Partly in the interests of equity, partly because I was narcissistically moved by my own prose in my last post about a great Barolo cru, and mostly because one fine palatal experience calls for another, I decided to devote this post to a too-little-known (in the US, at least) Barbaresco cru. Probably the most famous Barbaresco crus are Montestefano and Rabaja, with Asili pulling up in third place. My wine of choice today isn’t one of those: It’s Montefico.
Montefico is a Barbaresco of Barbaresco, a wine of the commune of Barbaresco within the appellation of Barbaresco. It faces the vineyards of the Montestefano cru across the road. Their soils are similar sorts of limestone, but the eastward facing Montefico yields wines of – for my palate – greater elegance than the usually heftier, more austere wines of Montestefano.
This is in no way to demean the latter, which is unquestionably a great site – but I will choose Montefico any time I can get it. It’s a big wine too, but that’s not for me its greatest attraction. Rather, it’s the grace with which Montefico usually wraps its Nebbiolo. When nature provides the good long growing season that Nebbiolo needs, the morning sun on Montefico’s slopes seems to induce a gentler ripening and a fuller, more even development of the grapes’ components than on many westward-facing sites, and that in turn – in the hands of a good winemaker – results in a more rounded, more nuanced wine.
My bottle passed through the hands of a very good winemaker indeed: Aldo Vacca, who has been the presiding genius of the Produttori del Barbaresco for many years now. As most readers of this blog know, the Produttori del Barbaresco is one of the finest cooperative wineries to be found anywhere, and its wines are always an excellent buy. Among the great Nebbiolo wines of the Alba zones, quality for dollar, Produttori del Barbaresco simply cannot be beat.
Its 56 members cultivate 100 hectares of wines, spread over some of the most traditional sites in the zone. Those hundred hectares amount to almost a sixth of Barbaresco’s total area: It’s not a big zone – just about a third the size of its sibling Barolo. All that good Nebbiolo comes annually to the Produttori’s cellars. Year after year, that gives Vacca a lot of top-flight grapes from many top-flight sites to work with (they are always vinified separately), so that in the best vintages, the coop produces nine cru wines, all Barbaresco DOCG Riserva, and all grown within the commune of Barbaresco: Asili, Moccagotta (now Muncagotta), Montefico, Montestefano, Ovello, Pajè, Pora, Rabajà, and Rio Sordo.*
In a good vintage, those nine crus will represent about 40% of the winery’s total production. (In an average year, they all form part of the basic Barbaresco DOCG – which, in an average year, makes that an above-average wine, one well worth knowing about.) Over the years, I’ve been able to taste all the crus in several different vintages, and I can assure you they really differ from each other in ways both significant and subtle, so you can give yourself a lot of interesting enjoyment by acquiring bottles of each and tasting them side by side.
But let me get back to my one special bottle: Barbaresco DOCG Riserva Montefico 1999. Like the 1989 Barolo Lazzarito of my last post, this was the middle of three highly rated vintages. 1998 was unquestionably good, though perhaps not showing as well now as many of us had hoped: In both Barolo and Barbaresco, ‘98’s awkward adolescence seems to be prolonging itself. 2000 I frankly think was overrated, especially in Barolo, where, despite James Suckling’s and the Wine Spectator’s grandiosely proclaiming it “the vintage of the century” (which one?), the great heat of the growing season produced almost cooked wines, most of which are already finished. Barbaresco, being generally cooler than Barolo, fared better, but if you still have any 2000s I’d urge you to drink them soonest. About ’99, opinions differ: Was it a great vintage, or merely a good one? Much depends of whose wine you’re drinking, I think. Nowhere was 1999 worse than good, and for some producers, it was excellent. Produttori is one of the latter.
My bottle of Montefico was, simply, glorious. Nowhere near peaking – it seems to have decades before it yet – but wonderfully balanced and open, it showed the kind of complexity and nuance the greatest Nebbiolo is capable of. Its nose was densely packed and multi-stranded. I could discern threads of black coffee and dried cherries and road tar and bitter cacao and an unpickable knot of underbrush, mushroom, and earth notes – no fresh fruit notes at all, but a congeries of matured and maturing aromas. In the mouth, the same sorts of flavors, in a svelte package that was round and full without seeming either big or heavy, very silky and elegant while still tasting of its roots in the earth. The finish, of course, was very, very long, in the classic Nebbiolo style.
For my palate, this was a great wine, classic – there is no other word – through and through. Lovely as this wine is, the best news is that Aldo Vacca and the Produttori are still making these wines, still in the same way. Back in May in Alba I tasted the latest to be released string of Produttori del Barbaresco’s crus, the 2008s, and they are across the board lovely, with an abundance of quintessentially Nebbiolo fruit and the kind of structure that presages a very long life. And yes, for me the Montefico stood out – though I wouldn’t mind having some of the 2008 Asili or the Rabajà either.
* That concentration within the Barbaresco commune results from the circumstances of the Produttori del Barbaresco’s founding. The cooperative was begun by the initiative of the Barbaresco parish priest in 1958, during the darkest days of Italy’s post-war rural economy, as an attempt to provide some way for the small growers of his area to survive on their land. It began with 17 growers, and all those original members still belong to the cooperative.