Archive for the ‘Barolo’ Category

Revisiting Vintage 2000 Barolo

July 20, 2015

I had an unexpected encounter with the millennial vintage of Barolo recently. For reasons too annoying to go into here, I had to move and rearrange all the wines in my off-premises storage. In doing so, I came across a whole case of vintage 2000 wines – miscellaneous Tuscans and Barolos – that I had completely forgotten I had.

We’re in flabbergast city here, folks: Despite the Wine Spectator’s notoriously dubbing it the vintage of the century, I was never very fond of 2000 Barolo and thought it – and most of the vintage 2000 Italian crop – mediocre at best, with Piedmont wines in particular often marred by a deadly combination of over-ripe fruit and green tannins. I said at the time that for Barolo it was with few exceptions a vintage for near-term drinking (if at all), with little likelihood of any sort of long life, except for a handful of wines from top-notch producers. So you can imagine just how mixed my emotions were when I happened on this case. Treasure?  Not very likely. Trash? Could well be. Oh for my old, defunct vinegar barrel.

Well, of course I couldn’t just dump the wines, even though part of my brain told me that would be smart. So I started drinking them, beginning with the ones I thought had the best chance of showing some life. Luckily, I had four bottles of Oddero in there, one bottle of its basic Barolo and three crus. They may have been the reason I stored the case in the first place.

The Oddero family constitutes a significant landmark in Barolo winemaking history. From their primary location in La Morra – they have top-tier properties in several other communes as well – they have been making wine for about two centuries. They were among the very first producer/bottlers in the zone: They issued their first bottled wines in 1878, and they are still working the same vineyards.

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oddero family

Giacomo, Mariacristina, and the Next Generation

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The patriarchal Giacomo Oddero, a local monument in his own right, has turned the operation of the vineyards and cellar over to his daughters, Mariacristina (primarily) and Mariavittoria and, increasingly, their children. Under their guidance, cellar techniques have been slightly modernized – the cru Barolos, for instance, spend some time in barriques – but the house’s quality has never faltered.

CastiglioneThe three crus I rediscovered were Rocche di Castiglione, Mondoca di Bussia, and Rivera di Castiglione. We tried first the Rocche de Castiglione and the Mondoca, both through several courses at dinner at the home of friends. The Rocche met the challenges handsomely: still live, with some freshness and no evident harsh tannins, a decent amount of fruit and developed flavors, just enough acidity to keep it in balance – in short, one of the best bottles of 2000 Barolo I’ve tasted.

MondocaThe Mondoca, though fine for the vintage, was less pleasing: a little tired, less fresh, less complex – drinkable but clearly already past its peak. Nevertheless, I was happily surprised that both wines were definitely not inert – a nice proof that really fine winemakers can occasionally turn a sow’s ear of a vintage into a silk purse of a wine.

Thus encouraged, Diane and I went on to drink the remaining Odderos at home. Results were similar.

RiveraInitially, both the basic Barolo and the Rivera di Castiglione smelled and tasted old, seemingly well past their prime. But both opened in the glass, and once food arrived, they developed even further. The Rivera seemed fresher and fleshier and, especially with the food, showed a very nice acidity. Clearly, that was what was animating it. The – one hesitates to say “simple” – Barolo didn’t have as much acidity, so though it did show some complex, mature flavors and was quite drinkable, it just wasn’t as enjoyable as the cru wine.

There are other Barolos in that re-found case, all vintage 2000. These remaining bottles all come from producers much less accomplished than Oddero, so my hopes aren’t high. But we will taste them over the next week or two – I don’t want to drink even great Barolo every day, and these almost certainly will be far from great. But if I should happen upon a really pleasant surprise among them, you will hear about it.

Just to summarize: All four of these Oddero wines gave proof of superior selection at harvest and careful work in the cellar. 2000 was a hot, hot vintage, and the whole Alba zone was cursed with a crop wherein fruit ripeness far outstripped phenolic ripeness, resulting in high-alcohol, hot wines tasting of overripe grapes laced through and through with a bitter greenness. Most of the Barolos made that year were seriously unbalanced, flawed wines that died several years ago, and even these Odderos might have been better if I had drunk them five years earlier. Or maybe they then would have tasted green and unharmonious?  Maybe they needed all these almost 15 years since harvest to achieve even the fragile equilibrium they were now showing?  I can’t really say – but I can tell you this: If you still have any 2000 Barolo in your cellar, drink it yesterday.

