Last week, I was happy to sit with a group of die-hard Barolo lovers and friends in what has become one of the greatest tasting groups I have ever had the honor of being a part of. Created on the message boards of Vinous (Antonio Galloni’s own website), this group has become a force to be reckoned with, as each member is a long-time collector and passionate Barolo lover. With each tasting we seem to reach a new high, and this week’s focus was the cult producer Cappellano.
Cappellano is one of the greatest producers in all of Barolo, and they’ve never received a 100, 95 or even a 90-point score from any modern-day Italian wine critic. The decision to reject the scoring of critics came from Teobaldo Cappellano in 1983, who believed winemaking a be an art form, a work of passion, and one that should not be encapsulated into a single number. Nor did he believe that it was healthy for fellow producers, seeing it as being divisive. Whether or not you or I agree with this philosophy is beside the point, simply because Cappellano has been making some of the best Barolo in the region for decades.
The lack of scores and small annual production of Cappellano has kept them firmly off the radar of the majority of Barolo lovers around the world. However, for enthusiasts who would read the fine print and wouldn’t sort each critic’s tasting notes by highest scores to lowest, the reward was the discovery of this true pioneer of modern-day Barolo.
The Cappellano name goes back to the late 19th century in Barolo, run throughout that time by a number of true gentlemen, who would not only work as buyers of grapes, growers of vines and makers of Barolo, but also as businessmen and even one as a pharmacist. In fact, it was Giuseppe Cappellano who invented Barolo Chinato, as an aid-all elixir. To this day, the most traditional houses of Barolo will make a Barolo Chinato, whose recipes are usually guarded secrets, but typically consist of a mix of Barolo wine with varying spices, bark, herbs and a small amount of cane sugar.
At one time, the house of Cappellano was one of the biggest names in the region with some 60 hectares, as well as one of the largest purchasers of grapes. Even with this tremendous production, the name stood for undeniable quality, which is something that has not changed to this day. However, what has changed is their size.
Today, Cappellano’s holdings consist of only 4 hectares of vines in the Gabutti vineyard of Serralunga. This brings us back to Teobaldo Cappellano, who returned to Italy in the 1970s, and to the Cappellano winery, which at that time no longer owned any of its own vineyards. His acquisition of vines in the prestigious Gabbuti cru was made through a handshake deal with the past owner Otin Fiorin, whose name remains printed on every bottle of Cappellano Barolo. When you consider that the name of the vineyard itself (with all the prestige associated with it) is no longer present on the label, this gives you an insight into a man who puts more credit in people than status.
The two Barolo made today by Cappellano are designated by the names Pie Rupestris and Pie Franco, both from Gabbuti. One, Pie Franco, being of particular note, as it was planted after an earthquake had caused a collapse of part of the vineyard. Cappellano used this opportunity to plant Nebbiolo of the Michet clone on its own rootstocks. This decision brought Teobaldo fame throughout the region, as the success of these vines made Pie Franco the only Barolo produced on its own European roots. However, like many hardline traditionalists, that fame didn’t travel internationally, outside of longtime collectors of Old-World Barolo.
All of that has changed today, as international interests have swayed back to the traditional school. What’s more, Teobaldo has been firmly placed among the giants in Piedmont, which include Bartolo Mascarello, Giuseppe Rinaldi, and Giacomo Conterno. Now we look upon his organic approach in the vineyards, long macerations, natural fermentations and constant experimentation with low doses of sulfur in a positive and progressive light. In a very big way, Teobaldo Cappellano helped to create today’s traditional Barolo. Unfortunately, he is no longer with us to enjoy how much his work, or his art, has added to our enjoyment of what I consider to be one of the greatest wines in the world today.
The good news is that the future of Cappellano has been safely placed in the hands of Teobaldo’s son Augusto, who seems more than happy to maintain his father’s beliefs and continue to produce Barolo as they have over the past decades. The fact is that Augusto had been doing more than lending a hand for years as his father suffered through his illness.
