18 Apr 2012

Cream of the crop (Langhe, Italy - Day Four)

The Langhe region was without question the best region I have visited so far, for several reasons. The first was the same reason it was one of the most anticipated places for my trip, and I had been looking forward to it for the first six months. This is the fact that the wines produced here, in particular Barolo and barbaresco, are some of the finest and most sought after wines in the world. On the few opportunities I had to taste them back at home, I had been blown away by them, as they are amazingly unique, but I needed to understand them better because of this. To have the chance to try so many wines that back at home would cost over $150 is fantastic. The second reason that the region was so amazing is its beauty. It’s not a region a lot of non-Italian people visit, which is a shame because of the gorgeous rolling hills, varieties of forest and agriculture, hilltop villages and hidden valleys. Even though the weather wasn’t great for most of the week, this didn’t take anything away from the scenery. The final reason is the people are some of the most wonderful I have met; humble, honest, generous, patient and funny. On my final day in the region, I had the chance to meet two modern icons in Luciano Sandrone and Roberto Voerzio, and a winemaker whose wines had a profound impact on me, in Chiara Boschis.

Me with the famous Luciano Sandrone
Few would argue that Luciano Sandrone is a man of principles. After years working in other peoples cellars, he made the bold decision to not only start his own winery, but to do it in the most uncompromising way he could. He was given the opportunity to purchase land in the fabled Cannubi zone of Barolo, and from the beginning his wines drove people to very strange behaviour. The first vintage in 1978 only produced 1500 bottles (he now produces up to 100,000 from 21 hectares of vines), but when an American importer discovered it he purchased all 1500. From here he not only grew the business acquiring more vineyards in different parts of Alba, but also began to grow his profile, particularly in important export markets like the United States and the United Kingdom. The wines he now produces are some of the most eagerly anticipated on the market, and the quality is undeniable. He only produces five wines (all red), and it is this perhaps unfashionable commitment to quality which makes them so sought after.

The history of Sandrone wines
Luciano himself introduced me to his fairly recently built winery at the foot of the Cannubi hill. Similar to my experience with Carmelo Patti in Mendoza, the fact that Luciano didn’t speak any English and I very little Italian made it challenging, but if anything I understood him even better in a telepathic kind of way. All of the 12 vineyards are treated separately, as well as all of the varieties (dolcetto, barbera and nebbiolo). After destemming and very gentle crushing, the must is transported to stainless steel tanks where they go through a spontaneous fermentation. To achieve control over the ferments, he ensures that all equipment is kept clean so no wild yeasts are introduced from out of the winery. Malolactic ferments are handled in tonneau barrels (accept for the dolcetto), and then the wines mature for between 12 and 24 months in barrel, the wine determining how much new oak is used. Before blending and bottling is commenced, Luciano will assess each barrel and tank to ensure he is happy with them, and only the best are used, with anything not making the grade being sold as bulk wine. Depending on the style, the wine will sit in bottle for up to 20 months to allow adequate integrations, but Luciano has also begun to set aside a portion of the vintage to release some wines after an additional four years for select clients.

The cellars of Luciano Sandrone
To begin with, the Dolcetto d’Alba 2011 had a delicate purple colour, bright spicy black fruits, was tight and fresh on the palate, achieving that elusive balance of approachability and elegance. The Barbera d’Alba 2010 was the wildest I’d smelt (savoury meat and smoky wild mushrooms), with the 50% new oak having a prominent toasty impact on the wine. The Valmaggiore Nebbiolo d’Alba 2010 (sourced from a single vineyard in Roero), showed wild cherries, bush strawberries and mushrooms, was very tight and delicate, and looked a lot like Cote de Beaune, which Luciano took as a great compliment. As for the two Barolo wines, the Le Vigne 2008 had a very subtle earthy red currants and cherries nose, very intense yet supple on the palate with slight pomegranate notes, minerality on the mid-palate, purity and harmony on the palate. The Cannubi Boschis 2008 was a much deeper and darker wine, with chocolate and truffle notes on the black cherry and cassis. It was fuller and more exuberant in the tannin structure, with sweeter fruit and breadth. The Le Vigne is what I would categorise as being the feminine style, whereas the Cannubi Boschis is more masculine.

The Sandrone range
Chiara Boschis is considered as one of the most important women in Barolo, traditionally a very masculine region, and as such brings a totally unique perspective to her sense of place and her wines. She is amongst such luminaries as Domenico Clerico and Luciano Sandrone in revolutionising the region in the 1980s, and her unfaltering vision to produce exceptional wines often gained her both praised but also harmless jibes from her male contemporaries that she should be out trying to find a husband. She took the reins of the eight-generation winery in 1990, and since then has attempted to find a closer connection to the land, deciding to farm in a bio-sustainable way, use very minimal and traditional winemaking methods, and allow the marriage of variety and terroir to be truly and honestly expressed in the wines. Anyone who meets her is sure to be seduced not only by her passion, kindness, flair and love of live, but also by her classic Italian beauty, as I know the Trembath & Taylor group were at Vinitaly when I met her.

