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Nebbiolo fanatico

Fun with Piedmont Producers (1)

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I took this trip in late April to mid-May 2003, but have delayed posting it in this forum dispite Craig's invitation. If this is too jargon or geography detailed, please ask and I'll try to clarify.

In Spring 2003, I visited 41 Barolo and Barbaresco producers, ate too much meat, and spent a couple of hours a day writing notes (I went through two notebooks and several pens. I would not have had a prayer of remembering most of this otherwise.). When I was not doing those activities, I drove around with my maps trying to identify vineyards, and upon locating them, wandered up and down the rows of vines with no specific purpose other than to commune with it all. I am not being paid a dime for any of this, (though it cost me a bundle), instead merely pursuing an insane labor of love. Clearly, I am under-medicated despite my wine consumption.

These notes may go on for a long time and will require several posts. I thought I’d start with the disclaimers, random thoughts, observations, and conclusions in anticipation that you may not want to read beyond them. In no order whatsoever:

1. I was told that N. Italy would be very cold and to bring sweaters, gloves, and even a hat. Instead of the normal season’s weather of 20-24C degrees, it was an oppressive 24-30C, which is more in line with July weather. This made keeping wine in the car for more than a half hour out of the question. It only rained lightly on two evenings. Any rain covered everything with a film of red sand from Africa (I had to wash my car after each rain just to avoid getting covered with the stuff.). I wonder if this has any long term affects on soil composition.

2. I rented a midsize car (which turned out to be a Volvo V40) as it was only a bit more expensive than the scary Fiat compact I had last time. I was very glad I did, both during the many trips up and down steep hills and also while going 160 k/hr on the autostrada.

3. I brought some CDs to be freed of Italian radio: Bela Fleck “Three Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Marcus Miller “Live and More” (previous funk bass player for Miles Davis), Earth, Wind, and Fire “In the Name of Love”, Best of George Benson “The Instrumentals”, and Miles Davis in Concert 1972 (very drug influenced, but what wasn’t in 1972?).

4. I concluded once again that Italian drivers are good road companions. Sure, they will drive 6” away from your rear bumper no matter what the speed, but (at least in this part of Italy) everyone drives in an accommodating and “reasonable” manner. I encountered no road hostility or petty positioning games so common on US roads.

5. I stayed in three different places – Albergo Italia in the town of Serralunga (which is run by the Giacomo Anselma family, a producer of cru Vigna Rionda), La Terazza sul Bosco in the town of Barolo (run by the Camerano family, a producer of Cannubi), and at an azienda agricola above the Rabaja’ vineyard in Barbaresco (run by the Alutto family, which is one of the growers who contribute to Produttori del Barbaresco’s cru Rabaja’) This provided a different feel to each third of the trip even though I was frequently driving back and forth among the zones.

6. These notes are typed with little editing and often just as I scribbled them down at the time. I am not writing a book and am still not being paid. Expect a lot of redundancy in these notes as many producers had similar views.

7. I took over 130 digital pictures, many of them of producers. I lost my camera on the last day there.

8. It is impossible not to over-eat in Italy. Stuffed after two appetizers and the primo piatto. Should stop. No, force down the secondo. Dying, but how can I not have that incredible dessert? Close to tears. Like that Monty Python skit. After a few days I realized that I didn’t have to do this every lunch and dinner.

9. Carne Cruda – the Italian version of steak tartar – is candidate for one of the greatest meat treats on the planet. I tried to eat it twice a day, foregoing it at breakfast. No sign of E. Coli yet.

10. It only takes one 1 oz. shot of Italian coffee with sugar to realize that Starbucks coffee is plonk.

11. In addition to Nebbiolo and white truffles, Piedmont is famous for hazelnuts. Hazelnut tree orchards are regularly planted in the Langhe on plots not suitable for vines. I tried not to eat more than two hazelnut gelatos a day. The Langhe is also a land that explodes with wild and planted flowers.

12. Appointments lasted from 45 minutes to over 3 hours. Some of the anticipated appointments were anticlimactic. Some of the “filler” ones were outstanding. Most all of the producers were very generous with their time and attention (usually I was alone), and I was given 13 bottles of wine, almost all B&B (I shipped back 4 cases total).

13. Some producers are selling their wines direct for peanuts – EU17-25. A few are selling them at enoteca prices or even US prices.

14. The worst part of my trip was when I was speaking in Italian and was asked, “You speak pretty good Italian. Are you French?”

15. Giuseppi Rinaldi has said that the future is female. Looking at B&B producers, both the future and the present are female. I found a remarkable amount of women as winery heads, partners, participants, or heirs apparent. I also found the next generation (sometimes even the grandchildren of the current producer) to be remarkably excited to continue the current traditional character of the family wines. Sadly, some family wineries are on the verge of dying out.

16. I never drink Dolcetto in the US, but again found it is fabulous when drank locally. There is a freshness and vitality that is so delightful and expressive, and this never seems to survive the trip overseas. I had a few discussions regarding how the new monster Dolcetti, especially out of Dogliani, are a response to this but unfortunately fail to resemble what the locals love about this grape (BTW, I had a bruising 99 Pecchenino Siri d’Jermu after getting back and found its mass to be completely lacking in that fresh charm. But the market likes freakshow wines). Equally, I found “traditional” Barbera to be excellent there, neither lacking body and tannin nor being too acidic. It almost seems that outside of Italy, we hold different expectations for how wines should be. Unfortunately, almost every producer has now bought into the argument that Barbera “needs” barrique. It’s a shame because I doubt that is what they themselves usually prefer to drink.

17. I generally only gulp down about a half bottle of vino a day at home (with guilt and self-loathing to boot). However, as the trip progressed, I was tasting in the morning, had a glass at lunch, tasting in the afternoon, a full bottle by myself at dinner. Sometimes I felt tired but never hungover. It is amazing with the body can tolerate under extreme survival conditions.

