Barolo confessions

It was delicious…

Above: I was cold, I was hungry, I was tired… and, yes, damn it, I sat in my lonely hotel room on a damp, cold evening in Asti and watched TV, ate takeout pizza, and drank a bottle of 2005 Barolo Ravera by Elvio Cogno.

Forgive me, readers, for I have sinned. I can already hear the E-Bobs and WineBerserkers wailing, “infanticide!” It was a very lonely evening for me in the heart of winter in Piedmont: the Barbera 7 had abandoned me in my hotel, just as Jeremiah’s lovers had “forgotten him.”

My only companion was a bottle of 2005 Barolo Ravera given to me by Valter Fissore of Elvio Cogno. I was cold, I was hungry, I was tired. So I ordered takeout pizza, popped the cork, and watched TV.

I don’t know where food maven Arthur Schwartz said this, but Italian cookery queen Michele Scicolone often repeats his chiasmatic adage regarding pizza: if you can’t be with the pizza you love, love the pizza you’re with. Well, honey, I loved me some pizza and Barolo that night and I lived to tell about it!

Thanks for letting me get this off my chest… Buon weekend, ya’ll!

97 Barolo, mole, and blues pair well in Austin, Texas

From the “damn, I love this town” department…

Our friends Mike and Magaret (whom we know because they come to nearly every wine tasting I lead here in Austin!) wrote the other day saying they had a very special bottle of wine they wanted to share with Tracie P and me: Guido Porro 1997 Barolo Lazzairasco (!!!). We were thrilled, of course…

Regretfully, not many places allow corkage in Texas (in part due to the fact that the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission discourages it, even though it’s not illegal). But working in the wine business has its perks: my friend and colleague Brad Sharp, wine director at one of our favorite restaurants in the world, Fonda San Miguel, allowed us to bring in this bottle, which Mike hand-carried back from Barolo in 2001. (Btw, whenever we BYOB we always buy a commensurate bottle from the list, in this case some López de Heridia, and we tip generously, keeping in mind that the bill is less than it would have been had we ordered a second bottle at dinner. Fyi, Fonda does not allow corkage.)

In Piedmont, summer months are for Barbera, Pelaverga, and other lighter-bodied red wines that pair well with the lighter foods of warm months. In Mexico, however, heavier foods like mole (a chocolate and chile sauce used to dress meats and enchiladas) are served all year. And so in the spirit of transnational culinary fusion, I paired with carne asada tampiqueña and a cheese enchilada dressed with mole sauce. The combination was FANTASTIC!

Like its brother cru Lazzarito, Lazzairasco (just a few hectares) is one of the great vineyards of Serralunga d’Alba, where some of the richest and most austere Barolo is produced by the appellations oldest subsoils (on the east side of the Barolo-Alba road which divides the “natures” of Barolo).

Although it was one of the indisputably great harvests of a remarkable string of excellent years in Piedmont, 1995-2001, 1997 is not one of my favorite vintages: it was the warmest (as was 2000) and while it was highly praised in the U.S. for its ripe fruit, it didn’t have the balance of, say, 1999 or 2001 (my favs).

Porro is one of the great traditionalist producers of Barolo and this wine entirely surprised us with its lip-smacking acidity and its wild berry fruit character. I knew we were going out on an organoleptic limb with this pairing but wow, did it deliver a sensorial treat — an usual pairing that rewarded us for our daring.

And in keeping with the Austin cosmic cowboy spirit, after dinner we headed over to meet other friends at the Gallery at the Continental Club, where Jimmie Vaughan was sitting in with Hammond B3 player Mike Flanigin. The Gallery at the Continental only holds 50 persons and the “guest” musicians are not advertised (you have to be in the know to find out about which super stars might be appearing on any given night).

Jimmie’s riding high these days, with an awesome new album (that we LOVE) and world tour. He’s also a super sweet guy and he took a moment out for me to snap this photo of him and Margaret.

The dude is a living legend. I mean, how many people in world once lent a wah-wah pedal to Jimi Hendrix?

If only they served Nebbiolo at the Continental Club…

2003 Oddero Barolo in magnum: that’s what friends are for

Above: Giacomo Oddero 2003 Barolo in magnum was fantastic last night.

What can I say? Being a wine blogger has its perks. My buddy John Rikkers (whom I met through wine blogging) brought in a bottle of 2003 Barolo by Giacomo Oddero (one of my favorite traditionalist producers) to drink last night at Jaynes Gastropub following the Mamma Mia! tasting at the restaurant.

