We arrived in Alba late in the afternoon of Sunday, November 1st, and checked into the Savona Hotel, recommended by Tom Hyland (http://learnitalianwines.wordpress.com
). We decided to stay in Alba because it is strategically located between Barolo and Barbaresco, and has enough good restaurants that we could have as much wine as we wanted without thought of driving. The Savona’s décor is a bit fusty, in garish red, pink and orange tones, implacably covering both walls and floors, but the room was comfortable and spacious, and the rates decent. The best thing about the Savona is the location, superbly central. The breakfast buffet is good, and there is a garage for €10 extra where you can keep your rental car safely. I had complaints about the intermittent Wi-Fi (the pleasant staff is incapable of fixing it when down); the racket of cleaning ladies gossiping vigorously in the morning (they woke Marcia twice before 8AM); and the thoughtlessly designed shower stall, so tight that, chasing the dribbles, one repeatedly strikes the protuberant handle, changing the temperature. Why do epicurean countries like France and Italy, with unparalleled esthetic design, stumble with functional design when modernizing their bathrooms? Must be something about the recentness of showers v. bathtubs. Despite these quibbles, I think it’s a good idea to stay at the Savona, especially for a first trip.
After depositing our bags we went for a pleasant stroll down the main pedestrian thoroughfare, the busy Via Vittorio Emanuele, and circled the Duomo, passing shops and stalls selling wine and, most conspicuously, truffles, packaged in multiple ways and, in their pure form, resembling malformed monkey brains of various sizes, displayed like gold nuggets and sold by the ounce1. For dinner, we went to the Enoclub, where we splurged on the excellent (but not extraordinary) tasting menu, including some dishes with truffle shavings. The wine list is eclectic and deep, but a bit short on seasoned (pre-1999) vintages, and on the expensive side. The underground dining rooms are Spartan and elegant, but I found the lack of any horizon a bit cavernous. Service was excellent. We had a white Arneis by the glass2 and downed most of a Barolo recommended by Otto Nieminen3, sharing a glass with an oenologically clueless but amorous couple of American dons at the neighboring table. Monday, November 2
Our car didn’t have a GPS, so Marcia located our destination on her iPod Touch and came up with directions, a useful procedure that we would follow several times in the coming days. We drove through light rain and considerable mist to the main Ceretto winery in Monsordo Bernardina, an impressive property formerly belonging to Vittorio Emmanuele II. According to our amiable guide, Simonetta, who gave the tour in English, it was built to be a lodge for the king’s illegitimate children. We had signed up for a tasting called “The Cru,” given twice weekly, and were part of a group of twelve, including seven Swedes and three Italians. After a quick tour, we sat down at a long table with glorious views rendered inoperative by the mist, and tasted a few wines4. Before that, I pulled Simonetta aside and said I had a few questions about things like yeasts, vinification, vine yields and sulfites. She pleaded ignorance, so I requested an enologist, which she was kind enough to conjure. In stumbling Italian, I put my questionnaire to winemaker Mauro Daniele with respect to Ceretto’s top wine, the Bricco Rocche, and he was friendly and helpful, if a little bemused.
What I appreciated most about the Ceretto tasting was the way they paired a cru Barolo from La Morra with a cru Barolo from Serralunga. One of the things we learned while prepping for the trip was that the Barolos from Barolo and La Morra come from younger, more fertile Tortonian soil composed of calcareous marl while Barolos from Serralunga, Monforte and most of Castiglione Falletto come from older, less fertile Helvetian soil that is predominantly sandstone. As a result, Barolos from the former tend to be softer and are approachable earlier, while Barolos from the latter tend to be tougher and need more time. Ceretto turned out to be the only winery where we had to pay for tasting5. The architecture is clearly meant to impress, and it does, but in a rather soulless way. This was the only winery out of eleven where we saw no sign of the owners or their families. But the Ceretto industrial competence cannot be denied, and I have had splendid bottles of 1998 Bricco Rocche, so their wines become drinkable earlier that their more traditional cousins and the oak can eventually integrate.
After the tasting, we backed out of the rest of the tour, which involved visiting other facilities, and went back to the hotel where we ate delicious mortadella and cheese sandwiches, assembled from components purchased at a deli on Via Vittorio Emanuele 9 with the comprehensive sounding name of Ognibene. For a deli, it has an amazing variety of goods, with a basement full of wine, including Gajas and other expensive stuff, and is run by an assortment of apron-clad Italian Mamas that shout each other’s names depending on the specialty required by the customer.
After that, without much of a break, off we went to meet Mauro Mascarello at Giuseppe Mascarello & Sons in Castiglione Faletto, owners of the entire Monprivato vineyard, one of the most renowned in Barolo, and makers of several other excellent wines. After some difficulty in finding the unassuming winery, we were received by Maria Teresa Mascarello Mauro’s mother and the winery’s multitasker (sales, accounting and public relations), and no relation to Bartolo Mascarello’s homonymous daughter. Maria Teresa took us into a small office where a series of bottles were arraigned, each with a vacu-vin stopper and the date of opening written on the label. We tasted eleven wines6, in order of ascending stuffing, and they were all damn good, except for one that had little bugs running around because, Maria Teresa said with annoyance, “the guys” had left it open (malolactics had already begun and they attract these bugs). When I mentioned to Maria Teresa that I had opened a 1999 Monprivato a few months ago with a soaked cork that tasted oxidative, she grimaced and said that they spend a lot of money to get the best corks possible (fine corks cost more than twice the cost of a bottle), but their manufacturers say they cannot guarantee them 100%, and the failure rate can be as high as 5%.
Several bottles had been open for over a week and still tasted great, a tribute to these wines’ age-worthiness, but also to the stability that comes from never leaving the winery. But it did make it harder to asses how they might taste fresh out the bottle.
