The first time I went to visit the Aldo Conterno winery in 2000 (to taste his 1996 crus), Aldo’s son Franco took me and Luigi Ballerini for an unforgettable lunch at Trattoria della Posta (Monforte d’Alba), where Franco paired a dish of poached eggs, Fontina fondue, and shaved white truffles with a 1990 Vietti Barolo Rocche.
“We’re not drinking Aldo Conterno for lunch?” I asked Franco. “No, I wanted to show you what I think is one of the best Barolos beyond Conterno,” he said.
Last night, the lights were dim and the Barolo was big in the subterranean dining room at Cru in the West Village. I was the guest of Jay McInerney and Vietti winemaker Luca Currado who had gathered friends, food writers, and assorted Nebbiolophiles to enjoy some older vintages from one of Jay’s (and one of my) favorite producers.
Among the many tales recounted on this chilly, rainy New York eve, Luca retold the story of his family’s Roero Arneis. According to the legend, Luca’s father Alfredo had decided to make a white wine (in a land where only red wine was made). He didn’t want to use an international grape variety but he knew that some farmers had plantings of white Arneis grapes (used as a decoy to protect the more coveted red grapes from birds according to some, used to brighten up Nebbiolo according to others). He asked the priest of his local parish to make an announcement at Sunday mass: “please bring your Arneis grapes to the town square tomorrow because Alfredo Currado wants to buy them,” the church-goers were told (or so the legend goes). The farmers appeared the next day in droves and history was made with the first Vietti vintage of Roero Arneis, 1967. Italy’s top wine writer Luigi Veronelli tasted it the following spring and his enthusiastic review quickly catapulted it to enological stardom. Today scores of Roero Arneis are produced but Alfredo Currado and Vietti were the first to release it on the market (Bruno Giacosa was once attributed erroneously, said Luca, as having been the first. But after reading her father in print, Bruna Giacosa quickly called over to the Currado residence to apologize for the misquote). The secret to the wonderful aromatics of Luca’s Roero Arneis? “We age the wines on its lees,” says Luca [lees are the dead yeast cells present in wine after fermentation].
Luca shared many other interesting anecdotes last night (including that of his family’s nineteenth-century single-vineyard planting of Barbera in the now famous Scarrone site, unthinkable in a time when the best sites were reserved for Nebbiolo; the same vines, some more than 100-years old, are still used to make the wine).
But the most fascinating and certainly the most noteworthy story was revealed when the subject of modern vs. traditional was put on the table, so to speak. 1980 was the first year they brought barrique into the cellar, said Luca, for the Barbera. And in 1988 they began to use barrique-aging for the Nebbiolo as well. But what Luca said next totally blew me away. “Yes, we use barrique for aging the wine. About 30%. But we air-dry the staves for several years before the barrels are assembled [exposure to air removes any green-tree or bark smells and flavors from the wood]. And then we steam our barriques before we use them so they don’t impart any of the vanilla, oaky notes to the wine. You should see the water that runs off after they’re steamed: it looks like Australian Chardonnay!”
In fact, Luca’s wines are made in a judiciously modern style. They show some of the fruit-forwardness that dominate in excessively modern expressions of Nebbiolo but they retain the classic earthly notes of terroir-driven Barolo.
“When you look at those vineyards,” said Luca at the end of the night, “you are wrong to make a wine that doesn’t express the terroir. The identity of those vineyards is so strong. To try to hide it would be wrong.”
Luca is one of the nicest and most well-spoken winemakers I’ve ever met (and he speaks perfect English). To speak and taste with him, you see that like his wines, he lives in perfect balance between tradition and modernity. As Jay pointed out, there are some who believe his wines are too modern in style. But Jay and I agreed: Vietti’s wines are fantastic and they taste like Barolo.
2006 Roero Arneis: fresh, with beautiful acidity, drinking beautifully (100% Roero grapes are used for this wine, Luca pointed out).
2003 Barbera Scarrone: one of the first single-vineyard Barberas ever marketed and simply one of the best.
1971 Barbaresco: tired but interesting to taste nonetheless.
1982 Barolo: the “classico,” blended Barolo, off the charts good, with lively acidity and nuanced berry fruit that just kept getting better and better in the glass (note the Kermit Lynch strip label on the neck of the bottle, second photo from top; Luca said it was the first Barolo imported by Lynch, one of the earliest proponents of natural European wines).
2001 Barolo Villero Riserva: everyone agreed, this was drinking beautifully, seductive nose and balanced acidity and fruit in the glass; but these tannins could use some more time in bottle.
1995 Barolo Rocche: this wine is still evolving and it was lost on the crowd but I found it to be the most traditional in style, with earthy aromas and flavors that I look for in Barolo.