I recently had the opportunity to sit and taste with Barbara Sandrone, Luciano’s daughter and heir apparent to the Sandrone winery in Piedmont. The moment the appointment was offered to me, I knew that I couldn’t pass it up. The wines of Sandrone were at one time off of my radar, until a number of tastings firmly fixed them among some of the best Barolo I have ever experienced. One such tasting, which pitted Giacomo Conterno against Luciano Sandrone, demonstrated both the vast differences between the two styles, but also the majesty of both houses on their own.
Also on my mind were the questions that have been raised throughout the collecting community regarding the name change of the famed Cannubi Boschis, a wine that has brought this house much praise and lastly, how le Vigne (the estate’s Barolo made from a blend of vineyards) has somehow grown in stature to compete with the best wines of the region.
So when asked if I would meet with Barbara, I was very quick to say “Yes!”
A Brief Sandrone History
Luciano Sandrone started out working in the cellars of Marchesi di Barolo until 1977, when he was able to afford to buy his own small parcel in the Cannubi Boschis vineyard. At first, he was a true garagiste wine-maker, as he practiced his craft in his parent’s garage. He earned high praise in the 1989 vintage from The Wine Advocate, and quickly followed-up in 1990 with a 100-point score for his Cannubi Boschis.
Things moved quickly after that, as Luciano was categorized as part of the modernist movement, which at that time was the style of Barolo that consumers wanted. However, Luciano really saw his style as progressive–he was trying to make Grand Cru Burgundy in Barolo.
The use of green harvests to reduce yields in the vineyards set Luciano apart from the traditional methods, but past that the lines began to blur, as Luciano would only use wild yeasts in fermentations, and extended macerations whenever he deemed it necessary. Yes, there was new oak to be found in the cellar, but the aging was done in 500-liter French barrels, not barriques, and only around 20% new.
In the end, the style was well-received and loved by the press, but also became a favorite among consumers, as a Sandrone Barolo could be enjoyed in it’s youth due to their intense yet elegant dark fruit. However, many collectors questioned how well they would mature in the cellar.
Today into Tomorrow
The good news for all of us is that they do mature beautifully, and although the style has changed to a small degree at Sandrone, those wines from ‘89 and ‘90 are still drop-dead-gorgeous.
One of the most exciting developments at Sandrone are the library releases, named “Sibi et Paucis” (For us and those few). I for one am a huge fan of library releases, as they are one of the few ways to really be sure that the Barolo you’re drinking was stored and transported perfectly from the winery. Originally intended for restaurants only, as collectors (such as myself) began to taste the late releases of Sibi et Paucis, we only had one question, “Where can I buy them?”
Sibi et Paucis is released ten years after the original release of each vintage, with no difference in the wine, other than having been perfectly stored at the winery since bottling. They come at a premium, but are worth every penny. If you have any doubt of how a library release can compete against an original release, simply look at Monica Larner’s recent reviews of the 2007 Sibi et Paucis from Sandrone–they speak volumes.
Luciano is renowned for being one of the few Barolo producers able to coax superior wines from the Cannubi Boschis vineyard–in fact, it’s his wine that brought this site its current fame. Although Cannubi Boschis shares part of its name with one of the most famed vineyards of the region, the reality is that it shares very little in the way of terroir. This vineyard sits at a lower altitude, as it gently slopes across the Cannubi hillside. Sandrone’s parcels border Cannubi proper and reside on the steepest incline of the hill, which helps explain how his wine has reached such heights while others failed, yet it’s widely recognized that Luciano’s strict vineyard practices and approach in the winery are what make this wine truly great.
So why change the name of one of Piedmont’s most iconic wines, when most producers work to add a better senses of place to each bottling? The answer, according to Barbara, is actually quite simple, and one that makes a lot of senses to anyone who has ever been loved by a grandparent. Luciano wanted to honor his grandchildren. Aleste is the combination of the names Alessia and Stefano. The wine continues to be made from the exact same plots within Cannubi and through the exact same practices. Literally nothing has changed but the name.
In the grand scheme of things, I think this is a romantic gesture and demonstrates just how important family really is in Piedmont. Aleste is still Cannubi Boschis, and since Luciano is widely recognized for putting this vineyard on the map, I think we can let that slide.
The Super Le Vigne
This brought my conversation with Barbara to Le Vigne, and its sudden rise from good, to sometimes great, and now a wine of the vintage in nearly every year.
The first vintage of Le Vigne was 1990, (which is no slouch) and from that time it has always been a blend of vineyards. This is not to say that the juice that goes into Le Vigne isn’t good enough for its own bottling, but that the parcels are so small that to bottle each separately would be impossible.
