In Search of Piedmont’s Greatest Terroir

Looking out across Serralunga

As trends go, one which seems to have affected nearly every producer throughout Barolo is the desire to explore the terroir of Serralunga. With nearly every visit to the region, I am told over and over again, often in hushed tones by a wide-grinned winemaker, that they are incredibly excited to be making wine from just about any vineyard in Serralunga. In some cases, these proclamations are about vineyards that have yet to make a name for themselves or prove their worth. However, that doesn’t matter to the lucky few who can buy or rent parcels here, because most of the region believes that Serralunga will be a big part of Barolo’s future.

Much of this has to do with consumers, who have liked what they’ve tasted from this village for many years now, especially as the great vintages of the last thirty years have matured into such beautiful wines, pushing their collectibility and prices through the roof.

The iconic Monfortino from the Cascina Francia Vineyard

So why did it take so long?  It’s the combination of high elevations, predominantly southern exposures and unique soils found throughout the village, which give the wines of Serralunga the ability to age for decades, yet also make them structured, lean and hard to read in their youth.  The soils are particularly important, as they are very different from those found in the other villages, consisting of the largest portion of Calcium Carbonate (limestone) in the region, mixed with clay, sandy silt, and sandstone.  It’s the perfect recipe for epic wines of power, structure and longevity. Then there’s Monfortino, produced by the Giacomo Conterno winery, one of the first wines of the region to demand prices on the same scale of the best Grand Cru Burgundy. Of course, many wines have followed suit over the last decade or two, but Monfortino led the way, and today’s current releases nearly double or triple in price the moment they hit the secondary market.

Then there are the vineyards, some of which are only just beginning to show what they are capable of in the right hands, and a few that history has firmly placed among the best in the village. You can count them on one hand: Cascina Francia, Falletto, Brea, Lazzarito, and what is considered by most to be the Grand Cru of Serralunga–Vigna Rionda.

Vigna Rionda – Ranging from 300 – 350 meters above sea level, facing primarily south and then west as it turns toward Monforte.

In fact, Vigna Rionda has a way of creating a fanaticism among lovers of Barolo, as they search for the best expressions from each of its many terroirs, the bottles that have made it famous, and the wines and producers that have either been obscured by the passage of time, or have only just emerged. As these wine lovers recount the history of Vigna Rionda, they often do it with an excitement and bravado that you’d expect from a great tale or one of the most closely guarded secrets of the world. This is the fanaticism that I speak of, and you know what, I’ve been guilty of it myself.

One such story involves what is easily one of the greatest wines ever made in all of Italy; some would even argue that it was “THE” greatest wine ever made in all of Italy: the 1989 Bruno Giacosa Barolo Collina Rionda, from the Vigna Rionda vineyard.

For those of you that may have just found their way here without knowledge of Bruno Giacosa, he was without a doubt one of Piedmont’s top winemakers for nearly fifty years. He was a visionary, with a style that no one has been able to copy, and with an ability to find the best expositions and fruit from within any vineyard. This was one of his greatest assets, as throughout his life, he often purchased the fruit, while working to add his own famous vineyard holdings to the portfolio, such as Falletto. Yet it was his ability to find and purchase the best fruit that helped him to create the renowned Collina Rionda, which was only ever made in fourteen vintages, starting in 1967 and ending in 1993. However, it was the 1989 vintage of Collina Rionda that forever sealed it in vinous history. After 1993, Bruno Giacosa lost access to the fruit from this noble site, and so the story seemed to end. As time passed and the vintages of Collina Rionda matured, it became obvious that Bruno had indeed found the best location (the tenderloin as it has been referred by producers) within the vineyard to produce his wine.