18. A major key to my trips success was being able to get by speaking Italian. When I went in fall, 2000, I knew about 50 words. This put a huge damper on what I could get out of that trip. Notable examples were meeting Bartolo Mascarello and Giuseppi Rinaldi and sitting there like a mute, slobbering idiot. So, I spent the last two years poking away at the language, including the relevant wine terms. Now I have risen to a semi-literate, slobbering idiot. However, the effort was greatly appreciated, particularly as I made the effort just to talk with producers. Almost all the meetings were conducted in Italian as most the producers do not speak English, and indeed these conversations would have been impossible otherwise. That said, I won’t pretend that I caught everything they said, and realize that I may be omitted details. However, through repeated questioning and explanations, I am fairly confident that I got the essences of their comments. And frankly, using English is no guarantee of accuracy either. Nothing here is knowingly misrepresented.

19. A second key to successful meetings was that I am undeniably nuts about local grapes and wines, babbling about vintages, grapes, vineyards, and producer histories with enough background knowledge to allow for fairly in-depth conversations. It was also greatly appreciated that I am not in the wine trade and not a journalist.

20. Everyone seemed to hate journalists. Almost everyone expressed contempt for the press for promoting international-style wines, creating a specific market demand through the score system (a view held even by those who had received high scores), and leading to a trend of all B&B tasting the same with each other and with wines from other countries.

21. It should come as no surprise that many of the producers shared my views of wines as I very specifically sought out producers that I consider traditionalists. However, the views expressed were certainly their own (they had no reason seek my approval) and I did not try to lead conversations other than to ask general questions. That they knew I was an ardent believer in traditional wines no doubt helped. While there is a myriad of production styles now, the great divide still seems to be the use of barrique, with producer after producer saying that modern barolo (and barbaresco) “can be very good, but it is not barolo.” It is true that every cellar in the Langhe has barrique, but these are often 5+ years old and used only as transferring vessels or for left over small quantities that would not fill a botti. I agree with these producers. Having tasted examples back to 1964, I believe that well-made traditional B&B are the finest wines in the world. I find the modernists arguments about Nebbiolo needing barrique/French oak for color stabilization or enhancement, to replace hard tannins with soft tannins, to add perfume, to make an easier, earlier drinking wine, or to better express terroir (with wood flavors!) to be ridiculous and nausea inducing. If you need these things, drink something other than B&B and stop corrupting this incredibly unique and profound wine and the Nebbiolo grape which already produces perfect wines in its own right without being molested by “enologists” (too orange indeed!). Quite ironically, I found barrels samples and samples tasted from new bottles of traditional Nebbiolo to be surprisingly delicious and drinkable. Conversely, barrique samples and newly bottled barriqued Nebbiolo was at best awful and at worst undrinkable. Reply: “The wood needs a few years to integrate.” Ah-hmmm. As many of the traditionalists said, it is not about technology, it is about a philosophy of what Nebbiolo is as a grape and as a reflection of the region. Finally, all the producers said that great wine is made in the vineyard not the cellar, and that this belief goes back decades. While the modernists claim this as there mantle, their cellar interventions speak otherwise. Now that you know what I really think, you can stop reading.

22. Vintages: There was certainly difference of opinion here but on average it went as this: 96 – still spoken of with awe as the best. 97 – No one is calling it the VOTC anymore and some even dismiss it as “good for current drinking.” The only two who called it the best admitted that they like to drink their wines young (i.e. best for current drinking). 98 – Some called it classic. Others said it was a lighter vintage and will be ready to drink sooner. 99 – Considered as the next successor to 96. Huge fruit and great tannins and a longer term ager. A few liked 98 better for their vineyards. 2000 – Generally compared to 97 as a very hot year making big, fat, early-maturing wines. 2001 – while it is early, quite a few producers put this one along with 96 and 99, and some even said it will be the best of all.

And finally 2002. Barolo and Barbaresco have almost countless subzones, many of which had different conditions in 2002. But of course the press needs to make a blanket statement, so they damned the whole year. I’ll just give a quick summary here and try to include different details in the producer comments. The Spring started off well enough, however the summer was consistently cloudy and rainy preventing grape maturation. Mold became a serious problem and many growers did severe pruning in the summer in the hopes of gaining some quality for the remaining grapes. For those who were in fortunate locations this worked out well as early September to early October was a month of sunshine and the Nebbiolo ripened just in time. These producers call it a “good” vintage even if quantities were down. This was especially the case in Serralunga and the Barbaresco region. But the earlier ripening Dolcetto and Barbera generally never ripened and the harvest was a loss for many. The Nebbiolo harvest itself was often 50% or less with some producers declassifying it all as Langhe Nebbiolo. However, for producers in the strip of Barolo Cannubi, La Morra Brunate, all the way up to the Castiglione Falletto ridge, 2002 was a total disaster. On September 3rd, this swath was hit by a hailstorm that wiped out whole vineyards in a matter of minutes. Often, the weather comes from the north and the high hill of La Morra shelters the interior of the Barolo zone. In this case, it came from the south, bumped into the inner side of the La Morra ridge, where it was stopped and dumped huge balls of hail. Some producers were left with 30% of their Nebbiolo crop, but called the resulting Barolo good. Others declassified the grapes, and still others had nothing to harvest at all. I saw a lot of empty barrels throughout the Langhe as a result of these various factors.

