shred of crab meat or the sauce for that matter, is left - all devoured in a shark feeding frenzy. Oh, what a marvel of culinary delight! Scott The Meticulous has really perfected this dish over the years. If you have the patience to crack, this is a dish worth getting on the waiting list for.

"In the end, not a shred of crab meat or the sauce for that matter, is left - all devoured in a shark feeding frenzy."

Then comes the second course - braised oxtail. Oh my goodness - Ed & Mimi really hit the spot with that one. First, they slow-cooked it for hours in a rich tomato-based stock.

By the time we ate it, the meat was disintegrating at the touch of a fork, the cartilage melting in my mouth, delicious baby carrots and mushrooms, perfection with several aged Nebbiolos!

Scott featured Vietti's Castiglione 1999 and 2001. Everyone was charmed with the 1999. Next to it, the 2001 tasted young and brash, coming from a stronger vintage, and seemed to need a few more years - amazing for an "entry-level" Barolo in the venerable Vietti's lineup.

Just like Barbaresco, despite popular wisdom, is not necessarily lighter or more feminine than Barolo, so is Roero not necessarily lighter than either Barolo or Barbaresco. The 2001 Malvira was fully resolved, packed a bigger punch than either of the Viettis, and with enormous aromatic appeal, the wine seemed at the peak of its drinkability. It served as a transition to the wonderful truffle and goat cheeses (courtesy of Cynthia), which echoed back and forth with the Roero in an endless resonance of harmony and delight.

And to think, this is just the beginning of the crab season, with so many wonders yet to come!

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