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Barbarescos: Italian Wine With Early Maturity : Vintner's Product Rates Favorably With Region's Top Bordeaux, Burgundy

March 20, 1986|NATHAN CHROMAN | Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills

Most Italian vintners cling to classic wine-making practices, which frequently result in long-lived wines that take decades to mature. Not so with vintner Alberto di Gresy, known as "Marchesi Alberto." He is turning out some of Italy's finest, most agreeable, early to drink Barbarescos, the stylish Piedmonte red, which, along with this region's Barolos, competes well with the best of Bordeaux and Burgundy.

Di Gresy, still in his 30s, came late into wine production in 1973, even though his vineyard, Martinenga, had been in the family since 1800. Until 1955, the vineyard was a pricing center for the Nebbiolo grape, the exemplary Italian variety, with its subvarieties, Michet and Lampia, which are responsible for Barbaresco.

In 1959, after severe hailstorm destruction, Alberto's mother, Maria Lenzi di Gresy, replanted but continued to sell grapes only, until Alberto determined he wanted to make wine under the family name.

An exciting wine which best exemplifies Alberto's style is Di Gresy's Barbaresco, Martinenga, 1981, produced from Michet and Lampia grapes in a big-textured, yet soft and subtle mode. It lacks the power, substance and tannin to sustain long-term aging, but is excellent for drinking now. The wine is a good value at $12.50, especially considering its label credential of DOCG ( Denominazione De Origine Controllata Y Garantita ), which represents an elite category reserved for wines of special status and guaranteed quality.

The 1980, less soft with more power, tannin and substance, is not yet as elegant. After several more years of aging this bottle should please those interested in a more vigorous, robust style. Priced at $13.50, the wine shows a bit more alcohol. It will surely develop the kind of roundness and elegance for which Nebbiolo and its subvarieties have become known. Aged generally from 18 to 24 months in Slavonian oak, neither the '80 nor the '81 wine shows it, emphasizing more of the fruit character and the breed of the vineyard.

Martinenga is located near the famous city of Alba, home of Italy's white truffles. The estate takes its name from the god, Marte (Mars), who was worshipped by ancient Ligurian tribes when they inhabited this sacred site.

Only 30 acres of vines are planted entirely to Nebbiolo. In special vintages Di Gresy's Barbarescos carry an additional appellation, Camp Gros Martinenga and Gaiun Martinenga, special grape sites within the vineyard.

Camp Gros, Barbaresco, 1978, showed a more robust and angular style with greater concentration. It had excellent structure with only a slight showing of tannin in the finish. Aged three to five years in wood, this is the kind of wine claret fans will enjoy. A DOC wine, it is priced at $28 because of its age. A 1979 version at $22.50 was similar in style although not as big in structure. It had more flavor and was long on the palate. Rich and full, it is ruby red with aromas of violets and light spice; the kind of wine that makes for generous drinking now rather than long-term cellaring.

As an everyday red, Nebbiolo, Martinenga, 1983, fits the bill nicely, as a full-flavored wine more in the nature of a light, fruity, California Merlot. Not characteristic of the Barbaresco, this wine is without any wood aging and has spent six to eight months in stainless steel vats plus two months in the bottle. Designed for immediate consumption, it costs $7.95.

Another in a no-wood aging, lighter style, more like a lively new Beaujolais, is Dolcetto d' Alba from a nearby vineyard known as Monte Aribaldo. The 22 acres of this vineyard are on slopes of chalk and tufa, about 1,000 feet above sea level and have some of the area's best Dolcetto grapes.

The 1984 is perfumed and aromatic, clean with a slightly cooked characteristic, no tannin, full fruited and shows a bit of petillance. The wine is attractive and best drunk within the next six months. At $7.50 its finesse is no doubt attributed to the vineyard's high slopes location.

As is the norm with many Piedmonte estates, a Moscato d' Asti is produced. Available from Di Gresy is '84 and '85 La Serra Moscato d' Asti. The '84, though still full-fruited with Moscato flavor and charm, is showing a trace of age, whereas the '85, now available, reflects greater fruit, balance and harmony. These are not overly sweet Moscatos but are straightforward, refreshing and delicate with lingering flavor and slight refined petillance.

La Serra, with only 12 acres planted (in the province of Alessandria in southeastern Piedmonte), qualifies the grapes for use in either Moscato d' Asti or Asti Spumante DOC. The former tends to be sweeter, more coarsely fruity and with less effervescence.

In a rather short period of time di Gresy has created quite a stir with well-made, generous, early-to-drink, Nebbiolo-derived wines especially for Barbaresco. It is good to remember that his wines are soft, ample and supple by design so as not to compete with another Nebbiolo wine, Barolo, known more for its power and robust character. Barbaresco is relatively modern in wine making, dating from the turn of the century with prominence not achieved until the 1950s.

Barbaresco is definitely on a popularity roll in line with today's soft, fruity, quick-to-mature style, increasingly popular with younger wine lovers looking for a "now" taste. It is the accommodation to that style that di Gresy is pointing. Although di Gresy is still considered a youngster by Italian wine making credentials, he and Barbaresco are quickly maturing, together.

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