After the tasting, Maria Teresa brought the wolverine side burned Mauro in to answer my questions, and we had a nice exchange, despite my Italian. I began to relax about the questionnaire, beginning to suspect what the rest of the trip would confirm, that it would be taken as a sign of interest rather than an intrusion or home winemaker espionage.
Maria Teresa declared proudly that the winery only cultivates indigenous varietals and only uses its own grapes, neither buying nor selling. She taught us that Nebbiolo can only be grown on southern or south-western exposures, otherwise it can’t get enough sunlight to ripen. As a result, almost all Dolcetto and Barbera use slopes facing elsewhere. Mauro added that oak vanilla is not an indigenous flavor in Piedmont and doesn’t belong in its wines. Flavor-free older oak breathes less, so it just takes longer to micro-oxygenate the wine. When Mauro said that one of the interesting things about Nebbiolo is that it doesn’t do well anywhere else, I had the temerity to say that last year I tasted a Nebbiolo made by a Brazilian garagiste that was delicious. Good man, he just smiled politely. Asked about the heralded 2009 vintage, Mauro expects it to have the complexity of 2004 and the heady perfume of 2005. This winery is clearly not well set up for visitors, but we greatly enjoyed the wines and conversation. For such a traditional winery, I was surprised by the regular use of purchased yeasts.
That night we had dinner at Osteria dell’Arco near our hotel in Alba. I had read somewhere that it was a “known winemaker hangout.” Not sure if the syntax means that known winemakers hang out there or it’s known to be a hangout for winemakers, but I figured at least it would not be molecular. We splurged on truffle tasting menu, which was good, not great. Truffle shavings emit wonderfully seductive aromas which promise but don’t deliver in the mouth, where they taste like irregular communion wafers made of parchment. Tubor heaven is olfactory, not gustatory. Between the few old and many new wines on the list, I was torn between a 99 Mocagatta Barbaresco Basarin and a 98 Roagna Barolo La Rocca e La Pira, but afraid they might be closed or just too young. I asked the manager/sommelier which would be better. She replied that they were different. Duh! I tried another approach, and asked if the 98 Roagna might not be chiuso
. I guess chiuso
is not the word they use for what we call closed in a wine because she thought I was asking if the bottle had not been opened. Undeterred by such serial miscomprehension, I persevered until she got it. To my surprise, she said she had an open bottle of the Roagna and came back with a pour. It was chiuso
as a doornail, so I opted for the Basarin7, which was more aperto
, but not enough to make it a joy to drink.Tuesday, November 3
Tuesday was the most beautiful day of our stay, sunny and warm, with crystal clear horizons. We drove to our eagerly anticipated appointment with Maria Teresa Mascarello at Cantina Bartolo Mascarello in Barolo. The pretty facades of Maria Teresa’s house and the Mascarello winery lie on a small street that angles the road that runs around the city’s perimeter, right next to the municipal parking lot by the main entrance. Maria Teresa seemed very busy, but graciously showed us around the facilities. Commenting on the gorgeous weather, she said that on days like this she realized what a blessing it was to live in this place, where, on a clear day, you can see the snow on the mountain tops. Talking about the size of the facilities, she mentioned that they were small, but ideal for her to manage. Like her father, who didn’t travel and used to say that if people were interested, they would come to him, she doesn’t go to fairs and exhibitions. Until recently, she didn’t even have a phone, and has no computer. The atmosphere is domestic, tidy and warm, with lots of wood and earth tones. Everything seemed very clean, and Maria Teresa said they emphasize hygiene so that time can do its work undisturbed. Whenever new barrels are purchased, water and sea salt are used to extract the tannins. Malolactic fermentation happens whenever it feels like it and lasts as long as it wants. If it’s cold and malos don’t start before the end of the year, SO2 is used to protect the wine until temperatures warm up again in the spring. Grapes are picked according to several parameters, such as a Babo of around 20-21 (Brix 23.5-24.5) and the maturity of the seeds. They definitely want to avoid surmaturité. Agriculture is basically organic, without pesticides and herbicides, but common sense has to prevail and they are not certified. Mascarello resists the trend towards since vineyard “cru” Barolos, preferring the traditional practice of blending several crus for complexity. Their Barolo comes from Cannubi, San Lorenzo, Rue, and Rocche, all in Barolo or La Morra, therefore younger, more fertile soil, yielding a softer, earlier maturing wine.
After the tour we sat and chatted for a while and tasted three wines8. As her father grew older and could no longer move around so easily, he turned to painting, and many of the bottles feature his work on their labels. Maria Teresa gave us a cute little booklet showing these. Besides the famously irreverent No Barrique No Berlusconi label from the late 1990s, there are other, more lyrical ones that show a love of Matisse’s cut outs and in a naïf but tasteful style. Asked about 2004, Maria Teresa said it was a classic vintage, and one should wait at least 10 years, ideally 12 or 15, to drink the Barolo. Commenting on the difficulty of finding sufficiently aged Barolos in restaurants, she said that her father used to say that restaurants sold, and people drank, young Barolos as if they were beer. Asked about 2009, she soberly said that weather conditions were very favorable but she didn’t want to jump on the forecasting bandwagon because it was simply too soon.
We said our goodbyes and, before lunch, walked around the very small town but were unable to visit the Castello di Barolo, under renovation. We visited the Enoteca Regionale del Barolo in the ground floor of the castle, basically a waste of time, with practically none of the better labels9. Prices in town are generally tourist-driven, and the only deals I found were at La Cantinetta di Schiappetto (Via Roma No. 33). At Osteria Barolando we had a simple lunch of local fare like vitello tonnato
and braised veal in Barolo sauce, accompanied by a glass of the house Barbera10.
With a bit of time to kill, we drove around the beautiful countryside surrounding Monforte, marveling at how variegated vines become in the fall, like trees, taking on every conceivable shade of yellow and brown. When we got to the impressive Poderi Aldo Conterno property, smack in the middle of the renowned Bussia vineyard, we were received by the almost painfully shy Stefano Conterno, one of Aldo’s three sons, who said that his brother Giacomo would be there any moment to take care of us.
