13 Apr 2012

Barolo brain! (Langhe, Italy - Day Two)

Anyone from Melbourne is familiar with the concept of "four seasons in one day". I don't think I've ever experienced this phenomenon as profoundly as my second day in Alba. It was raining very lightly all afternoon the previous day, and kept raining all night. In the higher parts of the Langhe,  however it snowed. The view from my first appointment in Serralunga d'Alba was magical, as by the time I got up there it had started to clear and you could see the white-capped hills. By the time I got out from lunch, the sun was shining and it felt like Autumn, but it was still a little windy and chilly. Between my second and third appointment, it had got up past 20 degrees, and was almost feeling like Summer. Then by the time I got back to my hotel it had started to cool down to Spring conditions here in the Langhe. It makes me a little homesick, and also glad that I have a zippy little Fiat 500 to take the sharp corners in the wet. Today I ventured deeper into Alba, visiting three producers entrenched in what is considered the 'masculine' part of Barolo; Serralunga d'Alba, Castiglione Falletto and Monforte d'Alba.

Quite a view, on top of the world
Something I missed out on back at home last year before I left was a lunch at the Melbourne Stokehouse with Massolino, pairing juicy steaks with Barolo. Fortunately I still got to taste the wines the following day at work and instantly fell in love with the range, subsequently stocking most of them. Representing the wines was Giovanni Angeli, and I was happy to discover he remembered me when I met with him at Vinitaly, in spite of the natural fatigue that comes with the fair. Located in one of the most historic parts of Barolo, the first Massolino cellars were built in the early 20th Century. Several generations later, parcels of vineyards were purchased in vineyards that would define the winery. These vineyards are Margheria, Parafada and Vigna Rionda, each with their own unique personality, style, ageing potential and expressions of vintage. The Massolino philosophy is similar to their branding; respectful of tradition but modern and innovative. A perfect example is the labels, which are both classic and clean, but include unique uses of space and dimension, coupled with clean bright black and white. Another innovation has been to visualise the unique personalities of the vineyards using characters, something first exhibited at Vinitaly. New oak is rarely used in the winery, aiming for purity, harmony and elegance in the wines. One of the really cool things they do is to hold back some of their top cru - Vigna Rionda - to be released after ten years, really showing the commitment to the vineyard and the ageing potential of Barolo.

Serralunga d'Alba
Giovanni took me through the winery, and we had a look at some Barolo wines from the large barrels. The 2010 is going to be a classic vintage, but unlike the wines from 2009 won't be as approachable early on. At the moment the Margheria is looking the best, with perfumed fruit and earth notes, great red fruit acidity and structure, and wonderful concentration. The Vigna Rionda 2010 was similarly bright in its aromatics, but had much more intense mineralic concentration, and was fuller on the tannins. The 2009 wines are softer, fuller and more succulently generous, having prettier aromatics. The great thing was to be able to see the characteristics of the sites, even comparing two quite different vintages. The Vigna Rionda 2009 for example has the same intense dark floral note and tannin structure, but is much softer and deeper than the 2010. The Vigna Rionda 2008 has some similarities to the 2010, and looks younger than the 2009. The focus of the acids and tightness of the tannins make me think of a tightly wound coil waiting to be released.

Giovanni Angeli from Massolino
Of the bottled wines, we started with the Dolcetto d'Alba 2011 which was lovely and bright with spicy black fruit, softness and opulence on the palate with a great balance clean finish. The Barbera d'Alba 2011 similarly was very fresh and soft, but showed some sweet spice notes and more opulence from the minimal oak it receives. The Langhe Nebbiolo 2009 (which is made from declassified Barolo vineyards), was very delicate and subtle, silky and supple with some brambly pinor noirish characters. The Barolo Classico 2008 to follow was a step up, showing distinct fruit and floral aromas, and had a faint passionfruit seed note, complimented by almond cream and minerality. Of the 2008 single vineyard Barolo wines, the Margheria is bold and pure, the Parafada concentrated and brooding, and the Parussi showing wilder more opulent characters. The Vigna Rionda 2006 is almost a combination of the other three; wild, funky, earthy, mineralic, dark and red fruit, bright, focused, dense, powerful yet excruciatingly young. It was nice to finish with the Moscato d'Asti 2011 to freshen the palate, a wine which uses fruit from Alba/Barolo, but can be classified as Asti. Confusing.

