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Archive for the ‘Barbaresco’ Category

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

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.)

O'KeefeThe 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.

Bruno and Marcello Ceretto

Marcello and Bruno Ceretto

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.

brunate 4My 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.

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Barolo, Barbaresco, and some of their companions in the Langhe hills have just been designated a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO Standing Committee, meeting this year in Qatar, where I bet Commission members are wishing vainly that they could drink some the juice they’ve just honored.

vineyard 1

“It’s a just reward for the winegrowers who have preserved the Barolo and Barbaresco hills, skillfully cultivating their vineyards with respect for tradition and old farming skills,” says Pietro Ratti, president of the Barolo and Barbaresco Protection Consortium. “For us, the UNESCO recognition is a stimulus to keep on doing our job well with an even greater responsibility to pass on to our children the marvelous land that our fathers handed down to us.”

The new UNESCO site includes the Barolo DOCG communes of Barolo, Castiglione Falletto, Grinzane Cavour (and especially its castle), La Morra, Monforte d’Alba, Novello and Serralunga d’Alba, and the Barbaresco DOCG communes of Barbaresco and Neive. Nizza Monferrato and Canelli, which are primarily sites for the production of Barbera and Spumante, are also included within the designated area.

nominated zone

Areas in pink and red are the UNESCO-designated site

All are regarded by UNESCO as “a cultural landscape,” because their present appearance results from, as the official announcement rather stuffily puts it, a unique, historic interaction of nature and human endeavor. Most wine lovers would readily agree that that assessment is as true of the wines made there as it is of the fields from which they flow.

Just to jog your memory, here are a few photos of what the designated portion of Piedmont looks like.

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vineyard 2

 

vineyard 3

 

You can find out more about this World Heritage Site designation – Italy’s 50th (are you surprised?) – here.

 

 

 

 

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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.

cascina estate

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.

cascina family

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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.)

cascina wines

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.

 

 

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In my Decanter article on this topic, because of space constraints I had to drastically condense my comments on the specific vintages and wines I and my colleagues tasted over the course of this project. That cut really hurt, because I based all my key conclusions about Nebbiolo’s great, enduring identity on the data I gathered at those tastings: They were and are the ground of every assertion I made in my last post about the greatness of Nebbiolo. So here are those notes, as I originally wanted them to appear.

Not at all by the way, I want to express my deepest gratitude to the winemakers whose generosity and openness made this project possible:

Giacomo Conterno of Aldo Conterno
Claudio Fenocchio of Giacomo Fenocchio
Gianluca Grasso of Grasso
Manuel Marchetti of Marcarini
Franco Massolino of Massolino-Vigna Rionda
Mariacristina Oddero of Oddero
Pio Boffa of Pio Cesare
Emanuele Baldi and Gianluca Torrengo of Prunotto
Pietro Ratti of Renato Ratti

In addition to being fine winemakers, these are all warm and enthusiastic human beings, of the sort who make reporting on the wines of Italy such a pleasure.

Vintage 2004

A wet spring, a mild summer, and a balmy, dry September and early October produced beautifully ripe Nebbiolo, yielding a wine with fine structure as well as typically modern forward fruit, drinkable right from the start.

Pietro Ratti

Pietro Ratti

Renato Ratti Barolo Rocche
A big, powerful wine with years to go – “a 40-year wine,” Pietro Ratti says. He finished picking this harvest on November 1.

Giacomo Fenocchio Bussia Riserva
Maturing classically in aroma (dried roses, tar, and earth) and palate (earth tones starting to dominate black fruit). Claudio Fenocchio calls it “a good traditional vintage – elegant.”

Prunotto Barolo Bussia
Fruit-forward, with some oak overtones, but very young; years, maybe decades, away from maturity.

Massolino Barolo Vigna Rionda
A balanced and elegant wine, beginning to mutate from youthful flower aromas and fresh fruit to a more mature array.

Aldo Conterno Barolo Romirasco
Minty, herbal, spicy nose; on palate, black fruits and herbs, earth and mineral; fresh, live, balanced, complex, deep, elegant, with the silky mouth-feel of many 2004s.

Elio Grasso Barolo Gavarini Chiniera
Lovely, plump, sweet fruit, with great acidity, great floral qualities, and a consistent minerality.

Marcarini Barolo Brunate
A gorgeous wine, very spicy in the nose and on the palate; rich and positively meaty – very impressive.

Oddero Barolo Bussia Soprana Vigna Mondoca
“Perfect weather and a classic vintage,” Mariacristina Oddero says. The wine reflects it: fresh and live and very drinkable, but “very slowly evolving.”

Vintage 2001

A sultry, dry August was balanced by early September rains and markedly lower temperatures, so that by October the Nebbiolo grapes were perfectly ripe and balanced.

Gianluca Grasso

Gianluca Grasso

Elio Grasso Barolo Ginestra Casa Maté
Fine orange-edged garnet color; scents of dried flowers, tar, and tobacco; terrific fresh black cherry fruit, with perfect acidity; depth and complexity starting to develop – “a classic vintage,” as Gianluca Grasso says.

Oddero Barolo Bussia Soprana Vigna Mondoca
Equally classic and just as slow maturing as Oddero’s ’04; an excellent wine that will seemingly last forever.

Pio Cesare Barolo
Deep, dark Nebbiolo nose, elegant Nebbiolo fruit, deepening further into earth and funghi porcini.

Renato Ratti Barolo Rocche
Earth and mineral now covering fruit on the nose, but the palate shows fine black fruit, acid, and soft tannin. Balanced on a huge scale: powerful.

