The biggest of the Italian big'uns begin with B: Barolo and Barbaresco. Both are made from the noble nebbiolo grape in the Piedmont region, but Barolo is gutsier than Barbaresco -- so gutsy that it legally has to age three years before deemed palatable enough to bottle. Even then, to drink either a Barolo or a Barbaresco and not have the tannins rip your tongue out, you generally have to hold onto a bottle for 10 to 20 years -- or, at bare minimum, aerate it for a few hours -- before sipping. There are some newer, less traditional wineries using techniques to render the wine drinkable one to five years after release. The difference arises from how long the grape juice sits with its tannic skins and seeds during fermentation. The longer they steep together, the more acerbic the juice becomes. The process is very much like a tea bag that sits too long in hot water -- the "tea-leaf" tannins impart a drying, bitter flavor.
With these Italian big'uns come big'un price tags, normally between $30 and $50 per bottle. Another less expensive, softer nebbiolo-based wine is Gattinara.
HINT: to really appreciate the beauty of big Italian reds, use food to tame the tannins, especially dairy and meat, whose fat content protects and coats the tongue.
But wait, there's more "B" big'uns: Brunello di Montalcino and Barbera. Like its cousin in Piedmont, Tuscan Brunello is the gutsy guy of the region. Made from the sangiovese grosso grape, it's intense, tannic and requires lots of aging. A Brunello-Lite version is Rosso di Montalcino.
Barbera is one of my favorite big'uns, but in recent years it has evolved out of big'un realm into a softer, less oak-soaked red. It's made from the barbera grape grown in Piedmont, and the best come from the Alba region. Look for those from old vines, resulting in a fuller, more luscious wine.
In a class all by itself is Amarone. Made from corvina, rondinella and molinara grapes, the fruit is air-dried on mats before being fermented, concentrating the sugar and flavors. The end result is an intense, earthy, high-alcohol kick you don't expect. Yum!
Although they might be intimidating to the unaccustomed, exploring Italian big'uns is worth the effort, especially if you pair them with an aged hard cheese or grilled meat. These sumptuous wines are unlike any other on earth.
Righetti Capitel de'Roari 1998 Amarone Like breakfast in a glass, this wine has a distinct smell and flavor of smoky applewood bacon, toast, and coffee. Nice price for a wine of this quality. $25.
Giancarlo Travaglini 1998 Gattinara A warm-up wine for an S&M fan, with leather, chocolate and black cherry rolled into one sip. You might also notice some licorice. $33.
Casanova di Neri 2000 Rosso di Montalcino Bold, in your face with chocolate and cola. But this wine had a distinct, elegant, rose aroma. $33.