Exploring the Classics of Piedmont
Let’s talk about the classic producers of Piedmont. In my time as a writer, I’ve managed to focus on most of them–but certainly not all. Early on in my journey to understanding wine, I realized that there was something about the Nebbiolo grape that captivated me. It was something about its purity, mixed with the multidimensional layers or fruit, florals and earth that would develop over time. The difference between a young and old Barolo or Barbaresco (both made 100% from Nebbiolo) is so drastic, as the wine evolves over decades–not years–and transforms from an angular and austere expression into something so graceful, feminine, soft, and giving. Sometimes you don’t even need to taste these wines to receive the gratification you desire, because their bouquet can be so remarkably beautiful, haunting, alluring and satiating that the sip is only the completion of the experience, before returning to the glass for another aromatic exploration.
Nebbiolo also has the ability to teleport your imagination by communicating terroir so transparently. This is the same reason that so many collectors find their way to Pinot Noir in Burgundy, and why the two grapes are often compared to each other. You’ll find very little in common between Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir, other than their earthy and floral natures, but it is absolute that both will speak more about the places from which they came than most other grapes do. It’s because of this that the trend of single-vineyard or Cru wines became so popular in Barolo and Barbaresco, and even when a producer blends different vineyards together, you can often find the telltale signs of how one site lent the wine its power, another its spice, and another its structure. A lover of fine details, hidden traits, an explorer, or even those who enjoy nearly incalculable equations will find a lot to like in the variety.
When you add the many different styles of winemaking to this mix, the complexities of Barolo and Barbaresco grow deeper. I found myself saying that I preferred the traditionally-styled wines of the region, macerated for long periods of time on the skins and aged in large neutral oak. Yet I must confess that over time, my mind has been opened to a large number of producers who create wines that are considered “modern” yet made with a soft touch. In fact, the only “modern” barolo I would turn my nose up at today would be one that leaned hard toward drastically reduced yields in the vineyards and a large percentage of new oak. Because if I’ve learned anything in over a decade of tasting these wines, it’s that the lines between modern and traditional have blurred so deeply, that only a small number of producers can now be considered a hardliner in one direction or other. Also, there are some great wines from the past that were made in a “modern” style that are simply irresistible today.
Speaking of winemakers, Nebbiolo also has a way of inciting as much passion in its producers as in the people who buy them. Passion is what drives many wine lovers, and to think that there is someone on the other side of growing, raising and bottling these wines, who shares a similar passion–is a remarkable feeling. In Piedmont, most winemakers are also the same people who care for the vines in the vineyard (another similarity to Burgundy). These aren’t business people who wear fancy suits or designer clothes to work; they are farmers. Most of them can trace their vine-growing roots back generations, and their face will often light up when presented with a wine that their father, grandfather or older generation produced. Of course, this is slowly changing in Piedmont, as outside investment threatens to buy up its vineyards, but that’s a story for another blog.
Our Very Own Piedmont Classics Dinner
With all of that said, the only way to truly understand all of these differences is to taste, which is absolutely the most enjoyable part of this hobby (obsession) that I share with a wonderful community of fellow worshippers of the Nebbiolo grape. Often we’ve done this through vertical tasting (multiple vintages of different or the same producer to understand vintage characteristics). Sometimes through horizontal tasting (one vintage of the same or multiple producers). We’ve even pitted two producers against each other in a traditional-versus-modern showdown. However, what moved me to words today was our most recent tasting, and one of the best we’ve ever embarked on.
Being that our group was started on the Vinous forums, we thought that we would borrow an idea from Antonio Galloni and create our own version of his Piedmont Classics dinner. Why not? This is a group of collectors who each have deep cellars of Nebbiolo going back decades. The tasting was organized into four flights by producer. In most cases, each flight had at least one bottle with significant age and a few with moderate to even youthful wines. (Which is funny when you consider that the youngest bottle on the table was ten years old–but this is Nebbiolo we’re talking about.) The producers we settled on were Giacomo Conterno, Bruno Giacosa, Marcarini, and Brovia–all undeniable classics. Plus, we were treated to a blind tasting addition from Cappellano. The venue was La Pizza Fresca, owned, operated–and on this night even manning the brick-fire oven–by Brad Bonnewell (a fellow Cavalieri del Tartufo e dei Vini di Alba).
It was a study of producer, a study of terroir, a study of vintage, a brick-oven pizza exploration… and one hell of a good time.
On To The Tasting Notes
Surprise Blind Bottle: Cappellano
I had no idea going into the tasting that I would be treated to a 70-year-old Barolo, which was a true testament to the staying power and nobility of Nebbiolo It makes sense that the producer would be Cappellano. At that time, they were 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. Bottles of Cappellano from the ‘50s, ‘60s and on to today are always a welcome addition to any tasting.