23. The real value of the trip: To be able to put the faces, voices, and expressions of the producers to the wines that I enjoy drinking. To see their cellars where they create wonderful things. To stand looking at and out from famous vineyards, watching how sun and shadows play through the vines from different angles while listening to the beautiful, local black and white birds as they raced through the rows, crumbling clumps of soil in my hand from different zones, smelling and smiling. Then turning around and thinking, “Ah! That is the so and so vineyard and that must be so and so’s house!” If this sounds psychotic, well, psychos appreciate things on their own level. I can taste most any of these wines at home, but I can never experience this kind of “taste.” I am not a believer in the “just judge a wine by what is the in glass” school of thought. To me, this is like literary deconstructionism that I had to suffer through in collage. This states that the context of the author’s life, personality, nationality, historical settling don’t matter at all. Just judge the text by what is on the paper. I found this not only very bland and boring, but also soulless and characterless. I feel the same way about wines. I want to know about the producer, how he made his wines, what he was thinking about this method and why he thinks it is the best way. Because winemaking is an art form (not just a science project) and the maker’s personality determines choices that are bound to be reflected in the wine. Taste-spit-score in an information vacuum may be meaningful for some drinkers, but for me it removes one of the fundamentally interesting things about wine.

THE PRODUCERS

PORTA ROSSA

This winery is unusual in being perched up in Diano d’Alba, which is more famous for its Dolcetto than Barolo. Not surprisingly, the winery produces four different Dolcetto (Vigna Bruni, Sori Piadvenza, and two non-cru), in addition to Nebbiolo d’Alba, Grignolino, Barbera d’Alba, Brachetto d’Acqui, Favorita, Gavi, Roere, Moscato d’Asti, Barbaresco, and Barolo Bricco Ambrogio [located near Cherasco]). Fittingly, the front of the winery is a noble, arched red door, leading to a cellar built by one of Napolean’s officers. I met with Pierfranco Bonaventura, owner and enologist, who seemed rather puzzled that an American wanted to visit his enterprise as he almost never receives foreign visiters (3 or 4). He was a dressed in a business suit, appearing refined and eloquent, and obviously was an intellectual of sorts. He was very business like, not in a monetary way so much as a matter of being fully conscious of quality. He talked high speed for 2.5 hours stopping only to draw a breath.

This winery started in 1973 and Sig. Bonaventura took over in the 80’s after having wine experience elsewhere. A very small producer, he buys all the grapes. We tried two Dolcetto which each see one year in Slavonian oak (unusual as Dolcetto almost always only sees stainless steel tanks). I was floored at the pure freshness and richness of these wines. While Dolcetto is only the grapes name, the nose really was amazingly sweet with blackberries and cherries. The palate was bone dry while still being very warm and caressing. There was not a hint of excess acidity. I can’t recall having a more beautiful Dolcetto. He said the two cru are actually very similar, but that he calls them different names out of historical respect for the growers. About (traditional) Barbera, he said it can age into something stupendous. About Barbaresco, he has found the demand too low and will probably stop making it. We also tasted a 99 Barolo barrel sample out of mid-size Slavonian botti. It was very young and too cold, but unmistakably fine Nebbiolo, very pure and expressive, no harsh or clamping tannins, and with a very clear orange color. He said maceration lasted “not so long.”

Sig. Bonaventura is completely devoted to local grapes and their ability to express unique terroir, and he is strongly against the changes that have been brought to Langhe wine making. He hates barrique which he thinks ruins the grapes flavor, and he hates Super-Piedmont wines. What is the need for these new wines? He sees Cab, Merlot, and Chard as generic grapes that can grow anywhere, and especially scorned Chard. He believes the unique grapes and terroir of the Langhe make wines incomparable in the world, and that all the major Piedmont grapes can make beautiful wines in good years without need to play cellar games. About Nebbiolo in particular, he described its pure aromas and brilliant orange color as being already perfect and totally unique. With such glorious purity of fruit, why create some blended oddity where you are left guessing what you are drinking? On barrique, he frankly stated that he sees little reason for using them other than to appeal to the market driven by American palates. He not only thinks it ruins the grapes flavor, but also ruins wines ability to pair with foods. In addition to killing the fruit of the grape, it ends up killing the taste of the food. He also made the comment that using botti is more difficult that using barrique. Barrique are used a few years and discarded. One botti can be a huge investment that only pays off over many years. Those long years require careful annual care to keep the wood clean and in healthy condition (the old brett problem). His son is currently studying enology and is interested in barrique. Sig. Bonaventura seemed rather disappointed by this.

He is a small producer and his wines sell. He feels no need to change anything to follow quirky trends. He laughed about the move away from classic wine labels to artsy colors and animals. It is selling the label not the wine. He said traditional wines of Piedmont will always attract those who take the time to enjoy them. One problem is that most Italians do not bother to take the time to appreciate their own wines beyond being a beverage. It is not a matter of being an expert or connoisseur, but rather a matter of really focusing on the unique pleasure it can offer.

On professional tasters, he said it is foolish to taste 20 wines a day as palate fatigue is unavoidable. He only tastes wine in the morning with plain crackers before coffee or breakfast when his palate is totally clean (and never more than four wines). On which producers he respects, he diplomatically replied “All of them. Some make wines that I don’t like, but I always respect they labor.”

I thanked him for his generous time and asked to buy a bottle of Barolo. He said “no” and gave me a bottle of the 99 Bricco Ambrogio, saying it was nice to talk with someone who appreciates his views and the wines he makes. I left with a strong sense of respect for Sig. Bonaventura for both his intellect and commitment. He seems as if he could be a banker or business executive or at worse case a professor of intellectual history, but instead he is a winemaker. He is a man offended by the hankering after imported grapes and international market trends; a man indignant at seeing a unique and exceptional quality being squandered. He is not a stubborn peasant, an ancient traditionalist, or a counter-revolutionary, but rather a sophisticated man who loves his small corner of the world and is working to preserve it. Bravo Signore.