 

Celebrating Colla

July 9, 2015

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.

Wine Pros(e) and Cons

March 9, 2015

There is probably more writing about wine available to consumers now than ever before. That is due, of course, to the great democracy of the internet and its multiple channels for conveying opinions and information: blogs, social media, tweets, comments, consumer evaluation forums, and so on. The problem is, who checks the accuracy of the information? How do you judge the value of Person X’s opinion? The great democracy of the internet really culminates in a grand indeterminacy, in which – all too often – the more you can find written about a subject, the less you confidently know about it.

Just a few examples:

blog collage

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The blogosphere is enormously heterogeneous. It contains many serious wine writers who post useful information that could otherwise not easily be dug out – about, for instance, wineries in the American Midwest, unusual grape varieties, distribution patterns and consumption patterns – but it also hosts naïve enthusiasts and egoists who present their momentary reactions and crackpot theories as eternal truths. Nobody fact-checks the internet the way editors – a dying breed – used to check articles submitted for publication, and no one verifies authors’ credibility. I know this sounds like an old geezer’s lament, but it is true: Nowadays, having an opinion is sufficient warrant to publish it.

Well, I taught English literature to undergrads and graduate students for several decades, and I can assure you of one great undemocratic truth: Not all opinions are equal. Your opinion is only as good as the data you can gather to support it and the intelligence and insight you can bring to understanding both the subject and the data. Beyond that, there are valid and invalid ways of using both, and knowing which is which takes experience: You have to learn it over time, and exercise it until you’re comfortable with it. Think of good judgment – or a good palate, if you prefer – as a muscle that can be developed by use and atrophied by idleness. So – speaking again as one who’s been doing this for a long while – writing about wine should involve a lot more than simply voicing your likes and dislikes as if they were fundamental truths.

I can understand why many people might not think so. Lots of terms that wine writers use generate confusion in readers. It’s hard, after all, to find objective language for what are largely subjective reactions. Moreover, since drinking wine is a greatly pleasurable activity, it’s understandable why many consumers assume that learning about it and writing about it must be equally subjective and enjoyable. While nobody in his/her right mind would undertake wine writing – or winemaking, for that matter – without a passion for it, the nasty little secret of professional wine tasting and writing is that they are rarely fun: They are work – hard, plodding work.

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hard plodding work

Is this the fun part?

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The civilian world – wine consumers – by and large think of tastings as enjoyable occasions, where they’ll sample six or eight wines, usually with some food, often with a full dinner, and with a professional – perhaps the winemaker – leading them through the tasting, essentially telling them what they’re experiencing and how excellent it is. There are various degrees of intensity and seriousness to these events, but they are rarely analytic or evaluative exercises. Essentially, their purpose is publicity or sales.

That may be a bit harsh. Some commentators at such events do try to convey real information – but I’ve got to say, at the risk of offending some of my colleagues, that most presenters at tastings designed for consumers try much harder to entertain than to inform. It’s not a choice I can fully respect: I think it sells at least some of the paying customers short and underestimates their intelligence and seriousness. (Perhaps I’m being naïve; perhaps the entertainers are right. If so, so much the worse – for me, I guess.)

Obviously, many consumers are quite content to enjoy wines without needing to know all about them – and who can fault that?  Many, many wine blog posts – the kind I think of as “What I Drank with Dinner Last Night” (a type I have been guilty of myself ) – deal almost exclusively with enjoyment, not analysis – and, unless they’re offered as analysis or eternal verity, who can fault that?

Nevertheless, there remains a gulf between the writing that results from serious wine tasting and the writing of even the most acute uninformed opinions. An occurrence a few years ago at Nebbiolo Prima (the annual week-long, for-professionals-only tasting of newly released Barolo and Barbaresco in Alba) summed that up for me.

