The Icon vs. The Iconoclast: An Epic Barolo Tasting
Who would have thought to put a producer known for being one of the bastions of traditional winemaking in Piedmont against another producer who is famous for eschewing the old ways, being one of the most forward-thinking, often labeled “Modern,” winemakers in the region? Our tasting group, of course.
However, it’s important to understand, that even as the “Modernist” movement was in full swing, Sandrone was aiming more for a Burgundian style of Barolo, not an internationally styled wine. While Roberto Conterno was using large neutral botti to age his Barolo, Sandrone preferred 400 to 500-liter French oak barrels, of which only 20% were new. The largest difference between the two of them was the actual handling of the fruit in the vineyard, and a drastic difference in maceration and fermentation.
We were all looking forward to seeing how these two wineries, both at the top of their game, would compare. The date for our tasting was set nearly three months in advance, with the idea of creating two verticals of both Giacomo Conterno’s Cascina Francia and Luciano Sandrone’s Cannubi Boschis. Yet what was originally intended to be an eight-to-nine bottle lineup instead turned into a tour de force of the top wines from some of the best vintages of the nineties—totaling 14 bottles.
The location couldn’t have been better. With the balcony of the Morrell Wine Bar and Café set for this private event, we were able to spread out and take our time working through each of the wines. The name of the game was “Blind Tasting,” as all wines were decanted into burgundy-shaped bottles, with capsules completely removed and placed into numbered bags. Along with each flight, tasters received advice on the vintage and the wines within the flight, but it was up to them to pick which was which.
Everyone in this group is an experienced taster, having all met through Antonio Galloni’s Vinous Media, and it’s hard to imagine a Giacomo Conterno Cascina Francia being confused for a Sandrone Le Vigne, but it happened. Some of us were spot on, but there was no shame here, as when judging on the quality of what was in front of us, it started to become very difficult to tell some apart. If anything, the biggest difference I found was in the focus on fruit in the Sandrone wines. Seldom did I find the textbook roses and tar that most Barolo lovers are looking for. Another interesting moment was the ‘99 Monfortino being confused for the ’99 Cascina Francia and vice versa. But hey, this is what blind tasting is all about, and it was a blast.
Flight 1 – Something of an oddball flight that ended up with wines from two highly-acclaimed vintages which simply haven’t lived up to the hype. It’s amazing how, to this very day, people will try to sell me 2000 and 1997 Barolo on the vintage hype. It makes me wonder how often these same people are tasting the wines. The fact is that both of these were probably beautiful in their day, yet the characteristics of the vintage have taken their toll.
1997 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia – The nose showed a mix of moist earth, minerals, musky cedar and olive brine. On the palate, I found tart red berry fruit in a sappy, yet somewhat muddled expression. Dried red fruits and musky tones lingered on the finish. The question came up if this is over the hill, or possibly damaged, yet the bottle was stored properly since release. It may just be that some ‘97s are fading fast. (88 points)
2000 Luciano Sandrone Barolo Cannubi Boschis – The nose was restrained at first, showing dark berry tones; yet with coaxing, it began to release a bouquet of cranberry and minty herbs with a hint of cedar. On the palate, I found radiant, focused fruit with hints of spice in a very pretty and brilliant expression of Nebbiolo. Gruff tannin coated the palate throughout the finish, yet with a lack of balancing fruit and acidity. (89 points)
What’s most telling about this wine is that it was the only one opened at the tasting, while the rest received double decanting and slow-o (decanting in bottle over the course of hours). Yet when this was tasted the morning after, it was severely oxidized, while other wines and vintages from this tasting were still going strong. Quality of the vintage (or lack thereof), I presume.
Flight 2 – 1998 has become known as the Barolo vintage of the late nineties to drink now, and this selection was a great example of why. All three were beautiful, but the Conterno really took the prize for its incredible freshness and purity of fruit. However, I would be remiss not to mention how absolutely stunning the ’98 Le Vigne was on this night. There was a moment when we went back and forth between it and the Cascina Francia, splitting hairs over which was the more beautiful wine. Also, with a hefty dose of Ceretta fruit in the Le Vigne, it showed many of the Serralunga qualities we were looking for in the Cascina Francia.