ALDO VAJRA

This winery is located in Vergne, on the far western edge of the Barolo township and Barolo region. This meeting was spent with Giacomo, Aldo’s son. I only got a polite handshake out of Aldo as he was very busy and focused on something, and a few words from Mrs. Vajra who was busy with a German group. I told her how much I liked the wines at the end, and she said that her husband is very severe with his standards. Giacomo is studying classics (Latin, Greek) in Turin. He doesn’t know if he will follow in the wine field, but he was clearly well versed in the details. Their cellar is quite high tech with rows of steel tanks run by sophisticated computerized controls for temperature and scheduled pump-overs. Their botti are all of Slavonian oak and are younger than 10 years old. They use a small percentage of barrique to get more harmony and roundness for Barbera, and are very cautious to leave no trace of wood flavors in the wine. They are currently building a new, large underground facility for botti and bottle storage. This winery is quite interesting in being decorated with beautiful stain glass windows and paintings by a local Italian monk. Wines tried:

A very nice dry Riesling.

2001 Dolcetto d’Alba – very young and dry, but made for immediate drinking.

2001 Coste & Fossati Dolcetto – Both vineyards in far west barolo zone. Coste faces south and provided color and elegance. Fossati faces southeast and provided elegance. Somehow bigger, softer, and less dry than the first wine.

2002 Barbera d’Alba – 70% steel, 30% new barrique. A bit shocked as it was bottled the day before. Light vanilla, very smooth and round, which is the result they wanted. He called it a 10 year wine.

1999 Barbera d’Alba “Superiore”. This comes from the Bricco della Viole vineyard just like their Barolo. However, to avoid name confusion, they just call it superiore. It is a fitting denomination as it is higher in alcohol and receives more care than the above wine. It comes from the highest part of the vineyard. It sees 85% steel and 10-15% 2nd year barrique. Very rich nose. Surprisingly tannic for a wine that “lacks sufficient” tannins and sees so little barrique. Already throwing tannins. Great wine.

They have another barbera planned for the future. This will be from a new vineyard in Serralunga called Cascina Bricco Bertoni, near San Bernardo (east of Vigna Rionda). It was recently hazelnut trees and will not begin producing for a few years. Southeast exposure with a bit of north.

2001 Langhe Nebbiolo – From among several vineyards of 5-7 year old vines. Only in steel for one year. Has the freshness of a Dolcetto. Light bodied but pure.

2001 “Kye” Freisa barrel sample – 90% steel, 10% from botti or barrique based on year. Very deep purple. Smell of “horse in the rain,” leather, sottobosco. Very dry and full. Seems very ageworthy. Huge dry aftertaste. Very unique but with the full punch of a Cab.

1999 – “Kye” – More horse manure and a bit herbaceous. More tannic. Stinky aftertaste. Much preferred the 2001.

1998 Bricco della Viole Barolo – South facing vineyard. Only sees botti. Beautiful cherry alcohol nose. Very clean, light tannins. Might put on weight, but is it ageworthy?

2002 Moscato d’Asti – 5.5% alcohol. Gorgeous pear and granny smith green apple nose. Very lighty frizzante. Surprising full.

I didn’t know much about this producer at all, having only tasted the very good 99 Lange Nebbiolo. Impressive winery whose wines are worthy seeking out.

LORENZO ACCOMASSO

Run by Renzo and his sister Elena, both of who appear to be over 70 years of age. They are located in the Annunziata frazione of La Morra. Quite a small producer with only 3.5 hectarces, they annually produce 2,000 bottles of Rocche di La Morra Barolo and 4,000 of Rocchette Barolo (which is a excellent tiny sub-cru of Rocche. I had never tasted this producer’s wines as they are not imported into the US, and I was only going on hearsay of his being an excellent old school producer (They stopped exporting their wines to the US 15 years ago. Their wines now mainly go to the Germans. They are the only ones who ever come visit.). I had mailed this producer a letter, as I could find no fax number or email (and later saw that they did have such technology). I didn’t get a response so I had no appointment. Nevertheless, I did a cold call to request an appointment. They had a very faded sign that which took several drive-bys to locate. The yard was messy with farm equipment and chickens. I must have caught Renzo napping as he was rather disheveled when he emerged. However, he immediately knew I was “that American,” and led me over to an outside table to talk.

We sat among a dozen squawking chickens and roosters whom he shooed away saying that they wanted to eat from his hand. His first question was if I was a journalist. He brightened when I told him the purpose of by visit and immediately launched into an animated monologue, interrupted only by the chickens and my occasional halting questions. Renzo Accomasso is a true man of the earth – no polish or pretense, no air of business savvy or marketing strategy. It quickly became clear, however, that the man is a natural master of his calling. Unfortunately, he spoke with a strong local dialect that did not help my already weak Italian. Yet he had a sparkle in his eyes, a ready smile, and work-worn expressive hands that wonderfully accented his words. I felt I “understood” far more than I linguistically comprehended.

While his words could be seen as pessimistic, his face remained lively and amused. He said barrique has spread like crazy in the area, and this despite the strong difficulty in breaking with any tradition. He clearly blamed the press for the barrique craze and the laughed at the nonsensical taste-spit-score syndrome. He mentioned Marc Degrazia with a slight smirk and said that while they currently sell their Barolo for EU 20.00, if Degrazia took over, it would sell for EU 35.00. To him, the lure of barrique lies solely in money. It was clear to me that money was of little importance to him, believing above all else in Piedmont’s traditional ways. Yet in all this, he refused to be critical of barrique uses, merely saying that there were now two markets for two different kinds of Barolo. He said that all of La Morra (the largest zone of the Barolo region) has gone the way of barrique, mentioning only Marcarini as a remaining traditionalist. He went on to mention Mauro Mascarello, Bartolo Mascarello, and Giacomo “Monfortino.” He commented that Bartolo Mascarello’s legacy will continue because of his daughter, Maria Teresa. He was quite happy that I was staying at Giacomo Anselma’s Albergo Italia, saying that they were old friends (Anselma must be at least 80 years old.).

Renzo Accomasso appears quite old, yet he still works the vines himself along with his sister. Neither of them married or have any children. When I asked about the future of the winery, he only shrugged. Ironically, there is a new cantina being built at the other end of their property.

