97 G. Mascarello Barolo Monprivato Ca’ d’ Morissio and great food at Tasting Kitchen LA

The Schachter factor was in high gear on Tuesday night at The Tasting Kitchen in Los Angeles. Good friend David Schachter reached deep in his cellar for a bottle he knew would thrill me (as it would anyone who knows the great wines of the world): Giuseppe Mascarello 1997 Barolo Monprivato Ca’ d’ Morissio, Mauro Mascarello’s top bottling, from one of the great if somewhat maligned vintages of the twentieth century.

The 1997 harvest was and remains a classic example of semiotician Harold Bloom’s “misunderstanding,” what he would have called the anxiety of influence (@Comrade Howard, I know it’s a stretch but I think you would agree!). Similar to what happened for 2000, many American wine writers (and you all know whom I’m talking about) praised the warm 1997 vintage for the fruit-forward, hot (read highly alcoholic) wines it delivered. In the view of most Piedmont producers, 97 was a good vintage… not a great one. Wines from this harvest, in their view, were not “classic” expressions of their territorio. They were good and sometimes great but not worthy of the hype that they attained in their trans-Atlantic crossing.

Winemaker Mauro Mascarello’s bottling of his Ca’ d’ Morissio vineyard (above, visited by me and Tracie P and top Italian wine blogger Mr. Franco Ziliani in February 2010) was an exception to this paradigm: thanks to the unique microclimate of this deservedly famous growing site (owing to exposure and elevation), Mauro is able to obtain Barolo benchmarks even in hotter vintages. In fact, to my knowledge, he was the only Barolo producer in the five core townships to produce his flagship single-vineyard wine Ca’ d’ Morissio for the extremely hot 2003 vintage (that’s the Ca’ d’ Morissio, “Maurizio’s house,” at the top of the hill, btw).

Mauro Mascarello is a remarkable man, a 19th-century man, a man whose spiritual integrity and wholesome warmth are expressed in his warm, sturdy handshake and personal manner. I’ve had the opportunity to meet and taste with him three times now (each thanks to Mr. Ziliani) and I am always as impressed by the man himself as I am by the incredible wines he produces. Many Barolo insiders point to his winery as the most recently canonized member in the pantheon of the truly great producers in the appellation.

One of the hallmarks of traditional Barolo is large-cask aging: Tracie P snapped the above photo of me when we visited with Mr. Ziliani to show how large “large” is at Giuseppe Mascarello! Mauro’s father was in the lumber business and he built the cask in the photo as an experiment in dimension, said Mauro. (For a fantastic English-language profile of G. Mascarello, I highly recommend this excellent post by my blogging colleague Gregory dal Piaz who knows this winery and its wines perhaps better than anyone else in the U.S.)

I am very fortunate to have tasted a lot of fantastic wine this year (and many of the highlights have been in the last few weeks) but 97 G. Mascarello Barolo Monprivato Ca’ d’ Morissio? An astounding wine. Layers and layers of nuanced fruit and earth on the nose, with this fantastic black licorice, almost menthol note that is always a signature in wines from this vineyard. Rich tar and mushroom in the mouth, with harmonious red berry and red stone fruit. But it was the acidity, tongue-splitting acidity, as Tracie P would have said — even in the warm 1997 vintage! — that took this wine over the top. In Italian wine parlance, you often say that the acidity is a “backbone” that “supports” the flavors of the wine: this wine was the embodiment of this notion.

O, and the food at the Tasting Kitchen (yesterday named 4th best new restaurant in the U.S. by Alan Richman in GQ)?

Buckwheat bigoli with lamb and anchovy ragù was my favorite.

I also loved Chef Casey Lane’s unabashed use of heat in dishes like this tagliolini with baby squid (the fact that my WordPress spellcheck knows tagliolini is remarkable, no?). We spoke to Casey before our meal: he is a super cool, mellow guy (unusual for chefs of his caliber) and he’s from Texas! Awesome dude…

Housemade chorizo and roast pork loin were FANTASTIC with the Ca’ d’ Morissio.

Thanks again, David! And congrats, Casey! An amazing meal and an UNFORGETTABLE wine…

Giuseppe (Mauro) Mascarello: the accidental natural winemaker

So many great wines and so little time… Between my April trip to Italy and Slovenia and my recent stays in New York and Los Angeles, I’ve had the chance to taste so much great wine this spring.

One of my most memorable spring 2008 tastings — a truly extraordinary experience — was a vertical dinner at Mozza in Los Angeles hosted by winemaker Mauro Mascarello of the Giuseppe Mascarello winery (Langa, Piedmont), where he poured bottlings spanning back to 1958.