NOTA BENE: Jaynes does allow corkage. For a great guide on corkage, check out Lettie Teague’s article from a few years back, “Corkage for Dummies.” It’s a great set of rules-of-thumb for bringing your own bottle.

Above: John (right) and I met online through wine blogging and we always have a blast tasting together.

The 03 Oddero was simply singing last night: tar, goudron nose… earthy manure on the palate… mushroomy and elegantly tannic… Let me just go ahead and say it: cow shit in a glass and I loved it…

It’s a great example of how a lot of great wine was made in 2003, despite the challenging vintage, especially by those who take a traditional approach to Nebbiolo. It’s also a great example of how 2003 — an aggressively warm vintage — is drinking wonderfully right now. (I recently tasted 2003 Barbaresco by Produttori del Barbaresco and again, showing great right now.)

A propos wine blogging and folks I’ve met through the wine blogger community, check out this superb post by Gary Chevsky on his dinner with Mariacristina Oddero of Giacomo Oddero the other night at Donato Enoteca in Redwood, CA (a restaurant, I’m DYING to check out btw). Gary gives a great profile of the producer and the wines, definitely working checking out…

Thanks again, John. The 03 Oddero blew me away last night and was an awesome pairing for my Bangers and Mash. You R O C K!

A big tree and a little tree in Montalcino

Above: Alessandro Bindocci (above) and his father are “on a roll,” wrote one of my favorite wine writers, Antonio Galloni in the April issue of The Wine Advocate published today. I took the photo of Ale in September 2008 at Tenuta il Poggione.

Alfonso does a series of posts on his blog about “big trees” and “little trees,” in other words, mothers and fathers and daughters and sons who work and live in the Italian wine industry. Alfonso’s worked in Italian wine for some time now and let’s just say that he’s seen a few big trees go and a few little trees sprout up.

One of the things that Tracie P and I thought and talked a lot about on our February trip to Italy was the relationships between mothers and fathers who make wine and their children. In some cases, the children aren’t interested in furthering the legacy of their parents, in other cases they are. Sometimes the conflict that arises thereof can lead to bitter quarrels. Other times there is a harmony — not always perfect but ultimately sturdy — that ensures the continuity of the parents’s legacy.

In March when I went back to Piedmont, I asked Enrico Rivetto’s father what he thought about his son’s newfangled blog. “I think he’s crazy,” he replied. “But, then again, my father thought I was crazy when I told him we should make a single-vineyard Barolo.” However reluctantly, the elder Rivetto supports his son’s blogging project.

My friend Alessandro Bindocci is a blogger as well. His father Fabrizio the winemaker at Tenuta Il Poggione (one of my favorite Brunello producers and my long-time friend), can’t even send an email. Alessandro can monitor vinfication using his blackberry.

I was thrilled to read Antonio Galloni’s glowing words for Fabrizio and Alessandro’s wines on Ale’s blog this morning.

As Tracie P and I talk about us making little trees ourselves, it’s a wonderful and warm thought to think that some day they may get to taste wines in the same traditional style Brunello that we love so much. By the time our putative children will be old enough to appreciate fine wine, the wines won’t be Fabrizio’s any longer. They’ll be Alessandro’s.

Mazel tov, Ale. Congrats on your superb scores from Galloni!

Beppe Rinaldi doesn’t care much for Americans (and he makes truly awesome wines)

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Above: They call Giuseppe “Beppe” Rinaldi the “Citrico” (CHEE-tree-koh), the “citric one.” Photos by Tracie P.

When Italian actor Franco Citti told his mentor Pier Paolo Pasolini that he was headed to the U.S. to make a film with Coppola (The Godfather), the director and poet admonished famously: “Go to America but don’t learn how to speak American.”

I couldn’t help but be reminded of that famous however apocryphal quote when esteemed Italian wine scrabbler Mr. Franco Ziliani took Tracie P and me to visit and taste with Beppe Rinaldi in Barolo.

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Above: We didn’t taste but rather drank 1982 Barolo Brunate and 2005 Barolo Brunate-Le Coste in Beppe’s living room, accompanied by some excellent cheeses that Beppe sliced for us personally and his ubiquitous Toscano, the spicy “Tuscan” cigar favored by many Italians. The 1982 was one of the greatest wines I’ve ever had the privilege to drink — brilliant fruit and exquisite tannin. Beppe spilled a drop on Tracie P’s jeans as he poured. She still hasn’t washed them.

