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.”
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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).