He thinks that Barolo is fairly easy to produce – the grapes just needs to ferment. He macerates the juice on the skins for 20 days then tastes it. Based on the year, he will continue to taste and wait up to 40 days, aiming to extend it as long as possible while avoiding the fruit drying out. Dolcetto, however, is more difficult to make as its bouquet is more fickle and must be watched over more carefully.

At this point, his ancient-looking sister Elena joined us, who spoke faster but with less dialect. She was bent with age yet remarkably sprightly. She regrets that the young people all want to go elsewhere. They have relatives in Torino, but none of them want to live in the countryside. She said that the wine is their lives. It is like their child. They see it born, watch it grow, and feel pangs of sadness when it is sent to the market. Indeed, as if I were a suitor under examination, I was finally invited inside for a glass of wine – 97 Rocchetta Riserva (note: they leave the cru normale in wood for three years so perhaps this sees four.). I didn’t feel right sitting down to take TNs at the time, but this wine is a great sleeping giant despite the forward vintage. He said (oddly) that 97 was like 93, being vintages in which the alcohol burnt the nose. Elena, understanding that I was struggling with the language, brought out two Italian books on Barolo and gave me some time to read the parts that featured them.

Later, when I asked if I could buy a bottle, Elena made on odd face. Eventually, I was given a box with one bottle each of 96 and 97 Rocchetta Riserva. Cost? “Niente.” I asked if I could take a picture of them. Elena said she was too old and Renzo grumbled. Then he pulled out a bottle of 1980, followed by a bottle of 1976, commenting on the still fine color through the pale brown glass, but shaking his head over the vintages. Finally, he pulled out a bottle of 1961, treating it truly like a cherished child and posed for a photo.

This was a fascinating experience to visit one of the last remaining examples of Piedmont’s old wine characters. No doubt this type of visit will no longer be possible in just a few years.

GIACOMO BREZZA

I was supposed to visit Giacomo Borgogno, but unbeknownst to me the appointment had been rescheduled. I decided to swing by Hotel Barolo/Ristorante Brezza and see if I could sneak into the cellar down below. I wandered in among the dark halls filled with a mix of huge 50 year old botti and smaller 6-7 year olds. It was really quite medieval in appearance complete with a fire burning in a huge stone fireplace. Then I ran into Oreste Brezza, the current owner (Giacomo is his father). He gave me a brief run down about the house being started in 1885 by his great grandfather (Oreste reminded me of the old toy maker in Pinocchio but more sullen). It turned out that I’d come at a pretty good time as he was expecting a group of Swiss so I could tag along. One Swiss said to me, “I thought Americans don’t like wine,” and then, “Why aren’t you in central California instead of central Piedmont?” Isn’t that cute? And who said the Swiss aren’t warlike. So we all sat down and tried some wines with Oreste Brezza holding court.

2002 Dolcetto (San Lorenzo and Fossati) – Only sees stainless steel. Just bottled. Less purple than many Dolcetto. Strawberries. Quite delicate and really for immediate drinking. Good but an “unprofound” or “unthought provoking” wine (yes, Dolcetto really can be these). Due to the vintage?

2002 Freisa – From Santa Rosalia above Alba. Only sees stainless steel. Just bottled. Oreste recommended pork or salami with this, and that it should be drank in 2-3 years. More purple and punchy than the Dolcetto. Aromas of roasted meats and bacon fat. Good but nothing more. I don’t think I much like this grape.

1999 Cannubi Barbera – aged in botti grande. Quite dark color. Some barnyard and wet socks. Lacking freshness. Better on the palate, but still with an odd balsamic woodiness. Oreste says Barbera can age without limit. I am not overly optimistic about this none too appealing wine.

1999 Cannubi Muscatel Barbera – Neighboring vineyard to the above. Again the barnyard and socks. Dirty barrels? Fuller on the palate than the Cannubi. Slightly bitter finish. Would be good enough with simple meat dishes.

1998 Cannubi Barbera – Black cherries. Much less brettiness. Perhaps the 99s just need time to calm down and throw off whatever is bothering them. This one increasingly grew on me.

2001 Nebbiolo d’Alba – Fresh crushed cherries. Good tannins. Waxy and aspirin aftertaste. We did not try the Langhe Nebbiolo which had a suggestively erotic label of the outlines of naked women formed by hills. The importer insisted he change it.

1999 Bricco Sarmassa Barolo – two years in botti. Dark orange color. All around better than the proceeding wines. Nice liquorice nose. Blackberries. Leather.

1998 Castallero Barolo – Sharper and more aggressive nose than the Sarmassa. Pungent green leaves. Nettles. Hot forest aromas. Tart berries on entrance, but resolves nicely on aftertaste. More tannic that the 99 Sarmassa.

1998 Cannubi Barolo – Yet again showed an apparent house characteristic of balsamic. Nice coiled core. The deepest character of the bunch. Orneste said this got Tre Bicchieri, but “things such awards are silly.” He said that wine is the life of the producer and it should be judged more by the heart than by the mind. Why bother to put ratings on quality? It is good or it is bad. Either you like it or you don’t. He went on to say that we live in mostly negative times. Everything is run by trends, everything has been destroyed by man’s manipulations. Now is the age of mass production. Just look at how artificial even vegetables have become. Quantity and consistency has surpassed quality as the end all. He refused to have a “confrontation” over vintages saying they are all relative. One has more fruit, another has more acid or tannins. Each will have its unique qualities. It is like comparing people – beauty, personality, intelligence, fluency – each person has a different strong point. How can you say one person is better than another? Wine is the same way. He defined the good life as being when people are just and wine is good. “Why are people in such a hurry that they can’t linger over wine? That is not the life for me.”

He ended by opening a 1988 Cannubi Barolo, which he had warmed by the fireplace. This was a different beast all together. Very harmonious nose with deep perfume, inscense, mint, sage, dried brush, and brushed suade. Beautiful refinement after all the uncouth youngsters.