1998 Luciano Sandrone Barolo Le Vigne – The nose showed black cherry with soil, minerals, sweet floral tones and a hint of sawdust. On the palate, it showed smooth, almost creamy, medium-weight textures with stunning purity of fruit, as notes of cherry, spice and minerals cascaded across the palate. A note of hard red candy lingered on the palate, with hints of still-youthful tannin providing grip. (93 points)
1998 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia – The nose was dark and earthy, showing wild berry with olive, minerals, woodland tones and animal musk. On the palate, it displayed stunning purity with tart black cherry and soil-laden minerality, kept lively through a brisk wave of acidity. A mix of dark fruit, minerals and tannin coated the palate throughout the finish. This may be one of the best ‘98 Cascina Francias I’ve ever tasted. (94 points)
1998 Luciano Sandrone Barolo Cannubi Boschis – The nose showed rich, dark fruits with hints of spice, herbs, cedar and salty brine. On the palate, it was broad and dark, as dried red fruits turned to dry cocoa and coffee grind. Gruff tannin clenched the senses throughout the finish, drying the remaining fruit. This came across as smaller in scale than the ’98 Le Vigne yet lacked depth and definition, and didn’t improve over time. (91 points)
Flight 3 – Last year, our group revisited the 1999 vintage in a horizontal of some of the best wines of the region. The diagnosis was that ’99 represents one of the most classic years from the Barolo vintage streak of the late nineties. Tonight was yet another example of just how amazing this vintage is. The ’99 Monfortino was epic to say to the least, yet we did go back and forth between it and the Cascina Francia, trying to decide which was which–showing that the ’99 Cascina Francia is a gorgeous wine and should be in all of our cellars, even at its current price.
1999 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Monfortino Riserva – This was a thrilling wine to be sure, as a bouquet of intense rich fruits, masses of rose and tar, leather and earth came forward along with hints of mushroom and balsamic tones. On the palate, a dark mix of fruits washed across the senses, turning to cranberry and spice with deep, silky textures over a spine of fine tannin. The finish showed palate-saturating cherry with contrasting hints of dried citrus and inner floral tones. This was amazingly drinkable on this night, and some tasters wondered if it was the Cascina Francia, yet the bouquet alone gave it away. (98 points)
1999 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia – The ’99 Cascina Francia opened with a dark and brooding bouquet of earth, animal and fruit, showing soil-laden minerals up front, leading to dried flowers, animal musk and dark berry tones. On the palate, it showed brilliant, yet tart, wild berry and strawberry fruits, minerals, and fine tannin that saturated the senses. It finished clean and youthful with hints of dried fruits. This is so young today, and it should continue to evolve into something very special over time. (96 points)
1999 Luciano Sandrone Barolo Le Vigne – This was a gorgeous wine, crashing down many of my preconceptions. The nose was massive, yet refined, showing black cherry, charred meat, sweet herbs, dusty soil and balsamic tones. On the palate, it showed velvety textures with dark red fruits, sweet spice and saturating minerality, which carried fine tannin across the senses. It was palate-coating and intense on the finish with hints of cranberry lingering long. (94 points)
Flight 4 – Where do you go after 1999 in Barolo? You go to 1996, of course. The ‘96s represent a vintage which comes across as impossibly young. The better modern producers seemed to have hit gold in ’96 (Domenico Cleric CMG and Azelia Bricco Fiasco come to mind), as the wines have been drinking beautifully. However, as modern ‘96s go, on two occasions, I’ve found the Sandrone to be good, but far from great. However, as far Giacomo Conterno is concerned, I believe these wines may be immortal, especially the Monfortino, which was as tight as a drum. Unfortunately, the word is out on these wines, and acquiring them can be costly.