Vintage 1999

Rain in early September greatly improved the maturity of the Nebbiolo grapes, pushing them to full sugar and phenolic ripeness while maintaining their important acidity.

Giacomo Conterno

Giacomo Conterno

Aldo Conterno Barolo Colonello
Brilliant garnet color with a thin orange edge; lovely dried roses aroma, fresh palate, opening beautifully in the glass, with a seemingly endless finish. “Now is the time to start drinking this wine,” Giacomo Conterno says; personally, I would wait a few more years.

Renato Ratti Barolo Rocche
Pietro Ratti describes this vintage as being “austere and classic, still severe and tight” on the palate. It showed dried flowers and lots of mineral in the nose, leather, mineral, and beef jerky on the palate – just gorgeous.

Vintage 1998

Although overshadowed by the much-touted 1997 vintage, 1998 produced grapes of at least as high quality, and for many growers, better balance.

Mariacristina Oddero

Mariacristina Oddero

Oddero Barolo Vigna Rionda
Mariacristina Oddero calls this a “correct” vintage, very balanced, with fine fruit, but still austere in the nose and palate, just beginning to develop and open.

Renato Ratti Barolo Rocche
Spicy, floral, with huge fruit over leather and mineral notes – classic in a different way than Ratti’s ’99: less austere, fruiter and more charming, with a touch of rusticity.

Vintage 1996

The first of a cluster of fine harvests, reaching through 1998. ‘96 is regarded by most growers as the most classic of the batch, and also the slowest maturing.

Claudio Fenocchio

Claudio Fenocchio

Giacomo Fenocchio Barolo Villero
Nose slightly funky, already starting to go truffly; palate fresh and live, rich with black fruits and earthy, mushroomy notes. Claudio Fenocchio says it’s “a vintage we’re all still waiting for; it’s not yet opened, not yet reached its potential.”

Prunotto Barolo Bussia
Terrific fresh fruit, with a little vanilla mixed in with the intense black cherry; very long-finishing. Still needs time to work through the wood.

Massolino Barolo Vigna Rionda
A delayed release (2006), and all the better for it – deep, earthy, complex nose, refined palate of black fruit and soft tannins. “One of the more Piedmontese vintages,” Franco Massolino says, “closed and tough initially, with a long life ahead of it.”

Elio Grasso Barolo Roncot
A little oak sweetness showing, but the wine tastes mostly of Nebbiolo and terroir, as it ought. Shows every sign of being very long-lived.

Marcarini Barolo Brunate
Aroma still evolving (just beginning funghi porcini); in the mouth, spice, earth, porcini, and meat sweetness. To be drunk ten years from now.

Pio Cesare Barolo
Gorgeous tar and dried flowers nose, huge sweet fruit (the wood has subsided), with still years of development ahead of it.

Vintage 1990

The third of another group of fine vintages, ’88, ’89, ’90, all remarkably similar in quality and character. For most growers, this pivotal and important cluster of harvests marks the definitive onset of modern, “global warming” vintages in Piedmont.

Manuel Marchetti

Manuel Marchetti

Marcarini Barolo Brunate
Funky and earthy, with aroma and palate still evolving, though clearly showing freshness and meat sweetness, with depth and complexity lurking – a lovely wine with years of development to go.

Giacomo Fenocchio Barolo Bussia Riserva
The nose has gone wonderfully to truffle, the palate is rich and still quite young-tasting.

Renato Ratti Barolo Marcenasco
Very live, fresh, and fruity on nose and palate; a wine with great personality, thoroughly enjoyable and in no way fully evolved yet.

Vintage 1989

Despite very mixed weather from spring through fall, the Nebbiolo was in good shape at harvest, though the crop was somewhat diminished.

Franco Massolino

Franco Massolino

Massolino Barolo Vigna Rionda
Powerful aroma of dried roses, tar, etc. – the classic array. The palate is equally classic – profound, complex, polished, and still quite young. Very consistent in style from vintage to vintage.

Prunotto Barolo
Classic aromas and flavors beginning to shrug off the wood; a fine wine, still maturing.

Pio Cesare Barolo
Very fine aroma, palate evolved but far from finished – dark fruit, still fresh, great depth, great complexity – a fine, fine wine.

Renato Ratti Barolo Conca
Complex, big, and austere; tar and mint in nose, licorice and leather in finish, big Nebbiolo fruit in between. “Massive,” Pietro Ratti rightly calls it.

Vintage 1985

A fine summer and fall, though some producers remember it as very hot. All agree that at harvest, the Nebbiolo was splendid.

Beppe Colla

Beppe Colla

Prunotto Bussia
A really pretty wine, with rich black cherry, tar, and tobacco elements from nose through palate and on into the finish. The almost legendary Beppe Colla oversaw this wine through 50 days of fermentation in concrete, then into botti – the old way, and the result is a splendid wine that has years to go.

Vintage 1982

Hot and mostly dry, this year to my mind was a harbinger of the climate change to come. It gave a large and healthy crop, though the unusual (at the time) persistent heat made problems for many growers.

Gianluca Torrengo

Gianluca Torrengo

Prunotto Barolo Bussia Riserva
An earthy, almost funky nose; lovely Nebbiolo fruit, very fresh still; a fruit-and-spice box, structured and complex – and for all the heat, only 13° of alcohol. It shows the hand of a master.

Vintage 1978

Unquestionably a classic, pre-global-warming growing season: A cool, rainy spring followed by a cooler than average summer, but capped by a glorious, warm autumn with great day/night temperature differentials. The crop was small, the wines initially concentrated and very hard, with evident great structure but totally unyielding tannins. Notoriously slow to come around: Some thought it would never be drinkable.

