Am I ever a happy camper! Through the generosity of friends and friends of friends, I had the opportunity to share in a nine-bottle, five-decade tasting of one of Italy’s finest wines, Giacomo Conterno’s Barolo Riserva Monfortino. Nick Belfrage, who knows Italian wine well, has opted for a bottle of Monfortino as his “deathbed tipple.” The vintage he asks for is 1990. The youngest wine we tasted was 1985. Am I a happy camper?
The Giacomo Conterno winery, now run by Roberto Conterno, sits near some prime vineyards in Monforte d’Alba, though all its own vineyards are in Serralunga, and its finest wine is called Monfortino (Don’t ask; this is Italy). Roberto still makes wines the way his father and grandfather (the eponymous Giacomo) did, with long, long skin contact and long aging before release. Vintages of the last 15 years that I’ve tasted in Italy have all been impressive and formidable wines, structured on a large scale and packed with complex flavors that will need many years to evolve.
All the wines we tasted here in New York, however, were produced not by Roberto but by the older generations: 1985, 1978, 1971, 1967, 1968, 1958, 1955, 1947, and 1943. To me this made the tasting doubly interesting, because it was a chance to remind myself how the Barolos that first hooked me long ago have developed, as well as a chance to mentally compare them with what I’ve been tasting of more recent vintages.
In my private history of Piedmont wine, 1982 stands as a great dividing year, the year that climate change was first felt in the area. None of us realized that at the time: That very warm growing season gave grapes of such never-before-seen ripeness that it was thought of as a real anomaly: The growers called it their “California harvest.” Then ’85 was very warm again, forcing the growers to start to come to terms with changed climatic conditions. And then came the fantastic trio of harvests – 1988, 1989, and 1990 – that firmly pushed Barolo and Barbaresco into a whole new era.
From that point on, what came into the cellars from the fields was different from what Nebbiolo had been before. It had to be treated differently, even by the most traditional winemakers, and the history of Barolo and Barbaresco had to start over. If the wines of these latter years evolve anything like the wines of the pre-climate-change years that we had at this recent tasting, we all have a lot to look forward to.
So much for prologue: now for the tasting.
Monfortino 1985. Excellent color. Beautiful earth and mushroom nose, which opened in the glass to intense dry funghi porcini scents and finally to rich tobacco aromas. On the palate it was rich, smooth, and full, with very soft tannins and intense black fruits (with the merest suggestion of over-ripeness). The finish was all mushroom again. Wonderful as this wine was – unquestionably a five star wine – it would turn out to be one of the lesser wines we tasted. In contrast with the wines to come, it came to seem underdeveloped and needing more time to grow. And – just maybe – the winemaking wasn’t as sure-handed as it was before and would become again, once the Piedmont had adjusted to its new weather.
Monfortino 1978. Color and aroma quite similar to the ’85 – certainly no older looking, though perhaps a shade darker, and the porcini scents even more intense. The palate showed greater concentration, with the superb black cherry notes growing more intense, even liqueur-like, as they opened in the glass. Although ready to drink – the first ’78 I’ve encountered that I actually thought ready to drink (it was a tough year, marked by the hardest of tannins) – it was still remarkably fresh and gave every indication of having years and years of growth ahead of it. A glorious Barolo, simply off the charts.
Monfortino 1971. A bit more orange showing in the color, the start of truffle in the aroma, a touch thinner, less full, on the palate, with sour cherry and mushroom flavors dominating, and ending in a long, licorice-y finish. Classic pre-climate-change Barolo, with more obvious acidity contributing importantly to its structure and vitality, and everything held in a beautiful old-school balance. For many tasters, this was the wine of the day.
Monfortino 1967. Very pale: Most of the color had faded. Some acetone, some caramel in the nose, but lovely in the mouth: Burgundy-like, many tasters thought. A very balanced and elegant wine, Burgundian in its deportment and especially its finish.
Monfortino 1961. On the heels of the ’67, this wine was a surprise. It showed darker and more youthful-looking and smelled strongly of mushrooms and tobacco. It tasted young and fresh on the palate, with loads of maturing fruit and evident soft tannins. Not at all Burgudian, but pure Nebbiolo, through and through. For many, this wine upstaged even the ’78, which is really saying something.
Monfortino 1958. The color of this wine was slightly muddy, but it had an amazing nose of porcini and spices – really gorgeous. On the palate, fresh fruit with soft tannins and evident acidity (the latter clearly animating the whole wine), followed by a long licorice finish.
Monfortino 1955. Clearer and brighter than the ’58. Unusual nose of cumin and tobacco. Acidity is the factor structuring this wine and keeping it alive, which it very evidently was, in a state of lovely equilibrium. An excellent, still-sprightly wine with a long licorice finish. The prominence of the acidity seems to be a hallmark of pre-climate-change Barolo, and one of the characteristics that may distinguish it from our contemporary Barolos, which – I’m using the crystal ball here – don’t look to me as if their acidity will ever come so prominently to the fore.
Monfortino 1947. A wonder year all over Europe, producing some of the greatest wines of the last century. This wine was probably starting downslope: For my palate it was good but not great. It still had decent color and good aromas – tobacco, mushroom, earth. And its fruit was still sweet, soft, and long-finishing. It had no flaws: it was just playing in a very tough league, and at 65 years old it was showing a little fatigue.
Monfortino 1943. A rare wine from the war years, and – sadly – over the hill. Its color had completely faded, leaving it looking like a sherry – a Palo Cortado or a Manzanilla – which it also smelled and tasted like. This was the only disappointing wine of the day. With so many so old wines, that, I think, says everything anyone needs to know about how high the level of winemaking was and is at Giacomo Conterno.