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many bottles

Yes, you have to taste them all

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The organizers of the event, in a laudable attempt to “get with it,” had not invited many of the print journalists who had been their customary clientele and instead had asked a large number of bloggers to attend. So at the start of the week, bloggers of every stripe and several languages were present in force in Alba.

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tasting room

At work in the lab

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On the first day of the event, every place in the three tasting rooms was filled, and the tastings began in silence, just as austerely and rigorously as ever, with somewhere between 65 and 80 young Nebbiolo wines to be gotten through before lunch.

The next morning, there were conspicuous empty spaces. By the third morning, the tasting rooms were half empty. I don’t think a single blogger made it to the end of the week. Who can fault that?  There’s no question that it was brutally hard work, both physically and intellectually: Staying focused through repeated flights of young, tannic wines day after day requires real effort, and not everybody is capable of it. More than one winemaker I visited that week said “I couldn’t do what you do” – meaning not me personally but the whole cadre of tasters.

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tom tasting

Focus, focus, focus!

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But the point is that those who abandoned the tastings after a day or two thereby lost the whole point of the event: gaining knowledge of the character and quality of a whole vintage for an entire major wine zone. That’s knowledge and experience that can never be made up in any other way, and no amount of enthusiasm or personal certainty can equal it. How many of those disappearing bloggers, I wonder, went on to write “authoritatively” about that Barolo vintage?

In a later post, I may return to the differences between professional tastings and consumer tastings, because I think it’s an important topic and an all-too-often misunderstood one.

Escape from Winter with Bartolo Mascarello and Ciro Picariello

February 16, 2015

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.

barolo labelI 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.”

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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.

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???????????????????????????????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.

A New Book on Barolo & Barbaresco … plus a Related Item

October 17, 2014

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.

A Final 2010 Barolo Visit: Burlotto

August 7, 2014

Burlotto – to give the estate its full name, Commendatore G. B. Burlotto – is a long-established Barolo producer that I have been late in coming to appreciate. For the last few years at Nebbiolo Prima (the annual blind tasting in Alba at which about 300 producers show their new releases to invited international wine journalists) I’ve been noticing that I consistently score Burlotto’s wines very high. This year I decided it was time that I found out something about the winery, so I arranged to visit. Winemaker Fabio Alessandria hosted me for an afternoon at what turned out to be, to my intense pleasure, one of the most traditional wineries of the zone.

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Fabio and Botti

 

Not only was Burlotto’s cellar filled with fine old botti – the very large barrels of Slavonian oak that have been the traditional wine fermenters and containers in Piedmont at least since the 19th century – but also the family continues to grow all the traditional Piedmontese grapes – Dolcetto, Barbera, Nebbiolo – as well as the now-almost-endangered Freisa and Pelaverga. The latter were for me a special treat, because they make wines that are distinctive and always accessible and refreshing, especially after the sometimes daunting task of each morning’s tasting through 50 or 60 young Barolos.

Unfortunately Freisa and Pelaverga are not well known outside their native zone, hence don’t make a big market item, and, hence again, are steadily losing vineyard space to better-known, more easily sellable varieties. That’s yet one more instance of how the very success of wine is contributing to its homogenization. Thank whatever gods may be for steadfast traditionalists like Burlotto.

Fabio led me through a tasting of Burlotto’s extensive line of wines. All remarks within quotation marks in the rest of this piece are Fabio’s comments.

“Giovan Battista, my great-great-grandfather, is considered one of the founders of Barolo.  According to my family legend, he was the first producer to bottle a Barolo under his own name. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but he surely was one of the pioneer small producers. We are still a family farm – 15-16 hectares, mostly in Verduno, plus some others in Cannubi and a few other places. We grow mostly Nebbiolo, but also a little Freisa and Pelaverga in Verduno.”

 

The vineyards of Verduno, northernmost of the Barolo townships. Monvigliero (in brown) is the most important. (Detail from Alessandro Masnaghetti's Barolo DOCG The Official Crus. Info@enogea.it)

The vineyards of Verduno, northernmost of the Barolo townships. Monvigliero (in brown) is the most important. (Detail from Alessandro Masnaghetti’s Barolo DOCG The Official Crus. Info@enogea.it)

 

“We’re close to organic, but we’re not certified organic – no chemical fertilizers, no pesticides. The cellar is very traditional. The work is all artisanal, all done by hand. We don’t even try to control the fermentation temperature too much; we prefer to be as natural as possible.”

