Old Ways Are Best

As I become a cranky old fart, I find myself more and more enamored of the wines that my palate recalls from years back. I realize that the flavors I am romanticizing about used to occur only about once a decade in France and Italy and Spain, and that the other nine years were often enough just barely drinkable. Yes, it’s true: Thanks to technology and climate change, we now get more good vintages than bad out of every decade, and I would be an ungrateful churl to repine at that.

And yet, and yet . . . My palatal memory – which is not infallible, but is on the whole pretty reliable – tells me that the other vintage, that one in ten, was special in a way that even the best modern vintages rarely reach. I’m pretty sure I’m recalling something real – just as when Andre Tchelistcheff years ago assured me that the pre-phylloxera wines he drank in his youth tasted better, richer, more intense than anything he’d had since. The few pre-phylloxera wines I’ve been privileged to taste convince me that he too was remembering something real, not simply indulging in nostalgia.

So it gives me more than usual pleasure, and excites more than usual interest, when I discover some winemakers and some projects that are starting in a modest way to turn back the clock, to retain everything useful that has been learned in recent decades while paying some serious attention to what their grandfathers – who, as they will be quick to tell you, were no dummies – did and why they did it.

Where I am most aware of this happening in Italy is in what I regard as its two greatest red wine zones, Campania and Piedmont. In the former, both the great traditional house of Mastroberardino and the newer firm Feudi di San Gregorio have launched research into surviving pre-phylloxera vineyards, methods of cultivation, and clones of their great varieties. In Piedmont, there has so far been a lesser emphasis on clones and old vineyards, but more and more focus on how the anziani – the old timers – used to handle the grapes and what they did with them in the cellar.

Recently, I’ve experienced three very different Nebbiolo-based wines that are in their separate ways striving to recapture the great traditional character of Piedmontese wine: Vallana’s Cuvee Bernardo Vallana 2010; Giacomo Fenocchio’s Barolo Bussia 2008 90 Di; and Prunotto’s single-vineyard Barolo Riserva Bussia 2008 Vigna Colonello.

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Vallana’s Cuvee Bernardo Vallana 2010

Bernardo Vallana was an almost legendary winemaker, a pioneer in spreading the fame of the Alto Piemonte thanks to his favorite wine: Spanna. Spanna was and is the local name for Nebbiolo in Piedmont’s sub-Alpine zone, which includes appellations such as Gattinara and Boca. “Vini di altri tempi,” Vallana used to call his wines – “wines of yesteryear” – already in the 1960s and 70s hearkening back to the great, elegant Nebbiolos of the past. Now, 50 years later, his grandchildren, Francis and Marina Fogarty, are striving to recreate the taste and character of those wines in the vineyards that gave rise to them. Here is Marina’s explanation of the project.

Bernardo Vallana was a perfectionist, not simply a winemaker. He understood the importance both of single vineyard bottling for cru vineyards and of carefully blending cuvées when he wanted to emphasize the style of the winemaker. For this reason, he had an extremely long list of different labels for all of his wines. We have started to re-issue them, as we are determined to follow our grandfather’s footsteps. Bernardo Vallana’s house wine was Spanna del Camino (of the Fireplace), named after his home’s fireplace represented on the label. This is the first label to be re-launched in our project, and we re-named it Cuvée Bernardo Vallana.

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As opposed to the classic Colline Novaresi Spanna, which expresses a younger flavor profile, our Spanna Bernardo Vallana cuvée has been expressly created following the original style of those Vallana Spannas capable of ageing for 30 years or more which made Bernardo Vallana such a legend. The wine is enjoyable now, but honestly we made this wine for people who are aware of the ageing potential of Vallana Spanna and wish to have a wine that they can store now, and enjoy its evolution in 10, 20, 30+ years’ time (provided they resist the temptation!).

My own tasting of the 2010 vintage confirms that Vallana’s grandchildren would make him very proud. It’s a very big wine despite its moderate alcohol, mouth-filling and smooth, with still quite firm tannins and wonderful Piemontese flavors – black cherry and tobacco most obviously, but all sorts of mineral and sottobosco notes as well. This is clearly a wine to cellar for as long as your patience lasts, and it will just get better and better. It really did recall those wonderful Vallana Spannas that I enjoyed so much in the 70s and early 80s.

