Birth-Year Barolo

Although working as a food and wine writer in NYC is not always as glamorous as it may seem from the outside, there are certain perks that come along with this otherwise hazardous occupation.

Yesterday, one such occasion presented itself with an invitation to taste a “vertical” of Fontanafredda Barolo stretching back to 1967, my birth year. Some of NYC’s top wine writers and sommeliers were in attendance and all were thrilled to take part in such an illustrious tasting.

Some believe Fontanafredda to be the oldest producer of Barolo and its estate was once the hunting ground of King Victor Emmanuel II of Savoy (Italy’s first king, hence, the overly cited chiasmus “Barolo the wine of kings, the king of wines”). It is one of the the appellation’s largest producers and is currently refashioning its image: for many years, winemaker Danilo Drocco explained, the winery focused on the production of commercial sparkling wine. Although the winery consistenly produced and released Barolo (except for in particularly bad vintages), vinification of Barolo was not its “priority,” as Danilo put it.

Chronologically, the flight we tasted was divided into four subsets (my designations, not Danilo’s):

– the current era of the winery’s evolution, 2001, 2000, and 1999 (Danilo began making wine there in 1999)

– the “sparkling wine” era, 1998, 1997, 1996

– the “post-DOCG” era, 1990, 1982

– the “post DOC” era, 1974, 1967

Each of the wines we tasted were made from Fontanafredda’s cru, La Rosa, except for the 1967, which was a “classic” Barolo, blended from multiple vineyards.

In 1933, the Italian government (then Fascist) passed legislation defining the zone for Barolo production in the following townships (roughly the same as today): Barolo, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba, Monforte d’Alba, Novello, La Morra, Verduno, Grinzane Cavour, Diano d’Alba, Cherasco, e Roddi (the five most important, where the most famous and long-lived wines are produced: Barolo, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba, Monforte d’Alba, and La Morra). The Denominazione d’Origine Controllata (Controlled Origin Appellation) for Barolo was created in 1966 (and it became DOCG, i.e., Garantita or Guaranteed, in 1980).

Danilo noted that Fontanafredda began making a single-vineyard (cru) wine in 1967 (there are too few bottles of 67 La Rosa left, he said, and thus we would be tasting the classic, blended Barolo for that vintage).

Highlights:

The 67 and the 74 were fantastic. These traditionally made wines showed the power of large-cask aging and — I would imagine — extended submerged cap maceration (in the old days, they used a grill to keep the cap of grape skins submerged during maceration; today modern winemaking calls for punching down, where the cap is submerged repeatedly, thus accelerating and intensifying the process). Captivating complexity, aromas, and acidity that was very much alive. Beautifully mellowed tannins. Among the best wine I’ve ever had.

The 1982 was excellent and showed the characteristic tobacco flavors that this “dry” vintage produced.

The 90 was very good and is ready to drink, all agreed, and had aged nicely in the magnums from which it was poured (Danilo remarked that magnum aging helped this warm vintage, noting that he had recently tasted it in 750ml).

The 96-98 wines, made during the years of “neglect,” if you will, were actually not so bad, if like me, you appreciate “rustic” style Barolo. The pronounced tannins in the 96 were great and many of us agreed that the fantastic vintage, when vinified in a straightforward however unrefined style, showed beautifully. The 97 was out of balance (too tannic and no fruit), the 98 flaccid.

Of the current-era wines, the 1999 — which is done in a judiciously modern style — showed beautifully and was appreciated even by Charles Scicolone — the venerated NYC Italian wine maven, who campaigns vigorously against modern winemaking and in particular the use of new wood.

Danilo later remarked to me that he uses new oak for gentle oxygenation (about 30% of the wine is aged in barrique he said) so that the tannins mellow. But he is careful, he said, to make sure that no wood flavors are imparted. The wine was elegant and well-balanced (reminiscent, to my palate, of Aldo Conterno’s wines).

Above: when he learned that ’67 was my birth year, Fontanafredda’s winemaker Danilo Drocco, right, poured me a glass as we chatted before the tasting.

The year 2007 C.E., my fortieth on the planet, may have been the year of my mid-life crisis, but I was glad to find out firsthand (I had never tasted ’67) that I was born in a good year for Nebbiolo. As I enter into the new phase of my life, I hope I’ll “show” as well.

In other news: look for my article on Roman holiday cooking in the December issue of Wine & Spirits Magazine (hits newsstands soon).

2 thoughts on “Birth-Year Barolo

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