Franco Massolino talks Vigna Rionda

However, my interest in Vigna Rionda was actually spurred by a different producer: Massolino. Currently run by Franco and Roberto Massolino, this family winery is the largest land-owner within the vineyard, and it makes what has become the benchmark wine from its slopes, the Vigna Rionda Riserva. It was this wine that introduced me to what was possible here, as I searched for vintages after tasting the great bottles of ‘89, ‘90 and ‘96. To this day, it’s one of the greatest wines that you can find from the vineyard, yet it takes decades in the cellar to mature. This search one day led me to an opportunity to spend some time talking with Franco about his winery and the Vigna Rionda Riserva. During this conversation, it occurred to me that I didn’t know who Bruno Giacosa was buying fruit from when he created Collina Rionda.

The Quest

The fact is that there are quite a few producers that make a wine from Vigna Rionda (Massolino, Luigi Pira, Oddero, Anselma, and Terre del Barolo, to name a few), but it’s important to understand that the vineyard crests around a hillside, where the vines face west toward Monforte, while the rest of the vineyard faces south-southwest, meaning that not all Vigna Rionda is created equal. And so with the question in mind, and sitting with the largest land owner within the vineyard, I chose to ask Franco if he knew where Bruno Giacosa was sourcing his fruit from–and he explained that he didn’t. This conversation started me on something of a quest to figure out who was using this fruit and what wine they were making with it.

This question became the most common thing I would ask any Serralunga producer I ran into, and for years, no one could (or would) tell me the answer–until 2015.

While sitting with Luca Currado, of Vietti, at Centro Storico in Serralunga, he reached over to a bottle on the shelf and said, “This wine, watch for this wine, because this comes from the same vines that Bruno used for Collina Rionda.” You can only imagine my surprise, after so many years of asking, to have someone simply tell me. This started my interest in the Giovanni Rosso winery and my search for the Tomasso / Ester Canale Barolo Vigna Rionda.

Finding “Collina” Vigna Rionda

The reality was that the answer had been right in front of me for quite a while. What’s more, I even had wines in my cellar made from the same vines. The answer was Tommaso Canale, who had been tending to the family’s 2.2 hectare parcel within Vigna Rionda, a parcel planted in 1946, hosting some of the oldest Nebbiolo vines in the region. Rumor has it that not only did Tommaso’s Father, Aldo, supply Bruno Giacosa with fruit, but that in some cases he even provided him with finished wines (a rumor I would love to be able to substantiate, but haven’t yet.). Where the fruit went after that is still a mystery to me, although it’s been said that Tommaso preferred selling only to private clients, yet sourcing from Tommaso later happened again between 2003 and 2006, when Luca Roagna began to buy from Tommaso and produce his own Roagna Barolo Vigna Rionda, a wine that I have tasted, loved, and even own some bottles of. In 2007, Luca lost access to these vines, and Tommaso himself produced (yet didn’t release) a 2007, 2008 and 2009.

Unfortunately, Tommaso passed away in December of 2010 without a will, and his plot was split between six surviving relatives, of them, winemakers Ettore Germano, Guido Porro and Ester Canale of Giovanni Rosso. There was only one problem–much of the vineyard required replanting, and both Ettore Germano and Guido Porro replanted their entire sections of the vineyard.

However, Davide Rosso, Ester Canale’s son, had a wonderful idea. He decided to replant all but a small section of the original vines at the top of the Rionda hill, in his mind, the best of the old vines, which he would use for massal selection of the new plantings, and also to make a Barolo Vigna Rionda. It’s a wine that only sees between 1800-2000 total bottles made each year, and since Ettore Germano and Guido Porro have replanted, it makes the Giovanni Rosso “Ester Canale” Barolo the only wine being made from a portion of the same vines as the famous Barolo of Bruno Giacosa.

What is a lover of Barolo and Vigna Rionda to do?

Davide Rosso of Giovanni Rosso

With all of the pieces in place, I decided that I had to taste these two wines together. It was with that in mind that I first worked to find the wine being made by Davide Rosso, which was much harder than you might think. In fact, after having been denied the ability to buy the wine in the last two vintages, it was only this year, with the release of the 2014, that I had finally gotten my hands on one.