Beppe doesn’t care much for Americans or America, a sentiment not uncommon in a region of Italy that was once dominated (although no longer) by far-left politics, where the cultural hegemony of Americana was seen as a destructive force that could sweep away the genuine traditions and values of life in post-war Italy. He told of us of a trip he made in the 1980s to Davis, California, when he was still working as a veterinarian. Unlike other Italian winemakers who traveled to Napa during that decade, Beppe wasn’t impressed by the squeaky-clean wineries and winemakers of his antipodal counterparts. Nor was he impressed by the purveyors of Italian wine.

giuseppe rinaldi

Above: The Rinaldi cellar, which lies underneath the Rinaldi 18th-century villa, is old-school all the way. The house is truly one of the most beautiful in the town of Barolo. I regret that we didn’t take a picture of the exterior.

We were thrilled, of course, to get to taste with Beppe and we are forever grateful to Mr. Ziliani for such high-level access. To my palate, his wines are among the greatest produced in Barolo and the style has remained entirely unchanged for at least two generations (i.e, the current and that of Beppe’s father, also Giuseppe).

giuseppe rinaldi

Above: Among other wines, Rinaldi makes a blend of fruit sourced from Cannubi, San Lorenzo, and Ravera as well as what is considered his flagship wine, Barolo sourced from Brunate and Le Coste. His expressions of Cannubi and Brunate, in particular, are considered two of Barolo’s historical benchmark wines. To my palate, these are two sine qua non wines, essential to an understanding and appreciation of the greatness of Barolo.

Of all the winemakers we talked to in February in Barolo and Barbaresco (and we asked the very same question during each visit), Beppe was the only one who said he doesn’t use selected, cultured yeasts. “I don’t have problems staring fermentation in my cellar,” he said. On a few extremely rare occasions, he told us, he has used cultured yeast when for whatever reason fermentation needed a nudge, so to speak. When you tour the cellar with him and negotiate the labyrinth of his cluttered laboratory, you cannot help but think that the terroir is not only in the vineyards but also there in the cellar, which has remained unchanged for two generations. It is as if the terroir is “growing” on the sides of the enormous Slavonian casks he uses to age his wines. One of the most fascinating vessels is an enormous fermentation cask built by his father so that he could vinify his entire holding of Brunate in one vat. When you visit this cellar, clean, of course, but not immaculate, you can “smell” the terroir.

giuseppe rinaldi

Above: Playing in a French rock band sure comes in handy sometimes.

Beppe may not be so fond of America and Americans but the “citric one” was an excessively generous host. Maybe he found me slightly more simpatico when Mr. Ziliani told him that I perform and write songs with a French rock band. At the end of our visit, Beppe gave me an unlabeled bottle of 2005 Barolo Brunate-Le Coste.

barolo brunate le coste

Above: I probably hate blind tasting as much as Guilhuame does. But I couldn’t resist “tasting my friends blind on this wine,” as we say in the biz. Of course, they could easily surmise what the wine was because they knew where Tracie P and I went on our honeymoon!

Last night, Tracie P and I shared the bottle with our good friend Mark Sayre and the gang at Trio in Austin (the happy hour there has become our “Mel’s Diner”). What a thrill to share this gorgeous wine with a group of wine professionals here in Austin! It was powerful, with gorgeous fruit and an immensely vibrant acidity (no pun intended!), definitely one of the top 3 examples of 2005 Nebbiolo I’ve tasted.

Beppe Rinaldi is a true iconoclast and his wines are truly iconic expressions of Barolo, sine qua non interpretations of one of the greatest wine producing regions of the world, Langa. Like the man, the wines represent an essential continuity with the past and a hope for the future. Whether you prefer modern- or traditional-style Langa wines, thank your lucky stars for a man who remained true to his people and his land, when others were perhaps seduced by the dollar signs that flashed before them in the 1990s. In the field of trophy wines, Beppe’s bottlings remain more than fairly priced. I cannot recommend them to you enough.

And to be honest, I’m only half-kidding when I say that Beppe doesn’t like Americans. ;-)

barolo brunate le coste

Taste Piedmont rocks with me on Sunday at Jaynes in San Diego

The first winery distinguished Italian wine writer Franco Ziliani took me and Tracie P to visit on our February trip to Piedmont was GD Vajra in Barolo. Winemaker Aldo Vajra (below) keeps these rocks (calcareous marl, above) on the windowsill of his tasting room to illustrate what gives great Barolo its structure and minerality.