As time went on, the Sandrone winery continued to buy parcels in vineyards throughout the region, and in the last few years, the Baudana cru from Serralunga d’Alba was added (and you can feel it). But it’s not just that, the fact is that Le Vigne has been slowly evolving over time as the family has tweaked its sources to constantly raise its quality. It’s important to note however, that they have not raised its production numbers. Instead, when one parcel is deemed inferior to the rest, it’s dropped in favor of the better juice.
Suddenly the rise of Le Vigne started to make a lot of sense, and I can say having tasted the 2013, the change is noticeable. This is a serious contender in the market, and with the onset of global warming that causes some vineyards suffer in one year but not another, the Le Vigne comes across as wonderfully balanced and complete vintage after vintage. Le Vigne is now a blend of Baudana, Villero, Vignane and Merli. Talk about an amazing mix!
With all of that out of the way, we moved onto the wines, as I suggest you do as well. Luciano established himself as an icon almost thirty years ago, and remains one today. This progressive family of winemakers appear to be unstoppable.
On To The Tasting Notes
1996 Luciano Sandrone Barolo Le Vigne Sibi et Paucis – Direct from the Sandrone Cellar with 20 years of perfect maturity, the ’96 Le Vigne is drop-dead gorgeous tonight. The bouquet displayed a captivating mix of dried flowers, undergrowth, mushroom, exotic spice, crushed strawberry and dusty soil. On the palate, I found soft, luxurious textures with notes of ripe plum, cherry and sweet spices. The tannins were perfectly resolved creating an ethereal quality as this glided perfectly across the sense. It finished on lingering floral tones and spice with not a single hard edge to be found. Simply in perfect balance. (94 points)
2006 Luciano Sandrone Barolo Le Vigne Sibi et Paucis – The bouquet was dramatic and intense with concentrated tart cherry, spice and balsamic tones. The textures were like pure silky, offset by tart red fruits, spice, minerals and zesty acidity. It was so focused and driven on the palate, leaving a coating of saturating red fruits and fine tannin on the long, long, long finish. (94 points)
2012 Luciano Sandrone Barolo Cannubi Boschis – The nose showed ripe medicinal cherry, tea leaves, spices and minerals. On the palate, i found silky textures with fresh acidity adding lift as dark red fruits and dusty mineral-laden spices tempted the senses. It finished on saturating notes of cherry and plum, but with very little structure to speak of. (91 points)
2013 Luciano Sandrone Barolo Aleste – The nose was dark and alluring with crushed stone giving way to haunting floral tones, hints of spiced citrus peel, dried roses and undergrowth. On the palate, I found soft textures, which seemed to hover on the senses with notes of ripe black and red fruit, saline-minerality, and soft acidity. Fine tannin came on late, mounting with each sip until it seemed to coat the entire palate throughout the finish, leaving hints of dried berries and savory minerals. There was so much beneath the surface here, that I can only imagine great things to come in 15 – 20 years. (95 points)
2013 Luciano Sandrone Barolo Le Vigne – The nose was intense, deep and rich, with notes of crushed black cherry and raspberry lifting from the glass, followed by fresh plum with hints of menthol, sweet sandrone florals, and dusty spice. On the palate, I found youthfully lean textures, which were quickly contrasted by concentrated dark raspberry and cherry fruits, becoming tart as fine tannin and minerals coated the senses. The finish was incredibly long and structured with saturating red fruits, minerals and inner floral tones. The addition of both Villero and Baudana fruit has heavily affected this young Le Vigne, and I am smitten with the results. Simply stunning! (97 points)
I would be remiss to only speak of Barolo in this blog, because like many producers in Piedmont, Luciano Sandrone produces an amazing lineup of Nebbiolo, Barbera and Dolcetto. These are each remarkable values, with the house style on full display. Honestly, I’d be hard pressed to not mistake the Valmaggiore (from Roero) as a Barolo.
2014 Luciano Sandrone Nebbiolo d’Alba Valmaggiore – Showing an extroverted personality, yet so incredibly pretty, here I found a stunning display crushed red berries, exotic spiced orange, dusty dried roses, and crushed stone. On the palate, I found silky-soft textures with pure cherry-berry fruits, hints of citrus, minerals and brisk cleansing acidity. The finish was long with saturating tart red fruits, saline-minerality and lingering hints of fine tannin. (92 points)
2015 Luciano Sandrone Barbera d’Alba – The nose was intense with crushed black cherry, menthol, dusty spice, and wild herbs. On the palate, I found soft textures offset by bright cherry fruit, zesty acidity, saline-minerality and herbal tones. It finished with a pop of acidity, as tart cherry fruits and savory minerality lasted long on the senses. (92 points)
2016 Luciano Sandrone Dolcetto d’Alba – Here I found a gorgeous display of blackberry preserves, sweet herbs, mint, lavender, and floral undergrowth. On the palate, lean textures with a pop of vibrant acidity, were offset by tart blackberry fruit and inner floral tones. It finished tart, yet fresh and zesty. This is simply a pure style of Dolcetto at it’s finest. (91 points)