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Is Radicchio Punk? Is Nebbiolo? Are You? Am I?
No, probably not. But let's discuss anyway.
“Radicchio is really punk.” Ponder that for a moment. Radicchio is really punk. Then, consider this: “Italian radicchio is having a moment in the United States.” Can both of these things be true? Is one or the other true? Honestly, is anything true anymore? Let’s just go with it. Radicchio is punk. And radicchio is having a moment.
I read both of those quotes not too long ago in Mark Bittman’s dearly-departed publication Heated, in an article entitled: “A Chicory to Dismantle Late-Stage Capitalism.” Radicchio is a notoriously challenging vegetable known for its aggressive bitterness, but I’ll admit that the notion of its anti-capitalist potential and relative punk-ness surprised me. This vision of radicchio was set forth by some growers and advocates in the Pacfic Northwest who run Chicory Week, and Sagra del Radiccho (a cool and delicious annual event that happens in Portland). A farmer in Walla Walla, Washington asserted that radicchio, in addition to being punk, is a way to work against corporate agriculture: “Radicchio localizes and decentralizes the power of the salad industry.” Which is true (at least when it’s grown locally by a small producer and not shipped in from a faraway place like, say…Italy).
Significantly less surprising was to be told, as we have for many years by food media, that radicchio is “having its moment.” We’ve been told that The Age of Radicchio is Upon Us, that radicchio is “ready for its closeup,” that (just a few months ago) “Now is the Time” to be growing our own radicchio (“Yes, it’s a thing at the moment”). Some might argue that radicchio has been having its moment since about 1988.
I believe this media nexus of radicchio-as-punk and radicchio-as-having-its-moment perfectly illustrates the issues and limitations we face in describing and advocating for less-known, or less-popular, or less-understood dishes and drinks we love. In a sense, both are answers to an imaginary question posed by an imaginary reader: Why should I eat/drink [FILL IN BLANK]?
Which is a long and circuitous way of saying: This newletter is about Langhe Nebbiolo, why I love it and why you should drink more of it. (Not least of which because it’s the very best pairing with radicchio).
Langhe Nebbiolo is the sort of everyday red wine that’s reliably available, reliably good value, and reliably delivers unique flavors and aromas. It’s also the sort of wine that’s the opposite of trendy, rarely touted by influencers or celebrity sommeliers or characterized by wine media as “of the moment” or pretty much anything else.
Part of that is because Langhe Nebbiolo is the poor cousin of much more important, more coveted, and more expensive wines: Barolo and Barbaresco. Langhe Nebbiolo is a flexible DOC and it exists so that Barolo and Barbaresco producers have the ability to declassify their expensive DOCG wines, to offer a second wine, perhaps from a younger vineyard or a difficult vintage, with significantly less aging. While most top Barolos are released north of $80 (and plenty over $150), Langhe Nebbiolo made by the exact same Barolo producers runs about $18 to $22.
Nebbiolo is an amazing, distinct grape, combining the finesse and intensity of pinot noir along with the power and tannins of cabernet sauvignon. Yet the Langhe Nebbiolo you can find at $20 is simply better than almost any pinot noir or cabernet sauvingon at the same price. Full stop. This is a hill I will die on.
I believe the only reason why Langhe Nebbiolo is not more widely embraced is that it has no advocates. It’s generally not “natural wine.” But it’s also not Barolo. On a basic level, look at traditional wine-critic scoring: The big-time critics who review Barolo seem to have an unwritten rule that Langhe Nebbiolo must always be rated between 87 and 89 points. This is, of course, a straw man to set up the rating of 95+ point Barolos. But if Langhe Nebbiolo were reviewed in any other context—where value mattered—it would never be rated that low by today’s scoring standards. An 89-rated Langhe Nebbiolo would get 95+ points in most other regions/categories.
But also, those familiar with elegant, highbrow Barolo are often shocked by how brash younger nebbiolo can be. Langhe Nebbiolo is full of rambunctious acidity, earthiness, rusticity, and tannins ready to brawl. Young nebbiolo has edge. Come to think of it…is young nebbiolo…dare we say it…sort of…punk?
