The University of California Press has just published Kerin O’Keefe’s Barolo and Barbaresco: The King and Queen of Italian Wines (346 pp, maps, photos, index: $39.95). I’ve been wanting to announce this ever since, over a year ago, I read the manuscript for the Press and enthusiastically recommended publication: To my mind, this is the most important book on these two great wines yet published.
O’Keefe is a wine colleague and friend. I’ve tasted with her on many occasions, not least of which have been the Nebbiolo Prima sessions in Alba, during which we and a small army of other wine journalists have each year worked our way through several hundred new releases of Barolo and Barbaresco. I have great respect for her palate and even more for the thoroughness and comprehensiveness of her research. She and her husband Paolo Tenti (who did the photographs for her book) have spent innumerable weekends in the Alba area over many years, visiting vineyards and talking to producers large and small. (She lives within easy driving distance of Alba.)
The depth of her knowledge of the Barolo and Barbaresco zones is unequalled by any other English-language journalist, and perhaps matched by only a small handful of native Italians. Despite the fact that I’ve been covering the great Nebbiolos for various publications for about 30 years (thoroughly, I thought), she has still managed to introduce me to some fine producers that I had simply never encountered. To put it briefly: The lady knows what she’s talking about.
What she’s talking about is all of Barolo and Barbaresco, its history, its development, its soils and varieties and makers. Barolo and Barbaresco has more complete information – and very accurate, revisionist information it is – about the mid-19th century creation of a dry Nebbiolo wine than any other source. The presentation of the soil variations throughout the two zones is equally complete.
What will probably be most pertinent for Nebbiolo aficionados, however, are her profiles of producers of both denominations. She does these village by village, detailing vineyards, field and cellar workings, house styles and their different bottlings. She doesn’t list every single producer, which would be almost impossible. But the wealth of information in her book is unmatched anywhere else – which is exactly why I was so enthusiastic in recommending it to the University of California Press. Now that it has been published, all I can add is this: If you love Barolo and Barbaresco, this book is indispensible.
And now for something completely – well, slightly – different.
Ceretto is one of the great Nebbiolo houses, and I have long admired its wines. Originally classic Piedmontese producers who bought grapes from all over both zones to make traditional Barolo and Barbaresco, brothers Bruno and Marcello Ceretto gradually acquired top-flight vineyards in some of the best crus of both appellations and used them to make some superb wines, in both the traditional mixed-communes style and in single-cru bottlings.
Since roughly the turn of the century, Bruno and Marcello have turned the operation over to their children, and initially at least the results were not, for my palate, completely happy. It was an almost stereotypical story in Alba: The younger generation turned to using a forest of new French oak (just how many oak trees, one wonders, does France have left?) to make their wines modern and stylish (and different from their parents’?) and for my palate not really either enjoyable or true to the region.
Then came vintage 2008. I will quote O’Keefe here, because we are in total agreement: “I was surprised by the graceful, pure Nebbiolo aromas and elegance of the firm’s 2008 Barbaresco Asij.” She goes on to explain this wine’s “graceful style, unfettered by obvious oak” as due to winemaker Alessandro Ceretto’s decision to turn away from new oak “to make wines,” she quotes him as saying, “that express terroir, that taste like they could only be from here.” For me, this is wonderful news: it’s great to have an estimable house like Ceretto rediscovering the true distinction of its region.
I also had one other reassurance about Ceretto recently. I had been tasting a lot of old Barolo over the past year, and I’d had a few bottles of Ceretto that troubled me. They weren’t bad – far from it – but they tasted older than they should have, a little tired and fading when I thought that, given the fine vintages they were from, they should have been a lot more vigorous. I know that with older wines, bottle variation is inescapable, but even so, they worried me.
My reassurance came a few weeks ago from a very unlikely source – a bottle of Ceretto’s Barolo Brunate, a lovely cru but a very unpromising vintage: 1993. O’Keefe rates 1993 as two stars (out of five) and describes it as “a middling and variable vintage . . . to drink early while waiting for the 1989s and 1990s to come round.” I remember the vintage as pretty much below average across the board. So my expectations were low when I discovered that I’d somehow stored away a bottle of ’93 – maybe by accident, maybe with some thought of discovering just how well off-year Barolo could age.
Well, if I had been disappointed by bottle variation with those other older Ceretto wines, in this case it seemed to work to my advantage. Either that, or the Cerettos really made a silk purse out of a sow’s ear with the 1993 vintage, because my now 21-year-old bottle of Brunate was just lovely. Light-bodied for a Barolo, to be sure, and I’d never call it vigorous – but elegant it certainly was, and smelling and tasting classically if lightly of the truffle, tar, and dried roses for which the Nebbiolo of the Alba area is renowned. Diane and I enjoyed it thoroughly, and gave mental tribute to the good work of Marcello and Bruno.