Giacomo arrived soon and, over the course of the next (almost) three hours, conducted one of the finest tastings of the trip (in excellent English, learned by taking classes in Alba). In contrast with the Giuseppe Mascarello tasting, Giacomo made a point of opening every bottle that we tasted (except one), and for each change of grape he performed the elegant ritual of baptizing our glasses with the new wine and swirling it before dumping and serving again. We talked a lot and slowly tasted six wines11, including the winery’s three top crus, Colonello, Cicala and Romirasco, all facing southwest in Bussia Soprana (but they no longer distinguish between Bussia Soprana and Sottana on their labels). Towards the end, Giacomo took us on a tour of the impressive property, stressing twice the oak was Slavonian, not Slovenian (boys and girls, take note). We talked about the affinities between Burgundy and Piedmont (basically farmer-driven, working fickle grapes, wines of lighter color) v. Bordeaux and Tuscany (basically estate-driven, working hardier grapes, wines of darker color), and Giacomo, blissfully unaware of the pain he might be inflicting, mentioned that he had just received that morning his annual allocation of Romanée Conti. One of the themes to which Giacomo kept returning was how everything about their operations was structured to allow them to do things without hurry. Wines are only released when they are ready (e.g., when they consider new wood to be well integrated), and the winery was able to afford the luxury of not releasing any 2002s (the poorest vintage in recent memory), selling it off as vino di tavola. In 2005, it rained copiously during the first eight days of October, by which time they had only picked half their Nebbiolo grapes. They found the second half, picked after the rain, to be clearly inferior, so they sold it off, producing Barolos only from the first batch (Giacomo said that rain destroys skin polyphenols responsible for tertiary flavors). Because they only want the ripest bunches picked at each pass, they avoid outside pickers and only use their own. Giacomo said they like money as much as anybody else, but want to make it in this particular way.
After resting briefly at the hotel, we went to dinner at Piazza Duomo (Michelin 1 Star), in a second floor dining room beautifully painted by Francesco Clemente. We again decided to splurge on the truffle menu, except this time something unexpected happened. A few minutes after we ordered it, and after several exquisite amuse bouches, our waiter arrived with a white truffle in a jar. I expected it to be what they would exfoliate over our food, but he placed it on a little electronic scale, and asked me to verify that the weight was 65 grams. He then said that he expected to use about 50 grams, and the cost was €6 per gram. I asked “wait a minute, is this in addition to the €90?” He said yes. Well, I said, we have to confer about this, and may have to choose a different tasting menu. He then asked “what do I tell the kitchen because they have already started?” I said “tell them to hang on, we may still choose this menu.” Which we did, since it was still the most attractive, even senza the wallet-busting tubor. And it turned out to be the most delicious food we had during the trip, everything superb, with several things doing that little magic trick of exceeding the sum of the parts. But Marcia was unnerved by the truffle weighing incident and just found the place overly affected (they have a menu just for waters), and the staff too solicitous and mannered. She agrees with me that it was the best food we had, but didn’t care for the overall experience. Even though the restaurant belongs to Ceretto, I found the wine list to be the most comprehensive of the trip, with the biggest selection of older vintages. But they also had the biggest selection of wines by the glass, so that’s what we chose, for the sake of variety12. Dessert was followed by so many petit fours that we nearly had to be carried out. Of course, we didn’t have to eat them, but then again, we did.Wednesday, November 4
Wednesday saw a return to hazy weather that would remain in effect for the remainder. Our morning appointment was at Massolino, in Serralunga d’Alba. Franco Massolino’s able and personable assistant, Danila, gave us a tour of the winery (in English) and answered some of my questions (others were answered by Franco Massolino via email).
During the tour, we saw some old fashioned demijohns, and Danila said with a smile that they still have seven or eight old and old-fashioned customers who like to buy wine that way and pour it into bottles at home. Massolino is not certified organic, but they try to follow organic guidelines as much as possible. They only use their own grapes and cultivate 21 hectares. All Barolos are aged in bottis, except for the Parafada, with which they experimented for a while with barriques (1/3 new, 1/3 second use, 1/3 third use). Since the 2004 vintage, Parafada is aged mainly in 500-700 liter barrels and partially in 225 liter barriques for around 24 months. Before taking us to the tasting room, Danila asked us to wait a minute while she checked if it was free. She came back and took us there, but when we entered, Franco’s brother Roberto and sister Paola, who also work at the winery, were at the table and seemed flustered by our arrival and hurried off without a word of greeting. Danila was apologetic about not being able to offer us a taste of any of the three crus (Vigna Rionda, Parafada and Margheria) saying that stocks were low and the company has established a new policy to preserve inventory. I found this a little odd because there was an Enomatic machine in the room with the three crus staring right at our faces. Given the option, we would have been glad to pay to taste, but I decided not to press the issue to avoid putting Danila in an awkward situation. So, we sat down to taste five impressive wines13. For each change of grape, Danila performed the same elegant ritual of flushing and baptizing the glasses that Giacomo Conterno had performed the previous afternoon.
Massolino turned out to be the only winery where we were unable to taste the crus. Without that, it becomes difficult to make a more complete assessment. Perhaps things would have been different if Franco Massolino had been present, but I was left with the impression that the company is experiencing growing pains, and the owners are not handling that with grace.
Feeling a bit frustrated, we headed to Barbaresco for lunch, since our afternoon appointment was in nearby Castagnole Lanze. We went to what looked like the only restaurant in town, the Trattoria Antica Torre, across the street from Produttori, where the food was competent, and we shared a glass of 2008 Negro Langhe Dolcetto 13.0% (fresh and simple but juicy, balanced, and very enjoyable).