As for the wines, I have decided not to provide scores, but I am happy to supply a number of impressions beyond my tasting notes below. Firstly, my personal preference for sheer enjoyment factor leans toward Pie Rupestris, which is great news for myself and anyone that follows my palate, as the wines are more affordable and easier to find. Second is Cappellano’s ability to make great wines in poorer and warmer vintages, such as the ’95, ’97, ’00, ’03 and ’07. Third, that the Pie Franco displays more dark Serralunga character, while the Pie Rupestris is a wine of lifted, pure fruit and vibrancy. Lastly, that these are wines that are deceptively petite at times, yet mature into gorgeous examples of classic Barolo.
On to the wines (In the order they were tasted):
1964 Cappellano Barolo – This was absolutely magnificent. The nose alone was spellbinding in a way that only perfectly mature Barolo can be. This is one of those wines that converts you into a collector and prompts you to begin building a cellar to house a collection that may one day evolve into such gorgeous bottles of Barolo. The bouquet was exuberant and lively, showing dried cherries, hints of dusty spice, dried leaves, cedar and floral tones. On the palate, it was still lively and fresh with rich cherry and plum fruit, lifted by zest acidity and revealing hints of orange peel and minerality. An inner sweetness resonated on the finish with lingering dried fruit tones.
1971 Cappellano Barolo – The ’71 displayed a dark, haunting and perfumed bouquet of dried flowers, cherry, savory herbs, chalky minerals and spice. The depths this reached on the nose were worth the experience alone, which distracted me from its slightly disappointing performance on the palate. Notes of dried cherry, citrus rind and minerals made an appearance but with a lack of flesh, resulting in a hollow sensation. Dried-out red fruit lingered on the finish—but oh, what an incredible bouquet…
1995 Cappellano Barolo Otin Fiorin (Gabutti) – The nose was highly expressive and pretty with sweet cherries, spice and vibrant floral tones. On the palate, it displayed silky textures and perfectly resolved tannin, showing ripe raspberry fruit, along with spice and tart apple. A bump of acidity provided vibrancy going into the finish with notes of orange peel, spice and lingering hard red candy. This is easily one of the best ’95 Barolos I’ve ever tasted.
1996 Cappellano Barbaresco – I’ve had the pleasure of tasting this twice this year, and both times it was truly stunning, but tonight there was a vibrancy that the last bottle lacked. The nose was alive with dark, ripe red fruits, dusty spice, undergrowth, fresh pine and hints of cedar. On the palate, I found alluring dark ripe fruit, silky textures, and stunning inner floral tones. It lasted long on the finish, displaying a juicy, dark and ripe fruit profile.
1996 Cappellano Barolo Piè Franco Otin Fiorin (Gabutti) – The nose was dark and brooding, showing off its Serralunga roots with a mix of dark soil, iron, and dark red fruits. On the palate, rich dark red fruits flooded the senses, which were quickly assaulted by gripping tannin followed by minerals and earth tones. Its structure lingered long on the finish along with hints of drying red berry and leather.
1997 Cappellano Barolo Piè Franco Otin Fiorin (Gabutti) – The bouquet showed minerality up front, followed by tart red berry, dusty soil tones and crushed leaves. On the palate is where the ’97 Franco shined, as ripe, dark red fruits were carried by a mix of silky textures and vibrant acidity, with hints of brown spice and sweet inner floral tones. The finish was shorter than desired, turning more to unresolved tannin and dried red fruit. Still, this is a highly enjoyable wine.
