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…

A couple of posts worth reading…

David Schachter and I had our weekly powwow at Mozza last night, where we also tasted with general manager David Rosoff (above) — top sommelier and Italian wine guy in Los Angeles in my book. Man, I wish I could get my facial hair to look as good as his. He’s also a rocking drummer.

Today finds me simply too busy to keep posting my Brunello debate series and I promise to pick it up again on Friday.

In the meantime, check out this post by winemaker and wine blogger Craig Camp, who sets the record straight with James “Giacomino” Suckling. The 1997 and 2000 vintages in Piedmont (and Tuscany) are among the most overrated and misunderstood in this country (I mean, come on: is there such thing as a 100-point vintage?). Suckling should be commended, however, for keeping prices of 1999 and 2001 down. And Piedmont 1998? Drinking great right now.

Schachter brought a bottle of Il Cantante white, impossible to find in this country, and I have to say, one of the most impressive Sicilian whites I’ve ever tasted (made from Carricante, Minnella, Grecanico, and Moscato). Don’t let the rockstar label fool you: this is serious stuff.

I also liked Lyle Fass’ report “U.S. to bailout wine retailers.” Note his take on the 2000 Barolo and 2003 Brunello (both warm, atypical vintages).

We also drank a Conterno Cicala 1996 from Schachter’s cellar. I tasted this wine twice on release — once in NYC and later at the winery. I have to say that it did not show as well as I would have expected and the wood still dominated the wine unfortunately. This wine was touted by some — and they know who they are — to be one of the greatest releases of the decade. I’ve always enjoyed Aldo Conterno’s wines but at the end of the day, I think that traditionalism invariably trumps modernism, however muted that modernism may be (call me a passéist). But this post is about others’ rants, not mine! More on the Brunello debate on Friday…