Viridis Sauvignon blanc 2013:  Classic nose, with lots of lime, citrus, sage, mint. On the palate, a bit less extravagant, but passionfruit-tasting: sweet and acid all wrapped up together. Very refreshing. A good example of Sauvignon from an unlikely zone. “In Verduno, we have small patches of chalk in some vineyards. That’s great for Sauvignon blanc, which is why we tried that variety here. “

Elatis Rosé 2013:  (45% Nebbiolo 45% Pelaverga 10% Barbera)  Very nice: light, fresh, berry-ish, with a few other fruits mixed in – strawberries and raspberries plus, as Fabio says, “a touch of pepperiness, a touch of peach – but especially the wild strawberry, from the Pelaverga.”  He adds, “Rosés aren’t traditional here. We were the first cellar in this area to produce and bottle one. They are becoming more and more popular now.”

Pelaverga 2013 and 2012:  The nose is very underbrushy, almost wild, especially wild strawberry. Complicated flavor, fresh and very interesting: very lively. All these characteristics very pronounced in the ’12. This is a variety I am really happy has survived. “Pelaverga evolves in the direction of Pinot noir – aromatic cooking herbs, thyme, bay leaf. My grandfather really loved Pelaverga and kept growing it while other people were abandoning it. It’s having a new life now, especially as a lunch wine, for which it’s perfect: light and flavorful, with a little complexity.”

Dolcetto 2012:  Lovely strawberry nose: classic Dolcetto aromas. Very fine: a beautifully done traditional Dolcetto. “2012 was a strange harvest, very warm. The wines turned out very different from our expectations – not fat or big, but more elegant, less alcoholic.”

Barbera 2012:  From vineyards in Roddi and Verduno. Aged in botti. Blackberry, brambly nose. Delightful Barbera fruit and acid: great fun – a perfect Barbera.

Barbera Aves 2012:  A selection of the best parts of each vineyard. Aged in tonneau. A touch of wood on the nose: smoother on the palate than the first Barbera, but still lively fruit. A bit more polished and elegant than the basic Barbera. “An important experiment for us, a chance to vary a bit from tradition. Barbera is more receptive to a little oak than Nebbiolo is.”

Langhe Freisa 2012:  Wild strawberry and raspberry aromas and flavors; fine acid/tannin balance; some elegance: Very fine. Another traditional Piedmont variety that deserves being preserved. “80% of the DNA in Freisa and Nebbiolo is the same. Freisa is the older variety, so it may be some sort of rustic great-grandparent of Nebbiolo. Yield is lower than Nebbiolo and the harvest is later, because Freisa’s tannins don’t ripen as well as Nebbiolo’s.”

Langhe Nebbiolo 2012:  Black cherries and underbrush; on palate cherry and earth notes. Medium body. Very elegant, very composed. “A little raspberry too in the flavor.”

Barolo 2010:  Wonderful black cherry, earth, and tar aroma. Delicious, with pleasing soft tannins, great acidity and freshness. A five-star wine for sure, and this is just Burlotto’s basic Barolo. “We produce four different Barolos. We work very traditionally. Verduno Barolo is more delicate and elegant than other zones, and we try to emphasize that.”

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Barolo Acclivi 2010:  This is what used to be called a riserva – a selection from several vineyards in the best years. More tar on nose – the fabled goudrun – and palate, more structured and less giving now. This one is built for the ages.

Barolo Monvigliero 2010:  “A single-vineyard wine, but one of our most traditional: We crush the grapes by foot, and we don’t always tightly control the temperature during fermentation. Two months maceration on the skins.” Lovely and elegant, with undertones of dried flowers, tar, dried fruit. Silky tannins. Totally enjoyable already, and yet giving every sign of long life ahead of it.

Barolo Cannubi 2010:  Equally as good as Monvigliero, but very different; austere, showing more power and a bit less elegance, but in no way heavy. A wonderful, pure Nebbiolo-fruit finish. Very, very fine: All these Barolos are five-star wines.