1947 Cappellano Super Barolo – This was served blind, and what a treat it was. The ‘47 “Super” Barolo was completely mature yet gorgeous, with a bouquet of cigar box, dried flowers, dusty dry spices, and dark soil tones. On the palate, I found pure, lifted sweet red fruits with zesty acidity, minerals and inner florals. It finished long and spicy with ripe yet dried red fruits and lingering sweet minerality. Wow, what an experience. (93 points)
Flight 1: Giacomo Conterno
We’re looking back 47 years at a time before Giacomo Conterno even owned the vineyard that defines them today: Cascina Francia. In fact, the ‘70 Barolo that was labeled Cascina Francia was due to a lapse in time between bottling, labeling and shipping. It isn’t a Cascina Francia at all (they didn’t own the vineyard at that time), but that didn’t stop it from being one of my wines of the night. At that time, the fruit would have come from a source in Monforte, but little else is known. Another highlight from this night’s flight was a peek into some recent vintages that are coming along very nicely as well.
1970 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Riserva – Here I found a dark display of mature Nebbiolo, complemented by layers of earthy, savory aromas. Dried leaves, dusty old spices, and hints of roasted meat wafted up from the glass, yet it remained feminine and pure throughout the experience. On the palate, a soft and inviting textural display gave way to tart red fruits with lifting acidity that created an almost-mouthwatering experience. It finished with saturating tart berry tones, earthy soil tones and lingering undergrowth. (95 points)
1971 Giacomo Conterno Barolo – Where the ‘70 Barolo Riserva was all about feminine grace, the ‘71 instead showed the muscular and attractive gritty side of Nebbiolo. Here I found a rich and dark display with tart red berries up front, followed by animal musk, dried flowers and dark soil tones. It was soft on the palate, with mouth-filling textures which seemed to touch upon all of the senses, as notes of sweet dried red fruits, hints of spice, and minerals prevailed. The finish was long with sour berries, undergrowth and crushed stone. This would have scored higher if there was more clarity or a bump of acidity on the palate, but the fact is that the ‘70 is in fine form and drinking beautifully. (94 points)
2000 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia – Having never been a big fan of the vintage, the 2000 Giacomo Conterno shows some of its telltale drawbacks, yet it manages to be incredibly enjoyable all the same. Here I found a rich, dark bouquet with crushed cherry, brown spices and dried flowers, yet the wine lacked momentum. On the palate, it displayed silky textures contrasted by intense tart red fruits, inner spice and sweet tannins. The finish was saturating with red fruits, yet it was soft and only medium in length. (92 points)
2007 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia – While the 2000 did the best it could in a warm vintage, the 2007 excelled with it. The nose was intense with dusty spices, saline minerals, a hint of savory tomato leaf and notes of undergrowth. It showed silky, enveloping textures with intense dark red fruits, which turned slightly tart as youthful tannin began to saturate the senses. Savory minerality and spice persisted throughout the finish, with a cheek-puckering twang of tart fruit and hints of savory herbs. The density here is formidable, nearly masking its young tannin, but the underlying structure should guarantee the 2007 a long life. Very nice. (95 points)
Flight 2: Bruno Giacosa
There is really only one way to follow up a flight of Giacomo Conterno, and that’s with a flight of Bruno Giacosa. What was really amazing were the similarities found throughout each of these wines, a combination of the winemakers stamp and terroir. Picking favorites here was like splitting hairs, and what it really came down to was the level of drinkability from bottle to bottle. However, scoring-wise, it was the potential mixed with the performance that won out the day.
2001 Bruno Giacosa Barolo Falletto di Serralunga d’Alba – The ‘01 Falletto showed all of the classic hallmarks of the vintage married to the Giscosa style. The bouquet was lifted and pure with a sweet-and-sour persona, as spicy black cherry mixed with sweet herbs and hints of savory tomato leaf. On the palate, I found silky textures that were quickly offset by a combination of dusty minerals and crystalline tannin, as tense, youthful crisp red fruits were ushered across the senses by brisk acidity. The finish was long, showing its youthful tannin with saturating tart red fruits. We still have a ways to go before the ‘01 is in its perfect drinking window, but this night’s bottle was enjoyable on potential alone. (94 points)
2004 Bruno Giacosa Barolo Falletto di Serralunga d’Alba – You should be very pleased with yourself if you have the ‘04 Falletto in your cellar. Here I found a gorgeous display of rich black cherry and cranberry, with notes of holiday spice, sweet florals, crushed stone minerality and mint. It was silky on the palate with enveloping, soft, ripe spiced cherry fruit, juicy acidity and the sweetest of sweet tannin. The finish was long, showing the first signs of youthful structure with saturating spice and dried cherry tones lingering on. (96 points)
1996 Bruno Giacosa Barolo Riserva Falletto di Serralunga d’Alba – The ‘96 Falletto showed youthfully restrained, yet it was impossible to ignore on its potential alone. The nose was cool and minty, with notes of black cherry, dusty dried floral tones, licorice and hints of smoke. On the palate, I found an angular expression with depths of dark red fruit and minerals, as fine tannin kept everything in check. The finish was long with saturating tannin, lingering spice, dried inner-florals and mineral tones. (96 points)
1999 Bruno Giacosa Barolo Le Rocche del Falletto di Serralunga d’Alba – I’ve been lucky to taste the ‘99 Le Rocche on multiple occasions, as each time it has been stunning. The nose was radiant in its cool, dark red fruit, with raspberry and black cherry, as well as hints of plum. Rosy florals tones, dusty spice and minerals joined the fray with time in the glass. On the palate, I found a refined and structured expression, with black cherry, inner floral, mineral tones and crunchy youthful tannin. The finish was long with palate-coating spiced cherry, sweet inner florals, spice and hints of lingering undergrowth. (96 points)
Flight 3: Marcarini
Speaking of the classics of Piedmont is not possible without including Marcarini in the conversation. Following a large vertical tasting many years ago, my eyes were opened to this traditional producer, who still manages to fly comfortably under the radar. As you look back to older vintages, the name Cogno is often proudly emblazoned across the label, which is the same man who would go on to create the Elvio Cogno winery that has earned an elevated position in Piedmont today. These are classic, traditionally-styled wines that represent a similar mix of value and quality that we find from vintage Produttori del Barbaresco.