Passing, with unrequited longing, by Bruno Giacosa’s winery in Neive, we headed towards our afternoon appointment at La Spinetta, where we were received (in English) by the charming Manuela Rivetti, Giorgio Rivetti’s niece. The facilities are modern and beautiful, sleek but not slick, minimalist but not cold, thanks to tasteful use of wood (I’m talking about the walls, not the wines). Manuela gave us a tour of the sparkling clean and highly technological facilities, including a wing with several rotofermenters, those notorious symbols of modernity. The rotofermenters are used only for reds, and autoclaves are used for Moscatos. Cellars are kept warm and humid to ensure that malolactic fermentations take place in the Fall, always in wood barrels. The Rivetti family consider themselves farmers first and winemakers second, and work “traditionally,” with no artificial fertilizers or pesticides, considering themselves “75% biodynamic.” Grapes are picked by hand, with only horse manure as a fertilizer. Copper and sulfur are used if needed. Manuela gave us the history of the winery, an undeniable commercial success, and I was interested to hear about how, in the mid-1990s, they were able to obtain permission from the DOCG authorities to vinify their Barbarescos in Castagnole Lanze, which lies just outside the Barbaresco zone. According to Manuela, that permission would be impossible to obtain today (at Roagna, a few days later, I realized that Luca Roagna’s grandfather had grandfathered an even more usual arrangement, obtaining permission in the 1940s to vinify their Barolo fruit in Barbaresco). Manuela opened for us a generous range of bottles14. I was struck by how the toughest wines, the Barolo and the Barbarescos, both had a sweet finish that tempered the tannins and the acidity, making me wonder if they pick their Nebbiolo later than other producers, taking advantage of the grape’s naturally high acidity to get away with a touch of surmaturité. Though new oak is prevalent, starting in 2006, the chardonnay no longer sees French barriques, and has been switched to Slavonian botti, a surprising change towards more traditional methods.
Manuela made the comment that, other things equal, Barberas are better from Asti than Alba since in the latter most of the best (south and southwest) exposures are used for Nebbiolo (apparently the same logic does not apply to Dolcetto; she didn’t know why).
I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this visit, given my ideological preference for the traditionalists. Some of the credit for this must go to Manuela; her pride seemed entirely guileless and her touch humanized what could have otherwise appeared technological and cold. Marcia and I bonded with her and have very positive memories of the visit. As for the rotofermenters, it has been written that “Unlike the cement mixer image many of us have when considering rotofermenters, they are actually carefully controlled as per the number of rotations, speed and timing. They can be managed as delicately as other cap management techniques.15” Perhaps.
That evening we had dinner at Trattoria La Libera in Alba, a charming place with so-so service and, I thought, overrated cuisine (Marcia liked it better). The white truffle shaving ritual finally convinced me that fresh truffles are more about aroma than flavor. Derivatives like truffle oil and truffle butter deliver more actual truffle taste, though the aromas cannot compare to the enticing purity of the real thing. Here, as elsewhere, we followed the pattern of ordering more expensive wine when the restaurant was less expensive, and vice versa, a practice that ended up leveling the restaurant tabs. We splurged and ordered a bottle of Aldo Conterno Gran Bussia16, the only wine we hadn’t drank at the winery. This was such a huge disappointment that it nearly spoiled dinner for me, but Marcia kept my spirits up and reminded me that we were paying tribute to Giacomo Conterno’s hospitality. We took the bottle home, wrote a message on it for Giacomo, and dropped it off at the winery the following afternoon.Thursday, November 5
I had some misgivings about our morning appointment at Luciano Sandrone because he is one of the founding fathers of more accessible Barolo. But, again, as with La Spinetta, I came away with the conclusion that things aren’t so black and white. Barbara Sandrone’s assistant Sara met us and gave us a tour of the winery in English. Along came a nice but entirely clueless couple from Arizona who had been sent by (oddly enough) the Barbaresco tourist office. Then again, perhaps not so surprising, since Sandrone exports 80% of their production and the US is their biggest market. Ten people work at the new winery, inaugurated in 1999, right next to the famed Cannubi vineyard. For the sake of gravity, the winery has three levels: crushing and destemming takes place on the second floor, vinification on the first (ground) floor, and cellaring in the basement. Luciano is in charge of cellar, his brother Luca handles the vineyards, and Luciano’s daughter Barbara handles clients. The winery farms 25 hectares and produces 90,000 bottles annually. The Dolcetto comes from 11 different parcels and the Barbera from 6. Each parcel is vinified separately. Blending of approved lots takes place in the Spring. Fruit all hand picked, manually sorted and destemmed by machine. Fruit is lightly broken to initiate fermentation, not crushed. All malolactics take place in wood, except for Dolcetto (steel). Rooms are heated so that malos happen in December. An interesting detail: their French oak casks are never toasted (should have put this in my questionnaire). All wines bottled in vacuum.
When we returned, we were met by Barbara, who manages the trick of saying what she must have said a million times before with warmth and freshness. Professionalism at its best. Their marketing materials are informative, with details other wineries assume you don’t want to know, like chemical characteristics and a description of the growing season. Sandrone is impressive, among other things, for the clarity of its product line: five wines only, all red, one for each of the three main varietals, plus a single vineyard cru Barolo (in the name of modernity) and a four vineyard cru Barolo (in the name of tradition). The four crus in the blended Barolo are two from younger Tortonian soil in Barolo proper and two from older Helvetian soil in Monforte, in contrast to Bartolo Mascarello’s four blended crus, all of which are from Tortonian soil. We tasted the five wines from half bottles made for this purpose, and I was generally much more impressed than I expected to be17.