So concluded yet another fine visit in Barolo-land, leaving Ubriaco to mourn once again the passing of the days when one could take almost a case of wines onto the plane home as hand luggage.

More Fine 2010 Barolo Visits: Paolo Scavino

July 28, 2014

It was very hard to find a bad wine, even a mediocre one, among the 2010 new releases that I tasted in Alba back in May, so that made my afternoon visits to individual producers (the blind-tasting sessions ran all morning) very pleasurable indeed. One that I particularly enjoyed was to the Paolo Scavino estate, where Elisa Scavino treated me to their whole gamut of Piedmont wines. Scavino is a fourth-generation, family-owned producer.

Scavino family. Elisa is second from left.

Scavino family. Elisa is second from left.

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The winery and family headquarters are located in Castiglione Falletto, but the Scavinos own pieces of 19 different crus, scattered through the many communes of the Barolo zone.

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Scavino vineyards

Barolo crus in light purple; Scavino vineyards in dark purple

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Their most prized bottlings are:

  • Barolo Carabric (mostly Castiglione Falletto commune),
  • Barolo Bricco Ambrogio (the only cru of the small zone of Roddi),
  • Barolo Monvigliero (the grand cru of Verduno),
  • Barolo Cannubi (one of the most famous crus of Barolo township),
  • Barolo Bric del Fiasc (Castiglione Falletto commune), and
  • Barolo Rocche del Annunziata (the great La Morra cru).

In addition to those, the family also makes the classic Piedmontese gamut: a white (atypically vinified from Chardonnay and a little Viognier), Vino Rosso, a simple red blended from young vines of typical Piedmont varieties, plus Dolcetto, Barbera, and Nebbiolo Langhe. So, as you can easily understand, these necessitate many small, separate vinifications. All the “simpler” wines – in Piedmont, it’s always wise to say “simple” in quotation marks – are fermented and aged only in stainless steel, while all the Barolos undergo malolactic fermentation in used barriques and later age in large botti, to finally rest for some months in stainless steel before bottling.

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Here are the wines I tasted, with my impressions and some of the remarks about them that Elisa Scavino made as we tasted.

Sorriso 2013:  A refreshing white wine (especially after a whole morning of young Nebbiolo), with a lovely Viognier nose, lively and friendly on the palate (apple and quince notes). Quite enjoyable. Elisa says this wine began as a project for the family’s use and only gradually grew into a wine for the portfolio. Slow, low-temperature fermentation, and no malo, in order to preserve the bright acidity.

Vino Rosso 2013:  A cuvee from young vines – Barbera, Dolcetto, Nebbiolo, and a little Merlot. Big red fruit nose, pleasing simple red fruit on the palate, soft tannins, good acidity: a straightforwardly enjoyable wine for everyday meals. Elisa: “No wood at all on this wine or the Dolcetto or the Barbera.”

Dolcetto 2013:  Classic Dolcetto nose; on the palate, light sweet fruit, with great clarity and purity. Very fine and charming, in the best Dolcetto manner. Elisa: “In Piemonte, we always start an important dinner with Dolcetto: it lets you begin gently before you drink the big wines.”

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Barbera d’Alba 2013:  Textbook Barbera nose and Alba palate – round, fresh red fruit, a little peppery, with a clean, briskly acid finish. Very nice indeed. From a La Morra cru, Elisa said, with eastern exposure, not too warm, so it ripens slowly. “La Morra gives great elegance, both to Nebbiolo and to Barbera.”

Barbera d’Alba Affinato in Caratti 2012:  According to Elisa, this special Barbera comes from Bricco Ambrogio in Roddi, from vines that were planted in the 1950s. I found it very intense and complex, more serious and fine than Scavino’s basic Barbera, but no less authentically varietal. Elisa: “I like Barbera with a little age, because it gives the wine a chance to pull together and harmonize.”

Langhe Nebbiolo 2012:  Intensely tobacco-y Nebbiolo nose; big, soft fruit on the palate. Dark flavors, but lightish and live on the palate. Very good and quite drinkable. Elisa: “For us, this is an introduction to Barolo, a way to come to know Nebbiolo – less demanding or intimidating than Barolo, a wine that can be drunk younger than Barolo. Langhe Nebbiolo especially needs to be top quality because of that.”