Pio Boffa

Pio Boffa

Pio Cesare Barolo
Great funky, mushroomy aroma, just turning to truffle; deep, mature, mushroomy flavors; long, long earth and dried black fruit finish, with plenty of life in it yet.

Giacomo Fenocchio Barolo Riserva
Deeply earth-and-truffle nose; fantastically fresh on the palate, with classic Nebbiolo dark-fruit, funghi porcini flavors, and no sign of tiredness at all.

Prunotto Barolo Bussia Riserva
A classic, mature Barolo, seemingly at its peak, with no sign of decline: very fine: powerful and elegant.

Massolino Barolo Riserva
A grape selection, not a cru, and a great wine, still fresh, live, supple, with enormous complexity and depth: feels big and mouth-filling but not weighty or ponderous.

Marcarini Barolo Brunate
Spicy, earthy, evolved nose, and beautiful, fleshy Barolo palate. Lovely continuity of style: spicy aromas, fleshy palate with great elegance. Elvio Cogno made this wine before he left Marcarini for his own vineyards.

Oddero Barolo
Classic Barolo in the sense that it is blended from several communes and crus, and classic in every other sense as well.

Beautifully evolved, dark and velvety, a wonderfully evocative wine, typical – in the best sense – of Barolo of that generation.

Vintage 1971

Freezing winter; late, wet spring; hail in May and June; hot dry summer; perfect late September and October: All resulted in a small but quite superior harvest. The wines were balanced and elegant from the start, but reticent: many were initially hard and closed.

Prunotto Barbaresco Riserva
A masterpiece from Beppe Colla, perhaps the finest wine I tasted all week. Gorgeous and mature, perfect in every point, showing fruit both fresh and mature, fully evolved tannins, fine acidity: an elegant and complete wine (13.5° of alcohol, for the record). This is a wine I would score 100 out of 100, without hesitation.

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And there you have it. Wherever you set the dividing line between modern and traditional Barolo (I am using Barolo here, as I have throughout these two posts, as shorthand for all Piedmontese Nebbiolo wines), the character of Nebbiolo crosses it without noticing any difference. The grape and the soil dominate almost anything the winemaker or the weather can do – at least in great years. So again, Nebbiolo rules.

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Recently, I published an article in Decanter’s annual Italy Guide about the aging ability of modern Barolo.

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Any devotee of the wine who is at all familiar with the extraordinary aging ability of Barolo as it used to be made must wonder if contemporary Barolos will behave as well over years of cellaring.

After all, a tremendous amount has changed in the way Barolo and Barbaresco vineyards are planted and maintained, the way the vines are trained and thinned, the way the grapes are selected at harvest – not to mention how they’re selected at green harvest, some time earlier. On top of that add all the cellar changes since those great vintages of the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, most of which were made without temperature controls or selected yeasts, and without either stainless steel or barriques.

Finally throw in climate change, which has made a tremendous difference in the harvests in Piedmont, especially for a vine like Nebbiolo, which needs a long growing season to achieve full ripeness. Put all those things together and you can’t blame a serious Nebbiolo-nut for wondering whether today’s wines are even the same thing as they used to be. Just how well will these modern Nebbiolos age? is a very real question.

Propelled by that curiosity (or anxiety, which may be more accurate), last May I joined two colleagues – Kerin O’Keefe and Tom Hyland – and visited several long-established Barolo wineries and tasted examples of four or five decades of their wines in each. For consistency’s sake, we tasted mostly Barolos, but our conclusions should certainly hold true also for Barbaresco, and I would argue for the northern Piedmontese Nebbiolo-based wines (Gattinara, Ghemme, Boca, etc.) as well.

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All of Piedmont’s important wine zones lie east of Turin.  The blue area on this map marks the northern Nebbiolo zone (Gattinara, Ghemme, etc.), while the red area is the Alba zone (Barolo, Barbaresco, Nebbiolo Langhe, etc.). Nebbiolo is not the principal grape in the green area.

Throughout our trip, the producers were pleased to have the opportunity to show what their wines could do, and in every case the wines justified their pride. Very, very few bottles showed any sign of fading: Even 40-year-olds still tasted live and supple, while at the same time their depth and complexity seemed to have grown and intensified. The oldest wine we tasted that week – a 1971 Barbaresco Riserva from Prunotto – provided an absolutely moving palatal experience in its elegance, profundity, and paradoxical mature freshness.

All of which of course would seem to confirm what we had already known: that the great Barolos of yesteryear were in fact Great Barolos, which tells us exactly nothing about the Barolos of today.

But not so fast: Everything depends on when you think “today” began, and we tried to structure our tastings – this was only accomplished with the very generous cooperation of the producers – to cover several possibilities. In the opinion of some producers, modern Barolo only began in 1988-1990, which is when they date the arrival of climate change in the Piedmont. For others, modern Barolo began when they first used stainless steel tanks and temperature-controlled fermentation. For yet others, the arrival of barriques in Piedmont was the watershed moment.

There are obviously good cases to be made for all those indicators, but for me the real change occurs between 1978 and 1982. 1978 for me marks the last classic, pre-climate-change vintage in Piedmont. The wines everywhere in the region that year – not just Barolo and Barbaresco, but the wines of the northern Piedmont too – at the time of their release were the Nebbiolos of legend: hard, tannic, huge, pregnant with great fruit and beautiful balance, but in their youth ungiving and austere — and they stayed that way for years, some of them for decades.

Then came 1982, which at the time the Piedmontese referred to as their California vintage. It was hot and the growing season was long and the grapes achieved sugar levels and a uniformity of ripeness that few growers had ever seen before. Some producers flubbed the vintage because the harvest presented such novel challenges, but most made fantastic wine of a new sort – much more welcoming when young, with abundant tannins but even more abundant fruit. In retrospect, it’s easy to see 1982 as the advance guard of the climate change that was looming. So for me, ’78 and ’82 mark, respectively, the last of the great “old” Barolos and the first of the great “new” ones.