On Sunday, I’ll be speaking about the wines of Piedmont at Jaynes Gastropub in San Diego, where we’ll be tasting Aldo’s excellent 2005 Barolo Albe.

Jaynes Gastropub
4677 30th Street
San Diego, CA
Sunday March 28
5-7pm
$25/person

Call 619-563-1011 or Email Jaynes for reservations
Tickets will also be available at the door.

Piazza Colbert is the largest square in the tiny town of Barolo. “It’s kinda like the Oscars,” said Tracie P, as we waited there for the illustrious Mr. Ziliani to arrive in the piazza, scanning the names of the winemakers plastered to the homes and cellars around the square. “All the stars are here…” I’ll be giving my “Colbert report” on Sunday…

In the meantime, for a great profile of Vajra, check out McDuff’s posts (Vajra is to McDuff what Produttori del Barbaresco is to me). McDuff is a true friend…

Bruno Giacosa 2007 (complete tasting notes, including some 05s and 04s)

barbaresco

Above: On Sunday, Tracie P, Franco, and I tasted seven wines with the great maestro of Barbaresco and Barolo, Bruno Giacosa (above), and his enologist Giorgio Lavagna. Photo by Tracie P.

How can I begin to describe the emotion that ran through our veins when we sat down on a beautiful snow-covered Sunday morning in Langa with Bruno Giacosa in the Bruno Giacosa tasting room in Neive to taste through the winery’s soon-to-be-released 2007s? Even the uninformed semiotician would have appreciated the myriad strata of meaning, many of them overlapping, as Tracie P, Franco, and I drew that first drop of Asili “white label” 2007 to our lips.

barbaresco

Above: Giorgio Lavagna, right, began to work with Bruno Giacosa in 2008 after the previous enologist, Dante Scaglione, stepped down — a move that surprised many observers of Langa wines. That’s Franco, seated to my left.

The legendary Giacosa winery has been the subject of much controversy over the last two years. In 2008, long-time enologist and Giacosa protégé Dante Scaglione was replaced by Giorgio Lavagna, who had served as enologist at Batasiolo (whose wines are made in a modern style, as opposed to Giacosa’s historically and rigorously traditional style). In 2009, Giacosa shocked the wine world when his British agent announced (in a matter-of-fact press release) that he would not be bottling his 2006 vintage because of the inferior quality of the harvest. I know of no other Langa winemaker who opted for such a drastic declassification and we spoke to many winemakers during our stay about the virtues of the 2006 vintage. (Franco and I have both written, at length, about Giacosa’s decision and how it has affected perceptions of the vintage as produced by other winemakers.)

barbaresco

Above: The 2007 Asili “red label” reserve (“riserva”) by Giacosa is one of the greatest expressions of Nebbiolo I have ever tasted.

But however fraught with anticipation, our encounter revealed that the truth was in the wines, in vino veritas, and what wines they were! In the words of Bruno Giacosa, the 2007 is destined to be one of the great vintages of our times.

The fact of the matter is that Bruno Giacosa does not release mediocre wines and the 2007s are no exception to the rule. Lavagna explained that the extremely mild winter of early 2007 anticipated the vegetative cycle and that, while harvest may have come early, the otherwise classic nature of the vintage gave the wines the tannic structure, profound acidity, and balanced fruit that make for the greatest expressions of Nebbiolo.

Here are my notes and observations from this truly unforgettable tasting.

barbaresco

Above from left, Barbaresco Asili “white label” 2007, Barbaresco Santo Stefano “white label” 2007, Barbaresco Asili “red label” 2007, and Barolo Rocche 2007 “white label.”

Bruno Giacosa 2007 Barbaresco Asili (white label)

The nose was already very evolved, offering surprisingly bright and seductive fruit. The tannin is very powerful but not aggressive and it sits in glorious balance with the fruit and resplendent acidity. The thing that impressed us all about this wine was how purely enjoyable it was — so early in its development — with notes of berry fruit accented by gentle, delicate spice.

“You can smell Asili” in this wine, said Bruno.

Bruno Giacosa 2007 Barbaresco Santo Stefano (white label)

Very powerful and aggressively tannic, mineral notes dominate the fruit in this wine at this early point in its evolution. It’s an “arrogant” expression of Nebbiolo.

