Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Iuli Barberas of Piemonte's Monferrato

People who don't know any better often tell me with great confidence and solemnity, usually just after returning from their first trip to the vineyards of Europe, "The really good stuff never makes it here," meaning the United States. Of course, they are wrong, but it is amazing the number of very good winemakers or wineries that don't have representation in America for a number of years and, yes, even sometimes never.

But usually some small importer building a portfolio knocks on a winery door, and, as a result, we wine lovers find a new treat - or several of them. Such was the case when Summer Wolff, living in Italy, buying wines for her Sokolin customers, conducting culinary tours, and building her own import portfolio at Indie Wineries, met Fabrizio Iuli, winemaker and proprietor at the 10-year-old Iuli winery in Monferrato in Piemonte. Last evening, Wolff brought Iuli and his Barbera-dominant portfolio to Maryland's Fair Hill Inn in a special dinner to match his wines with the delicious foods put together by co-chefs Phil Pyle and Brian Shaw. It was a memorable event with every table and chair sold out in advance.

Iuli makes three different Barberas ("Umberta," "Rossore," and "Barabba") utilizing different vineyards and different oak regimines (or not), a Barbera and Nebbiolo blend ("Malidea"), and a Pinot Noir ("Nino"), a varietal that seems to challenge most every winemaker, wherever they live, to give it a try somewhere in their career. The wines, ranging in price from $28 to $60, were all very good and were allowed to open before serving, having been poured individually in large glasses before being transported to the table.

If Iuli has a house style - and I think he does - it is that the wines all have good fruit (dark cherries, a touch of dried cranberries), are tart and tangy in the way that sour cream is, have good savory spices, finish well with smooth acidity and dusty tannins, have moderate minerality, and are long on the palate. The Barabba and the Malidea are still a little tight in the finish, but that should loosen up in aging. Pinot Noir is a flexible grape, and Iulu's Nino seems to have decided to blend in with the Barbera clan, though with its own flavors of sweet roots (sassafras) and baking spices.

I love going to wine dinners that Pyle and Shaw put together because they understand wines, and they know how to match flavors better than most chefs, plus they take the time in advance to drink and discuss the wines before putting together the menus (those would be amusing sessions to watch some time). The Nino Pinot appeared with a mushroom tart with cherry tomato marmalade and roasted garlic oil, the first Barbera (Umberta) came with balsamic-cured salmon with a pickled egg snow and defining fennel and orange flavors, and the Rossore was matched with Chef Pyle's antipasti salumi. After a few years of experimenting, Pyle has become a rising American star in salumi production.

But it was the fourth course that seemed to cause the most buzz among dinners - a fantastic risotto with Pyle's pancetta, Shaw's pecorino, and a mixture of cippolini onion, radicchio and winter greens that was matched with Iuli's top-of-the-line 2004 Barabba. Finally, the half-and-half blend of Nebby and Barbie in Iuli's Malidea came with fall-off-your-fork braised beef with a vegetable-packed polenta.

Wolff translated Iuli's comments in Italian to the diners and the diners' praises in English back to the winemaker in Italian. Wolff's wines are available through Sokolin, although wider distribution is being planned, and she can be reached at

Until next time....

Roger Morris

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