What our daily vertical tastings showed, however, was no such break. Instead, each estate’s wines demonstrated a stylistic and palatal continuity right across the years, from wines of the ‘70s to wines of the new century. It was as if, in each place, Nebbiolo maintained its character over the years. Despite fluctuations of the weather or changes of winemaker or vineyard manager, the grapes in each site continued to give essentially the same wine. Some years of course were more intense than others, some showed more fruit, some more or less acidity – but it was startlingly clear to us as we tasted that these were the same wines, from youngest to oldest (you can read the whole Decanter report here, and in my next post I’ll get into some specifics of vintages and wines).

That continuous self-identity clearly evidences the power and persistence of the Nebbiolo variety and is one of the many reasons that I rank it right up with Aglianico (with which it shares many characteristics) as the premier Italian red grape and one of the very small handful of elite varieties in the world. Sure, it’s a finicky grape, a difficult one, and it doesn’t do well just anywhere. But give it what it wants – and evidently Piedmont does – and it will reward you with stunning wines, wines not only of long, delicious life but wines of astonishing consistency. So in many senses, Nebbiolo rules.

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Partly in the interests of equity, partly because I was narcissistically moved by my own prose in my last post about a great Barolo cru, and mostly because one fine palatal experience calls for another, I decided to devote this post to a too-little-known (in the US, at least) Barbaresco cru. Probably the most famous Barbaresco crus are Montestefano and Rabajà, with Asili pulling up in third place. My wine of choice today isn’t one of those: It’s Montefico.

Montefico is a Barbaresco of Barbaresco, a wine of the commune of Barbaresco within the appellation of Barbaresco. It faces the vineyards of the Montestefano cru across the road. Their soils are similar sorts of limestone, but the eastward facing Montefico yields wines of – for my palate – greater elegance than the usually heftier, more austere wines of Montestefano.

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Map from Alessandro Masnaghetti, available at almasnag@tin.it. Montefico is the pale blue segment.

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This is in no way to demean the latter, which is unquestionably a great site – but I will choose Montefico any time I can get it. It’s a big wine too, but that’s not for me its greatest attraction. Rather, it’s the grace with which Montefico usually wraps its Nebbiolo. When nature provides the good long growing season that Nebbiolo needs, the morning sun on Montefico’s slopes seems to induce a gentler ripening and a fuller, more even development of the grapes’ components than on many westward-facing sites, and that in turn – in the hands of a good winemaker – results in a more rounded, more nuanced wine.

Aldo VaccaMy bottle passed through the hands of a very good winemaker indeed: Aldo Vacca, who has been the presiding genius of the Produttori del Barbaresco for many years now. As most readers of this blog know, the Produttori del Barbaresco is one of the finest cooperative wineries to be found anywhere, and its wines are always an excellent buy. Among the great Nebbiolo wines of the Alba zones, quality for dollar, Produttori del Barbaresco simply cannot be beat.

Its 56 members cultivate 100 hectares of vines, spread over some of the most traditional sites in the zone. Those hundred hectares amount to almost a sixth of Barbaresco’s total area: It’s not a big zone – just about a third the size of its sibling Barolo. All that good Nebbiolo comes annually to the Produttori’s cellars. Year after year, that gives Vacca a lot of top-flight grapes from many top-flight sites to work with (they are always vinified separately, and the growers are always named on the labels), so that in the best vintages, the coop produces nine cru wines, all Barbaresco DOCG Riserva, and all grown within the commune of Barbaresco: Asili, Moccagotta (now Muncagotta), Montefico, Montestefano, Ovello, Pajè, Pora, Rabajà, and Rio Sordo.*

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Flip side of Masnaghetti’s map, showing ownership of Montefico vineyards

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In a good vintage, those nine crus will represent about 40% of the winery’s total production. (In an average year, they all form part of the basic Barbaresco DOCG – which, in an average year, makes that an above-average wine, one well worth knowing about.) Over the years, I’ve been able to taste all the crus in several different vintages, and I can assure you they really differ from each other in ways both significant and subtle, so you can give yourself a lot of interesting enjoyment by acquiring bottles of each and tasting them side by side.

produttori montefico 1But let me get back to my one special bottle: Barbaresco DOCG Riserva Montefico 1999. Like the 1989 Barolo Lazzarito of my last post, this was the middle of three highly rated vintages. 1998 was unquestionably good, though perhaps not showing as well now as many of us had hoped: In both Barolo and Barbaresco, ‘98’s awkward adolescence seems to be prolonging itself. 2000 I frankly think was overrated, especially in Barolo, where, despite James Suckling’s and the Wine Spectator’s grandiosely proclaiming it “the vintage of the century” (which one?), the great heat of the growing season produced almost cooked wines, most of which are already finished. Barbaresco, being generally cooler than Barolo, fared better, but if you still have any 2000s I’d urge you to drink them soonest. About ’99, opinions differ: Was it a great vintage, or merely a good one? Much depends of whose wine you’re drinking, I think. Nowhere was 1999 worse than good, and for some producers, it was excellent. Produttori is one of the latter.