1996 Luciano Sandrone Barolo Cannubi Boschis – The nose was rich and intense, showing dark red fruits, sweet spice and dusty soil tones. On the palate, it showed more mature than I would have expected, yet wonderfully smooth in texture with notes of crushed berry, plum and minerals. Tannin coated the palate throughout the finish, yet maintained the presence of ripe fruit. (93 points)
1996 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia – The ’96 Cascina Francia displayed a gorgeous bouquet of bright cherry, fresh minty herbs, rose and tobacco with a slight medicinal note to its fruit. It entered the palate with silky textures, yet quickly firmed up by fine tannin, releasing notes of tart berry, dried strawberry and minerals. It finished firm with lingering minerality and dried fruits. This was a very pretty, even if tannic, expression of ’96 Cascina Francia. (95 points)
1996 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Monfortino Riserva – Still a brick wall of a wine, giving hints of mint and eucalyptus with dark soil and mineral tones lurking in the glass, yet still not ready to show us its gifts. Intense, dark, brooding—but so far from ready on the palate, showing focused dark red fruit on a seemingly taught and wiry structure, with herbal hints in the background. It finished cool and structured, yet not hard or tannic. The balance here is beautiful; I just hope I’ll one day be able to see it in its maturity, which I believe will warrant a higher score. (95 points)
Flight 5 – An epic tasting must have at least one epic flight—at this tasting, there were two. The ‘99s were a revelation for us, but the combination of the two ‘90s and the Conterno ’85 was otherworldly. Rating these wines was a difficult task, and I’m very lucky to have been able to revisit them to watch their evolution. Both of these vintages were considered warmer years, and this was a true testament to how the better producers can make great wine no matter what Mother Nature gives to them. As for the Cascina Francia, I almost shed a tear when I think about my old stash, which has been completely depleted. If you can afford them, buy them!
1985 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia – The bouquet of the ’85 Cascina Francia was everything that I wanted out of a mature Barolo, especially with its Serralunga earthiness and minerals. The nose opened with dark red berries, dried flowers, tea leaves, minerals and exotic spices, becoming sweeter with time in the glass. On the palate, soft, caressing textures washed over the senses, leaving masses of mature red fruits, inner floral tones and soil-laden minerals. It finished with dried fruits and berries, crushed fall leaves, and a hint of iodine. Stunning. (97 points)
1990 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia – The nose was intense, with currents of black cherry and dark soil tones wafting up from the glass. Digging deeper, I found sweet herbs, mushroom, tobacco, balsamic notes, black olive and minerals. Dark red fruits seemed to saturate the entire palate in a silky shroud, along with flavors of savory meat, minerals, and dark inner floral notes. The finish showed youthful tannin, with dried strawberry, minerals and tobacco leaf. This is an amazing wine. (96 points)
1990 Luciano Sandrone Barolo Cannubi Boschis – The ’90 Cannubi Boschis was a great way to end an epic tasting. The nose was so amazingly rich and lively with black cherry, sweet spice and balsamic tones. On the palate, it was a smooth as silk, yet seamless and finessed. The fruit entered sweet yet quickly turned to tart berry with hints of mint, tobacco and cedar box. The finish was long and saturating to the senses, as its tannin resolved to reveal spice and a hint of wood. (96 points)
In closing, I must admit to having fully enjoyed the Barolo of Luciano Sandrone. Having been a fan of Giacomo Conterno for over a decade, I had expected to come away from this tasting confirmed in my notion that the Sandrone wines would pale in comparison, yet they truly held their ground. What’s more, even for the lower-scoring wines, I can only image that they would have fared better if not placed next to some of the giants on our table this night. My eyes have been opened, and I have a feeling that I’ll be drinking more Sandrone down the road.
Article and Tasting Notes by: Eric Guido
Tasting with other discerning palates is the best way, check out these other perspectives on this fantastic tasting:
Click HERE, for a selection of Giacomo Conterno available from Morrell.
Click HERE, for a selection of Luciano Sandrone available from Morrell.
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