Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

Piedmont, Italy – Region of mists and mellow fruitfullness (II)

PART II

July 2011. A couple of decades ago Aldo Conterno was the hot name in Barolo while his cousin Giacomo was looked upon as staid and old-fashioned. The situation has gradually reversed and it is now Giacomo Conterno who is regarded as one of the absolute leaders of the appellation.

Their approach to vatting-time is diametrically opposite to that of Altare. Their Barberas are vatted for two weeks while their Nebbiolo wines undergo fulIy four weeks of fermentation/maceration. One thing is sure: the wines show exceptional precision, complexity, and balance. This shows even in the very youngest samples which, while tannic, are never obdurate. Their 17 hectares of vines give some 60,000 bottles a year, and they neither fine nor filter.

The very first wine is impressive: a 2009 Barbera. It has a complex scent of black cherry, graphite, and Iiquorice, and there’s a lovely ripe-grape sweetness on the bilberry aftertaste, which though structured is smooth of texture. A 20-year wine.

2009 BARBERA *** (a different version, from Iimestone soil)

The nose is round and fruity, evoking black cherry and ripe fig. Again, roundness and sweetness are the keynote traits, without loss of structure or depth. The long aftertaste shows classic restraint. Another 20-year wine. Excellent.

2009 BAROLO ***

Lighter in colour but just as full and dynamic, this has a lovely sweet aroma of exceptional purity, suggesting blackberry and red rose. The flavour is vibrant, expressive, and harmonious. The nuanced finish, like so many other Piedmont reds, is notably ferruginous. Will live for decades (“Forty years,” says the phlegmatic Roberto Conterno).

2004 BAROLO ***(*)

Five years older, and an older look: the mauvish purple of a 10-year-old Corton. The nose, of great rectitude, evokes raspberry, cranberry, and wild cherry. The flavour, still woody, is as focused as the aroma and leads into a long aftertaste of blackberry and liquorice. As with all good but still immature wines, it has big reserves and continues developing in the glass. The structure is firm enough to remind you of a Pauillac, and ample subsoil minerality shows on the finale. Packed with personality, it’s sure to improve for decades. The wise will leave it untouched for 20 years at least. Doubtless most will succumb to temptation long before that.

The moment we arrive at the Roberto Voerzio estate we are sent away again – not as banishment, thank goodness, but to be given a tour of some of their vineyards by the resident viticulturist. As we bounce through rough terrain we learn that, with 17 hectares of vines, they make only 35,000 bottles a year, a miniscule yield that is achieved through rlgorous pruning, high-density plantation (up to 11,000 vines per hectare in some cases), and ruthless selection as the grapes come in. The fruit of these efforts is wines with superb balance and optimal concentration.

We look at several different plots, some of Iimestone soil, others with more clay, and are shown that the distance between rows is as high as 2.3-2.4 metres (to allow the passage of tractors) while that between vines in the same row is as low as 30-40 cm. That close proximity forces the plants to send their roots ever deeper into the subsoil. They green harvest – cutting away a proportion of the infant bunches to concentrate the fruit of the rest – up to three times a year.

It takes a team of 10-11 people to do this, with Iiterally tens of thousands of vines needing individual attention. Vines naturally sprout many bunches but here they’re left with only two each prior to harvest time, giving a mere 400 grammes or so of fruit. They pick about one month before their colleagues, we’re told, as they clearly abhor the very thought of overripeness. Such an approach will also hold down alcohol levels.

They ferment the must at 30-32° C, or not much lower than Altare, but vat for very much longer – fully forty days for the Barolo. They don’t make use of any press wine, preferring to sell this densely tannic by-product in bulk.

Back at the winery, we at last meet the young Sr Voerzio, a tall young man with a friendly and direct manner. We pass rows of stainless steel vats in different sizes and formats – a necessary resource when you have many small plots that you wish to vinify separately. “We make nine different wines, seven of them Barolos, and all are from individual vineyards. We also do a Merlot under the Langhe appellation.”

2008 LA SERRA* (young vines)

The fullish aroma reminscent of plum jam leads into a flavour that broadens out to include strawberry and blackberry. The delicious aftertaste swerves towards prune and chocolate and shows good body and a fat texture. Expressive despite its youth, the wine also has good tannins which should guarantee long life – at least 16 years.

2008 ROCCHE TORRIGIONE **(*)

Chocolate and black fruits characterize a soft, voluminous aroma that’s pleasantly balsamic. The excellent flavour of plum jam and chocolate is rich and long, the finish grittily tannic but not aggressively so. Should be locked away for 8-10 years and enjoyed over the following 15 or so.

2008 BAROLO BRUNATE ***

This vinous wine smells of red cherry, chocolate, and prune and has a comparable taste. Rich and weighty, it sends a torrent of Nebbiolo flavours across the palate. A powerfully structured but balanced wine that I anticipate being at its best around 2024-39. An infant giant.

2008 FOSSATI CASE NERE ***

The round, spicy aroma conjures up plum, ginger, and strawberry compote. You can taste sweetly ripe grapes on the palate, but there’s a distinctly meaty aspect too. The aftertaste is powerful but harmonious. Another wine that demands long keeping – 20-30 years if possible.

