Above: Franco Massolino and I opened two 375ml bottles of Massolino’s Barolo “classico” and tasted them side-by-side at I Trulli.
When 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 knew), I contacted the importer and asked if — to their knowledge — Massolino had changed its winemaking approach. As it turned out, Franco Massolino was in NYC for the importer’s portfolio tasting and so we arranged for him to meet me at I Trulli where we opened two 375ml bottles side-by-side.
Franco is one the nicest, most easy-going, and personable Barolo producers I’ve ever met (uncommon in an appellation where there’s a lot of over-sized ego and a hold-your-cards-close-to-your-chest attitude). I told him about my experience. Some wine industry insiders, I explained, believe that he had begun to use new oak and other “modernist” techniques in the cellar. He said that, yes, in fact, he began to use new oak for one his crus, the Parafada (which I have never tasted). But he assured me that he had never used barrique for his classic Barolo, which is blended from different vineyards in Serralunga (one of the top-five townships in the appellation). As I wrote in my recent post, I had been disappointed when I tasted a wine that was so high in alcohol and so concentrated, nothing like the Massolino wines I had tasted in the past.
We opened the first bottle and decanted. This was the Massolino that I knew: earthy aromas and flavors, good tannin but an ineffable lightness that he always seemed to achieve with his classic Barolo.
But when we opened the second bottle, we were both unpleasantly surprised to taste a wine similar to that which I experienced at Park Blue. The wine was “hot” (too alcoholic) and concentrated, its red berry fruit too pronounced, and it lacked balance.
“We’ve been having some problems with corks,” he said. “And I believe that’s probably what caused this.” The wine wasn’t “corked” in a way that was immediately noticeable (it didn’t taste or smell like bad cork or have the “wet cardboard” aroma that typically corked wines can have). But something didn’t add up here. This was a classic example of “bottle variation,” where the wine in one bottle tastes different than the wine in another, even though the bottles contain wine from the very same vintage and vineyard, etc.
Was it possible, I asked him, that the wine had been tainted by bacteria present in the botti (the large oak barrels that are used over and over again, a fundamental element in the traditional vinification of Barolo)? Yes, he said, and in fact, the winery had experienced issues with bacteria. “When you bring new oak into a winery,” he explained, “the new wood sometimes contains bacteria that can affect the old barrels” (ah ha! another reason not to barrique any of your wines, I wanted to tell him, but I refrained).
There’s also a third possibility, namely that the wine was damaged, perhaps exposed to extreme temperature, during transport. Even if a wine arrives via refrigerated container (“reefers,” they’re called in the business), if not stored properly, it can be “cooked” after the fact, so to speak.
Above: I Trulli’s assistant sommelier Bill Rosser (left) and Franco Massolino.
We asked I Trulli’s assistant sommelier to taste the first bottle. Where, I asked him, would he place this wine in the traditional vs. modern scale? “It’s definitely traditional,” he observed, “but it leans a little toward modern.”
“Bravo,” said Franco, complimenting Bill on his palate. Franco explained that his classic Barolo is intended to be slightly modern in style, while his flagship wine, the famous Rionda cru, is vinified in an entirely traditional manner. “We do a shorter maceration time for the classic Barolo,” he said referring to the amount of time the winemaker allows the juice to “steep,” if you will, with the skins of the berries. By making a slightly less tannic wine, he told us, the wine is more approachable at a younger age.
I’ve always been a fan of Franco’s wines and it was great to meet and taste with him. To my mind, he represents the future of the appellation (or at least what I hope the future will hold): even though he has begun making a barriqued Barolo for the modern-wine-loving market, he continues to make a classic, approachable (and affordable) Barolo and he vinifies his most famous wine in a 100% traditional manner.
If only more producers of Barolo could achieve this balance in their portfolio (sigh)… we’d have more well balanced Barolo.
In other news, my friend Charlie’s house is still standing in Rancho Santa Fe, CA. “Char’s house is not charred,” wrote our friend Irwin by text. My brother Micah told me that everyone was coughing for a few days but everyone in my family is okay.
“Balance is the perfect state of still water. Let that be our model. It remains quiet within and is not disturbed on the surface.”