1997 Cappellano Barolo Piè Rupestris Otin Fiorin (Gabutti) – The ’97 Pie Rupestris is everything we ever hoped the ’97 vintage would deliver—but didn’t. Here I found a rich, warm and inviting wine that was perfectly balanced and ready to drink. The nose displayed ripe black cherry, pretty floral tones, brown spice, minerals, dusty soil and undergrowth. It was silky-smooth on the palate, displaying spiced cherry, plum, inner floral tones and hints of contrasting tannin. The finish left nothing to be desired, as fine tannin faded to reveal dark red fruit, spiced orange and inner floral tones. I honestly don’t remember the last time I enjoyed a ’97 Barolo this much.
2000 Cappellano Barolo Piè Rupestris Otin Fiorin (Gabutti) – In the context of the evening, the 2000 Pie Rupestris didn’t stand out much, but considering the competition, it isn’t hard to see why. Here I found a dark red fruit profile, along with sweet floral tones, plum, dusty spice and minerals. It was rich on the palate yet balanced throughout, with soft red fruits that seemed to saturate the senses. It’s a fun wine, very pretty and quite good for the vintage.
2001 Cappellano Barolo Piè Rupestris Otin Fiorin (Gabutti) – The nose displayed airy and lifted red fruit with notes of dusty spice, menthol and licorice wrapped firmly around a mineral core. On the palate, it displayed radiant cherry and pomegranate with hints of spice and firm ’01 tannins, which provided a saturating and concentrated fruit sensation along with grip to spare. The finish resonated on fine tannin and lingering dried cherry and sweet herbs.
2003 Cappellano Barolo Piè Franco Otin Fiorin (Gabutti) – The nose was dark and almost savory with ripe red fruits, plum, raw meat and brown spice. On the palate, it displayed soft textures with sweet red berries, spice and a hint of green apple, which lent energy to an otherwise bruiser of a wine. A hint of heat was noticeable on the finish but only slightly so. It really is a great wine for the warm vintage, with excellent balance and perfectly contrasting acidity.
2007 Cappellano Barolo Piè Rupestris Otin Fiorin (Gabutti) – This was another great example of Cappellano’s ability to make amazingly balanced wine in warmer vintages. The nose was spicy, sweet and beautifully perfumed with ripe red fruits and floral tones. Nowhere did I find any baked qualities or heat, just pure finesse. On the palate, I found intense red fruits and spice, which seemed to saturate the senses, with a bump of brisk acidity toward the close that made the mouth water.
2008 Cappellano Barolo Piè Franco Otin Fiorin (Gabutti) – The nose was gorgeous with savory herbs giving way to black cherry, plum, undergrowth and dark floral tones. There was a cool and crisp quality here that was quite attractive as it continued to become fleshier and more expressive in the glass. On the palate, I found silky textures offset by brisk acidity with rich black cherry, sweet inner floral tones and hints of undergrowth. The finish lent a slight green stem note but resonated on red fruit and fine tannin. This is a drop-dead gorgeous wine.
2008 Cappellano Barolo Piè Rupestris Otin Fiorin (Gabutti) – Stunning, simply stated. The 2008 Pie Rupestris displayed a deep and rich balsamic note that was offset by cool-toned red fruits and floral notes, which presented radiance that was undeniably attractive. Its brilliant and lifted character continued on the palate, as pure red fruit and sweet spice gave way to pretty inner floral tones in a palate-filling expression with fine tannin adding grip. Balance is the key here from start to finish.
In closing, these are wines to buy in every vintage, assuming you can find them. While buying a wine without the safety net of a score can be difficult (especially in this price range), I can assure you that Cappellano is worth the hunt. I would be happy to taste any single one of these over and over again. These are wines of soul, passion and purity.
Make sure to check out The Fine Wine Geek for all the details you could ever hope to find on Cappellano, as well as coverage of this tasting in particular, which you can find here Cappellano Vertical at Lusardi’s.
This tasting would not have been possible if it wasn’t for the great group of wine lovers at Antonio Galloni’s Vinous forum.
Make sure to check out Lusardi’s. While I may not have touched much of the evening’s food, I will say that it was superb, even placed against some of the world’s greatest wines.
Article and tasting notes by: Eric Guido