My bottle of Montefico was, simply, glorious. Nowhere near peaking – it seems to have decades before it yet – but wonderfully balanced and open, it showed the kind of complexity and nuance the greatest Nebbiolo is capable of. Its nose was densely packed and multi-stranded. I could discern threads of black coffee and dried cherries and road tar and bitter cacao and an unpickable knot of underbrush, mushroom, and earth notes – no fresh fruit notes at all, but a congeries of matured and maturing aromas. In the mouth, the same sorts of flavors, in a svelte package that was round and full without seeming either big or heavy, very silky and elegant while still tasting of its roots in the earth. The finish, of course, was very, very long, in the classic Nebbiolo style. (FYI, the growers of this bottling were Grasso, Rocca, and Vacca.)

For my palate, this was a great wine, classic – there is no other word – through and through. Lovely as this wine is, the best news is that Aldo Vacca and the Produttori are still making these wines, still in the same way. Back in May in Alba I tasted the latest to be released string of Produttori del Barbaresco’s crus, the 2008s, and they are across the board lovely, with an abundance of quintessentially Nebbiolo fruit and the kind of structure that presages a very long life. And yes, for me the Montefico stood out – though I wouldn’t mind having some of the 2008 Asili or the Rabajà either.

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* That concentration within the Barbaresco commune results from the circumstances of the Produttori del Barbaresco’s founding. The cooperative was begun by the initiative of the Barbaresco parish priest in 1958, during the darkest days of Italy’s post-war rural economy, as an attempt to provide some way for the small growers of his area to survive on their land. It began with 17 growers, and all those original members still belong to the cooperative.

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At Nebbiolo Prima in Alba back in May, before the assembled journalists were ambushed by the grueling three mornings of 2009 Barolos, we were lulled into a false sense of security by a morning and a half of on-the-whole-fine Barbarescos of the 2010 vintage. So for most of this post, the news is very, very good: 2010 is a vintage for the cellar – possibly for many decades of aging – yet it seems to be very friendly and accessible already. In effect, it combines the best of old-style Nebbiolo structure with welcoming post-global-warming fruit.

Barbaresco is a far smaller zone than Barolo, with far fewer producers: Only some 70 Barbaresco wines were shown at Nebbiolo Prima, compared to 218 Barolos. The three townships of Barbaresco, Treiso, and Neive make up 95% of the zone, with just a tiny corner of Alba township forming the rest. The Barbaresco zone lies to the northeast of Alba, while Barolo lies to Alba’s southwest. The soils and elevations and exposures in the two zones are roughly similar, and both use only Nebbiolo to produce their wines.

barbaresco-comunes

The major differences between them are that, overall, the climate in Barbaresco is slightly cooler than in Barolo, and the regulations for its wines allow a year less aging before release; but in the same vintage, the best wines of either zone could easily be mistaken for the other’s. The different qualities of the vintages – Barolo 2009 and Barbaresco 2010 – stood out glaringly at the event in May. Where the Barolo presenters spoke guardedly of 2009 as a difficult vintage, yielding wines for short-term enjoyment, Barbaresco producers expressed unqualified enthusiasm about their 2010s. (The Barolo producers will get their turn to gloat next year, when they show their 2010s.) I didn’t hear a single disparaging remark about the 2010 vintage from anyone the whole week I was there.

The official Consorzio account of the vintage usually tries, in judicious bureaucratese, to put the best face on every harvest, an effort that was hardly necessary for 2010:

Nebbiolo . . . was able to enjoy fine weather throughout the month of September, offsetting the slight delay in the ripening of the grapes due to the wet weather between July and August. Ripening checks showed that the sugars continued to accumulate during the second half of the month, while the acid profile gradually dropped to very acceptable levels. Ripening of the phenolic components which are essential for ensuring body and ageing capacity has been excellent. Without question, Nebbiolo has responded sublimely this year . . .

I love how the dispassionate technical analysis collapses into the sheer enthusiasm of “Nebbiolo has responded sublimely”!

For us wine drinkers, the best part is that that enthusiasm was totally justified by the experience of the tastings. Here’s one of my tasting notes, picked at random from the first morning of Barbaresco tastings: “Classic aromas of black cherry, road tar, and dried roses; palate slightly closed but very smooth and elegant; lovely fruit-and-tar finish – an excellent wine, 4-star +.” Lest you think this is just cherrypicking, here’s my very next note: “Black cherry and toast on the nose; more closed than the preceding wine, but evidently built on the same lines, with an intense dark fruit finish; needs some time, but potentially 4-star +.” Just to put this in perspective: 5 stars are my highest rating, and I gave scores between 3 and 4.75 stars – all right, I’m stingy – to better than 80% of the Barbarescos from the communes of Treiso, Barbaresco, and Alba.

The not-so-hot portion of the tasting was once again, as it has been for some years running, the wines of Neive. With a few honorable exceptions – for example, Angelo Negro, Oddero, Francesco Rinaldi – the Neive wines were over-oaked to the point that their Nebbiolo character was for me completely obscured. I infer, from the fact that these wines continue to be made, that somebody must like them and buy them, but for me most Neives remain undrinkable: milestones on the long death-march of a great wine toward its ultimate pepsicolization.

Despite the disappointments of Neive, 2010 Barbaresco offers an abundance of first-rate wines that I think will be drinkable early and last long, which is the kind of two-fer package that Nebbiolo lovers dream about. Here are some of my favorites (with communes in parentheses):

  • Cascina delle Rose, Barbaresco Rio Sordo (Barbaresco), Barbaresco Tre Stelle (Barbaresco)
  • Ceretto, Barbaresco Asili, Barbaresco Bernardot (Treiso)
  • Michele Chiarlo, Barbaresco Asili (Barbaresco)
  • Marchesi di Gresy, Barbaresco Martinenga (Barbaresco)
  • Pertinace, Barbaresco Marcarini (Treiso)
  • Poderi Colla, Barbaresco Roncaglie (Barbaresco)
  • Vigneti Luigi Oddero, Barbaresco (multiple communes)
  • Produttori del Barbaresco, Barbaresco (Barbaresco)
  • Albino Rocca, Barbaresco Ronchi (Barbaresco), Barbaresco Teorema (Alba)

Also, be on the lookout for Barbarescos from such outstanding crus as Asili, Montestefano, and Rabaja, which seem to have performed exceptionally well in this vintage.