“It’s more Barolo than Barbaresco,” said Bruno.

It’s got the tannic structure that Italians like to call “nervoso” or “nervy.” Often when I taste Giacosa’s wines, equine metaphors come to mind: this wine is a powerful young stallion, nervous in the corral, waiting to show its stuff.

Bruno Giacosa 2007 Barbaresco Asili (red label)

The only difference between the white and red (reserve) labels is the additional cask aging. Here the nose was still very closed and the tannin very rich. The fruit was darker in character but I would attribute that to the youth of this powerful wine, which will take longer to reveal the gorgeous fruit that we found in the white label Asili.

What an emotional and inspirational moment to taste this superb wine with Bruno! As we swirled, smelled, tasted, swished, and spit, Tracie P asked Bruno if he preferred Asili or Santo Stefano. “Asili,” he said without hestitation, “is my favorite. They can say what they want, but the best Barbaresco comes from Asili.

One important note: the rows that Giacosa has used historically to make his Rabajà have been reclassified as Asili and so, for the first time, with this vintage, the Giacosa previously bottled as Rabajà went into the Asili. Bruno noted that none of his wines will be labeled using the “menzione aggiuntiva” (“added mention”) Rabajà anymore.

Bruno Giacosa 2007 Barolo Rocche del Falletto (white label)

Of all the wines that we tasted that day, this was the only one that hasn’t spent any time in bottle (it was a barrel sample). The tannin is majestic and muscular at this early stage of its development. The fruit has not yet begun to emerge and its earthy, savory flavors dominated the palate. In Langa, it’s not uncommon to open wine and revisit it later in the day and the next day as well. My only disappointment at the tasting was not being able to spend some more time with this wine.

Bruno Giacosa 2005 Barbaresco Asili
(white label, no red label produced)

Anyone who’s ever tasted Giacosa’s wines knows that it’s difficult not to use superlatives when describing them. Where other bottlings of 2005 Barbaresco have impressed me with how ready they are to drink, this wine was aggressively tannic, a wonderful example of how Asili is a king among crus. By the end of our visit, it had begun to open up slowly to reveal rich red fruit. But aggressive as the tannin was, it still had that distinctive Giacosa signature: never harsh, always elegant, and however powerful at first, the tannin expanded evenly on the back of the tongue, seducing you softly with its muscle while never letting you forget that it was in command of your palate.

Bruno Giacosa 2005 Barolo Rocche del Falletto
(white label, no red label produced)

We all agreed that this regal expression of the Serralunga township (from one of its top growing sites) is destined to go down in history as game-changing bottling of Barolo. Giacosa did not make a “red label” reserve from this storied vineyard in 2005 and Giorgio said it he was “nearly” regretful that they hadn’t. Whether the decision was based on market conditions or on quality of the vintage, this wine will represent a great value for the superior quality in the bottle — whatever the color of the label, Bruno and Giorgio both agreed.

Bruno Giacosa 2004 Barolo Rocche del Falletto (white red label [barrel sample])

Nearly everyone agrees that 2004 was a superlative vintage in Barbaresco and Barolo and this Barolo Rocche del Falletto is a great example of what many consider a “classic vintage” in Langa. It is already very evolved but with many, many glorious years ahead of it. Tracie P and I certainly can’t afford to buy wines in the price point but, man, if I had the dough, this is one of the wines where I’d place my bet. (This wine is already in the market and the red label, they told us, will be released shortly.)

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Bruno Giacosa 2004 Barolo Falletto (white label)

Following the tasting, Giorgio accompanied us to lunch at Enoclub in downtown Alba, where we opened a bottle of the 04 Barolo Falletto. The wine is also still very young in its evolution, richly tannic, but with wonderfully bright acidity. It was so great to enjoy this wine with food (tajarin with sausage ragù in my case). Especially in America, we tend to fetishize Giacosa’s wines to the point that we forget to serve them the way they were intended: with food.

Here are some observations and quotes I culled from our visit (some of them might surprise you).

barbaresco

Above: One of the most moving moments came for me when Giorgio excused himself to return to the winery to draw off a barrel sample. He asked us to continue with the tasting and so I employed my skill as sommelier. What an incredible feeling it was to pour Bruno Giacosa a glass of his wine!

Giacosa was born in 1929 and started making wine when he was 14 years old with the 1944 vintage.

