Aldo Conterno, remembrances and my visit to Bussia

Above: One of Barolo’s most beloved winemakers and last defenders of its historic identity Aldo Conterno has died at 81 (photo via La Stampa).

Myriad English-language tributes to the great Barolista Aldo Conterno have appeared in the enoblogosphere between yesterday and today since news of his passing first broke: Walter Speller, Monica Larner, and — one of the most touching — by S. Irene Virbila.

Franco Ziliani reminds us (in Italian) that together with great winemakers like Giovanni Conterno (Aldo’s borther), Bartolo Mascarello, Teobaldo Cappellano, Beppe Rinaldi, and Mauro Mascarello, Aldo was a “steadfast defender in a battle for the respect of Barolo’s personality in the heady years when some were trying to make the wine become something different.”

And La Stampa wine writer Sergio Miravalle remembers fondly that “for decades, he signed some of the most stunning wines of Italy but his fame never distanced him from the concrete, simple way of life of farmers in Langa.”

I had the great fortune of meeting him once at his home and winery in the village of Bussia (in the township of Monforte d’Alba).

The year was 2000 and I had met his son Franco Conterno earlier in the year at the presentation of the A. Conterno 1996 crus in New York and Franco had invited me to visit their cellars in Langa.

The release of the 1996 vintage from Langa was a pivotal moment in the new wave of Nebbiolo mania in the U.S. Then rising wine star Joe Bastianich, owner and founder of the retail crew at Italian Wine Merchants, had decided to throw his weight behind the vintage and the producer and the hype that 1996 would be “the vintage of the century” was thick. (Of course, even though there’s no doubt in my mind that 96 was the superior vintage, it was eclipsed by the American wine media’s love affair with 1997.)

When I was received by Aldo, we spoke in Italian only because I was accompanied by an Italian friend of mine but he greeted me in perfect English (see S. Irene Virbila’s wonderful remembrance for Aldo’s years in California and his service in the U.S. military).

I was just starting my career as a wine writer then and our meeting had a profound effect on me. I realized, for the first time, that certain women and men — persons of truly great character — make wines that will outlive them. In other words, he grew, bottled, and raised a wine — in this case the epic 1996 vintage — whose ultimate expression would occur only after his passing. My personal realization was even more powerful given that so many winemakers in Langa at that time were trying to make wines more approachable in their youth.

I’ll never forget his gentle voice, nor will I forget the taste of bittersweet Barolo Chinato at the end of the flight.

Carissime Alde, sit tibi terra alba levis…

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