Young nebbiolo as punk. Hmm. Well yes, that certainly sounds interesting. But even if it’s true, what does it mean? Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of wine writers reaching for the “punk” adjective to describe in-demand, off-the-beaten path, exclusive wines. Several years ago, for instance, Food + Wine asked: “How Punk Is Your Pinot?” That article referenced wines from Loire, Beaujolais, Jura and the like — which were certainly “of the moment.” But punk?
The natural wine movement is occasionally likened to punk. At least in the beginning it made sense: There was an anarchic, counter-cultural, and often combative vibe to the pioneering natural winemakers. In a 2016 article by Rachel Signer, about whether or natural wine should have a defined classification and label, an Oregon winemaker sneered at the idea: “That’s like saying you’re going to make a category for punk rock, and some panel is going to adjudicate whether your band qualifies as punk rock.”
Now, I am absolutely no arbiter of punk. My punk credentials are shaky at best. For a brief period of my early teens, in the 1980s, I was a committed suburban skatepunk, who religiously listened to cassette tapes of bands like Agent Orange, Gang Green, Minor Threat, The Faction, Dead Kennedys, and the Butthole Surfers, and hung out on Philadelphia’s South Street during the heyday of The Dead Milkmen. A kid in my class built a half-pipe ramp in his yard that was featured in the skatepunk magazine Thrasher. My friends and I envied this, and set out to build a better ramp. And to do so in the most punk way possible: by stealing several hundred dollars of wood from a neighborhood construction site. That’s when my suburban punk era crashed to an abrupt end. We were caught, and faced consequences, the least of which was my skateboard sold to repay the builder. My punk lifestyle never recovered.
“Punk rhetoric tended to be both populist and elitist: you took up for ‘the people’ while simultaneously decrying the mediocre crap they listened to.” That’s Kelefa Sanneh’s brilliant description in his wonderful essay about his punk adolescence, “The Education of a Part-Time Punk” (in The New Yorker). Sanneh’s description might also apply to about 90 percent of food and drink writing. (Some of mine included, to be fair).
Still, punk had (and has) a purpose in its purposelessness. “Historically,” Sanneh writes, “the moments when everyone seems to be listening to the same songs are the moments when some people are brave and immature enough to say fuck this and fuck that and start something new or halfway new. That will probably always sound like a good idea to me.” Sanneh, however, wonders whether the age of arguing about music is coming to close.
Which brings me back to Langhe Nebbiolo and radicchio. Both occupy interesting places in the universe of food and wine. Are they mainsteam? Yes, sort of. But also, not really. Are they divisive? Yes and no. Does any of that matter? No. But here’s the thing. When you serve radicchio and young nebbiolo together, you bring out the inherent punk-ness of both—the bitter, earthy edge of the radicchio, the raucous tannic, acidic, weird rose-plus-asphalt elements of the nebbiolo. Unlike most food and wine pairings, this one accentuates the thing in each that threatens to turn people off.
Unlike music, wine is a sphere of culture where arguments, purity tests, and sneering at the mainstream abound. Take for instance, the entire concept of wine-and-food pairings. One of my favorite wine editors, just a few days ago, told me that she HATED pairings, believed the concept of pairing was complete bullshit. I respectfully disagree. Both, for instance, radicchio and nebbiolo need one other—like a 1980s suburban punk and his Thrasher magazine. Plus, as I’ve said before: Pairing food and drink is ridiculous. But no more ridiculous than life itself.
For this particular tasting, I opened a gaggle of Langhe Nebbiolo and prepared a dinner of two radicchio salads, roasted radicchio with balsamic vinegar, and a rich pasta with radicchio and sausage. Here are my three nebbiolo picks (click on the links to find them):
Vibrant and bright, notes of raspberry, cherry and purple flowers, but also something deeper and earthier, along with that classic “tar” note. About as close to a Barolo as you’ll find for under $20. Pair with Fugazi’s “Waiting Room”
Very pretty, with savory, herbal nose of fresh-cut flower stem, sage, dill, and a hint or rose, and juicy red fruit and silky tannins on the palate. Pair with Fidlar’s “No Waves”
Classic “baby Barolo” and a perennial favorite of mine (though to be honest, the 2018 is not as good as other vintages). Still, this is a lovely wine, with mint, violet, and dried rose on the nose, and juicy cherry, racy acidity on the palate and a long chalky finish. Pair with The Faction’s “Why Save the Whales”