If you want to get a feel for the wines of Barbaresco, in Piedmont, I can’t think of a nicer way than over a lunch at the town’s popular trattoria, Antica Torre. This spartan, white-washed family restaurant is famous for its spin on the local speciality tajarin, a sort of angel-hair pasta soused in veal ragù. And it’s also got a pretty formidable wine list, so all the wine trade hang out there. I’ve dined at Antica Torre with Roberto Bava, chatted tableside with Gaia Gaja and most recently enjoyed a very indulgent lunch there with Luisa Rocca, daughter of one of Barbaresco’s top winemakers, Bruno Rocca.
Head of the family business since 1978, Bruno Rocca was part of a generation of “modernist” winemakers who ushered in a more supple, fruit-forward style for barbaresco (and barolo) in the 1980s and ’90s. Moving away from the tannic, highly structured wines of the “traditionalists” – that often required years in the cellar before they were ready to drink – the “modernists” set out to make a more New World style that was enjoyable even when young. Today, like many winemakers in Piedmont, Rocca draws on the wisdom of both schools, but he maintains a light touch. “Our goal is not to ‘make’ wine,” he says, “but to guide its evolution to help it best express itself.” The company owns land in several parts of Piedmont, but its not-so-secret weapon is Rabajà vineyard, 1km south of Barbaresco. This marl-rich terrain is one of the region’s most prized plots.
2016 looks set to be a star vintage for Barbaresco. With Luisa, I taste the soon-to-be-released Bruno Rocca Barbaresco Rabajà 2016 (out October, £98.99 from Eton Vintners). It has an aromatic scent of fresh tobacco leaves, which, she says, is particularly characteristic of Rabajà. On the palate, that tobacco leaf character is there again – in taste as well as tannin – mingled with tart blackcurrant, smoky rose and liquorice. The 2015 (£98.95 from Eton Vintners) – another great vintage – is darker and more brooding.
Bruno Rocca also makes a Riserva from this vineyard that sees a little more oak. The Rabajà Riserva 2013 (£194.99 from Liberty Wines) has a lovely, weighty silkiness to it and concentrated fruit at its core. Barbaresco is often described – a bit condescendingly – as the more “feminine” or “approachable” cousin of barolo (also made from the Nebbiolo grape). But Rocca’s wines prove you can have elegance and attractiveness without losing definition or intensity.
Alice Lascelles is Fortum & Mason Drinks Writer of the Year 2019. @alicelascelles.