Celebrating Colla

That’s Colla with two Ls, as in Poderi Colla, Beppe Colla, Colla Barolo, Colla Barbaresco, Colla Bricco del Drago – emphatically not to be confused with cola of any brand or flavor. Bricco del Drago is the immediate occasion of this post: The Colla family has just acquired ownership of the property whose vines they have tended and whose wines they have vinified for decades. But the underlying reason for this post is to celebrate a great winery and a great wine.

For all that greatness, the family members are extraordinarily modest. Patriarch Beppe Colla may be the quietest, most self-effacing of all of Piedmont’s grandmaster winemakers, and the rest of the family – his daughter Federica, his younger brother Tino, and Tino’s son Pietro – follow suit.

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Part of the reason for the modesty may be that the Collas have just always been there: Like the Empire State Building, they have become part of the landscape. Beppe was already a quiet legend as the winemaker at Prunotto back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, a pioneer of things like the cru concept and a student of phenolic ripeness back before either was much talked about in the Barolo and Barbaresco zones.

I first met him around 1984/5, just a few years after the wonder vintage of 1982, a year of record-breaking heat and until-that-time-unseen levels of ripeness in the grapes. (There have been many since.) The Italian Trade Commission had sent a group of wine journalists to visit some key producers in northern Italy, and Prunotto was one of our Piedmont destinations.

Beppe received us almost shyly and poured his wines for us with many informative remarks about the growing seasons and the cellar treatments, but nary a syllable of praise or evaluation. Please believe me when I tell you that that kind of restraint, that willingness to let us form our own opinion of his wines, is very, very rare.

Two moments of that long-ago tasting I still remember vividly.

Colla had poured his 1982 Dolcetto, explaining the while how very unusual the weather and consequently the harvest had been. We tasted, tasted again, looked at each other, and all started babbling and exclaiming. We had never tasted a Dolcetto like that – big, round, with enormous fruit and depth and an underlying complexity that we would have taken for Nebbiolo had he not told us otherwise. We congratulated him on his achievement: This was unquestionably a great wine. Colla smiled politely. “Yes,” he said, “yes, it is a great wine – but you mustn’t think of it as Dolcetto.” All I have ever learned since about the importance of fidelity to varietal standards I trace to that moment.

At the end of our tasting, after we had all expressed our gratitude and admiration and were reluctantly preparing to get back into the van and go on to our next port of call, Colla diffidently asked our organizer if we could possibly return later that day, because he had something special he would like us to taste. By that point, we would have driven two days out of our way to taste anything Colla considered special, so some six or seven hours later we were all sitting around the same table, while he pulled the cork on a 25-year-old magnum of Barolo, that, he explained, had been an experiment – his first (unlabeled) cru bottling.

Magic!  As soon as the cork came out, that small tasting room filled with the rich aroma of white truffles. The elixir that followed the aroma was no less magical – classic Barolo, with all the dried roses, tar, and truffle, leather and cherry and tobacco, that any wine writer in his finest frenzy of prose or palate could ever ask for. No one spat. No one even spoke – and for wine writers, that’s amazing. Everyone just sipped, swallowed, and made small, inarticulate pleasure noises. As I said, magic.

Eventually, the Prunotto firm was sold to Antinori, which still runs it and does its best to emulate Colla’s style of winemaking. Beppe left to form Poderi Colla with his family, and he has been there since. Day-to-day operations at the three principal vineyards – Dardi Le Rose in the Barolo zone, Roncaglia in Barbaresco, and Bricco del Drago, near Alba – are handled by Federica and Tino, but Beppe is always there to be consulted, and that is a priceless resource.

LabelThe wines all reflect his basic style – elegance, and restraint, and fidelity to the soil and to the variety. When I first tasted the 2010 Colla Barolo Dardi le Rose two years ago at Nebbiolo Prima, when it had just been bottled, I thought it lovely and rated it four stars. Tasting it again recently, I’d call it absolutely classic and give it a full five stars. I expect it will probably mature beautifully for decades. It certainly has the structure for very long life.

The Bricco del Drago estate that the Collas have just bought has long been very special to the family. It started as a joint project of Beppe Colla and his friend Luciano Degiacomi, who owned the property – 26 hectares, of which 12 are in vines: 4 Nebbiolo, 4 Dolcetto, 3 Pinot nero, and 1 Riesling renano. Degiacomi was a great partisan of the Langhe and especially its wine and foodways. Along with Colla and Renato Ratti, he founded the Ordine dei Cavalieri del Tartufo e dei Vini d’Alba – the Order of the Knights of the Truffles and Wines of Alba – which in turn organized the creation of the regional enoteca in the castle at Grinzane Cavour (now housing as well a fine small museum and an excellent regional restaurant).

The eponymous wine vinified from Bricco del Drago’s grapes was probably the earliest and is still one of the best of Piedmont’s handful of non-traditional wines  – a small irony for two such thoughtful traditionalists as Colla and Degiacomi. It’s always made from a blend of Dolcetto and Nebbiolo: proportions are usually around 85% Dolcetto to 15% Nebbiolo, but that is not ironclad – much depends on the harvest.

label 1I recently drank a beautiful ’07 of those proportions, which just loved a broiled steak and mushrooms. It was a classic Piedmontese red wine for meats and mushrooms, fats and earthy flavors – big and full in the mouth, with lots of Dolcetto fruit strengthened by a Nebbiolo spine. The aroma and flavor were cherry and underbrush, with a long finish of strawberry and tobacco, all classic Piedmont flavors in a slightly unusual combination. This was, as has been every Bricco del Drago I’ve ever had, a very, very fine wine, drinking beautifully at eight years old and showing no sign of fading at all.

By the way: never call it a Super Piedmont. The growers all hate that term. As far as they’re concerned, the wines their families have been making for generations are the true Super Piedmonts – and for the Colla wines, I would totally agree.

4 Responses to “Celebrating Colla”

  1. Charles Scicolone Says:

    Great wines but they do not get the recognition they deserve

  2. Ed Mccarthy Says:

    Great story of your visit in the mid-’80s. You catureda view of one of piedmont’s giants, bepe Colla

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