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Giacomo Fenocchio’s Barolo Bussia 2008 90 Di

In the more-familiar-to-most-consumers Barolo zone, Claudio Fenocchio, owner and winemaker of Giacomo Fenocchio, is following a similar path. “I am becoming more and more old-school,” he says, and the proof of that is the experimental (only 410 bottles made) 2008 Barolo Bussia he calls 90 Di. That is for the 90 days of maceration – skins and juices in constant contact, in large barrels – that he imposes on the wine. This hearkens directly back to very “old-fashioned” Barolo-making methods, when the wines commonly macerated on the skins for two months or more. As Claudio says, this is a deliberate return “to the Barolo of tradition.”

90 Di label

My palate calls it a complete success. The wine was startlingly accessible, showing huge fruit from the nose through the finish – big dried fruit and floral elements, earth, tobacco, with even hints of dried orange peel; the whole Piedmontese panoply for a young Nebbiolo. Even more impressive, the dried fruit components grew and grew in bulk and complexity as the wine opened in the glass, arguing for superior longevity and development. This wine gave every appearance of becoming one of the Barolos of legend. We can only hope he makes more of it, or makes more wines in the same style.

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Prunotto’s Barolo Riserva Bussia 2008 Vigna Colonello

Similarly, Gianluca Torrengo, the winemaker at Prunotto, is making every effort to return the winery to the style and character of the wines made there in the past by another Piedmontese legend, Beppe Colla. Among his many other accomplishments, Colla (who still advises at Poderi Colla, an estate run by his daughter Federica and younger brother Tino) is credited with being, in the 1960s, the first in Piedmont to bottle cru Barolo. That was then a dramatic innovation, since Barolo orthodoxy insisted on blending Barolos not just from different crus but from different communes. In homage to that legacy, Prunotto is for the first time issuing a single-vineyard bottle of a cru it acquired in 1990: Bussia Riserva 2008 Vigna Colonello.

Torrengo too avows an interest in “old-school” Barolo: He has lengthened maceration times and sharply reduced the use of barriques, moving Prunotto’s wines back along more classic lines – which is where anyone who recalls Beppe Colla’s wines will think they belong. The Vigna Colonello I think a resounding success, a lovely wine, with fine balance and wondrous Nebbiolo fruit that just sings in the glass – clearly, a wine that will be very long-lived. “Typical of Bussia,” Torrengo says, “fine and strong.” Typical of classic Barolo, I say, and let’s have three cheers for that!

3 Responses to “Old Ways Are Best”

  1. Peter Bernstein Says:

    Tom,
    As you know I am in complete agreement over this wine and this winery.

    As for the “blending”: Marina has spoken how the locals, didn’t even want to spend for inexpensive Spanna and so the sfuso wines were, for this reason, made from non local juice. Wine was a source of cheap calories. I don’t think any of this made it into any Spanna not just cru wines. One should remember that, though labeled Spanna, they certainly had Vespolina & Uva Rara grapes being, for the most part, field blends. The DOC of Boca requires them for this reason. (However, it has been recently modified with more Nebbiolo required or permitted). Marina further told me that the aging cellars were separate. As we have both visited them, it is not hard to believe this as they are huge and hardly even used today.

  2. Ole Udsen Says:

    All hail traditional nebbiolo! Vallana is legend, of course. I seem to recall Wasserman speculating that perhaps his legendary Spannas of the 50’ies and 60’ies – in complete conformity with tradition – might from time to time have contained some southern wine (at a guess, aglianico, but possibly also negroamaro, for which there has been a significant tradition in northern Piedmont). At any rate, lovely to see that the new generation is going back to the very successful tradition.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Marina tells me that in addition to his cru-labelled bottled wine, her grandfather had a significant local business in vino sfuso, for which indeed he did blend other grapes, though never in the cru wines.

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