Orneste Brezza seemed like an old world grandfather artisan. His Baroli appeared to be of far higher quality than his other wines. Many of the wines had the same defining balsamic woody notes. This was not unpleasant in itself, but seemed a bit coarse. And yet that 88 Cannubi sure was tasty. Perhaps Brezza’s wines follow an ugly duckling transformation. This might sound like an excuse, but I don’t know how else to explain it. And besides, if the barrique crowd can insist that oak needs time to integrate, why can’t traditionalist use the same excuse about awkward flavors?

BARTOLO MASCARELLO & DAUGHTER MARIA TERESA

This was a 10:00am appointment and I was rather nervous after my speechless performance on my previous visit. I was left waiting for awhile until finally being warmly greeted by Maria Teresa, Bartolo’s 30ish daughter and the main force of the wine production these days. The two of us sat alone discussing vintages for a while. She really likes 98 (the current wine on the market) comparing it to 96. 97 was freakish and the press loved it because it required no patience. 99 is still a sleeping beauty in the bottle. 2000 and 2001 will both be very great as there was just enough light rain to penetrate the soil without run off. The grape juice was very concentrated in both vintages. 2002 was a complete disaster. They lost 50% of the Nebbiolo crop to the hail and declassified all the Barolo as Langhe Nebbiolo. Also produced no Barbera. They did produce a Dolcetto, but only at 30% usual quantity. Sig. Bartolo had thought about making a wine in ’02 called “Scocciaparenti” which refers to an unwelcome relative who won’t go away.

Sig. Bartolo was then brought in sitting in his wheelchair by a helper. He is very frail of body while still very sharp of mind. He was also very friendly and we continued chatting about vintages and crus. He laughted at 97 being the VOTC, saying that for six years (96-01) each year could have been called the VOTC. Their favorite of the bunch is still 1996. Their Barolo is a blend of 40% Cannubi, 40% Rocche di La Morra (sometimes called Torriglione della Rocche), 10% San Lorenzo, and 10% Rue’. He said Rocche is a very ancient vineyard that was purchased by his grandfather. He gave a funny smile and said if he made a cru Cannubi he could get twice the price, but crus are not part of Barolo’s tradition. When I mentioned Renzo Accomasso and Giacomo Anselma, he really lit up saying they are his old friends.

At this point, two men and Mauro Mascarello’s son came in. Apparently, Bartolo holds an informal drop-in salon every morning, as he is considered the local philosopher. The conversation became very fast and I could only pick up a few pieces – the excellent quality of Santo Stefano di Perno (where Mauro makes a Barolo); strong attacks on Gaja’s prices with the two men saying they would never buy such wines when there is equally good wine for less than ½ the price; also some head shaking over Bruno Giacosa’s prices. Then the conversation got political for a long while and I only picked up Italian Communists, Hitler, Italian Communists, Stalin, Italian Communists, the Americans, Italian Communists…It’s probably just as well that I couldn’t participate. Sig. Bartolo turned to me and said he is a traditionalist, but not a conservative. Then he did his usual “no barrique, no California, no Burlusconi” line and seems surprised when I tell him I already know this one. I suggest that he add “no Bush” to his list of horrors. I think he liked that.

Fortunately, I had a glass of 98 Barolo in hand through all this. Beautiful nose, caressing yet very firm tannins. What can I say? Barolo doesn’t get any better than this for me. Then we had a taste of the 99 that was bottled last fall. The nose of this one was beyond heavenly and it had a unique spicy aftertaste that the 98 did not have. I think I preferred the 99, but this is splitting hairs to the extreme.

Maria Teresa eventually saved me from the conversation with a trip to the cellar. They have botti of different sizes as they never know how large the harvest will be and barrels must always be completely full. There were also four new botti of Slavonian oak. Before use these are filled with salt water to soak out the wood taste, and then carefully washed and dried. But 2002 was to be their first vintage and they were all empty. I asked her if her father still does any work, and she said that he still provides some consulting and has a great palate. I decided to get a magnum of 98 with one of Bartolo’s artist labels for EU62. I also asked to get two bottles of 99 (EU30) and she said that it was impossible as they didn’t have labels and caps yet. When I said it was my son’s birth year, she relented and wrote 1999 on a generic label, telling me to hide the bottles until he reaches maturity. On the way back up the stairs, I saw a bottle of Luigi Pira (great old traditionalist who died in 1979. The house is now owned by Chiara Boschis) and commented on the history. She seemed rather surprised that I would know about this. We clucked our tongues and she said Chiara had gone “Californian.”

As I was leaving, Sig. Bartolo gave me a 8”x11” copy of drawing he’d made of an ant approaching a ladder to the sun, as “everyone wants to reach the sun” (inspiration? aspiration?). Father and daughter warmly invited me to come back next time and I even got a 1/8th smile out of the severe Mrs. Mascarello. Final note: Maria Teresa said the youth are not longer leaving like before because the economics of wine making is now providing a satisfactory living.

SERIO & BATTISTA BORGOGNO

This house is perched right on the crest of Cannubi. When I drove up, a stout old fellow gave me the squinty eye. That was Sig. Serio. He asked if Iwas a journalist (God, is it my hair? My breath?), but his daughter quickly informed him that I was the American vino appassionato. She led me inside and explained that Uncle Battista had passed away without heir, and that she and her sister were Serio’s daughters. She said Battista had been the master of the terreno and lived for the vines, whereas Serio focused more on running the cellar. We started off tasting a very nice 2001 Barbera from Cannubi. Next was a 99 Barbaresco made with purchased grapes that left me unmoved. I mentioned how much like liked the 96 Cannubi Barolo (decanting study of this in archives), so she opened a bottle of 96 Cannubi Riserva (which is actually only labeled as such because they held back the bottle for an extra year. All their Cannubi Barolo see 3 years in botti). This wine was really, really lovely – even better than I remember it from a year or two ago. It is definitely taking on some depth and complexity and the previously searing palate has rounded out wonderfully.

