I tasted a lot of superb Barolos at this year’s Nebbiolo Prima, back in May. There’s no question that 2010 is one of the greatest Barolo vintages of my lifetime, and I’ve lived long enough to drink many fine ones, so I don’t say that lightly. I’d be very hard put to name one wine or one producer as the best of this striking vintage, but any shortlist that I drew up would be sure to include Massolino in the very top ranking. The Massolinos have been making wine in Serralunga for four generations now and own some of the best vineyards in that commune.
The family is not given to overstatement, so when Franco Massolino says “We really think that 2010 is one of the best vintages of our history,” I pay attention.
I was lucky enough to be able to visit Massolino on my last afternoon in Alba, after I had already sampled 250-300 Barolos over the course of the week.
I tasted all the estate’s 2010s – the classic multiple-vineyard Barolo and then the crus Margheria, Parafada, Vigna Rionda, and Parussi – plus a few older vintages. This happened in company and in conversation with Giovanni Angeli, who has been co-winemaker there with Franco Massolino since 2005 (and who had gone to school with Franco’s brother, so an old family friend to boot). Brother Roberto cares for the vineyards, while Franco and Giovanni tend the cellar.
We prefaced the tasting with some general remarks about winemaking in the Langhe. Giovanni noted that Italian doesn’t call him a “winemaker”: Its word for what he is and does is enologo – a person who studies wine, who has knowledge of wine. “I worked for a while in Australia,” he said; “There I learned what it means to be a winemaker. There, they make the wine. An enologo is very different.”
“People forget that wine is an agricultural product,” he continued. “90% of our work is out there in the dirt, so that during vinification and aging, our job is to preserve what the vineyard has given us. Every vintage, every growing season, is different. That’s where the experience of the family really helps.…”
“We follow the grapes very closely to get the perfect ripeness of everything – fruit, seeds, skins. The window is very small when it’s just the right time to pick, with full ripeness and no loss of acidity. We’re small enough that we can harvest quick: We can bring in all our Nebbiolo in a week. That’s why the vineyard work is so important.”
“In 2010, we had one the best vintages of the last 10 years. Skins and seeds were very ripe, the grapes very healthy. We harvested in the second half of October. That meant a long growing season, perfect for Nebbiolo. The wines were complete right from the start, with beautiful balance. They’re approachable now, but they have great potential for aging – more power and concentration for aging even than 2004.”
This last Giovanni said as he poured the first of the several wines we were going to taste. Regular readers of this blog know that I think tasting notes are completely valid only for the one person who made them, and then only for that one time and place. But I was so impressed by the quality and stylistic consistency of the Massolino wines, that I will reproduce my tasting notes here (part of them, at least: I’ll leave out all the exclamation points), to give you some sense of the excitement I felt at the time.
Barolo 2010: Black cherry, black pepper, tar, and tobacco nose – already complex. Lovely fresh fruit on the palate, with accents of spice and tobacco, hinting at deeper flavors to come. Very long black-fruit-and-tar finish. An excellent wine, juicy and structured.
Barolo Margheria 2010: More tenor, more peppery, higher-toned fruit, both in the aroma and on the palate. Lovely: juicy, peppery, complex, structured – an off-the-charts wine. Giovanni: “Serralunga is higher in acidity than other parts of Barolo: You can feel the potential of this 2010, but it’s very young.”
Barolo Margheria 2009: Similar to the 2010, with nice sweet fruit, but not as peppery, intense, or structured. I’m no fan of the 2009 vintage in general, but this is one of the best examples of it I’ve tasted.
Barolo Parafada 2010: Beautiful nose – enormous, in fact. Rich black fruit, almost sweet. The wine feels dense on the tongue. Long black cherry finish. The overall impression is of intense purity, of perfectly characteristic Nebbiolo. Simply lovely. Giovanni: “Parafada has the oldest vines on the estate – about 60 years old. In this vintage, the wine is light in the mouth, but the fruit is dense. In many vintages, Parafada needs time: It’s not so open and accessible as this. 2010 has amazing rich fruit. It has a surface of simplicity and directness with great underlying complexity. Serralunga Barolo is supposedly powerful and massive, but Masssolino Barolo is elegant. We try for less extraction to rein in the power and show the balance.”
Barolo Parafada 2009: More tenor and not as rich as the 2010. Wonderful too, and only lesser by comparison.
Barolo Parussi 2010: Aroma of wet stones, pepper, dried fruit. Abundant fruit in the mouth, but leaner than the preceding wines, almost more muscular, more athletic. Very dark dried-fruit finish. Altogether leaner and more muscular than the other crus. Giovanni: “Parussi is in Castiglione Falleto – less clay, more limestone – very different soil from Serralunga. It gives a different texture, different tannins. The wine is maybe a bit more rustic, and needs more time. It’s a new vineyard for us (acquired in 2007), with 40-year-old vines. We’re still learning about it.”
Barolo Parussi 2009: Very similar to the 2010 in aroma, palate, and finish, and similarly different from the Serralunga crus. The side-by-side comparison really shows how well Massolino is capturing the gout de terroir. Just lovely. I said that to Giovanni, who responded that “It’s important for us to underline the differences of vineyard from vineyard. We want to express the terroir. You know we experimented with barriques for a while, but when we saw that they lost that identity for us, we began moving back to big casks. For instance, since 2007, Parafada uses no barriques at all.”
The 2010 Vigna Rionda was judged not yet ready to be shown, so Giovanni poured a few older vintages of this great cru.
Barolo Vigna Rionda Riserva 2008: Gorgeous. A long, delectable licorice-and-black-cherry finish, and everything before that is a tight ball of complex, juicy, delicious flavors.
Barolo Vigna Rionda 2007: Dried strawberry-and-tar aroma. The same on the palate, with a delightful, silky palatal feel. Great elegance and great complexity. Giovanni: “2007 achieved beautiful ripeness. We left it 30-35 days on the skins because they and the seeds had such beautiful ripeness we didn’t fear any green tannins. The ’08 is even better structured – a bit more classic, a benchmark wine.”
Barolo Vigna Rionda 2004: By now, I had just about run out of superlatives. ’04 was a wonderful vintage, the one most Barolo producers cite as comparable to 2010, and this superb example of it is maturing beautifully, with years (probably decades) of life before it. Once again, gorgeous.
Massolino has an admirable program of holding back some special wines and re-releasing them on their tenth anniversary: This ’04 Vigna Rionda is one of those wines, so it should be available now in the US. FYI, Massolino’s importer is Vineyard Brands.
This was the point at which I stopped spitting. Do you blame me?