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It’s always a good idea, as the year dwindles to its close, to jettison as much of the bad stuff as you can, so you can start your new year with a calm mind, a clear conscience, and a hopeful outlook. So – be warned – I’m here purging my files of a few troublesome items that have been hanging around and nipping at my heels for too long.

soldera labelThe most serious item I suspect some of you already know about – the vandalism at the Case Basse estate in Montalcino. This happened at the beginning of December. During the night, person or persons unknown broke into the cellar and opened the spigots on all the huge casks of Brunello, vintages 2007 through 2012. This would be an outrageous loss for the owner even if the wines were just ordinary: six years of hard, devoted work literally down the drain. But by all reports these were wines well beyond that, standing at or near the top of quality among Brunellos.

gianfranco solderaThe owner of the estate and the maker of the wines, Gianfranco Soldera, is a perfectionist and devoted to his craft. As a winemaker, he has the respect of all his colleagues. As a person, the story is different. He can be very difficult (some would say impossible), with no low opinion of his wines and no reluctance to proclaim his disdain for many of the other wines of the zone. Rumors have persistently named him as the whistleblower who precipitated the Brunello scandal of just a few years past. He denies this, and I believe him: I suspect that if he had begun that whole brouhaha he would have been more than willing to take credit for it.

The attack on his cellar has shaken up the whole zone. Only another winemaker can viscerally understand what a loss like that feels like. In a small way, I have a sense of it, having had my own wine storage twice broken into, with a loss of many cases and some utterly irreplaceable large bottles. No comparison in magnitude, of course, but I do have an idea of the feeling of violation that Soldera must have experienced.

The Consorzio and its officials have been swift to deplore the vandalism and to express solidarity – backed up with promises of positive action – with Soldera, along with protestations of the solidarity of spirit of all the Brunello producers. Much as I wish the zone and its winemakers well, I can’t help but feel that is whistling in the dark. Whoever dumped Soldera’s wine, for whatever immediate motive, vandalism of that scale shows how very deep and rancorous the divisions within this important appellation are. I don’t know what the Brunello Consorzio can do to heal them, but somebody better get working on that problem PDQ.*

zraly bookItem 2. A few weeks ago, my friend and colleague Tom Hyland published a review of the new edition of Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course. While praising the part of the book that concerns itself with French wine (the bulk of it), Tom goes ballistic over Zraly’s offhand treatment of Italian wines, in terms of both the scant space allotted to them and the often erroneous data provided about them. Zraly’s dismissal of Italian white wines particularly infuriates Hyland. I quote Tom Hyland quoting Kevin Zraly:

“The Italians do not traditionally put the same effort into making their white wines as they do their reds – in terms of style and complexity and they are the first to admit it.” (page 187)

Can you believe he actually wrote that? I had to read the sentence several times to make certain my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me. Yes, I’m quite certain that great vintners such as Leonildo Pieropan, Roberto Anselmi, Silvio Jermann, Sabino Loffredo and Ciro Picariello would admit they don’t put much effort into their white wines. What a truly outrageous statement!

I confess I haven’t looked into Zraly’s book for years now, for the simple reason that I recognize it as an anachronism, reflecting the attitudes of the wine world when the course on which it’s based first came into being, several decades ago. With every passing year, as new parts of the world succeed in producing quality wine, the “Complete” in the title has become more and more of a misnomer, and the almost relentless focus on the wines of France more and more inadequate as a reflection of the contemporary wine world or of the choices confronting the consumer. Keven Zraly is of course a New York colleague, a long-standing acquaintance, and a very decent person – but as Tom Hyland has made abundantly clear, his book (and the course?) is seriously out of date and badly needs a thorough revision.

A small aside: It’s fascinating to me how the reflex kowtowing to French wine just doesn’t die. I’m not entirely surprised to find the prejudice in favor of the always-and-forever superiority of French wine in Brits, who are invested in Bordeaux – especially in Bordeaux – in ways that Americans are not, but we’re supposed to be more open-minded, more flexible, more open to argument and proof. At least that’s what we tell ourselves. I love French wines. I learned wine on French wines, and I freely admit that many of them set the standards for their kinds (standards, alas, that they don’t all always meet anymore) – but their kinds aren’t all the wines in the world. Italian winemakers in my lifetime have risen to great heights with different kinds of wine – different, but of equal worth and quality. If we could all stop saluting Romanée Conti for a moment, we might realize that Cannubi or Rabajà deserve a genuflection or two as well.

Item 3. This concerns a couple of small but worrisome disappointments. At a pair of recent dinners, I poured for the fair Diana, Mistress of the Revels, and myself wines from two of Piedmont’s standard-bearer producers. (What I’m about to say is a little ironic in the light of that last paragraph, but what the hell? I can only call’em as I see’em.)

gaja 1The biggest disappointment was a bottle of Gaja’s Sori San Lorenzo of the 2001 vintage – a great vintage in Piedmont, from a great winemaker, and a wine for which I consequently had great hopes. All too quickly dashed, however: The wine lacked Nebbiolo intensity and showed no complexity whatever. My first thought was that it was in eclipse, but what flavors it was giving were wrong for that; it wasn’t dumb, it just tasted middling. I’m puzzled, and hope I just had a bad bottle – but the experience is worrisome.

