Nelle botti piccole: good wine in small barrels?

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Since Thursday, when Eric Asimov mentioned my blog in his, I’ve received countless emails and some interesting comments, including the following from winemaker and wine educator Eric Lecours, who wrote me from Burgundy (where he is working with Étienne Grivot at Domaine Grivot):

The catastrophe is in two wines in Italy: Brunello di M[ontalcino in Tuscany] and Barbera in Piemonte. With Brunello the trend seems irreversible, huge, fat and sweet. The Barbera though is heart-breaking. Probably the most versatile grape on the planet, the quality versions are drowned in oak. It reminds me of California SB [Sauvignon Blanc], anything above $10 a bottle has to be rich and oaked. Good for Sancerre I guess.

To paraphrase Neal Rosenthal: it’s worse than maquillage; you can take that off. Once you put this stuff on, you can never take it off. It touches the very soul.

Clearly, the question of new oak and Italy plays on the heartstrings of many. As much as I pine for the wines I tasted in the late 1980s and early 90s, before the use of barrique became so widespread in Italy, I was thrilled to see that there is a growing movement of wine lovers, enthusiasts, and winemakers (like Eric) who share my view that new oak masks the varietal characteristics of Italian grapes. I hope that Italian winemakers will take note.

Reflecting on the modern vs. traditional and new oak vs. botti dialectic, I remembered the Italian proverb nelle botti piccole sta il vino buono, literally, “there’s good wine in small barrels,” or figuratively, “good things come in small packages.”

The saying refers not to small, new French oak barrels (barriques) but rather to the Italian caratello or carrato, a small and sometimes elongated barrel used to store wine (possibly from the Latin carrus or “cart”; others believe the term derived from the Greek keration, a diminutive of kèras, or “horn,” because of the barrel’s shape). As early as the sixteenth century, small barrels were used in Italy to make sweet wines like Vin Santo and Sagrantino (the latter was not made as a dry wine until the 1970s) and there is evidence that small barrels were also used during the 1500s in a winemaking technique now called the governo method, whereby a small amount of sweet, dried-grape wine is added to dry wine (and in some cases, a second fermentation takes place).

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Above: caratelli used to make Vin Santo.

Perhaps a more appropriate translation of the proverb would read: “coveted, sweet wine comes in small barrels.”

A propos wine in small packages, last night found me at Park Blue in midtown, a wine bar that specializes in half bottles, with roughly 150 different labels in its cellar (Per Se is the only restaurant in NYC, the owner told me, that has more half bottles on its list). Even though half bottles are not good for aging wine, they can be fun: especially at a place like Park Blue, with so many to choose from, the lower price point allows you to enjoy different wines in one sitting.

Among other wines, I was eager to try the 2001 Barolo by Massolino. I had never seen a Massolino Barolo in 375ml format and had yet to taste that vintage. I have tasted the 1996 and 97 on numerous occasions and I’ve always felt that Massolino was an excellent wine at an excellent price, a classic expression of the appellation. The wine was much “hotter” (higher in alcohol content) than the wines I had tasted previously and it didn’t taste as earthy as I remember for previous vintages.* It would appear that Massolino has abandoned its traditional style. On the other hand, Antonio Galloni just gave its flagship wine, the Barolo Rionda, a glowing review in The Wine Advocate, a publication that favors “modern” style wines. Am I wrong to begrudge Massolino when the winery seems to have achieved a new level of success with its current winemaking style? To borrow a phrase from François Villon, I miss the wines of yesteryear (as per my note below, I intend to retaste the wine and post new tasting notes).

Click here to read about my tasting with Franco Massolino.

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Above: half bottles at Park Blue.

The service at Park Blue was uneven but our server did know the wine list very well. The small plates were just okay but the cheese selection was great. The atmosphere there (music, lighting, and seating) is very relaxing and I’m glad to have discovered a wine bar, with an interesting list, that stays open late in midtown.

In other news, my good friend Charlie George and his family were evacuated from their home in Rancho Santa Fe, California (not far from where I grew up). They’re all safe but, at the moment, he doesn’t know if his house survived the fire. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for him.

I see your hair is burning.
Hills are filled with fire.
If they say I never loved you
You know they are a liar.

– Jim Morrison

*When I tasted the wine, I perceived notes of new oak but when I inquired, the importer assured me that winemaker Franco Massolino does not age this wine (from Serralunga) in new oak. I’m going to make a point of tasting again (this time in 750ml format) and will post new tasting notes. It’s possible that the wine was tainted by some bacteria in the botti in which it was aged. In any event, I will retaste the wine and post a new tasting note.

6 Responses to Nelle botti piccole: good wine in small barrels?

  1. alice feiring says:

    Hi Jeremy, When I visited Massolino in 2001 Franco told me they would never use new oak on the Vigna Ronda. Do you know if that is still the case? It always amazes me when a winemaker uses new oak to pander to the masses and the critics but makes something else to ‘preserve’ the house name.

  2. dobianchi says:

    I just contacted the importer who told me that Franco Massolino has never used new wood on the Rionda.

  3. dobianchi says:

    Actually just got word from the producer, via the importer, that there was no oak on the “normal” Serralunga Barolo either… Something must have been off with that wine…

  4. [...] I posted the other day about a half bottle of Massolino that tasted strange to me (it was too alcoholic and concentrated, not in line with the style I [...]

  5. Terry Hughes says:

    There’s always the possibility that some of the wine was counterfeit, no? Shockingly enough, the financial police have been very busy with that problem in various regions of Italy of late.

  6. dobianchi says:

    When Franco and I tasted together, he too was surprised.

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