I’ve had the opportunity to taste older Giuseppe Mascarello before but never had I seen such a remarkable collection of his wines. In fact, the tasting itself — open to the public — was a remarkable event: when it comes to “rare” wine (and I’ve attended and even poured at comparable however private tastings), rarely are so many exceptional vintages offered for public consumption. My friend David Rosoff, wine director and general manager at Mozza, orchestrated the dinner and pours with extreme grace and elegance.

The tasting spanned “six decades” and included the following wines:

1958 Barolo, 1961 Barolo Riserva, 1964 Barolo

The Mascarello family bought and moved the Monprivato estate and began making wine labeled simply “Barolo” in 1904. In 1919, Mascarello acquired an ice warehouse in Monchiero, with vaulted ceilings, said Mauro on the eve of the tasting, a storage space that later proved ideal for aging Barolo because of its natural cooling system. In 1922 (the year Mussolini marched on Rome), Mascarello grafted the vines with the Michét (mee-KEHT) Nebbiolo, a less productive but more structured and more age-worthy clone (Mascarello’s website reports 1921 but Mauro said 1922 was the year of the newly grafted vines; I find it interesting that these two milestones — the acquisition of the ice warehouse and the grafting of Michét — occurred between the two world wars, a time of hope, a time when Italians were happy for the end of the Great War and the peace that followed yet unaware of the tragedy that would follow Mussolini’s rise to power). In 1952 Giuseppe Mascarello began experimenting with Slavonian oak. He had served in the Italian military and Slovenia and had discovered that the more compact wood was better for long-term aging of his wines. In 1962, he started to experiment with the Michét clones, selecting those best suited for his vineyards.

This first flight — 1958, 1961, and 1964 — represented the end of the first era of Mascarello’s history and laid the ground work for what many consider one of the most prolific names in Barolo. The 61 and 64 were oxidized unfortunately, but the 1958 — a very good year for Langa — was gorgeous, very much alive with fruit and acidity.

1970 Barolo Monprivato, 1978 Barolo Monprivato, 1982 Barolo Monprivato

The second flight also marked a landmark in the winery’s history: 1970 was Mascarello’s first cru (single-vineyard) bottling of the legendary Monprivato growing site (Mauro Mascarello began making the wine at Mascarello in 1967 and he would later purchase the entire growing site making it a monopole).

Mascarello’s wines are so powerful and are made in such a radically traditional and by-the-way natural style that they often turn off those accustomed to drinking modern-style Nebbiolo. These wines — the 1970, nearly 40 years old — were drinking beautifully and even the modern-leaning guests were blown away. You really need to experience aged traditional Barolo to appreciate what more recent vintages of the wines will become. The 1970 and 1978 were incredibly, nuanced and poetic, with the indescribable lightness that old Nebbiolo takes on as its tannins began to mellow naturally.

The tasting also included: 1985 Barolo Monprivato, 1989 Barolo Monprivato, 1990 Barolo Monprivato, 1996 Barolo Monprivato, 1997 Barolo Ca d’Morissio, 1999 Barolo Monprivato, 2000 Barolo Monprivato, 2001 Barolo Monprivato, 2003 Barolo Monprivato. The 1989, 1999, and 2001 were stunning and the 1997 Barolo Ca’ d’Morrisio, made from select parcels within Monprivato in top vintages, was still just a young, powerful thoroughbred colt, showing no signs of opening up yet (as many less traditional producers’ wines in this hot-summer Wine Spectator-friendly vintage).

The Ca’ d’Morrisio is named after Maurizio Mascarello, Mauro’s grandfather (literally, Maurizio’s house, so called because Maurizio resided there among the vines). One of the things that strikes me about Mauro (above) is that when you hear him talk about winemaking, he talks like a “natural” winemaker. He’s a gentle, reserved, soft-spoken man, extremely humble and painfully modest. Like his wines, he is a traditional man, with a traditional Langa beard, always dressed in toned-down brown, grey, and blue suits it seems. He has none of the flair of the young generation of natural winemakers but to hear him speak is to hear an ardent supporter of natural winemaking — not as a new fad or wave of the future but rather a tradition that he continues to carry forward because it makes for the greatest expression of his land and his fruit.

When I tasted barrel samples of his 2004 Santo Stefano and Villero at Vinitaly this year, I asked him how he manages to maintain such a distinct style in his wines. “Because I let nature do her work,” he told me with his thick Langa accent. “I try to let the earth express itself through the fruit. I try to do as little as possible in the cellar,” said Mauro, accidental natural winemaker. No natural wine manifesto could have said it better.