Giacosa uses large-format French Allier casks and he changes them every 8-10 years.

When I asked him what he thought of winemaking in Langa today, he said that “The wines aren’t as good as they used to be.” Today, he told us, growers are using too many chemicals in the vineyard. In his day, only copper and sulfur (“and that’s all!”) were used. He also pointed out that the region has been over-planted and that it lacks the diversity of grape varieties because people have planted Nebbiolo where only Dolcetto and Barbera were planted formerly and even in sites not suited for grape-growing. When I asked Bruno what he thought of the Barolo and Barbaresco growers association, he replied: “The consortium is a waste of time.”

When enologist Giorgio Lavagna asked us what we thought of “biologic [i.e., “organic”] wine,” Bruno chimed in: “Biologic wine is a sham. There is no such thing.”

When I asked Lavagna if Giacosa used cultured yeasts, he said that indeed they do — regularly. Cultured yeasts, he said, were commonly (and have been historically) used at Giacosa to initiate fermentation. But the yeasts, strains developed especially for Langa, do not “dominate the natural yeast.”

When I asked Bruno when he thought these wines would be ready to drink, he said 8-10 years and in 4 years for some of them. As Giorgio pointed, it’s a matter of “cultural taste.” Where Americans and Brits tend to like these wines more when they have aged 20 and even 30 years, Italians prefer to consume them in “middle age,” as it were.

Worth checking out: Ken Vastola maintains an excellent “bibliography” of Giacosa’s wines here.

Post scriptum. Bruno suffered a stroke in 2006 and he still hasn’t fully recovered. He was perfectly lucent and conversant during our tasting but it was also clear that he’s in a lot of pain. I wish that everyone could have seen the smile on his face, when he held Tracie P’s hand and told her, “sei una bellissima sposa,” “you are a very beautiful bride.”

The smell of money guides the evolution of taste, part 2

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Above: A collection of old large-format bottles at the Bartolo Mascarello winery. I took the photo when I visited and tasted with Maria Teresa Mascarello, Bartolo’s daughter, in April 2008. Those are aging casks in the winery’s cellar, below left.

I received a lot of positive feedback in the wake of my post the other day Bruno Giacosa and Bartolo Mascarello meet for the first time. Thank you to everyone who commented and wrote in for the encouragement and the kind words. And special thanks, again, to Franco, for bringing this wonderful piece of writing to our attention.

One of the most fascinating elements — among many — about the first installment was the note about the weather: 95° at the end of July. How did that heat spike affect the 1964 vintage?

Here’s the second and final installment of the translation of Francarlo Negro’s newsletter, “The Smell of Money Guides the Evolution of Taste.”

Buona lettura!

*****

barolo… The same was true of the Barbaresco [I’ve never heard of a B. Mascarello Barbaresco but evidently he was making Barbaresco at that time; thoughts?]

In the glass, the wine was clear, not dark red, but rather light red with gradations of garnet and an orange-rose rim.

In the mouth, the light flower gave way to the tannic freshness that enveloped the elegance of the wine, an austere but inviting sensation, cleansing the mouth and prompting you to take another sip. The elegance of the nose opened with a velvety impression, dry but never bitter in taste.

The 1961 Barbaresco that Bruno Giacosa had brought for the tasting was more evolved. But it showed characteristics similar to those of the Barolo, although with slightly different tonalities. Light impressions of field flowers, rounder on the palate, definitely more velvety and approachable.

Bruno and Bartolo discussed the fundamental roll of the land, of the surì [i.e., the best rows in top growing sites], the vines, and approaches to growing grapes — without abusing the vine, with asking too much of it.

Quality depended on the harvest. During those years, clear-cut differences were evident between one vintage and another. In more than 40 years since the birth of the Barolo and Barbaresco appellations, the wines have been declassified only once to rosso da tavola [red table wine], and that was no haphazard decision. The year was 1972, when excessive rain and incessant fog caused the grapes to rot.

Thirty years later, the 2002 harvest should have met the same fate. But technology and the interests of the large exporters weren’t about to let that happen. Millions of bottles containing low-quality wines were released on to the market bearing the name Barbaresco and Barolo DOCG.

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Above: Historic aging casks for Nebbiolo, no longer in use, at the Fontanfredda winery, one of the original high-volume producers of Barolo, founded in the 19th-century by the first king of Italy, Victor Emmanuel II.

