“It’s not the words that count, but the rush of what is said.”

–Jack Kerouac

Seemingly all wine regions have a “vintage of the century” (every couple of years), so why should Italy’s Piemonte be any different ? After a long string of terrific, prolific summers, their good fortune has culminated in what may well be the finest of the lot, and the best in recent memory–2000.

One of the wines that can set one’s creative juices flowing just as much as the bodily ones is Barolo. There’s a widely held misconception that Barolo and Barbaresco, Piemonte’s regional “mirror” duo, are hulking bruisers, gushing from the hillsides in a flow of purple ooze. But a great Barolo is one that combines tensile power with balance and finesse. Yes, finesse–almost streamlined, like a Ferrari Testarossa, while encompassing inimitable flavors and nuances; a wine of distinction and even delicacy.

I recently tasted two 2000 Barolos from Michele Chiarlo and one Barbaresco from Bruno Giacosa, his Rabaja bottling. Each is a single vineyard offering that defines these aforementioned elements. Other growers make wine from these selfsame plots (in the same manner that multiple French Burgundy growers share the famous Corton or Montrachet vineyard), and then proceed to craft their own style. Here are some fabulous tasting notes:

2000 Barolo “Cannubi,” Michele Chiarlo $92

Intense bouquet of mulberry, licorice and sweet spice. Hints of tobacco and Asian tea. Very racy, sexy flavors. Medium bodied, nutty, well rounded with pleasant chewy tannins and a lively long finish. Drink 2007-2010. Grade: 92 points

2000 Barolo “Cerequio,” Michele Chiarlo $92

A legendary vineyard and a phenomenal wine. Very open bouquet of cherries, licorice, forest berries, cedar and a touch of mint. A richly extracted mouth feel, tremendously “sappy” with that power/delicacy dichotomy that is a great Barolo. The tannins are not harsh, which is all the better sign of a great future. Drink 2008-2012. 94

2000 Barbaresco “Rabaja,” Bruno Giacosa $150

Innumerable forest berries and dark plums all cascading in a flowery overflow of rich components. Finds the furthest reaches of your nostrils and keeps on going. Heavenly. Full flavored, unbelievably rich and fulsome, yet the overall impression is a refining of all its elements. It has a thousand things to say with each sip. Drink 2008-2015. 97

I’m sure you noticed the fabulous prices along with the fabulous tasting notes. These are not ordinary wines, and one must be willing to invest. Christmas comes but once a year, but wines like these, maybe only once a decade. Yet take heart! Here’s a 2000 that does wonders, expressing the magnificence of the vintage, at less than half the price:

2000 Barolo, Giovanni Corino $43.50

Grapes from numerous sites in Barolo’s La Morra district. Substantial, deeply perfumed if a bit more obvious than the above treasures. Yet it is also more precocious, inspiring earlier consumption. Laden with sumptuous fruit, roses and pepper on the nose. Spicy, plummy flavors are firm but well meshed, ample and supple. Delicious. Drink now-2007. 91

Lastly, an older Barolo vintage showing glorious resolution of its components, at a great price, and also made from Cannubi Vineyard grapes.

1996 Barolo “Cannubi,” Marchesi di Barolo $57.39 (1.5-liter, $110)

Big, dark cherry, black currant fruit that still needs some coaxing from the glass. Leather, violets and a special earthiness on the nose. Not a dirty earth, but the special smell of sweet soil after a summer rain shower. Dry, almost austere, yet a profound, sweet fruit impression in the mouth. Built for the long haul and coming around in perfect balance. Concentrated, deep and complex. Drink now-2006. 93

Give Zinfandel the Bird
Pumpkin soup, chestnut stuffing and fresh cranberries will love the company of berry fresh red zinfandel. Sweet on the nose and forward fruit laden on the palate, it’s the perfect American foil for the sweet/salty flavors of the Thanksgiving season. In this tasting, it was good to see so many regions of California producing character-laden wines of radically diverse dimensions. Lowly Lodi, part of California’s Central Valley, and considered by some a “jug wine” region, seems to be shining brilliantly on the zinfandel front, with excellent pricing as a bonus. So, baste that turkey and choose from my top zin picks of 2004 (27 zinfandels were tasted blindly between Oct. 28-30):

2001 J. Garcia, Sonoma County $15

Jerry wasn’t a Deadhead winemaker, but he was a talented painter, and many of his canvases grace the labels of this line of wines. Produced at Clos Du Bois Winery, this has a juicy, peppery bouquet, clean berry flavors, cranberry tartness, plus generous spicy finish. 85

2002 Cujo, Dover Canyon $20

From Paso Robles, dark, chunky berry scents with an earthy touch. A benevolent and warm blooded style. Rich meaty flavors, sappy but ultimately simple. 86

2001 St. Francis, “Old Vines” $20

Sonoma County. Ripe, full throttle open bouquet. Smooth, well balanced mouth texture with a rather oaky finish. 86