1968 Marcarini Barolo Brunate – Following a flight on unbelievable Giacosa Barolo isn’t easy, but the ‘68 Marcarini Brunate held its own. Here I found a perfectly mature and remarkably pretty expression of Nebbiolo fruit with dried floral tones up front giving way to dusty soil, hints of brown spice and faded cherry. On the palate, I found a soft and feminine display with zesty acidity giving life to its dried red fruits, along with earth tones and minerals. It was shorter on the finish than I had hoped yet cleaned up very nicely with a twang of tart red fruit and lingering florality. (93 points)
1973 Marcarini Barolo Brunate Riserva – The nose showed dark dried red berries with sweet florals and a hint of leather. On the palate, I found zesty expression, yet rich enough to the impression of weight, showing bright red berries, earth and minerals. It finished long and balanced with lingering mineral and dried cherry tones. (91 points)
1974 Marcarini Barolo Brunate – The nose showed dark dried berry tones, followed by animal musk, crushed fall leaves, earth tones, and dusty spice. On the palate, it was airy and lifted with great acidity, showing tart red berries with a savory edge and earthy minerality. The finish was long and earthy, with inner floral tones lasting throughout. I’ve always been a fan of the ‘74 vintage, and this Marcarini was a textbook example of why I love them so much. Simply a great drinking wine and vintage. (92 points)
1999 Marcarini Barolo Brunate – The ‘99 Brunate is full of potential, showing a classic, traditional nose, with dried red fruits, pine nettles, licorice, medicinal herbs, and sweet florals. On the palate, it was feminine and slightly firm, with saturating tart berry tones, leather, spice and youthful tannin. It finished beautiful and long, displaying earth tones, dried spices and inner florals. This wine is only just starting to approach its drinking window, and I see many decades of positive evolution ahead for it. (93 points)
Flight 4: Brovia
The house of Brovia has undergone many changes over the last thirty years, as Elena and Cristina Brovia took the reins from their father. Quality was said to have steadily improved through that time, and even more in 2001, when Alex Sanchez joined the family. The exciting thing about this night’s tasting was the ability to taste the ‘79 Rio Sordo–a wine made by the previous generation–next to three wines that represent that period of change. The fact that the ‘79 ended up being my wine of the flight has more to do with its perfect maturity, while the ‘96 Ca’Mia technically scored higher.
1979 Fratelli Brovia Barbaresco Rio Sordo – The bouquet was stunning, showing dusty spices, earth, undergrowth and a hint of iodine, before notes of dried cherry and floral tones began to develop in the glass. On the palate, I found soft textures with zesty acidity giving way to minerals, spice and sweet and sour red fruits. The finish was medium in length, yet still zesty and fresh with dried berry tones, spices and lingering minerality. (93 points)
1995 Fratelli Brovia Barbaresco Rio Sordo – (Flawed–Badly)
1996 Fratelli Brovia Barbaresco Rio Sordo – The nose was dark and intense, showing dried cherry, dusty spices, smoke, and minerals upon minerals. On the palate, I found a silky expression with dark red fruits, classic ‘96-styled crunchy tannin, and earthy minerals. It finished long, as its young tannin saturated the senses, drying out the fruit and leaving an impressive of austerity. This was very good, but I do wonder if the fruit will outlive the tannins. (92 points)
1996 Fratelli Brovia Barolo Ca’Mia – The nose was dark, rich, mineral-laden–classic. Here I found a mix of dried cherry, raspberry, dusty spice, earthy minerality and moist soil tones. On the palate, silky textures were quickly offset by intense dark red fruits, with brisk acidity adding mineral lift and young tannin, which settled down hard on the senses. The finish was long and structured, even cheek-puckering, allowing hints of tart red fruit and minerals to linger. This wine was densely packed, with dark focused fruit wrapped in fine tannin with balancing acidity, which sounds like a recipe for success to me. I can’t wait to see where it’s going. (94 points)