The dog days of summer are upon us where we trade our wine glasses for the salted rim of a margarita. While many of us are heading to the beach this time of year, those that are from the Alpine areas know just how special the summers are. I often find myself longing for the warm days and cool nights, a respite of the heat and humidity found here in central North Carolina. In Northern Italy, the snow-capped Alps have faded from the background, the once dormant hillside vineyards surrounding Alba are flush with green growth and the precious Nebbiolo grapes have started to come alive.
For many sommeliers and wine professionals, Barolo (and Barbaresco for that matter) is the pinnacle of their wine journey. Nebbiolo produces wines with the power of Bordeaux and the elegance of Burgundy, and a quality endemic to Italy. Aromas of rose petal, orange peel and baking spices fill the glass with subtilty and complexity leaving one to enjoy every sip.
Nebbiolo is a notoriously fickle grape prone to the elements. Though thin skinned, it is high in both natural tannin and acidity. This combination creates wine that can last decades given the right conditions and traditionally took as long to open. Even the 38 months of mandatory aging is often not enough time for the wine to reach adolescence.
The hills of Barolo are dotted with 11 distinct villages many of which seem to cling to landscape perched high in the hills. The three easternmost communes (Monforte d’Alba, Serralunga d’Alba, and Castiglione Falletto) are part of the Serralunga Valley of Langhe. The soil here consists mainly of sandstone and chalk, known locally as Helvetian, allowing for water to drain quickly, preventing the vines from absorbing too much moisture. Because of this, the grapes aren’t diluted and have high natural acidity. Barolo made here is often longer-lived and more austere in its youth than wine made in other communes. The La Morra and Barolo communes are located west of the Serralunga Valley in the Central Valley. Here, the soil contains more sand and marl known as Tortonian. The denser clay retains much more water than sand and limestone do, and as a result, the fruit here isn’t as concentrated in flavor or as high in acidity as that grown in the Serralunga Valley. However, wines from the Barolo and La Morra communes are still acidic enough to age for long periods of time. They’re also incredibly velvety in their youth, with delicate fruit flavors that many Italian wine enthusiasts enjoy.
Beyond the geographical divide of Barolo there is also the philosophical. Every producer in Barolo must wrestle with making wine for the now or then. Traditional styles of wine exploit the natural structure of the grape and use large old Botti for aging. Often this sacrifices early drinking pleasure and rewards aging and patience. Modern wines employ techniques such as smaller French oak barriques, longer cold soak maceration, and micro-oxygenation in order to produce a softer and more approachable style in its youth.
Single vineyard expressions are also a modern invention. Traditionally the wines of Barolo were blended from many sites and communes to create a house expression, while single vineyard wines showcase the expression of a specific sit. Though the debate over the benefits of a singular expression versus the sum of its parts certainly won’t be answered anytime soon, in 2010 the Menzioni Geografiche Aggiuntive, or MGA was introduced to Italian wine law to better define it. There are currently 118 MGA sites within Barolo. While not perfect, it is a step forward to delineate the diverse soils a microclimate that lie within the Piedmont.
Renato was a pioneer in Barolo and is often seen as a key figure in changing the style of Barolo. His modern approach to winemaking dates to 1965 when he purchased his first vineyard in La Mora. Whether it was intuitive brilliance or just dumb luck, Renato was able to purchase land in one of the best vineyards in all of Barolo, Marcenasco. Through painstaking data collections, he was able to begin to lay the outlines of many of the early Cru sites in the region. Having not been brought up in a traditional winemaking family, he was able to look upon the region through a different set of eyes and set out to produce wines that were softer and more approachable in their youth while retaining the age-ability of the wine. By the early 1980’s many of the wineries had begun to shift their styles of wine to this more modern approach. Today Marcenasco is a blend of three individual Cru all located in La Mora, while the highly sought after Rocche dell ‘Annunziata and Conca wines are also produced.
When it comes to Tradition there is almost none more so in Barolo than the house of Massolino. The history of the Massolinos and their wine became entwined with the history of Serralunga d’Alba in 1896, when Giovanni founded the Estate. Giovanni was the very first person to bring the electric current to the village. An enterprising, tenacious and creative man, progenitor of a family that has made the combination of inspiration and tradition something to be proud of. Making wine with passion, in its land of origin, preserving the typical characteristics of the autochthonous grape varieties, being convinced that there is a deep and tangible link between the vines, hills and winegrowers, made up of affinities cemented, by habit, to the land. Today the estate is in the hands of the fourth generation of family. They have since expanded the property to include four Crus sites, Magheria, Parafada, and Vigne Rionda in Serralunga d’Alba and Parussi in Castiglione Falletto. These long-lived wines are certainly a treat even for the most discerning of connoisseurs.
Pio Cesare has been producing wines for 135 years and through five generations in its ancient cellars in the center of the town of Alba. Pio Boffa, the fourth generation, leads and directs the company today. While I would not classify them as a modern producer, they do however produce modern styles of wine. The Cascina Ornato Vineyard located in Serralunga d’Alba is one of the oldest and most respected in the region and is such wine. They use a blend of both modern and traditional techniques employing time spent in both small French barrique as well as large Botti. First Produced in 1985, their award-winning Cru offering, Barolo “Ornato” (98 pts James Suckling), is one of the most collectable Barolo on the market.
We currently have small amounts of each of these producers stunning single vineyard wines. Please contact your local Epiphany rep for more information.