Rob was nice enough to open up these Ferrando Carema bottles at a dinner recently, both from the 1998 vintage. I thought it was a cool idea to try the White and Black Labels from the same vintage side by side, because come to think about it, I don't think I have ever done that before. I've drunk plenty of Ferrando Carema, and actually it is one of my favorite wines in general, but a side by side with the different labels and some age I haven't done before. I don't actually know anybody besides Neal Rosenthal who actively cellars the wines. Which may be an indication of how little Ferrando makes it to the States or may actually be an indication that I need to have a serious heart to heart with some of my friends.
Be that as it may, here was a nice chance to try the two wines together. Both bottles were opened at the same time, about 5 hours before dinner, and neither was decanted. The Black Label as you probably know comes from grapes sourced from the better parcels that Ferrando owns, and sees more small barrels for the elevage, some of them new. The White Label by contrast doesn't see any new oak, and is raised in a mixture of both large and small barrels. It is the same grape variety in both, of course, the local Nebbiolo. Carema, by law, cannot be released until four years from the harvest date. And if I understand the Rosenthal website correctly, both the White and Black Label Caremas are aged for around 3 years in wood, give or take a few months. That is for vintages when the Black Label is produced, because Ferrando only makes the Black Label from vintages he thinks merit it. Here were examples from the 1998 vintage, which is a vintage I generally find pretty open and giving when I drink Nebbiolo examples from the warmer climes to the south from around Alba. But I was curious to see if that would also be true of wines from the cooler, more northerly Carema, where acids can shoot through wines like laser beams.
We had the wines with three different preparations of braised beef, each with a sauce typical to a different region of Italy. I thought that that was a pretty great way to go about serving the wines, because it let you see the range of what they could do, in a sense.
You are probably curious at this point to know what I thought about the wines, and I'll tell you, I think this was a good example of the best wine not being the best wine. At least not this week. I've had the Ferrando Black Label Carema in several vintages back to 1990 at this point, and I've never had a bottle that was ready. And I suppose that's fine, and even laudable, but it is also implies quite the commitment to try to find a bottle that might possibly be ready. I imagine that if you were drinking the 1978 Black Label that you might find it fully welcoming, but when does anybody get a chance to do that? Rarely at a restaurant, I think, and yet you see young vintages of the Black Label on restaurant wine lists all the time. I'm not sure that I understand the reasoning behind that choice. I comprehend that the supposed potential of the Black Label is superior to the reality of the White Label, but I have never had a glass of Black Label that I actually preferred to a glass of White Label. Certainly the White Label is "thinner" texturally, but I don't know that this kind of wine has to be built on weight.
As a commentator I respect once told me, it doesn't take much new oak to leave a marked imprint on Nebbiolo. I have yet to have a Black Label where I thought the oak tannin imprint had worn off, although I'll be honest and say that a recent 2006 Black Label was more open than I expected it to be. Most times I find drinking the Black Label like approaching a beautiful mansion on a terraced landscape, only to find that the door is locked. I sense that something wonderful is behind that door, but I can't find an entryway.
And here is what I really want to say, because I don't need to beat up a legend of a wine like the Black Label any more than I have already: as much the Black Label isn't forthcoming is as much as the White Label is charming and wonderful. I really loved that 1998 White Label. It went beautifully with my meal and with the summer evening out of doors. I have a hard time thinking that it could have been drinking better. Here was the purity of Nebbiolo fruit that I so enjoy, without the big hair or designer outfit. It is rare to taste Nebbiolo as it is, and I just love those opportunities. This is a complex and profound grape. It doesn't need much more than time to develop sophistication. Nebbiolo, it seems to me, is a great autodidact. I returned to my glass of White Label again and again to take in what I could learn.
A wine may be more expensive, and it may have more possible potential, but that doesn't make it better for a moment.