Then, as fate would have it, a friend contacted me about a tasting he was organizing that would include Icon wines from Barolo and Barbaresco, and he hinted that there might be an ’89 Bruno Giacosa Barolo Collina Rionda at the tasting. Somehow the stars had aligned.

You can imagine the anxiety I felt leading up to this event. What if one of the wines were corked? What if the Bruno Giacosa wasn’t a perfect bottle? What if I got sick the day of the tasting? Luckily, none of that happened, and both myself and the group were able to taste two pieces of history, a mystery solved, and share one of the few times that these two limited and amazing wines would be able sit next to each other at a table.

Yes, the 2014 was young and from a difficult vintage, yet it’s also a vintage that many have called a throwback to the Barolo styles of old.  It was an experience I hope to never forget.  As for the ’89, it lived up to its reputation in every possible way, thrilling us with it’s mysterious depths and layered perfumes.  I wish I could have sat with this wine in my glass all night.

The Tasting Notes

1989 Bruno Giacosa Barolo Riserva Collina Rionda – The bouquet was remarkably deep and layered with masses of pure black cherry and ripe strawberry fruit, giving way to a mix of sweet mineral-infused Indian spice, hints of balsamic, and smoky crushed stone. On the palate, I found the most silky, fine textures imaginable, like a veil being pulled across the senses, ushering in vibrant, fleshy cherry fruit, offset by savory minerals and spice, with inner rose and cedar notes, as hints of fine tannin slowly mounted. The finish was long and showed the first signs of the ‘89’s twenty-nine years, as savory minerals, moist earth, and dried floral tones resonated amidst saturating dried cherries and spice. I am in awe of how the ‘89 Collina Rionda has lived up to all of the hype. (99 points)

2014 Giovanni Rosso Barolo Ester Canale Rosso Vigna Rionda – The ‘14 Vigna Rionda was so densely packed and poised, a quality that I don’t often associate with the vintage. The bouquet was beautiful, both savory and spicy, showing zesty tart cherries and cranberry with hints of spiced dried orange, crushed stone minerality, sweet rosy florals and savory botanicals. On the palate, I found soft textures, which were firmed up quickly by a mix of saline-minerality and brisk acidity, as notes of citrus-kissed strawberry, cedar, and earth tones emerged along with grippy mineral-laden tannin. The finish was long and structured with fine tannins saturating the senses, while dried red berries, savory herbs and hints of cedar lingered. This was one of the most structured and backward 2014s I’ve tasted, in need of a long slumber in the cellar, yet gorgeous. (95 points)

** As a bonus, from the newly planted vines of Vigna Rionda, Davide Rosso creates the Ester Canale Nebbiolo, and if this is any clue to how good these wines will be when these vines are old enough to produce Barolo, then we are in store for something very special.

2015 Giovanni Rosso Ester Canale Rosso Nebbiolo Rionda – The nose was dark, rich and layered with masses of dried florals and earth tones, bright cherry, and hints of animal musk. As it spent time in the glass, its bright cherry evolved into ripe strawberry, also adding hints of leather and crushed stone. Like silk on the palate, it washed effortlessly across the senses, brightened by zesty acidity, as notes of dried cherry and inner rose resonated, showing amazing purity and with slow mounting tannin. The finish was long, opening with dried cherries, then cleansed by zesty acidity, leaving hints of strawberries and rosy florals in its wake. The ‘15 Nebbiolo Vigna Rionda Ester Canale is gorgeous. (94 points)

Credits and Resources

Article, Photos and Tasting Notes by: Eric Guido

Special Thanks to Paul Tocci for organizing the event that made this article possible.

Map images taken from “Barolo MGA, the Barolo Great Vineyards Encyclopedia”, Alessandro Masnaghetti Editore – Enogea – www.enogea.it. All rights reserved”

View the Giovanni Rosso Ester Canale Selection at:  Morrell Wine

Visit the official Giovanni Rosso Website

Visit the official Massolino Website

Visit the official Bruno Giacosa Website

A very special Thank You to the team at Maialino and especially Jenni Guizio for the expert wine service.