Subordination to “international” tastes clouds the identity of our wine.

The advent of international demand, which began in the early 1980s, has offered a historic opportunity to the great wines of Langa: to reach the tables of the greater western world, from Europe, to America, to Japan.

This demand is guided by American buyers who want Barolo and Barbaresco to change in order to adapt to the tastes and style of the market in that great country — that gluttonous, powerful, ignorant country.

The greater part of winemakers have adapted their cellars, as sales increase and profits soar. For the most part, the historic enologic culture of our land has been snubbed to make way for new technology in grape-growing, vinification, and aging. The score awarded by U.S. magazines determines the success or failure of sales.

A complex network of relationships has been created between large international merchants, consenting journalists, and willing enologists. A new genre of wine has been born. There are a few exceptions but most wineries have chosen to reshape the identity of the great wines of Langa. These changes have not come about through an exchange of ideas between the old and the new but rather between traditional and modern enology: the wines are the result of an irrational adaptation of enological standards, dominated by the major buying groups and by the multi-national network of the wine industry.

Vanilla, fruity Barolo and Barbaresco.

The “ideal” wine destined for export has changed completely. The color must be darker, as darkly colored as blood, the symbol of power, modeled after Cabernet Sauvignon, the benchmark grape variety for the international market.

Vanilla is desirable in the nose, as are extraneous spicy notes, the fruit of aging in small toasted casks, French barriques, used only if rigorously new, so that they will impart their own aromas and tannins as they corrupt the classic, original traits of our wines.

The taste should be marked by “fruitiness,” notes of ripe red fruit, with intense flavors, enticing and coating, sometimes jammy. When the harvest isn’t the best and the natural alcohol content is only 13%, winemakers resort to the Salasso method: when fermentation begins and the skins form the cap, a certain quantity of must is racked off from the bottom of the cask in order to achieve the desired intensity in color and flavor. The technology behind temperature-controlled concentrators allows the winemaker to avoid cooked-fruit flavors as they reduce the water content and increase the sugar content of the wine.

Fermentation and vinification techniques have undergone a transformation under the aegis of enologic innovation. It’s no secret that the consultation of a certain enologist with ties to the new network of international media and commercial interests is a prerequisite for a good score in the wine guides and the subsequently increased facility to sell the wine at a higher price. The end result is an atypical wine, in cahoots with grape varieties considered “international” because they are the preference of Americans and others unfamiliar with the culture of wine. The uniqueness of the monovarietal wine, made from Nebbiolo, has lost its distinct personality.

Certain media have embraced and supported this production-and-marketing operation: for many years the Gambero Rosso/Slow Food Guide to the Wines of Italy has punished traditional producers by denying them recognition among the Tre Bicchieri winners. Giacosa and Bartolo Mascarello are among those who have penalized. Their wines were considered to “rustic.”

—Francarlo Negro

Postscript

In recent years, regional authorities have allowed growers to plan new vines in growing sites where grape growing [for fine wine production] has never been suitable. Many of these sites have never been deforested nor used for cultivation of any kind since they face northward. These are sites where our elders wouldn’t have even thought of planting hazelnut trees: in 2008, production of Barolo and Barbaresco increased 50% with respect to production levels in 1999.

(translation by Do Bianchi, January, 2010)

Giacosa and Mauro Mascarello spar over 2006

Above: A recent photo of iconic Langa producer Bruno Giacosa.

Over at VinoWire, Franco and I have posted a preview of Franco’s article on Bruno Giacosa’s controversial decision not to bottle his 2006 Barbaresco and Barolo (to appear in the February issue of Decanter Magazine). But you’ll have to click over to VinoWire to get it. It marks the first time that Giacosa has spoken directly to the English-speaking world on the polemic move. You might be surprised by what some of his peers and interlocutors have to say about the vintage.

In other news… from the “just for gastronomic fun” department…

It’s that time of year again when we spacciatori di vino (wine pushers) hit the streets and start showing our wares again. It’s been good to reconnect with a lot of folks I only see when I’m on the road, like my good friend Josh Cross, who always has something fun on the menu at his awesome restaurant Oloroso in San Antonio. Josh and I both worked in the New York restaurant scene during the better part of the last decade and so we have a lot of friends in common.

He’s open for lunch now and so he treated me to one of his lunch specials, a take on “pigs in a blanket” (above): housemade venison sausage, cased in a runza dough kolache bun, served with a fig mustard and piquillo pepper relish.