Then a very jolly Serio entered the room laughing and yelled, “Vino appassionato!” He started chatting about not using barrique and how there are now truly two types of Barolo. He cracked a bottled of 99 Cannubi. As usual, the aromas of cru are the perfect expression of Barolo nobility. The delicacy, the elegance, the refinement, ethereal, elusive and yet caressing and comforting with a quality that defies description and possession. For me, it is perhaps the greatest grande cru in the world. Serio also laughted at the VOTC idea, preferring 96 best followed by 98. And he is a relative of Giacomo Anselma but not the late Giacomo Borgogno.

We also had some Barolo Chinato made with their Cannubi, vanilla, herbs, etc. along with Cannubi chocolates made by a friend. The Chinato didn’t do much for me (but it sure beats grappa), but the chocolate was fabulous.

Serio and I moved on to the cellar, which he called small but I found large by local standards. We looked at no longer used concrete tanks, the current steel tanks, lots of botti, and also many massive wood tini (200 hectoliters!) that were temperature controlled. Tini (or tine) are massive vertical open top vats used for fermentation. I found a number of producers preferred these to stainless steel tanks. From there we stepped outside the door into the Cannubi vineyard. There was a stunning panorama: La Morra – Annuziata – Diano d’Alba - Castiglione Falletto – Monforte d’Alba – Barolo. Of the nearby towns, only Serralunga was blocked from view. I almost cried at the beauty. How embarrassing. Next we walked over to some rows of vines and looked at the infant grape clusters just emerging. He ripped off a few leaves and branches, showing how they would soon start thinning the foliage.

Back in the tasting room, his daughter gave me a poster and a nice book on Barolo. When I stammered that I had already bought some 96 Cannubi in the US, she told me to relax but tell my friends about their wines. Attention: this house makes lovely Barolo.

MASSOLINO – AZIENDA AGRICOLA VIGNA RIONDA

This house is located right in the middle of Serralunga town. While they are actually a slope away from Vigna Rionda, they have been linked to it since 1896 and use it as the winery name along with their family name (I was surprised to find many wineries called Azienda Agricolo “cru name” even though they were not sole owners. Moccagatta in Barbaresca is another obvious example.). They make three cru Barolo from three separate family-owned vineyards along the Serralunga ridge – Rionda, Margheria, and Parafada – a total of 30 hectares. Massolino currently has three generations involved, Giuseppe – Giovanni – Franco, representing the past to the future. This meeting started out with two Roman journalists and ended with a whole crowd of people. It was a pleasant if hurried visit. Being right in the town square, they get tons of tourists just dropping in, and so constantly have someone at the tasting/selling table. I didn’t not “want” to like Franco (he convinced the elders to allow barrique in this great old house, particularly for cru Parafada), but I had to nevertheless. He was extremely courteous and attentive to me despite the growing crush of people.

2001 Chardonnay – I am not a Chard lover, but this did have a nice burgundian mineral quality to it rather than Cali popcorn butter.

2001 Barbera “Gesip” (Giuseppe) – All I got was oak off of this one.

1999 Barolo normale - clean and well made. Very good basic bottle.

1997 Vigna Rionda Riserva – a dangerous beast despite the approachable vintage.

We moved on to the cellar where there were lots of botti and also lots of barrique (for Chard, Barbera, and Barolo Parafada). I also saw barrique labeled Barolo Margheria and I pulled a sour apple face, but Franco explained that these were old barrique used for holding the Margheria during racking. He said the cru Margheria saw 99% botti. Blood returned to my face. The cellar itself was quite large and recently expanded, but Franco said they have no intention of becoming “Fontanafredda.” Then we stepped outside where he pointed out crus and owner parcels on the various hills and discussed to poor soil of blue marl. 2002 will be a good but not excellent vintage for Barolo as it is late harvested. Dolcetto and Barbera really suffered from the poor summer weather.

Returning to the tasting room, we had some Moscato d’Asti which he said was not an important wine for the house. I loved it but I can’t recall having a Md’A that I haven’t liked. I was about to leave, but he called after me to try the 99 Parafada. I did not linger over it and was a bit fatigued, but it seemed like a very nice wine and really not mared by oak treatment. He said that Serralunga Barolo, and Vigna Rionda specifically, are wines of huge structure that are difficult and demanding. Parafada is designed to provide an easier, earlier drinking wine to their portfolio (I forgot to find out it this is 100% barrique or only a percentage. I got the impression that it is the former). Franco seemed committed to keeping traditional style Barolo as the core of this house. But with the changes he has already made and with his brother Roberto soon to return from enology school, who knows what the future will hold for this old giant on the hill?

I quite enjoyed this visit despite its rushed nature. This house seems very efficient and businesslike without losing focus on its roots. For the time being Massolino’s Vigna Rionda will remain a great muscular traditional Barolo. The 96 Vigna Rionda Riserva (which got Tre Bicchieri) is about to be exported. As it appears to have been made in the same way as the monster 78 and 90 I’ve drank, this should be an outstanding wine (three years in botti, only released to market on the sixth year). They were selling it direct for the EU42. I saw it in a Monforte enoteca for EU39 (!).

GIACOMO ANSELMA

This winery is part of Albergo Italia in the main Serralunga square. The modest hotel has eight rooms and a good restaurant attached. While I stayed here for 6 days on recommendation, I would not do so again as it was rather characterless. Giacomo is now of the age where he mostly sits in the lobby and nods to people. Uncle Carlo still helps in the restaurant. Son Franco makes the wines – Dolcetto, Barbera, Barolo, and Barolo Vigna Rionda Riserva - all from owned land in Vigna Rionda. The non-cru Barolo is actually a blend from Rionda and nearby Collaretto. The wine cellar itself is two levels below the hotel in a very ancient, cramped space. There were a few stainless steel tanks, eight medium sized botti, and a few four year old tonneaux used for storage during racking. The wine for Vigna Rionda Riserva filled only one botti to make about 4,000 bottles. I drank the 2001 Dolcetto, 2000 Barbera, and 98 Barolo normale several times in the restaurant and found them all to be honest, friendly wines for current drinking. The Barolo in particular was very tasty, but even it seemed in no need of cellaring. This is perfect for a restaurant that serves its own wines, but it takes them out of the big leagues. One night, Carlo came around the restaurant pouring everyone a glass of the 97 Rionda Riserva. I was quite put off by its animal qualities that left a very moldy aftertaste. Comparing it with the Barolo normale, I have to think that this was a corked bottle and he didn’t taste it in advance. All said, given the great vineyard site this producer seems like an underachiever.