2007 BAROLO LA SERRA ***

This purposeful wine, as resonant as Verdi’s music, smells of plum, cranberry, and wild cherry, with a hint of chocolate. The excellent flavour has lots of volume, with incisive tannins and fine acidity giving precision. One sub-flavour succeeds another, with blackberry to the fore one moment, prune or plum jam the next. The chocolaty element gains ground and the usual tannic grittiness registers on the noticeably stony aftertaste. Drink 2022-37.

2006 BAROLO ROCCHE DEL’ANNUNZIATA ***

The aroma, full of ripe-grape sweetness, is both sensuous and rigorous, evoking cherry, strawberry, and red rose. It’s a lovely scent, still in crysallis, and all of a piece. A second sniff elicits a scent of rose petals. There’s ample concentrated Nebbiolo fruit on the palate, with a touch of chocolate and clove, and the emphatic finish is as stirring as a fanfare of trumpets. Best around 2023-33.

2005 BAROLO CEREQUIO ***

The colour is Iightish but vivid, while the expansive aroma calls to mind wild cherry, orange peel, and saffron. It’s relatively elegant in the mouth for a young Barolo (this is clearly the ’05 style), with an almost burgundian sumptuousness. Hints of strawberry and prune on the long aftertast. This is the most accessible wine in the tasting: but while drinkable in this early phase it will also age well.

2007 LANGHE MERLOT DA VIVA **

The scent of nectarine is one I often find in superripe Merlot and it’s detectable here, along with that of other red fruits. The flavour is rich and voluminous, with a density that promises future complexity, and has a ferruginous aspect. Grittiness and sumptuousness meet and merge on the palate. To judge from this example, the Merlot adapts well in these parts.

Elio Crasso runs the eponymous 17-hectare estate with passion and verve. ln his sixties, he has craggy features, white hair, and bright blue eyes. His manner is friendly and direct and he talks about his wines the way an artist talks about his paintings, fluently and with conviction. “ln the old days,” he recalls, “the vines were planted in the poorest soils. The best land was used for agriculture, for pasture.” He shows us around his large terrace, with its commanding view of the sloping vineyards all around. “That plot over there belongs to Gaja, that’s Serralunga…”

“All our Nebbiolo vines face south. It’s forbidden by law to plant them facing north. You’re allowed to have north-facing Chardonnay or Barbera or Dolcetto, but not Nebbiolo. Most important of all, the Nebbiolo must be picked when it’s ripe. If it isn’t, it has too much tannin. To me, the Nebbiolo has a lot in common with the Pinot Noir. The two best grapes in the world!”

He adds: “If you plant Merlot, you’re competing with the world. But our Nebbiolo is unique.

We go down to the cellars, which are impeccably clean and fresh-smelling. They’re several hundred metres long, curving Iike a horseshoe, and about the size of the tunnels of the London tube. But here there are no commuters, onIy wine-Iovers. And the only “passengers” tens of thousands of precious bottles journeying through time rather than space.

2010 DOLCETTO D’ALBA *** (5-day vatting, no wood)

This purple wine has a vital, balanced aroma of damson and raspberry and reminds me of a top Fleurie from very old vines. It’s a lovely, expressive scent that leads into just the kind of taste you’d expect: sappy and vivid with good but unobtrusive tannins. Now – 3-4 years. The best Dolcetto l’ve tasted.

2010 LANGHE GAVARINI NEBBIOLO **(*)

With the limpid appearance of a Pinot Noir, this has a broad spicy nose, very glossy, with an excellent balance of fruit, acidity, tannin. A delectable scent. The damsony flavour is gently smoky, the aftertaste both earthy and mineral. Drink 2015-17.

2010 BARBERA D’ALBA VIGNA MARTINA **(*) (50% new oak, 50% 1-year oak)

The aroma, still redolent of oak, conjures up both red and black fruits and is well-balanced. The flavour is fresh and full of energy, with less tannin than the previous wine. Ending on a note of cherry and damson, it has excellent fruity acidity which gives cut to the finale. Drink around 2016-22.

2007 BAROLO GAVARINI CHINIERA **(*) (sand and Iimestone soil)

The purplish colour shows minimal evolution and the archetypical Nebbiolo aroma is broad and expressive, with real refinement. It’s a lovely scent, round and swirling, evoking cherry, plum, chocolate, and fig. Orange peel shows too. The flavour Is harmonious, with good flesh, and satisfyingly long. Exposure to the air brings forth a truffly element, and there’s a sandy graininess on the mineral finish. The tannins, though firm, are in no way aggressive. Needs a dozen years to come round.

2007 BAROLO GINESTA CASA MATE *** (limestone and clay)

A bit darker, this has a deeper, more luscious aroma of cherry, strawberry, plum, and fig. A notably round, homogeneous nose. Still richer in the mouth, revealing more depth, it has an aftertaste of great sweep which veers towards blackberry and bay leaf. The excellent tannins are a key component in the overall structure. Should be set aside for at least 8 years and can then be enjoyed for a decade at least.

This wine’s Iingering farewell coincided with my own lingering farewell to the misty and fruitful region of Piedmont.

© Frank Ward 2011

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