I really like his sous chef Ernesto Martinez’s take on the German and Czech historical presence in Central Texas. How’s that for fusion?

Today, I’m on my way from Dallas to Houston, where I’ll be speaking at a wine tasting tonight. In less than a week, my beautiful Tracie B and I will be leaving for San Diego and the final preparations for our wedding. I wish ya’ll could see the grin on my face as I write this from a Starbucks in Ennis, Texas! :-)

Bruno Giacosa and Bartolo Mascarello meet for the first time

Every once in a while you come across one of those amazing pieces of writing that makes you stop in your tracks, put down your coffee during breakfast, and focus all of your thought and imagination on the words on the page (or, as the case may be, screen) before you. A text where the experiential and the aesthetic sensibility combine to transfigure the words’s meaning and sound, revealing unexpected and welcomed clues to the mystery of life that surrounds us.

That’s what happened to me this morning during our daily breakfast ritual chez Tracie B, as I scanned The New York Times online and my Google reader feed.

I think the same thing happened to Franco, when the same text appeared in his inbox earlier today.

The below translation has been culled from an e-letter authored by Francarlo Negro, restaurateur, Nebbiolo and Langa afficionado, and owner of the Cantina del Rondò in Neive (Cuneo, Piedmont). Franco re-posted it earlier today on his excellent blog Vino al Vino.

It’s entitled, “The Smell of Money Guides the Evolution of Taste,” and in the first part, Francarlo recalls a meeting organized by his father between Bartolo Mascarello and Bruno Giacosa (their first!) in late July, 1967 (not long after I was born!).

After I read it to Tracie B this morning over coffee, she said, “You have to translate that!” By the time the words left her delicate lips, I had already begun… Buona lettura!

1967: Bruno Giacosa meets Bartolo Mascarello

At the end of July, 1967, with the hills inundated by a delicate, sultry fog, my father, who was a friend of Bartolo Mascarello from Barolo, organized a visit with Bruno Giacosa from Neive. I was 17 years old and I was excited: I didn’t want to miss a word of the conversation that I was about to witness.

Back then, there was no demand from the international market. It was difficult to sell fine wine, which, at the time, was only opened on special occasions. Adulteration was rampant: large wineries like Marchesi di Barolo inundated the market unchecked and dishonest farmers cut our wines with concentrated must that arrived from the South. Manduria in Apulia was the principal source of the supply.

Everyone knew of the case of a Fiat worker, originally from Neive, who would obtain this hodge-podge from a large local cellar and would proceed to fill his casks every spring and sell his “authentic wine” to his fellow factory workers.

Together with a few others, Giacosa and Mascarello waived the flag of authenticity high. With confidence, they identified the words authentic and local character with the purity and identity of the two great wines of Langa, the fruit of Piedmontese enological culture.

The cool air of Bartolo’s cellar greeted us when we arrived: we had traveled over 12 kilometers of asphalt at 35° [Celsius, 95° F.] in our Fiat 600 with the windows rolled down. The tall casks [botti] bulged around the waist, made from Slavonian oak. Some held 50 brinte (2,500 liters), others 100 brinte. In all, there was just over 15,000 liters of Barolo, from different vintages and different vineyards, all from hills in the township of Barolo.

Bartolo climbed up the ladder leaning against the casks, he drew off a little bit of wine, and handed us the glasses. And so the ritual of tasting began.

Despite Bartolo Mascarello’s repeated pleas that Bruno address him using [the familiar] tu, Bruno Giacosa addressed Bartolo using Voi, a sign of ancient respect for the authority of his interlocutor. The air was filled with great respect, between the men and for the wine. In silence, we delicately sipped the wine, as we aerated the small tastes in our mouths.

I remember that the 1964 Barolo leapt from the glass, the elegant, regal wine already releasing its full magnificence. The nose revealed subtle notes of violet and white spring flowers. In the mouth, you perceived the tart sensation of the small buds of the vine during blossoming. You could not taste any wood, as wood was not meant to be apparent. The cask — the botte — was intended to play one role alone: it was meant to accompany the Nebbiolo, sharp and brusque at birth, on its slow journey as it aged and became austere and elegant.

That’s all I had time for today, but, wow, what power in these 450 words! How much information — so many clues to the history and story of Barolo — in this dense text! I’ll translate more in the days that follow. But, wow, just ponder this passage for a few days. Stay tuned…