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Letter from Europe: Charlie's Labels

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The Paris terror attacks also took the lives of France's most outrageous wine label designers

This past week, the words "Je suis Charlie" ("I am Charlie") have traveled the world in sympathy with the victims of the deadly jihadist terrorist attack on the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, for which Al Qaeda in Yemen is now claiming responsibility.

Among the slain were five of France's most celebrated cartoonists. Three of them were also among the country's most outrageous wine label designers.

"They were my friends," explains Bordeaux winemaker Gérard Descrambe, 65. For more than 40 years, Descrambe commissioned Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and others to make eye-catching labels that varied from drunken to suggestive to sexually explicit humor. "Their spirit was to laugh at everything and expose the biggest bullshit in the world. And they were killed by the biggest act of bullshit."

Letter from Europe: The Sweet Life

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Can this Monbazillac open your mind?

"I want to get out of the ghetto," says Bruno Bilancini.

Below him, the hillside of browning Muscadelle and Sémillon grapes in southwest France's Monbazillac appellation doesn't look much like a "ghetto." In fact, the gentle slopes look more like a vinous paradise.

But I get the point.

Bilancini's Château Tirecul La Gravière makes delicious cult sweet white wines that have been compared with Sauternes' Château d'Yquem. But he's frustrated that fine sweet wines are still an afterthought in the wine world. The French, for example, drink sweet whites with foie gras around the holidays, then forget about them for a year. We Americans relegate them to the dessert course.

"I want to get them out of the ghetto of foie gras and dessert wine," says Bilancini, rattling off some surprisingly delicious-sounding pairings: white meats, spring rolls, strong cheeses and curries. Even entire cuisines like Szechuan, Indian and Moroccan.

Italian Brew-ha-ha

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How the son of a Piedmontese winemaker, launched Italy's booming craft beer scene

Teo Musso's stellar success was shaped by a fight with his father, a Piedmont winegrower who insisted his children drink the family's home vino with meals.

"He made me drink wine mixed with water," Musso says, adding that the stuff often approached vinegar.

A punk-rock rebel at 15, Musso defiantly told his Dad, 'I want to drink beer!'"

Today at 50, the bearded, gray-mopped Musso has followed that proclamation to become a guru of Italy's booming craft beer scene and to build one of the world's hottest artisanal beer brands, Baladin.

Baladin beers are served in high-end European restaurants in Musso-designed tasting glasses. He owns 13 themed pubs across Italy, is a partner in breweries inside Eataly stores in New York and Rome, and has opened a hip, gastronomic beer-pairing restaurant called Casa Baladin on the main square of his native Piozzo (pop. 1,000), a Dolcetto-producing town 10 miles southwest of Barolo.

Letter from Europe: Inside Ar.Pe.Pe

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Extreme Nebbiolo Part II

I confess. I'm one of those wine lovers who regard Nebbiolo as more than a wine grape. I won't say Nebbiolo wines provide a mystical experience. But some get pretty close.

A recent Nebbiolo pilgrimage across Northern Italy led me inevitably to the door of Ar.Pe.Pe.—the perfectionist, traditionalist producer in the grape's alpine frontier of the Valtellina valley bordering Switzerland.

And what a door it is.

The winery threshold is carved into a steep mountainside, terraced with vineyards, in the appellation's Grumello zone. Here the centuries-old terraces, built from 10-foot drywalls of schist and granite, lead way up to a medieval castle perched in the distance.

Inside, I was immediately struck by the cathedralic vastness of Ar.Pe.Pe.'s cellars. The family company, after all, produces a modest 5,000 cases. But this is a winery that could produce hundreds of thousands more.

Letter from Europe: In Negri's Inferno

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Extreme Nebbiolo Part 1: A helicopter harvest in Alpine Italy

 Casimiro Maule, tall and elegant in a pin-striped suit and supple black shoes, races across some of Northern Italy's most rugged terraced vineyards like a mountain goat.

The 65-year-old winemaker, who over the past four decades has led Nino Negri through ups and downs to its place as one of Italy's leading quality producers, darts over a makeshift plank bridge and bounds over a series of ditches where the vertiginous terrace walls have eroded.

"Attenzione!" he warns younger visitors trying to keep up in hiking boots.

It is end-of-October harvest, and we are traversing the ominously named Inferno—one of five wine zones in Italy's steep Valtellina valley. Its dramatic 25 miles of vineyards cling to the lower slopes of the Alps that form the border with Switzerland.

Letter from Europe: Low Hype Barolo

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"No photo!" Giuseppe Cavallotto waved me off as I aimed my iPhone in his direction.

He stood atop of one of Barolo's most gorgeous vineyards, his family's monopole Bricco Boschis, a steep, sunny, concave hillside that stretches below the family home and winery in Castiglione Falletto.

Giuseppe, the middle of three siblings who run Tenuta Cavallotto, said posing for photographs was for his younger brother, Alfio. Then I asked Giuseppe his age. "That doesn't matter," he responded, and after an awkward silence added, "I'm more-or-less 46—it's no secret."

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