Giacosa 2Especially since it was more or less compounded just a few days later when I opened a bottle of Bruno Giacosa’s 2008 Barbera d’Alba. ‘08 was a good year for Barbera, and Giacosa stands among the best winemakers in the Alba region, so once again I had high hopes for the wine, and once again they were disappointed. Just as the Sori San Lorenzo lacked Nebbiolo intensity, this wine lacked Barbera vivacity, on top of which it displayed prominent non-Barbera tannins. The taste was of a wine that had been exposed to too much wood and hadn’t been able to assimilate it. As my friend Charles Scicolone would put it, this wine had gone to the dark side.

Now, two disappointing bottles do not add up to a catastrophe. But because of the expense of Gaja’s and Giacosa’s wines, these are not everyday tipples for me. When wines like these disappoint, and disappoint in the ways these two did, it raises questions – it makes you wonder, and not in the marvelous sense one hopes for during the holidays.

‘Nuff said. The bad-news bin is empty. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

* Update: This morning (December 21) I received an email from Montalcino, informing me that an arrest has been made in the case of the Case Basse vandalism. The person charged with spilling the wines is a former employee of the estate.

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The Nebbiolo Prima event, held in Alba every May, begins with a handful of Roero Nebbiolos and proceeds to Barbaresco before moving on to three days of Barolos, which usually by their sheer numbers wind up slightly overshadowing Barbaresco and completely screening Roero. This year was typical: The new releases consisted of 224 examples of 2008 Barolo and 2006 Barolo Riserva (my take on these will be coming out in Decanter) and only 90 Barbarescos, mostly of the 2009 vintage plus a few 2007 Riservas.

Despite the numerical preponderance of Barolo, the Barbaresco wines on offer definitely commanded attention. The commune of Treiso and especially the Barbaresco commune itself showed very well indeed, though many of the wines from the third commune – Neive – were seriously marred by over-oaking.

It’s a serious mistake to think of Barbaresco as only Barolo’s kid brother. Granted, Barbaresco receives one year less of aging before release than Barolo does – but in every other respect the wines are practically identical. Both consist of 100% Nebbiolo. Their producers work with the same clones on similar soils and in similar microclimates, only a few miles apart. In some cases, the same people produce both wines. It is more historical accident than any profound distinction that has made them two separate appellations. Both are DOCG and marvelous, age-worthy wines of the highest caliber.

American consumers seem to have understood this: The US alone absorbs more than a quarter of all the Barbaresco produced, while, for example, our unfortunately benighted British cousins import less than half of one percent of Barbaresco’s output. So if you’re attending the Olympics, don’t go looking for Barbaresco; gold medals will be more abundant. A British colleague of mine, an admirer of Barbaresco, is convinced this is because British consumers have been misled by the name and think Barbaresco is just an expensive Barbera. That sounds unlikely, but anything is possible.

In any event, the Barbaresco zone continues to deserve gold medals for its quality, and this 2009 vintage stands among the best of them. It was by no means an easy vintage. Rather, it ran from one extreme to another, from the heaviest winter snows and the rainiest spring in years to a totally dry, searing hot summer.

Ripening was very uneven, in a way that seemed more the consequence of place and soil than grape variety: in some spots, for instance, the Barbera ripened before the Dolcetto, which just shouldn’t happen. By the time the Nebbiolo was ready for picking, being a long-season, late-ripening variety, the grapes had pretty uniformly reached full ripeness both for sugars and tannins – maybe a little low in acidity, but by and large well-structured for cellaring and still with the kind of soft tannins and lush fruit that make modern Barolo and Barbaresco ready to drink so much sooner than the formidably hard wines of the past.

In the best 2009 Barbarescos, that combination of fine structure and rich fruit indicate a wine with a long future of pleasurable drinking before it, starting in all probability in about the fall of 2013 and going on for at least 10 years, and in many cases for 20 or more. 2009 joins that now unbelievably long string of excellent vintages that Piedmont and its fans have been enjoying. I know we’re in an economic crisis – who doesn’t? – but if you’re under 50 it would be fiscally irresponsible not to acquire a case or cases of these 2009s while you can: The pleasure dividends are worth it.

Here are some of my top-rated wines:

Angelo Negro, Cascinotta: black fruits and funghi porcini, hints of espresso; very interesting.

Cà del Baio, Asili: black cherry, roses, tobacco in nose, fresh fruit and mushroom on palate, balanced and elegant.

Cà Romé, Sori Rio Sordo: a touch closed, but beautifully structured.

Cascina delle Rose, Tre Stelle: a wine at once forceful and graceful, with intriguing fruit notes throughout (e.g., dried fig in the finish).

Cascina Morassino, Morassino: lovely Nebbiolo nose, fine black cherry fruit, plenty of minerality.

Castello di Verduno, Rabajà: Dried funghi, dark Nebbiolo fruit, and earth tones in nose and finish.

Giuseppe Cortese, Rabajà: fresh fruit with underlying minerality – very nice.

La Cà Nova, Montestefano: a touch rustic, but powerfully earthy, from one of the best sites in Barbaresco.

La Spinona, Bricco Faset: very complete and round, with forward fruit, good minerality, excellent balance.

Marchesi di Gresy, Martinenga: tar and tobacco and black cherry, with perfect acidity and tannin.

Moccagatta, Bric Balin: already complex and fine.

Pertinace, Marcarini: big black fruit, soft tannins, good acid; lively on the palate.

Poderi Colla, Roncaglie: classic earth, dried roses, and tar in nose and finish; needs time, but should be superb.

Prunotto Barbaresco: not a cru, but the basic wine and beautifully put together.