Barolo 2010:  A lovely example of the vintage, with great fruit and real charm: impressive structure as well, as is a hallmark of the 2010 vintage. Very, very fine. “From seven different crus in Castiglione Falletto, Barolo, and Serralunga d’Alba, the selection depending on the vintage, blended to make the traditional Barolo,” says Elisa. “It should really be called Barolo Classico, but Italian law won’t let us do that.”

Barolo Carabric 2010:  Fine fruit, great structure – a fine wine, surprisingly drinkable already. Elisa: “Beautiful drinkability and great complexity, without being huge or overpowering – the 2010 vintage was like that right from the start – a beautiful vintage.”

Barolo Bricco Ambrogio 2010:  Cherry-sweet fruit from the only cru of Roddi. Intense underpinnings of tar/tobacco/earth/mushroom. Very fine and quite distinctive. Elisa: “Full south exposure, lots of limestone in the soil, vines nearing 20 years of age. Good fruit focus in this cru, always.”

Barolo Monvigliero 2010:  Black fruit, earth, mushrooms in the aroma. Black, sweet fruit on the palate. Again, distinctive – a huge structure, but with delicacy: the interplay of strength and delicacy is fascinating. A very, very great wine. Elisa: “The grand cru of Verduno – limestone and chalk soil. The grapes are always a little bit spicy.”

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Barolo Cannubi 2010:  Earth, dried flowers, funghi porcini in the nose, and in the mouth mineral, rock, funghi, then fruit – in short, classic Cannubi. A very great wine. Elisa: “We lease this vineyard year by year, since 1985. It’s unquestionably one of the best vineyards we work with. Largely Michet clone of Nebbiolo.”

Barolo Bric del Fiasc 2010:  In nose and palate, earth, tobacco, funghi, sottobosco; great fruit and minerality; very welcoming. Its underlying complexity opens slowly and gently. Elisa: “Our cru since 1921, the first we vinified as a single cru, in 1978. Very complex soil in this vineyard. For me, since I grew up with it, this is a classic expression of Barolo, a bit introverted and needing to be learned, but very long-aging and persistent.”

Barolo Rocche dell’ Annunziata Riserva 2008:  Simply gorgeous. Big, sweet, dark fruit, great structure and freshness: years to go. Lovely. Elisa: “Fantastic year, 2008. A very warm vineyard, with white, sandy soil, great drainage. We have one and a half hectares, which we are replanting, because the vines are too old. We’re using our own massal selection for the new vines.”

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This was the last wine I tasted that afternoon. I couldn’t imagine a better way to end a visit in Piedmont, with this majestic Barolo serving as the capstone of an impressive array of wines, consistent from start to finish in style and quality.

Great 2010 Barolo: Massolino

July 16, 2014

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.

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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.

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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.

Giovanni AngeliWe 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.

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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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Piedmont Vineyards Become a World Heritage Site

June 26, 2014

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.

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“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.

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

 

 

 

 

Nebbiolo Prima and 2010 Barolo

June 9, 2014

The online version of the Quarterly Review of Wine has just published my report on the 2010 Barolos I tasted last month at this year’s Nebbiolo Prima in Alba.

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This is a great, great vintage that anyone even slightly serious about Italian wine – about fine wine, period – should not miss out on. You can read the entire article here.

Or, if you’d rather just cut to the chase, here are direct links to QRW’s lists of the wines that I considered the finest of the 200 or so I tasted that week:

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After a lot of very serious wine tasting and very dreary New York weather, I’m now going to give my palate a break by taking a few weeks of vacation, including peering at birds and drinking nothing but beer and fruity/rummy concoctions adorned with small umbrellas, while eating my year’s allotment of chili peppers, at a luxurious eco-lodge in (hopefully) sunny Honduras.

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Veranda of the Lodge at Pico Bonito

When I get back, I will pick up where I left off, probably filling in some specific information about some of those great Barolos and – also part of Nebbiolo Prima – the not-at-all-shabby 2011 Barbarescos.  Fino alla prossima volta!