Today Barolo mourns the loss of one of its greatest grape growers and winemakers, Domenico Clerico, 67, who died yesterday in his home in Monforte d’Alba. According to reports published in mainstream Italian media, the cause was cancer.
Clerico was among the pioneers who reshaped the Barolo landscape when, in the 1980s, he began aging his wines in barriques — new wood, small French oak casks as opposed to the traditional large-format botti made with Slavonian oak.
Not only did his wines appeal to a newly emerged generation of monied American wine enthusiasts, but they also set a new standard for high-quality collectible wines from Italy. At the peak of his “modernist” period in the 1990s, his widely coveted labels fetched previously unprecedented sums for Italian wines at New York’s top Italian restaurants and retailers.
Although most American collectors will remember him as a visionary of the new wave of Barolo producers, he was also one of the first grape growers there to embrace organic growing practices. Even at the height of his popularity among top America wine buyers and critics, he always pointed to his obsessive approach to grape farming — not his winemaking style — as the secret behind his wines’ extraordinary aromatic character and nuanced flavors.
Many among the current generation of Piedmont winemakers and vignerons looked to him as role model and inspiration for their own work in the vineyard.
“A master and a great man,” posted Barbera d’Asti winemaker Gianluca Morino on his Facebook yesterday (translation mine).
“Thank you for everything, Domenico. We grew up with your Arte,” wrote Morino, referring to Clerico’s groundbreaking blend of barrique-aged Nebbiolo and Barbera “Arte” (art), first released in the 1980s and considered to be one of the first “Super-Piedmont” wines.
No matter where he will be remembered in the modernist vs. traditionalist spectrum, there is no doubt that Clerico produced some of the world’s greatest and most memorable wines over the last three decades.
In a quote reposted on Clerico’s American importer’s web site, leading Italian wine critic and authority Antonio Galloni wrote that “few producers’ wines have given me as much pleasure over the years as those of Domenico Clerico.”
My wife Tracie P and I had the great fortune to dine with Domenico last July in Piedmont. Over the course of our meal, he spoke openly about his decision to abandon small-cask aging and to return to the traditional botti instead. As we tasted some of his top single-vineyard designated wines from the 2000s, he insisted however that their greatness — and man, they were great! — was owed to the quality of the fruit rather than the modernist approach of the winemaker.
A man known for his colorful character and trailblazing work in setting new benchmarks for Italian wine, it was clear to both me and Tracie that it was substance, not style, that had defined the career and life of one of the world’s greatest winemakers.
Sit tibi terra levis Dominice.