When I asked Barbara is she would answer some questions, she said she would fetch someone to answer them and came back with, wow, her father. I was, of course, thrilled. We switched to Italian and had an animated conversation, apologizing to the couple from Arizona, who let their eyes glaze over instead of trying to decipher the body language. Luciano was very receptive, and his eyes sparkled with enthusiasm as he talked about things like tighter vine spacing in Valmaggiore because of the steeper incline and the shadows cast by the leaves. He really seemed to enjoy being drawn out. At one point he said “malolactic yeasts” and, before I could check myself, I corrected him - a man who knows more about winemaking that I will ever know - and he carried on without skipping a beat or showing annoyance. I found both he and Barbara winsome in their complete lack of affectation.
At lunch time we visited the Castello Grinzane Cavour, where there is a museum dedicated to old winemaking implements and the history of Cavour, who was instrumental in the transformation of Barolo into a dry wine and, less importantly, in the unification of Italy. The Castello has the only good Enoteca Regionale that we visited, and we had lunch at a small trattoria by the castle, whose name is lost in the sands of time because I paid cash. With our €10 pix fixe, along came a carafe of red wine, sourced from a humble bag-in-box, but surprisingly quaffable18.
Passing by the forbidding black door of the Gaja winery, where a notice says No visitors (if you are in the business, call for an appointment) next to a radioactive sign (just kidding), we rang the bell for our afternoon visit to Produttori di Barbaresco, known as a guardian of the traditional style of Barbaresco. We were shown around (in English) by Luca Cravanzola, scion of one of the cooperative’s member families. At the end, Luca gave us a book commemorating the Produttori’s 50th harvest, showing pictures of his father and grandfather, the coop’s first president. Produttori was started by a priest who organized 19 families in 1958, when bulk wine prices were falling. Currently there are 54 member families and a long waiting list of farmers wanting to join. Families sell 100% of their production to the coop and payment is based on a formula that takes into account the sugar, color and acidity levels of a crushed sample. They make a Langhe Nebbiolo, a regular Barbaresco and, starting in 1967, nine single vineyard Barbaresco Riservas. All vineyards face south or southwest. Malos take place in steel (Barbarescos) or cement (Langhe Nebbiolo), with temperature control. After the malos, cellar doors are opened for a month to let in the cold air (for tartaric stability). After the tour, we sat down to taste the Produttori’s three types of Nebbiolo19 while Luca patiently answered my questions.
Before our second afternoon appointment, we drove from Castagnito, where there is a good wine and truffle store called Mille Vigne, and then to Serralunga, where the unassuming headquarters of G. Cappellano sits facing the huge Fontanafredda property. Call it a fetish, but I am interested in wines made from ungrafted vines, and Cappellano makes the only ungrafted Barolo that I am aware of. But I didn’t know what to expect from Augusto Cappellano, whose larger-than-life father Teobaldo recently passed away. I thought perhaps he’d still be grieving, or might be one of those meek children whose parents have such strong personalities that they can never come out from under. All unjustified, as we proceeded to have the most delightful visit. Augusto is tall and slim, a beanpole with dark curly hair. He has a gentle air, animated by an impish sense of humor that seems almost childish in its unguardedness. Not five minutes had passed before he started imitating the many gurgling sounds that wine makes while fermenting. We laughed continuously, my spaghetti Italian contributing inadvertently to the surrealism of the exchanges. Augusto immediately nixed any idea of slavish continuity by saying that he was experimenting with submerged cap. He asked if we wanted to taste the difference between his floating and submerged cap 2009’s. Duh, many times duh! First he gave us a barrel sample of the 2009 G. Cappellano Barolo Rupestris from a floating cap barrel and it was hard to believe that this had only fermented a couple of weeks before; it was delicious, complex and aromatic, far more accessible than the barrel samples we tasted in Burgundy. Then he gave us a barrel sample of the 2009 G. Cappellano Barolo Rupestris from a submerged cap barrel and it was, as expected, darker and more extracted, but also surprisingly fruitier. Augusto beamed with pride, and smiled saying that submerged cap also makes more noise, and started to imitate the gurgling sounds again. Both wines were amazing, and I was blown away at starting our visit like this, without tours, without preliminaries, without ascending scales of seriousness. While tasting a sequence of absolutely amazing wines20, we kept chatting and making silly jokes. Augusto confirmed that bunches from ungrafted vines are roughly half the size of bunches from grafted vines, with higher skin/seed to liquid ratios, so they developed a technique for deseeding them during fermentation, otherwise the resulting wine would be excessively tannic. He was not aware of Luis Pato’s experiments in Bairrada and became interested in looking up the photo in Pato’s website showing how an ungrafted Baga bunch is also half the size of a grafted one. At Cappellano, malolactics take place whenever they want, with sulfur used to protect the wine if malos decide to wait until spring. I was remarking on how fresh and vibrant the wines tasted out of the botti, and Augusto said that it was the environment in which they seemed happiest, frolicking freely, before being forced into a bottle. Visions of wine gaily prancing in the meadow before the shock of an arranged marriage. I suggested that bag-in-box might be a solution to bottle shock, and Augusto said “good idea, maybe we can develop a bag-in-box that will fit in a bottle!”
After tasting several Barolos, Augusto suddenly slapped his forehead and said “Oh my God, I have only been giving you Barolos; we never even started off with Barbera or Dolcetto!” But it was so refreshing, for once, to skip the preliminaries and go straight to the heart of things. After more banter and playing around with the winery’s public relations, Augusto’s spotlessly white cat Marta, who has one eye blue and the other green, we said goodbye. This was a memorable visit on every front, and we got the impression that Teobaldo’s legacy is in excellent hands. Cappellano should continue to provide fabulous wines that, as now, will remain invisible to those who buy based on points.
