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PSA for wine lovers: Maialino's yearly Barolo Bar is stocked with amazing old bottles at very sharp prices.
Poll a group of somms about the world’s greatest grape, and you’re likely to hear some argument for Nebbiolo. This hard-to-farm Italian varietal, best known as the main red grape of Piedmont, produces pedestal-worthy wines with deep flavors and the smell of high-grade truffles. But despite the affection it invites from professionals, it’s hard to think of a grape that’s less accessible to outsiders. Great Barolos and Barbarescos take a decade or more to become delicious, and well-aged bottles aren’t easy to find.
That’s why the Barolo Bar, which pops up every fall at Maialino in New York, offers such a rare form of instant wine gratification. The program, now in its fifth year, is simple: a rotating one-page lineup of Nebbiolo-based reds, each available by the glass, quartino or bottle. The wines are spectacular, and they’re ready to drink right now. “Anyone can offer a current release, even from the harder-to-find producers we carry,” says wine director Jeff Kellogg. “But to have them with age is a totally different story.”
These wines aren’t cheap. But if you know what they usually cost, you might wonder if the Barolo Bar is a public service for the wine-obsessed. Say you’re in the market for Giusseppe Rinaldi’s Brunate-Le Coste, a legendary Barolo from two famous vineyards. The current release, 2011, is $180 at some of America’s better wine shops. You might find that it tastes more promising than pleasurable, even though it’s from a warm year and is, by all reports, surprisingly tasty at this early stage. Personally, I’d rather go to Maialino for the layered and perfumey 1998. When I visited last month it was available for $199, a markdown of about $20 from the current retail price—and that’s at the few shops that sell it. If you can find that bottle for sale by a reputable merchant, she probably wouldn’t offer you a glass at a prorated price (or pour it alongside a creamy dish of pillowy malfatti dumplings with braised suckling pig).
Though the Barolo Bar runs from October through January, Kellogg keeps it in mind all year long. “It's kind of the way my mom looks at Christmas shopping,” he says. “If she sees something that's right for one of her grandkids in June, she buys it, puts it away and has it ready to go come December 25th.” That approach led Kellogg, some months ago, to a few cases of a 1978 bottling from Produttori del Barbaresco. If you hurry, you can score a glass of this 37-year-old wine for $47.
You won’t miss out by spending less. There are extraordinary bottles under $90, like the bright, wildflower-scented 1997 Vallana Gattinara, from Piedmont’s northern foothills. The least-expensive wine, at $53 for the bottle, is a stellar single-vineyard Colline Novaresi by Monsecco. It’s just a few years old, but it has impressively vivid, dark licorice flavors.
For Kellogg, one of the list’s best bottles comes from the producer Conti in Boca, a tiny region high in the Piedmontese Alps. It’s supremely obscure, and the wine might not even be 100 percent Nebbiolo. “It’s hard to find out what grapes they were using in ’89,” he says. “But there are spice notes and darker fruit that make you think it has something else in it. It’s the sleeper.”