2000 Edmeades, Mendocino $19

Jolly, brash and brambly bouquet–unsubtle, ripe and round. Lively fruit flavor with fine acids and a touch of bitterness. 87

2001 Beringer, Clear Lake $14

Feverish, edgy, wiry and brisk bouquet. Dark wild berries and the scent of rhubarb! (Very nice.) Vibrant, prickly middle weight mouth feel. A kick-ass style that refreshes and battles a bit. 87 NICE VALUE

2000 Rued, Dry Creek Valley $20.70

Sonoma County. Plentiful dried cherry, rose, clove and “autumn leaves” bouquet. Almost buttery texture, with a spunky bite of refreshment and spice on the finish. Very individual style. 87

2001 Campus Oaks, Old Vine $12

From Lodi, deep, luscious berries on a complete, intense nose touched by a hint of iodine. Well crafted and balanced. A bit too much end acidity lowers the score. 87 GREAT BUY

2001 Carmenet, Evangelho Vineyard $20

San Francisco Bay. Generous, “spreadable” very ripe nose with chocolate overtones. Ripe, gentle fruit–a sweetheart of a soft, juicy style. 88

2001 Rancho Zabaco Reserve, Dry Creek Valley $18

Sonoma County. Elegant bouquet, finely melded with polish, depth and truly exuberant fruit. Briary mouth texture, full bodied and impressive. Can age and improve further. 88/89 EXCELLENT VALUE

2001 Niebaum-Coppola, Edizione Pennino $36

Napa Valley. “Sweet,” warm but solid berry fruit structure on the nose. Impressive depth. Rich yet brisk, energized with a “serious” mouth feel. A powerful, fruit packed drink that needs a wild turkey for accompaniment! Best in 2-3 years time. 89

2001 Storybook Mountain Vineyards, Atlas Peak $27.60

Napa Valley. Polished, attractive, refined spices on a penetrating, glowing bouquet. Long, persistent mouth-caressing flavors. Exquisitely meshed with long aftertaste. Always a personal favorite, and this continues the enviable tradition. Wine will be released in spring 2005. 91

2001 Abundance Vineyards, Mencarini Vineyards $15

Lodi. From 60- to 100-year-old vines, this is a velvet glove of pure zinfandel fruit. Expressive and soulful with orange peel and lavender overtones. So inviting. Soft mouth texture, generous and very long aftertaste. Superior quality and a treat. 92 SUPERB VALUE

Wines of note
2002 Viognier, Stag’s Leap Winery $25

Fresh and invigorating. Apricot, peach and pear burst forth and a light touch permeates. Lively refreshment with a smooth but lilting finish. Yummy for Thanksgiving if you must have a white. 90

2003 Albarino, Mar de Frades $16

From Rias Baixas in northwestern Spain, tangy lemon and sour apple on the passionate aroma. Well made, tart and spanking clean. Mix with fresh shrimp or mussels and serve. 86

2001 Tatachilla Grenache-Shiraz $15.25

Velvet-cloaked red with a splashy grenache nose and a nice snap to the bouquet. Well rounded by the one-third shiraz, stylishly integrated and exceptionally balanced on the palate. My idea of a better Beaujolais. I’m not dissing Beaujolais, just the “Nouveau Beaujolais” explosion that’s just about to occur this and every year. You can have the stuff: glorified grape juice with alcohol. Have Tatachilla’s version of grenache with turkey or beef. 89

2001 “Che Vita Da Cane,” Dover Canyon $20

Intense wild cherry, plum and leather, with bay leaf, cinnamon and “good earth” components. Flavors of utterly ripe fruit form a spreadable mouth texture. Not too thick or clumsy. Lip smacking, rugged with nerve, spicy herbal finish and long aftertaste. Begs for grilled herb-crusted meat. You won’t feel that “it’s a dog’s life” after sipping this. 88

Timing is everything
The wine that gives me the utmost joy is one at its complete blossoming–a wine that is showing all of its attributes before any downslide has begun. The results are simply breathtaking and it can be the wine that inspires a wine drinker onto a plateau she never deemed existed. Such a wine is 1996 Brunello di Montalcino from the Castello di Camigliano ($41.50, Grade: 94). Magnificent nose reminiscent of a classic Graves from Bordeaux. All the fruit-soaked oak, smoke and leather impressions come together. A wine to simply smell for minutes, each inhalation firming up that fixed smile on your lips. The awe you feel at a few bunches of grapes transformed into an elixir. It drinks so evenly that it coats the palate in every corner and hugs the gums pleasurably. Superb texture, perfect weight. A long finish that you long to repeat over and over again. The holidays are near and there are less than two cases of this wine left in our market.

Arturo Ciompi received the 2004 first prize from the national Association of Food Journalists (AFJ) for his Independent Weekly Wine Beat articles. He can be reached at deal5@earthlink.net.