Chiara in her modest yet charming cellars
Visiting Chiara in the actual town of Barolo, was one of the most personal I have had on my trip, as I was welcomed into her house for a home-cooked lunch with her wines (which I will come back to). We shared lovely discussions of our shared philosophies on wine, food and life in general, over four courses which included fresh egg pasta, roast lamb, local cheese and coffee prepared in two ways. Like myself, Chiara believes that a winemaker should have no ego about their responsibility to simply translate what nature has provided, and not impart their own influence on their wines. She also agreed that every thing that contributes to a wine both before and after bottling, has an important influence on it which cannot be ignored, particularly the human element. This does not mean that anyone has the right to intervene on a wines behalf, nor to be prescriptive to others about it. It is these philosophies that ring true when tasting her wines, and you can see she treats them as if they were her own children. In handling the wines very gently, she imparts more of her personality than perhaps even she realises, and for the first time I didn’t assess the wines as wines, but for their personality. Chiara produces very maternal wines, but all with their own interpretations.

The way Barolo should be tasted
The Dolcetto d’Alba 2011 was one of the softest and gentlest I have tasted, and had a very warm caressing and forgiving nuance. The Barbera d’Alba 2010 is similarly supple and gentle, but is a little bit more probing with crushed white pepper and reminded me of simple but comforting provincial home cooking. The Langhe Nebbiolo 2009 is very firm but fair, and is a wine that understands you and gives you exactly what you need, showing rustic cherry blossom notes with a structured mid-palate. The Cannubi Barolo 2008 is fiercely protective but with a soft touch, giving expressive but kind words, not showing strength unnecessarily but would lift a car to save their child in danger. The Via Nuova Barolo 2007 was much quitter, and only expressing the necessary information, very measured and intelligent, not aggressive but quite serious and determined. Whether this actually meant anything to you, I’m not really fussed because the wines truly spoke to me more than most I have tasted.

Chiara Boschis cellars
In the space of about 20 yeards, Roberto Voerzio has managed to establish such a cult following that his wines annually sell-out within a month, and he is forced to turn potential customers away. In spite of the importance of the event, he hasn’t needed to exhibit his wines as Vinitaly for almost ten years. Whilst his wines command prices in higher brackets than some in the region, when you understand the approaches to viticulture and winemaking it begins to make more sense. When he established his winery in the hilltop village of La Morra, he wanted to take an entirely new approach to the wines, particularly nebbiolo. Taking inspiration from such regions as Burgundy and the Northern Rhone Valley, the first step was to plant vines in much higher densities, in an effort to create higher competition for nutrients and water for the roots. The second step was to further stress the vines by minimising irrigation and spraying. In addition to this, a very intense canopy and crop management system was introduced, which reduced yields to 500g per vine.

Roberto Voerzio estate
His intention was to have very tiny amounts of intensely concentrated and perfectly matured bunches of grapes with which to work with. It is his philosophy (like many in the region) that 85% of the work is in the vineyard, but I’d not seen it to this degree. With this philosophy in mind, there is very little that they do in the winery. In fact, their approach to the winemaking is not dissimilar to Luciano Sandrone; natural ferments in stainless steel tanks, parcels kept completely separate, gravity-flow racking with no filtration or fining, carefully managed oak regime. The real x-factor is the fruit, and if Luciano’s wines can be considered feminine, then Roberto’s are most definitely at the other end of the masculine scale. Roberto’s very tall son Davide showed myself and two couples (one from Majorca and the other from Melbourne) around the winery and then we had the chance to taste wines that I had sold in the shop, but never actually tasted as they are so scarce and exclusive by the time they get to Australia.

Davide Voerzio
We started with the La Serra Barolo 2008, which had a subtle nutty mushroom truffle and marmite nose, really tight acids but soft tannins, focus and drive but some heat in its youth. The Rocche dell ‘Annunziata Torriglione Barolo 2007 followed, which had darker denser fruit and some dark earth notes aromatically, very intense and slightly reductive, much juicier and richer on the palate, much more forward full and textural but also more approachable. The Vecchie Viti Dei Capalese Delle Branche Riserva 2006 was very complex, expressing coffee, tar, bourbon, blackcurrant, maraschino cherry and chocolate notes, very hot concentration and tightness of tannins and acid, and was at least ten years too young. Opposite to every other tasting, we then tried a Barbera and a non-indigenous variety. The Barbera d’Alba Riserva Pozzo dell ‘Annunziata 2008 had a bright violet colour, was unbelievably tight and hot, very dense rich ripe black fruits, and was out of balance now. The Langhe Merlot 2007 was one of the most surprising in the region, as it was one of the most structured, elegant, bold, balanced and concentrated merlots with personality I have ever tasted.

Serious bottles
Click here to see more photos from Day Four in the Langhe, Italy.

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