What makes a great Barbaresco? Easy to answer, not so easy to achieve. Superior grapes to start with, from a superior site, tended in the field with great care and in the cellar with great restraint, resulting ideally in a wine that expresses both the character of the Nebbiolo grape and the nature of the region’s special terroir. Cantina delle Rose does all the right things, and its Barbarescos show all the right stuff – as does every other wine this stellar estate produces.
Many winelovers have never even heard of Cascina delle Rose. It is neither one of the big names of Barbaresco nor a big estate: three and a half hectares – that’s under ten acres – and a total production of about 20,000 bottles. Family-run: Giovanna Rizzolio and husband Italo Sobrino and sons Davide and Riccardo do everything, including having designed and now operating the charming B&B on the manicured property.
Most important wine zones, anywhere in the world, usually first break into consumers’ consciousness through the efforts of large estates or large negociant firms that have the quality and especially the volume of production that allows their wines to be present in noteworthy numbers in multiple markets, and these market openers usually establish the standards for the wines of their zones. It’s the sign of a maturing wine zone when small producers start turning out wines at the top level of quality that begin appearing – usually in limited quantities – in multiple markets.
From my experience at this year’s Nebbiolo Prima in Alba in May, tasting new releases of Barolo 2010 and Barbaresco 2011, I’d say that those two wine zones are entering that phase of winemaking maturity. My tasting notes proclaim this year’s event The Year of the Small Producers. This is not to say that larger and well-known producers did poorly with those vintages. Far from it, in fact: Many of them turned out wonderful wines, up to their own best standards. But in the blind tastings that are the norm at Nebbiolo Prima, I found that many of my top scores (after the tasting we get the answer sheet that identifies the wines for us) went to producers scarcely known to me, most of them small growers who have been steadily improving their winemaking skills over the past decade.
I had come to know Cascina delle Rose just a few years ago, because I’d noticed that for some time I had been scoring its wines very high and thought that I ought to learn something about it. Being, in my lucid moments, a fairly logical guy, I did just that, enjoying a memorable introductory visit that firmly proved that there was no mistake about the scores I was giving the wines. At this year’s Nebbiolo Prima, I revisited Giovanna and Italo. I was more impressed than ever. Wine after wine showed an almost Cartesian purity of fruit and structure, a fidelity to varietal character that simply obviates criticism. Because Cascina delle Rose is a small producer, its wines won’t be in every market – but they are emphatically worth the trouble of seeking out. (Very helpfully, the US importers are listed on its website.)
Here are the wines I tasted at the winery, and some very brief comments on them. (There are only so many exclamation points I can expect my readers to tolerate.)
Dolcetto d’Alba A Elizabeth 2013: Classic nose and palate – delightful light dinner wine.
Langhe Nebbiolo 2013: Beautiful fruit, great Nebbiolo character, long juicy finish – very, very lovely.
Barbera d’Alba 2012: Textbook Barbera, fruity and lively.
Barbera d’Alba Superiore Donna Elena 2012: A barrel sample, aged longer than the regular Barbera. Slightly nebbiolized style: more elegant, complex, rounder, with chocolate and tobacco notes. Fine. (They later poured me some of the 2004 vintage of this wine, which was simply amazing: they have only a few bottles left, alas.)
Barbaresco Tre Stelle 2011: Very pretty, with dark Nebbiolo flavors already emerging. Wonderful structure. Five stars, the top rating on my simple scoring scale, as is the next wine also.
Barbaresco Rio Sordo 2011: Rounder, fatter, longer finishing than Tre Stelle. Quite lovely. These two Barbaresco crus are the flagship wines of the house, and in ’11 and ’10 (which I tasted at Nebbiolo Prima last year), they are the equal of any Barbarescos I’ve encountered.
After those current-release wines, Giovanna and Italo offered me a vertical of their Langhe Nebbiolo, which has never seen wood – it is fermented and aged entirely in stainless steel. I’d already tasted the 2013, so they started with 2012 and ran back every year to 2004. The wines were uniformly fine and absolutely true to Nebbiolo type. In some years they could easily be mistaken in a blind tasting for medium-bodied Barbaresco. All, even the oldest, were fresh and lively and had wonderful fruit. As they got older they showed more and more earth and mushroom scents and flavors. The ’04 was actually starting to go white-truffly in the nose, and – finally giving in to the temptation I’d had several times in the course of this visit – I didn’t spit it.
This was for me a memorable visit to a new star in the Barbaresco firmament. The whole session was a demonstration of first-class winemaking exercised upon first-class grapes from first-class vineyards – one of those afternoons that make my job enviable and me very happy.