After a short rest at the hotel we drove to our only dinner outside Alba, at all’Enoteca, Davide Palluda’s Michelin starred restaurant in Canale. I have to thank Birger Vejrum for insisting that we go there after I had given up on them because they wouldn’t answer my emails. When we arrived, Davide happened to be passing by, and greeted us with raffish charm, becoming even warmer when I mentioned the Birger connection. Later, in the dining room, his sister Ivana also took good care of us. Food was excellent, just shy of Piazza Duomo in quality and inventiveness for me, but the luxury dining experience as a whole was the best of the trip. The wine list was very good but, like all of them, there seems to be a bit of a hole where others have cherry picked before, in the 1996 area. There was a 2000 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco that was my first choice, but the sommelier said it was too young because vinified traditionally. I also wanted to try a La Spinetta Starderi, which he said was readier to drink because it is made in a more modern style, because I have a weakness for the incorrectly drawn Dürer rhino and Manuela Rivetti had been so nice to us. There was a 1999 on the list, but the sommelier said that the 2000 would be more open at this point, so that’s what we drank21. Again, we took the bottle, wrote a thank you note for Manuela on the label, and dropped it off at La Spinetta the following afternoon.Friday, November 6
Our final day south of Turin, and I’m marveling at what a trooper Marcia is, withstanding this geek onslaught of a trip with enthusiasm and unwavering support. Our morning appointment was at Braida in Rochetta Tanari, west of Asti and a little further north than everyone else we visited. Giacomo Bologna almost single-handedly raised the status of the Barbera grape in the 1980s. I’ve liked their top wine, the Ai Suma, since the late 1990s. Our visit was ably hosted by Nadine Weihgold, who is German but speaks excellent English and Italian. Nadine gave us a tour of the different parts of the winery while giving us some background history. Giacomo Bologna, a bon vivant and tireless promoter of Barbera, died prematurely in 1981, when his son and daughter were still in college. The first few years after that were difficult, but the children rose to the challenge and prospered. Nadine told us the story of how Ai Suma was created by chance, when Bologna kept waiting to harvest a certain plot so that a certain group of visitors could pick it, but they kept postponing their arrival. By the time they showed up, the grapes had shriveled, but they harvested them anyway, and the resulting wine was a revelation.
All vinification takes place in temperature controlled tanks, the top wines in autofermenters, which don’t rotate but have built-in mechanisms for gently pumping over and punching down. Malolactics happen whenever they want but, like everyone else, they sulfite the must if it doesn’t happen by December. Our tour ended in the impressive, glass encased first floor aging room, where row after row of sparkling barriques lay like a Chinese emperor’s army, branded with the names of superstar coopers like the nearby Gamba and François Frères, and French oak forests like Allier, Limousin, and Tronçais. At the end, we sat down to taste a cross-section of the company’s 12 wines22.
Nadine was an excellent host, and seemed happy and relaxed to be talking to people equally passionate about wine (for a change, apparently). After the visit, we went looking for Cascina Cornale (http://www.cornale.it
), an organic agricultural cooperative intriguingly described by Alice Feiring in The Battle for Wine and Love. The owner, Elena, who “has been called the Alice Waters of Italy,” wasn’t around, but the upbeat Simonetta, who seamlessly accumulated behind-the-counter and waitressing duties, took brilliant care of us. Wearing what looked like a civil war cap and striding back and forth between kitchen and dining room, she just started bringing things out. First a terrific plate of charcuteries with assorted breads. Then some terrific marinated beets. Then this, then that, until we had to start repressive action, generating disappointment and maternal disapproval. She cajoled us into closing with two or three cheeses, and out came a plate with twelve, all terrific, with flavored jams and honeys. We each had a glass of the lovely house Dolcetto, bottled just a few weeks earlier (September, 2009) and made from organic grapes (2008 Torelli Dolcetto d’Asti Bricco Rocchetto DOC 13.5%).
Not only was this the most satisfying meal we had in Piedmont, but the bill – €15 each – made a bit of a mockery of our high fallutin’ evening incursions into the world of haute cuisine. We bought souvenirs for our families and as we were leaving, feeling deeply satisfied, Antonella came charging after us with some apples for the road. Lovely. Pointing the car towards Barbaresco, we drove to the last appointment of the trip, with the uncompromising Luca Roagna.
Roagna is situated in an unassuming and rundown pair of houses in the village of Barbaresco. Luca greeted us warmly in good English, and took us to the edge of the Pajé vineyard, immediately adjoining his property, to show us ground zero, the soil. Here he began to tell us about the Roagna philosophy, and thus began the most eye-opening and instructive of our visits. I will try to convey what he said with some semblance of order, not an easy task. Luca is finishing his doctorate in oenology, “basically useless, but it’s good to know what others are thinking.” The family farms 15 hectares, half in Barbaresco and half in Serralunga. Roagna have been bottling their Barolos in Barbaresco for a long time, with a permit dating from Luca’s grandfather, but they are about to start vinifying their Barolos in Serralunga. No herbicides or pesticides are used, only sulfate and copper. No fertilizers of any kind are used, to promote maximum vine stress (Luca says most animal manure is bad for the vines). They allow grass to grow between the rows, so decomposing grass is the only fertilizer. Vines under 20 years old are used to make Langhe Nebbiolo. Vines between 20 and 50 years old are used for regular Barolo and Barbaresco. Vines older than 50 years are used for the top wines. Rainwater is used to clean barrels because tap water contains chlorine, which can leave a bad taste. All Roagna yeasts are cultivated, but native to the vineyard from which the specific wine comes. A Pajé will only see Pajé yeast, and so on; according to Luca, this is one of the ways in which they differentiate themselves. Luca’s belief in the longevity of yeast impact is absolute; some think it only makes a difference in the short term, others think it affects the primaries, but not so much the secondaries. Luca thinks indigenous yeast makes wine better throughout its life, period. As far as oak, the moment it enters the picture, he says, wine is made by the winemaker, not the vineyard. He sees the trend towards riper wines as having less to do with global warming than with altered preferences. Acidity, in wine, is all about tartaric; old vines have almost no malic acid, so wine made from old vines sometimes doesn’t even undergo malolactic fermentation. It’s the tartaric that will carry it through. Vines over 50 years old also don’t need green harvesting. Babo/Brix sugar levels are an unreliable gauge of when to pick; the only criterion is maturity of seeds. For instance, in 2003, there was more heat than light – sugar levels respond more to heat while seed maturity depends more on light – so those who picked based on sugar levels made bad wines because the seeds and tannins were still green. Luca explained, with eloquence, the advantage of submerged cap over floating cap. Floating cap is much less work, and has to be relatively short, generating less extraction, because the wine can oxidize and extraneous things like flies can fall into it. Submerged cap, on the other hand, takes place in a covered, airtight environment, so can last much longer without danger of oxidation (the cap can only be submerged after fermentation is finished, otherwise the barrel will explode!). Longer macerations, allowed by submerged cap, are desirable because, while color extraction peaks after 3-4 days and tannin extraction peaks at around 30 days, carotene, responsible for tertiary flavors, only peaks at around 80 days. Long macerations are among the ways Roagna differentiates itself as a winery. According to Luca, people say that long macerations give wine too much tannin, but that depends on what kind of tannins, since Nebbiolo tannins are not as harsh as wood tannins. SO2 is not used during harvest, only after malolactics, because it causes problems for yeasts and bacteria. Small amounts (5 mg) are used when racking but, in general, SO2 use should be kept at a minimum; tannins should be enough to protect wine. No SO2 is used at bottling (just 5 mg, exceptionally, if there is botrytis23. Luca often referred to the alcohol level in his Barolos and Barbarescos as being around 13.5%, suggesting than levels much above that are undesirable and unnatural.
