On a recent evening, Diane and I enjoyed a very bright moment in the middle of this dreary winter. To accompany some braised short ribs, and to give us a treat and alleviate a bit of the depression that this seemingly endless grey, chill weather induces, I opened a bottle of Bartolo Mascarello’s 1998 Barolo.
I expected an enjoyable bottle of a traditionally made Barolo: What we got was a marvel. By a great serendipity of timing, the bottle was absolutely at its peak, poised beautifully at the precise balance point of freshness and maturity. It was suave, it was elegant, it was complex, it was linear and structured, fleshy and fruity and voluptuous all at once. In trying to articulate what we found so wonderful about it, we both fell back on the image of our favorite Modigliani nude – linear and round at the same time, abstract and carnal, immediately accessible to the mind and the senses. Barolo just doesn’t get any better than this.
As most Barolo lovers know, Bartolo Mascarello was for decades an icon of traditional Piemontese winemaking, a model of integrity and consistency in his craft and in his life. I was lucky enough to have a conversation with him a few short years before he died, and his recollections were fascinating. He spoke quite modestly, even reluctantly, about his experiences in the Resistance, but he waxed eloquent and enthusiastic about his first experience, after Liberation, of American cigarettes: “Oh that aroma! That taste! I still remember it. So rich. We had been smoking straw, and those American cigarettes were intoxicating.” Given his subsequent career in wine, it’s not surprising that aromas and flavors should stay fixed in his memory.
As he had resisted Fascists, he resisted fads in wine and fools in politics. He hated barriques, and he hated Berlusconi. One of his wines was once banned for sale in Italy because its label – he designed his own – proudly proclaimed “No Barrique No Berlusconi.” Another said “We should make not barriques but barricades.”
He even refused to make cru wines. Even though he owned vineyards in prime areas (two in La Morra – Rocche and Ruè – and a piece of Cannubi in Barolo), he continued the traditional practice of blending their unique characters to achieve the balance and harmony he and many other Barolistas consider the hallmark of fine Barolo.
In his last years, his daughter Maria Teresa had largely taken over the actual winemaking, and the recent vintages of Mascarello wine I’ve tasted indicate that she is following firmly in her father’s footsteps, both in style and in quality. Even though climate change in Piedmont has made all Barolos much more drinker-friendly much earlier than they used to be, these remain wines to cellar. Sure, you can drink them young – but given the amazing grace with which they mature, you’d be a fool to do so.
On another such serendipitous evening as our Mascarello experience (yes, I’ve been dining well this winter), I opened a bottle of Picariello’s 2012 Fiano di Avellino to drink with some simple but excellent broiled chicken legs from a great poultry farm on Long Island. Ciro Picariello is first and foremost a classic Campanian grape grower, honest, hardworking, unpretentious, passionate about his wines and justifiably proud of their quality. He farms about 7 hectares – roughly 18 acres – high in the hills of Irpinia, and he oversees his lovely Fiano from blossom to barrel. Though, in fact, he doesn’t use barrels: His Fiano ferments and ages entirely in stainless steel. He and his wife started their winery in 1997, but he didn’t bottle anything under his own name until 2004 – and he attracted attention right from the start. Now he is a frequent winner of Tre Bicchieri from Gambero Rosso and Cinque Grappoli from the Italian Sommeliers Association.
2012 was a lovely white wine vintage in Campania, and Picariello has made the most of it. His wine is medium-bodied – almost full-bodied for a white – and round and soft in the mouth, with abundant but totally unobtrusive acidity to keep it vivacious. This wine struck us immediately by its purity and intensity: White flower and hazelnut scents, and apple/pear toned fruit, with hazelnut undertones and the generous minerality of its volcanic soils. It was an intriguing, complex wine from the very first taste, and one that constantly grew and changed in the glass. For all its immediate pleasure, it also hinted an ability to age and mature in very interesting ways. I’ve not tasted any bottles of Picariello’s more than five years old, but they all seemed still very fresh, with years before them. For anyone with a taste for fine, mature white wines, I’d suggest that Picariello’s Fiano is a name to add to your cellar list.
It’s being a long, hard winter, but happily there are ways to escape it that don’t involve long plane trips.