G. SCARZELLO

Located in the town of Barolo, I had a hard time finding their unmarked house. Founded 1903 they own 5 hectacres in the Sarmassa cru in Barolo. I met with Federico, age 27 and his mother Gemma. While most of the three hour conversation was with Federico, Gemma regularly threw in supporting information whenever she had time to join us. She and her husband Francesco (whom I did not see) have been running the winery for some years. It looks like Federico is now playing a central role in things. He is the fourth generation of Scarzello winemakers. He studied enology in Alba and his first vintage fully involved was 1997. Gemma said he was even more traditional than his father. Federico said this was not just because his father (and grandfather) made wine in a certain way. For him tradition is not a technique – he doesn’t spurn modern means of improving quality – it is a winemaking philosophy. Maceration and vessel type are the most important cellar factors in determining the character of a Barolo. He believes long maceration in neutral wood best expresses the classic character of the grape and land. He respects the skill of producers like Clerico and Scavino but sees their wines as “not being Barolo.” Yet he quite admires R. Voerzio’s ability to use long maceration and a mix of old and new barrique to somehow end up with traditional character. The main shortcoming is of course the price of his wines.

He is rather dissatisfied with the price trend of Barolo now. Quality and prices should rise equally. The quality has risen over the last 10 years, but the prices have risen far out of proportion. The press has further created an artificial market. If a critic praises a wine, that producer immediately jacks up his prices. Another producer, who makes wines just as good but doesn’t get all the press, can’t jack up his prices or his wines won’t sell. He would not want to price his wines so that only collectors can buy them. Wine is for drinking. Yes, it must be stored and held, but this should be for maturation, not for “label collecting.” When a bottle is too expensive, he feels nervous about opening it and enjoys it less. He prices his wines at a level that he himself prefers to pay for a Barolo – about EU30.

We spent some time talking about 2002, with him explaining how the September 3rd hailstorm got trapped over the Barolo valley wiping out whole vineyards. Being a very small producer, they refused to make Barolo in very bad years to protect their image of quality. If an unknowledgeable consumer drinks a Scarzello wine from a poor vintage, they might assume Scarzello is a poor producer. In 2002 (like 1992), they only made Langhe Rosso, Roero Nebbiolo d’Alba, and a tiny bit of Barbera (no Barolo, no Dolcetto).

They produce a Barolo normale and a Barolo cru Merenda. All their Nebbiolo comes from a small part of the southern edge of Sarmassa with SW exposure. Dolcetto is planted on the SE slope as the SW slope gets too hot for Dolcetto due to the relatively low altitude. The cru is named Merenda after his grandfather’s old cascina there. We tasted the just released 98 Merenda and the 99 normale. Both were damn fine and I got a bottle of the former. He said 99 was quite hot, but with cool nights leading to very concentrated grapes and wines that are more masculine than those of 98. He also thinks 2001 will be the best of the 1995-2001 string.

Federico said 99% of making good wine occurs in the vineyard. In the past, it was just the opposite. Farmers planted grapes as if they were any other fruit or vegetable. Little care was given to viticulture or clone selection. So all the focus of making good wine was put on the winemaker. Since 1990, he has been slowly replanting the 50+ year old wines with new ones (3% Rose, the rest ½ Lampia and ½ Michet.). He said that 50 years is about the maximum age in which Nebbiolo can have healthy production. Rose is added to give the Barolo more perfume in its youth. The normale is now made with only younger vines and the cru is a mix of younger and older.

In terms of production, both Baroli are macerated on the skins for 30-32 days and then rest for three years in botti. As they only have two botti, sometimes the normale is put in 4 year old tonneaux if they run out of room. Barolo might even be put into his single seven year old barrique if there is not enough wine to fill a tonneaux. As he explained it, using large barrels is quite difficult as bacteria starts to grow as soon as they are empty. He never wants his barrels empty, always keeping them full of wine and not bottling until the next vintage is ready to go into barrel. So of the two botti, one held ’01 cru and the other held ’01 Barbera (the 2000 Barolo was in tonneaux at the time). He would have already bottled the Barbera, but since he had no 2002 Barolo, he filled the botti with Barbera to keep it full (Barbera Riserva!). For this same reason, he will not use wooden tini as they are empty most of the year. Before bottling, the wine is transferred to stainless steel tanks for two weeks to let particles settle to the bottom. He then does a very light filtration to remove any remaining particles. He sees these as risky sediment that might cause a bitter taste, but expects neutral sediment to naturally develop over time in the bottle.

A great unexpected visit.

TO BE CONTINUED

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Welcome Nebbiolo Fanatico!

For those of you who don't recognize his writing, Nebbiolo Fanatico is a true lover and expert in all things nebbiolo. Finally the defender of traditional nebbiolo arrives at eGullet. Thanks for accepting my invitation!

Take the time to read his post and part 2 that I hope is coming soon. Really great stuff.

WARNING: not for the timid or young children - he really says what he believes!

Thanks again Nebbiolo Fanatico.

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Benvenuto, Il Signor Nebbiolo Pazza! If you persist in this, it is better to do as I do: do not view carne cruda as meat. Refer to it as "insalata". Brasato (braised beef) is meat. Veal and rabbit do not count.


Bill Klapp

bklapp@egullet.com

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