First we tasted a barrel sample in the fermentation floor, followed by some barrel samples in the aging room in a different house, followed by some bottles in the underground of the first house24. As we talked and tasted, Luca provided most of my answers.
When the time came to leave, a magical moment: as we opened the cellar door, all three of us froze because a hare was standing perfectly still in the middle of the courtyard. After a few seconds, it moved away, and we were able to continue moving. As we drove up the road leading from the winery, another (or maybe the same) hare ran by the side of the road, ahead of our car, like a good omen. Luca was a wonderful host, and established a paradigm of radicalism – almost a super-ego –, that could be useful in discussing the meaning of authenticity.
After Roagna, we drove sedately to Turin, where we would spend two nights and a day. After visiting eleven well-known producers, I was looking forward to completing our experience by making a final visit to a completely unknown one, who makes wine in a small town about an hour northeast of the city. While the Langhe and Roero regions around Alba and Asti get the lion’s share of attention, there are several lesser known Piemontese appellations north of Turin, such as Lessona, Gattinara and Ghemme. Further below the radar screen are producers like this one, who works with Vespolina, Croatina (Bonarda), Uva Rara and Nebbiolo. Agostino Berti has written eloquently about this man’s wines, painting an appealing picture of peasant purity and honest winemaking. Saturday, November 7
After breakfast we drove around the beautiful streets of the center of Turin, famous for its cafe culture and covered gallerias, where flaneurs can window shop for miles without fear of the elements. These gallerias seem to take the example of Paris’s Galerie des Panoramas, the 19th Century precursor of the shopping mall, and extend it to a city-wide scale. Next we drove to the excellent contemporary art museum housed in the nearby Castello di Rivoli. Turin is the birthplace of Arte Povera, one of the most interesting movements in contemporary art, and the Castello houses works by its best know artists like Pistoletto, Alighiero Boetti and Gilberto Zorio (the first two had impressive selections on display) and, as well as other well-known artists like Sol Lewitt, Claes Oldenburg, Bill Viola, and Lothar Baumgarten. Particularly spectacular was a light installation by the Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, who filled a huge room covered by a beautiful vaulted brick ceiling with slowly moving arcs of colored light, alone worth the visit. Before entering the Castello, I left a message on the winemaker’s answering machine saying we’d be there around 4PM. After leaving the exhibition, I called again, just to make sure, and was dumbfounded to hear from his wife that he would not be able to see us because he had made “other plans.” The appointment had been made through Agostino six weeks before, so how could he have made other plans? If it was just disorganization, he should have rearranged things to accommodate the prior appointment. Most of all, I was angry that he didn’t let me know earlier so that we could make other plans, or perhaps not even come to Turin. I had no choice but to stew in my own juices during the ensuing lunch at Combal.Zero, a Michelin 2 Star restaurant conveniently located in the Castello itself.
Combal.Zero is run by Davide Scabin, described by Food & Wine as being not only on the same inventive level as Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal but the most “provocative” among them. The long and sleek dining room is lined with glass on both sides, vaguely reminiscent of Philip Johnson’s Glass House. The two tasting menus, at €140 and €100, were a bit much for lunchtime, so we decided to go a la carte, a move met with well-disguised disappointment at expensive restaurants. You may ask, if it is well disguised, how do I know? All I can say is that it is subliminal, reflected in a minute loss of zing, a post effusive-initial-welcome depression when it becomes clear that you are not that day’s meal ticket. Service continues to be excellent, just no longer sparkling. Speaking of sparkling, as with Piazza Duomo, the meal at Combal.Zero begins with the offer of an aperitif from a wheeled cart containing assorted bubblies on ice, followed by a framed glass menu listing “national and international still and sparkling waters.” The wine list was chunky but disappointing, filled with a hit parade of usual suspect modernists. The waiter said that the sommelier, a hearty man with the look of experience, could suggest wines by the glass to accompany our choices, so I decided to see what he could do. For our first course, he offered us an Italian Viognier. With misgivings, I sniffed and found a very floral nose, with some forest floor, which I found interesting because less common in whites. But it was fat and oaky and I sent it back, to Marcia’s chagrin, and asked for something truly local, like Erbaluce. The sommelier arched his eyebrows, saying that the Viognier was a crowd pleaser. Precisely the problem, my man! In deference to Marcia’s sensibilities, I explained that we had just spent five days tasting young Barolos and Barbarescos and were ready to drink battery acid. He went back and fished us an Erbaluce25 that was quite acceptable and, to accompany our second course, he opened a Cavalotto Barbera26 that should have been tastier but, at least, was in the ballpark. The food was, well, inventive and pretty, without molecular excess, but hardly provocative. Certainly more intriguing than satisfying. Marcia had a dessert called a “kit,” a trio of different creams served in baby food jars, texturally monotonous but flavorally delicious. When the time came for coffee, I said we wanted two, but life isn’t so simple. We were brought a menu of eight different coffees. Marcia went for Jamaica Blue Mountain, the Rolls Royce of coffees, while I did her one better by deciding to drink shit. Well, almost. They were offering, for the princely sum of €15 (as much as our favorite meal of the entire trip, at Cascina Cornale), a cup of Kopi Luwack Indonesia, the rarest coffee in the world (annual production: 250 Kg), made from beans that have gone through the digestive tract of the marsupial Paradoxurus Hermaphroditus (a natural eunuch, to boot). The inner bean of the berry is not digested, but enzymes in the stomach add to the coffee's flavor by breaking down the proteins that make it bitter. They pick the ripest and sweetest fruit, so there’s natural selection at work behind the bean selection. It tasted fine, but was more for the record books than anything else.
