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Roero, dwarfed by famous neighbors, is an Italian wine region you should know [Chicago Tribune :: BC-WBS-ROERO:TB]

Roero is the place by the places. It's the wine like the wines, and the wines we're talking about are all made of the nebbiolo grape variety, and they all come from Piedmont in northwestern Italy. But there are differences, and the difference that favors Roero is price.

I like to think of the red wine of Roero (there's a white, too, and we'll get to that) the way you might think of a tribute band that is so good, and close enough to the original in its own way, that you don't mind seeing it in a cramped bar. You don't even miss the light show and pyrotechnics that would have been part of the original band's arena concert.

You're also thankful that you have a wad of cash in your pocket because the doorman hit you up for $10 instead of the $100 you would have paid for a ticket to the big show. You're also happy that you can check out the tribute band on a regular basis instead of waiting for the original band to come around again, because that is always a major event. So yeah, I think we've covered the tribute band metaphor pretty thoroughly here. We can move on.

Roero has been producing increasingly good nebbiolo-based wines for years, and thus offering a viable alternative to the much more prestigious, much more expensive nebbiolo-based wines of neighboring Barolo and Barbaresco.

The Roero region sits north of the town of Alba, in the hills rising up from the bank of the Tanaro River. As is the case in a lot of places around there - across Piedmont and well beyond - wine grapes have been growing for eons. Modern advances are fairly recent in Roero, though, as the region was upgraded in 2005 to DOCG status (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita), Italy's highest guarantee for quality, for both Roero and Roero arneis wines. Also, this spring the region plans to unveil an official subzone classification map, akin to a grand cru vineyard system.

Nebbiolo is the big red grape in Roero and in Italy, and Piedmont is its home base. This is the grape that goes into the "king of Italian wines" (Barolo) and the wine that some people argue is just as good or better than Barolo - Barbaresco. Because those wines are so legendary, as reason would follow, they are expensive. And guess what else - tickets to Rolling Stones concerts are also expensive. If you love the urgent, dangerous sound of that ragtag group of multimillionaires but don't like paying their fancy prices, consider searching out a Stones tribute outfit. The same goes for Barolo/Barbaresco and Roero.

Roero reds are dry, barrel-aged, full-bodied wines that are aromatic and floral, and could be full of ripe red fruits, licorice and smoke, with pleasing tannins, ranging from silky to more grippy. Even at their most tannic, many Roero reds are ready to drink right off the shelf - one more advantage over their more prestigious nebbiolo counterparts, which have long had reputations for needing time in the bottle before being ready to drink (though that reputation is softening due to a shift in attitudes and winemaking).

Roero arneis is the region's signature white wine. The arneis grape variety is native to Roero and makes dry, fragrant, medium- to full-bodied whites that are usually best drunk young and fresh. They are very soft, because of their generally lower acidity, and can be full of floral or yeasty notes that lead to citrus, ripe stone fruits and at times, a touch of balancing tartness or bitterness on the finish.

Don't expect a Roero red to challenge a top Barolo or Barbaresco in complexity, power or ageability (although both Roeros have good aging potential), but do expect it to offer a more-than-satisfying nebbiolo drinking experience and to save you a good chunk of change, which you can then spend on another bottle of the same - or drop into your piggy bank for the next time the arena band of your choice comes to town.

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Below are notes from a recent tasting of Roero wines. They are listed in ascending order, according to style (arneis is first, followed by nebbiolo) and price.

Arneis

2015 Taliano Michele Serni Roero Arneis. This one had a touch of lime, minerality and a slight, pleasing bitterness on the finish. $16

2015 Cascina Val del Prete Luet Roero Arneis. Silky, toasty and citrusy, with minerality and closing hints of refreshing tartness. $18

2014 Malvira Roero Arneis. Floral and lemony with a whiff of fennel, this beauty had a very soft mouthfeel. $19

2014 Deltetto S. Michele Roero Arneis. Tropical notes, lime, crushed rock and a crisp, clean finish summed up this one. $25

Nebbiolo

2013 Careglio Roero. Lusty and brooding with notes of orange peel, dark red fruits, roasted meats and herbs. $27

2013 Cornarea Roero. Light, lively and refreshing, this one offered ripe cherry and herbs, and finished with spice and black pepper. $28

2012 Fornace Roero. Luscious ripe raspberry gave way to cranberry and cherry, plus floral notes and fine acidity. $35

2012 Matteo Correggia La Val dei Preti Roero. Raspberry, cherry and strawberry were joined by notes of cedar and char in this one. $37

2012 Antaniolo Pelassa Roero Riserva. Blackberry, raspberry, bright red cherry and anise led to a long, slow finish. $42

2013 Demarie Roero Riserva. This chewy stunner offered ripe raspberry, black cherry, blueberry, smoke and incense, with 14.5 percent alcohol to boot. $45

2012 Monchiero Carbone Printi Roero Riserva. Black cherry and blackberry notes led to campfire wood smoke and a whiff of bacon. $45

If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for one similar in style and price.

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