So many great wines and so little time… Between my April trip to Italy and Slovenia and my recent stays in New York and Los Angeles, I’ve had the chance to taste so much great wine this spring.
One of my most memorable spring 2008 tastings — a truly extraordinary experience — was a vertical dinner at Mozza in Los Angeles hosted by winemaker Mauro Mascarello of the Giuseppe Mascarello winery (Langa, Piedmont), where he poured bottlings spanning back to 1958.
I’ve had the opportunity to taste older Giuseppe Mascarello before but never had I seen such a remarkable collection of his wines. In fact, the tasting itself — open to the public — was a remarkable event: when it comes to “rare” wine (and I’ve attended and even poured at comparable however private tastings), rarely are so many exceptional vintages offered for public consumption. My friend David Rosoff, wine director and general manager at Mozza, orchestrated the dinner and pours with extreme grace and elegance.
The tasting spanned “six decades” and included the following wines:
1958 Barolo, 1961 Barolo Riserva, 1964 Barolo
The Mascarello family bought and moved the Monprivato estate and began making wine labeled simply “Barolo” in 1904. In 1919, Mascarello acquired an ice warehouse in Monchiero, with vaulted ceilings, said Mauro on the eve of the tasting, a storage space that later proved ideal for aging Barolo because of its natural cooling system. In 1922 (the year Mussolini marched on Rome), Mascarello grafted the vines with the Michét (mee-KEHT) Nebbiolo, a less productive but more structured and more age-worthy clone (Mascarello’s website reports 1921 but Mauro said 1922 was the year of the newly grafted vines; I find it interesting that these two milestones — the acquisition of the ice warehouse and the grafting of Michét — occurred between the two world wars, a time of hope, a time when Italians were happy for the end of the Great War and the peace that followed yet unaware of the tragedy that would follow Mussolini’s rise to power). In 1952 Giuseppe Mascarello began experimenting with Slavonian oak. He had served in the Italian military and Slovenia and had discovered that the more compact wood was better for long-term aging of his wines. In 1962, he started to experiment with the Michét clones, selecting those best suited for his vineyards.
This first flight — 1958, 1961, and 1964 — represented the end of the first era of Mascarello’s history and laid the ground work for what many consider one of the most prolific names in Barolo. The 61 and 64 were oxidized unfortunately, but the 1958 — a very good year for Langa — was gorgeous, very much alive with fruit and acidity.
1970 Barolo Monprivato, 1978 Barolo Monprivato, 1982 Barolo Monprivato
The second flight also marked a landmark in the winery’s history: 1970 was Mascarello’s first cru (single-vineyard) bottling of the legendary Monprivato growing site (Mauro Mascarello began making the wine at Mascarello in 1967 and he would later purchase the entire growing site making it a monopole).
Mascarello’s wines are so powerful and are made in such a radically traditional and by-the-way natural style that they often turn off those accustomed to drinking modern-style Nebbiolo. These wines — the 1970, nearly 40 years old — were drinking beautifully and even the modern-leaning guests were blown away. You really need to experience aged traditional Barolo to appreciate what more recent vintages of the wines will become. The 1970 and 1978 were incredibly, nuanced and poetic, with the indescribable lightness that old Nebbiolo takes on as its tannins began to mellow naturally.
The tasting also included: 1985 Barolo Monprivato, 1989 Barolo Monprivato, 1990 Barolo Monprivato, 1996 Barolo Monprivato, 1997 Barolo Ca d’Morissio, 1999 Barolo Monprivato, 2000 Barolo Monprivato, 2001 Barolo Monprivato, 2003 Barolo Monprivato. The 1989, 1999, and 2001 were stunning and the 1997 Barolo Ca’ d’Morrisio, made from select parcels within Monprivato in top vintages, was still just a young, powerful thoroughbred colt, showing no signs of opening up yet (as many less traditional producers’ wines in this hot-summer Wine Spectator-friendly vintage).
The Ca’ d’Morrisio is named after Maurizio Mascarello, Mauro’s grandfather (literally, Maurizio’s house, so called because Maurizio resided there among the vines). One of the things that strikes me about Mauro (above) is that when you hear him talk about winemaking, he talks like a “natural” winemaker. He’s a gentle, reserved, soft-spoken man, extremely humble and painfully modest. Like his wines, he is a traditional man, with a traditional Langa beard, always dressed in toned-down brown, grey, and blue suits it seems. He has none of the flair of the young generation of natural winemakers but to hear him speak is to hear an ardent supporter of natural winemaking — not as a new fad or wave of the future but rather a tradition that he continues to carry forward because it makes for the greatest expression of his land and his fruit.
When I tasted barrel samples of his 2004 Santo Stefano and Villero at Vinitaly this year, I asked him how he manages to maintain such a distinct style in his wines. “Because I let nature do her work,” he told me with his thick Langa accent. “I try to let the earth express itself through the fruit. I try to do as little as possible in the cellar,” said Mauro, accidental natural winemaker. No natural wine manifesto could have said it better.