Lunch over, I tried to salvage the afternoon by calling the Ferrando Wine Farm in Ivrea, a little under an hour’s drive from Rivoli. To my surprise, Luigi Ferrando himself picked up the phone. I apologized for calling at such short notice to try and schedule a visit, but I had read Neal Rosenthal’s book, had loved the descriptions of Ferrando and his wines, and had greatly enjoyed the unoaked (white label) version of Ferrando’s Carema just a few weeks prior. Ferrando was warm and enthusiastic, and I could sense his frustration at not being able to receive us because his son Roberto was out and he was by himself. If only you had called as late as this morning, we could have arranged it... I thanked him and asked if there was anywhere in Turin where I might find his late harvest Erbaluce, a rare bottling. He said he’d look into it and called me within minutes with the name of La Petite Cave (Corso A. De Gasperi, 2/B, Tel. 011 595208). Ferrando said they were expecting our visit, and apologized again for not being able to receive us. He said much more, at high speed, which my Italian had difficulty following. We drove straight to the store and the proprietor, to my surprise, proceeded to open bottles of both the dry and late harvest Ferrando Erbaluces for us to taste27. Though our suitcases were already overloaded from Barolo and Barbaresco, I could not resist harvesting this late, but when I went to the register to pay, the proprietor said she could not charge us because we were guests of Ferrando. On top of the preceding kindnesses, that was just too much, and I called Ferrando to say thanks and “complain” that there were limits to being a gentleman. He had gone extraordinarily over, with a classiness that was hard to forget. The contrast with the small producer’s cavalier rudeness could not have been greater; now I intend to drink Ferrando’s Caremas to perpetuity, and hope the other maintains the obscurity that his manners deserve.
Minor mishaps aside, it is hard to overstate how much we enjoyed this trip. In addition to the human element, always enriching, and the wonderful and not so wonderful wines, we learned much about vinification and other technical aspects of winemaking. What did I learn from my questionnaire? I had visions of traditional producers throwing whole clusters into vats, but everyone I asked destems 100%, or tries to. Unlike, say, Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo doesn’t need any extra tannin. But Nebbiolo clusters are three pronged and difficult to destem, and older machines do an incomplete job. Everyone uses a level of SO2 somewhere between 50 and 100 mg/l. Most use floating cap, and the argument for submerged cap depends on longevity, a difficult test to conduct objectively and in controlled way. Answers about fining and filtering were all over the place. With massale v. clonale, I could tell there was some gentle spinning going on. Perhaps the most valuable lesson was that there are many different ways to make good wine and that labels and classifications can be misleading. Who would have guessed that staunch traditionalists like Produttori di Barbaresco and Giuseppe Mascarello use purchased yeasts, while modernists like La Spinetta and Luciano Sandrone use ambient/indigenous yeasts? As always, one may have ideological preferences (as I do) for so-called natural wine, but the only test, ultimately, is where the rubber meets the road (or, for Nebbiolo, where the tar meets the tongue). One can have faith that unoaked, unfined, unfiltered wine from privileged terroirs made with low sulfur and ambient yeasts will taste best, but this trip, perhaps sadly, suggests that the evidence remains inconclusive.
During the first week of November, Marcia and I made our first trip to Piedmont. Timed to coincide with white truffle season, the expedition had a more serious objective besides fraternizing with the natives, tasting and spitting wines, adding to our knowledge in kinesthetic ways, and eating and drinking to the brink of guilt. After reading for years about the so-called Barolo wars, I wanted to see for myself what traditional v. modern meant, and the shades lie in between. To this end, I prepared, with some trepidation, a questionnaire for all our victims and, as we shall see, this added greatly, and in unexpected ways, to the success of the trip (the answers have been consolidated and appear in the second post). With the help of Google translate and rudimentary Italian, I emailed, faxed or phoned to schedule visits to a range of producers, from the most conservative to the most technological. I didn’t try Gaja, known to be difficult for those not in the biz; Bruno Giacosa was the only one to say no (some didn’t even reply); Giuseppe Cappellano, possibly the winery I most wanted to visit because of the late Teobaldo Cappellano’s iconoclasm, as well as the uniqueness of his Pie Franco Barolo, made from ungrafted vines, was booked through connections which I thank, but will remain unnamed (but you know who you are!). We had a wonderful time, visiting 11 wineries and tasting some 90 wines (to avoid disrupting the flow, the tasting notes appear as endnotes in the third post).
"I went on a rigorous diet that eliminated alcohol, fat and sugar. In two weeks, I lost 14 days." Tim Maia, Brazilian singer-songwriter.