1982 vintage opened just a few days too early for me
Vietti is probably one of the most important wine names in Piedmont, if not Italy. Established in 1900, it has always been at the forefront of site selection, varietal integrity, innovation and marketing. 33 hectares are owned and several more leased across a number of key areas in the Langhe, with the Barolo and Barbaresco crus the top of the pile. Vietti was one of the first names I became familiar with when I first began to discover Italian wine, and were a key part of the range I stocked at King & Godfree. Although by Barolo standards they are quite large for a non-cooperative winery, their commitment to the highest quality at all levels is clear. They are greatly respected within and without the region, and are located in the gorgeous hill-top village of Castiglione Falletto. Due to restrictions of expansion up or outwards, they were forced to build down and have several levels of winery and cellar, constructed in three stages over the last century. Elena Currado-Penna, wife of Luca Currado, welcomed me to the winery and introduced me to the deep and diverse range.

Elena Currado-Penna in the cellars of Vietti
The only white wine Vietti produces is the Arneis which comes from Roero DOCG, and the 2011 is bright and bold on the nose, textural and rich yet very mineralic with some green tropical notes. The Tre Vigne Barbera d’Alba 2009 has a spiced meat earthiness on the nose, is soft yet intense on the palate with oodles of savouries. The Scarrone Barbera d’Alba 2009 by comparison is denser and darker, but has a new-world vibe to it, with sweet new oak tannins. The La Crena Barbera d’Asti 2006 was fantastic, as it was pure, soft and full, yet had personality and depth, showing the marriage of site and variety.

Lovely view from the Vietti winery
Moving into the Nebbiolo based wines, the Perbacco Langhe Nebbiolo 2009, which could easily be classified as Barolo, showed the purity of variety and had delicate tight tannin finesse and some earthy stalk notes. I shared an interesting discussion over use of the term “baby Barolo”, which I think is cheapening the wine, and it should be described as a great Langhe Nebbiolo. The Castiglione Barolo 2008 had so much going on and was so subtle it was hard to pinpoint, but had wonderful structure and elegance, and had depth and volume as it travelled back on the palate. The Masseria Barbaresco 2007 was very tight and closed, but had great lines and focus which will develop beautifully given time. Of the three single vineyard barolos from 2008; the Brunate had intensity and power, but was the epitome of an ‘iron fist in a velvet glove’; the Rocche was much more intense, earthy and masculine; and the Lazzarito was broader fuller and more generous, but no less driven and structured.

Tasting is serious business
My final appointment of the day was to a modern pioneer of the region, and one of the most humble and simple people you are likely to meet. The name Domenico Clerico carries a fair amount of weight in Barolo, more recently thanks to the high-tech and spacious cellars recently completed just outside of Monforte d’Alba. The cellars are so recent that there are no signs indicating it as the Domenico Clerico winery, which unfortunately caused me to be a little bit late to my appointment. Coming from a farming family, Domenico Clerico didn’t have much to start with apart from drive and passion. He has grown his business and his name to become one of the best known from Barolo, and has won praise from consumers and critics alike. The new cellars are part of his philosophy of looking into the future, and providing the new generations with the best knowledge and capacity to continue the legacy. The cellars reminded me of some that I had seen in South America, very intelligently designed, well organised with modern equipment designed to monitor rather than interfere. My host was Luciano Racco, a jack-of-all who spends some time in the winery and some out in the markets, but I had the briefest of opportunities to meet the man himself, who still spends most of his time out in the vineyards.

Luciano Racco in the new cellars of Domenico Clerico
The tasting began with the Tre Vigne Barbera d’Alba 2009, showing chocolatey black forest fruit spices, juicy dark cherries and some warm oak tannins. The Langhe Nebbiolo 2010 had some stalky kindling notes but was caressing on the nose, approachable yet serious it was fresh and full. The Arte 2007 – a blend of 90% nebbiolo and 10% barbera – showed the earthy dark fruit tannins and power on the front of the palate, but washed away quite nicely on the back. The Pajana 2007, coming from the Ginestra, was quite reductive and funky on the nose, but opened up quite nicely on the palate, showing the brute of Barolo with firm yet supple tannins. The Ciobot Mentin 2005 (also Ginestra) had the benefit of a few years to soften out the tannins and fruit, but looked a little closed for now, and will ope up again in five years. The Per Cristina, which comes from the Mosconi appellation, is the wineries top wine, and the 2003 we tasted was showing beautifully. A much warmer than average vintage, you would expect the wine to develop a little faster, as more classic vintages of this wine take at least 15 years to express to their full extent.

Nice little collection they have
Click here to see more photos from Day 2 in the Langhe, Italy.

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