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It’s such a joy to visit winemakers in Barolo and Barbaresco. No matter how packed your schedule or how long your day, each visit deserves and rewards however much time it takes. So each day of the Nebbiolo Prima this year, after tasting 65 to 80 young, rough wines in the morning I happily bolted my lunch and went off for an afternoon of tasting more Nebbiolos.

Last post I told you about my sessions with the Angelo Negro family and Tiziana Settimo. This post I want to fill you in on my visits to Renato Ratti, Boroli, and Roccheviberti.

Renato Ratti

The eponymous founder of this estate was a pioneer of the modern age in Barolo, and his son Pietro is carrying on with the same style and panache. We sat in the light-filled tasting room of his impressive new winery and tasted an equally impressive battery of wines – Dolcetto 2011 and Barbera (both Alba 2011 and Asti 2010), Nebbiolo 2010, Barolo Marcenasco 2009 and 2008, Barolo Conca 2008 – and then a vertical of Pietro’s prized cru, Rocche: 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2001, 2000, and 1999.

The ’08 was big and tannic but balanced by terrific acid and fruit, the best wine of that vintage I’d tasted that day (that includes some 70+ in the morning session). The ’07 seemed slightly rustic and forceful, more forward and attention grabbing.

“2008 is a precise vintage,” Pietro says; “you can taste the differences of place from place. 2007 is exuberant; 2008 is more narrow but deeper – more interesting, with more acidity, more focus. 2006 is more classic, more fruity – same family as ’08, but more classic.” In fact, I found the 2006 very similar to the ’08, deep and composed, a wine to wait for. Both remind me of the 1974s, which evolved into some of the finest Barolos of the second half of the century.

Ratti’s 2005 you don’t have to wait for: It’s already together – a lovely middle weight, totally drinkable now. The 2004 went to the other end of the spectrum, a great vintage, along with 2001 one of the greatest, but nowhere near ready to drink. The 2001 showed itself more developed, the nose darkening to tobacco and coffee, even burnt earth, the palate deep, smooth, and complex – almost but not quite ready. The 2000 stood among the better examples of this too-hot vintage, but it will never be my favorite. “A great Barolo vintage,” Pietro says, “combines power and elegance.” His 1999 Rocche did just that – big Nebbiolo fruit and leather and porcini on the nose and in the mouth, with an endless finish. A lovely wine, with years of development still before it.

Boroli

This is a newer house, run by a team of brothers with a lot of modern technology but also great love for traditional Barolo character, both of which showed nicely in the wines. Villero is their best cru: it’s one of the choice sites in the Barolo zone, and Boroli does it justice. The 2004 sported big Nebbiolo fruit – juicy black cherry – along with tobacco and leather. I thought it elegant and balanced and still very young. The ‘05 Villero showed itself very accessible, as is characteristic of that vintage – quite drinkable already, although evidently still young and growing. This is what people have in mind when they talk about a good restaurant Barolo. 2006 also proved true to its vintage: a structured, big, austere wine, with great minerality – a wine for long, long cellaring to enjoy at its maximum. Villero 2007 was an almost complete contrast, fresh and amazingly accessible for so young a Barolo. It too will no doubt mature and deepen, but it’s so enjoyable now that it may be hard to wait for it.

Roccheviberti

This is the smallest producer I visited – about 20,000 bottles a year, and that includes some Dolcetto, Barbera, and Nebbiolo, as well as Barolo. Production that small makes Claudio Viberti only a little more than a garagiste, but in quality he is approaching the top tier. He works roughly 13 acres, 5 of which are Nebbiolo, in the tiny village of Rocche within the commune of Castiglione Falletto. I went to visit him because, in the past two or three years, I had been giving his wines top marks at Nebbiolo Prima’s morning blind-tasting sessions, and I thought it was time I found out something about him.

I am very, very glad I did. His 2010 Dolcetto d’Alba Vigna Melera and his 2009 Barbera d’Alba Superiore were both textbook wines, so delicious and so characteristic that the first taste told me that I was in the hands of an excellent winemaker. His 2008 Langhe Nebbiolo confirmed that: It was all beautiful black cherry fruit that tasted fresh! fresh! fresh!

The vertical of Barolo Rocche di Castiglione that followed was the icing on the cake. 2008 showed classic Nebbiolo color, the true garnet bleeding to an orange edge, and the classic “feminine” Castiglione body, sapid, juicy, and well structured. The 2007 smelled of raspberries and roses and tasted of sweet black cherries, tar, and tea. The 2006 had a nose of dried roses, earth, and tea, and on the palate big acid and firm tannins supporting a huge body of fruit – a wine that seems to me will get better and better for decades. His 2005 showed the same dried roses in the aroma and great minerality on the palate, with excellent acidity and fine fruit. 2004 again smelled of dried roses, and on the palate was evolving beautifully, with plenty of still fresh fruit beginning to develop complexity and depth – a gentle, elegant, and deep wine.

These wines demonstrated an impressive consistency of quality and style from vintage to vintage. Claudio said that he ferments his Barolos for 18 to 25 days, depending on the harvest, and that he uses only French oak in large, traditional botti. His grandfather had started the winery for bulk sales, and he began making wine in 2003 – and he doesn’t make a Riserva because he doesn’t have the space. Honestly, I hope he never has: I wouldn’t want him to change a thing.

The Barolo and Barbaresco zones are real winemaker country. You’re never greeted ceremoniously by guys in designer suits. Instead, men and women in purple-stained jeans and equally stained hands welcome you with boundless enthusiasm for their wines and plenty of information about their last half dozen vintages – or more, if you display any curiosity. Is it any wonder that I visit as often as I can?

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