Domenico Clerico and the year he never stopped changing: the new wave of the old school in Barolo

It was fascinating to sit down and chat yesterday with Oscar Arrivabene (above) in Los Angeles where he was pouring Domenico Clerico wines with the estate’s new California importer.

Like many Nebbiophiles, I had a $64,000 question on my mind: which vintage marked Clerico’s shift from standard bearer of the modernist movement in Barolo to champion of large-cask-aged traditional-style wines?

If you’re reading this blog, you probably know that Domenico, a truly lovely man who was deeply cherished by his community and the many young people he mentored, left this world for a better one in July of this year (see this Wine Spectator obituary by Bruce Sanderson to put the arc of Clerico’s career and wines into context).

“The thing about Domenico,” said Oscar, who first visited the winery as Clerico’s student and then later joined the estate as enologist, “was that he was always changing his approach to winemaking. He never stopped changing.”

Tracie (my wife) and I had the immense pleasure of dining with Domenico in Piedmont almost a year to the day before he passed. And he spoke that evening of how he had decided to abandon barrique (new wood, small cask) aging for his wines.

But what year marked the sea change?

Oscar needed no nudging to reveal that it was in 2014, when they were blending the 2011 harvest, that Clerico decided to sell off some of his barrique-aged wines and bottle a blended Barolo sans vineyard designation — a first for him and the estate. From that point onward, said the young winemaker, Clerico and his wines set back down a traditionalist path, including some of the wine he was already aging in large cask.

When the great Barolo and Barbaresco traditionalist Bruno Giacosa suffered health problems in 2006 and ultimately decided not to bottle the vintage, Oscar told me, Clerico (who succumbed to a long and courageous battle with cancer this year) began to revisit Giacosa’s wines, “rediscovering” his own passion for wines aged in botti (large cask). That led him to begin re-tasting wines by other old school producers whose wines inspired him to change his own style, said Oscar.

I told Oscar about the wonderful dinner we shared with the always colorful Clerico in July 2016. In turn, he shared a story about the Barolo grower’s boundless generosity.

He and Clerico were touring the U.S. last year when a young wine professional asked him to explain the difference between modernist and traditionalist Barolo. Without uttering a word, Clerico left the table and returned with the restaurant’s sommelier and $600 worth of wine — two bottles, one by a classicist, one by an avant-garde producer. When there wasn’t quite enough wine for everyone to taste, Clerico quickly called for another bottle of each. $1,200 later, quod erat demonstrandum.

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