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


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.


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


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)

Italy Day 2 (dinner): felicitiously da Felicin

Above: Da Felicin in Monforte d’Alba is one of Langa’s classic old-school trattorie and it boasts one of the best cellars in the area. The current proprietor and chef, Nino Rocca (pictured below), grandson of Felice (hence the name), makes traditional Piedmontese fare. His colorful wit and spirited one-liners reminded me of the classic tavern-keepers you read about in nineteenth-century Italian novels.

After my meeting with Maria Teresa Mascarello in Barolo, I made a pilgrimage of sorts as I headed to Serralunga d’Alba to visit Fontanafredda, the oldest producer of Barolo: before her grandfather Giulio bought the now historic rows in the vineyards Cannubi, Rocche, San Lorenzo, and Ruè and began to make and bottle his own wine, he worked as a mediatore, a mediator or négociant of grapes for what was and remains the largest producer of Barolo, Fontanafredda.

Together with Ricasoli (Chianti Classico) and Cavour (Piedmont), Fontanafredda was one of the three Risorgimento-era winemakers who shaped the birth of a wine nation: Ricasoli established the primacy of Sangiovese in Tuscany, Cavour obtained nuanced bouquet and created world-class expressions of Nebbiolo in Grinzane, and King Vittorio Emanuele II produced Barolo on a large scale and converted his granaries into wine cellars, gathering together the first great Barolo “library” at his Fontanafredda estate.

The king essentially lost control of Fontanafredda during the Fascist era and the royal family was exiled from Italy after the second world war. But before the war began, Giulio Mascarello negotiated the purchase of fruit for Fontanafredda. According to Maria Teresa, this was one of the reasons he knew the growing sites so well and why he was able to chose so wisely when he decided to purchase select rows in some of Langa’s most coveted vineyards.

More on the “birth of a wine nation” in another post…

Felicin is a favorite gathering place for local and extra-communitarian Barolisti alike. Its cellar is replete with old bottlings of Nebbiolo (as well as a few unfortunate bottles of La Spinetta that Nino thankfully hides away in a corner of his cellar lest brazen thieves attempt to ferry them away in the middle of foggy night).

The asparagus with zabaglione were decadent, worthy of Louis XIV.

Tagliatelle generously dusted with grated black truffles and drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil.

In Langa, the cheese course is traditionally served with cognà (center), a jelly made from the must of Dolcetto grapes after pressing.

Saving my energy for the first day of Vinitaly (which began the next day in Verona), I treaded lightly with a bottle of 1996 Lazzarito by Fontanafredda to accompany the cheese course. The nearly twelve-year old wine showed nicely.

The wise-cracking and ever-gracious Nino reminded me of an “oste” that you might come across in a Manzoni novel. He speaks multiple languages. One cannot help but have a felicitous experience Da Felicin.