Italy: Piedmont

Barolo is always a treat and many say it is Italy’s greatest wine. Who are we to disagree? It comes from the rippled Piedmontese landscape just south of Alba. An hour’s drive south of Turin. As you look from the highest point, the hilltop town of La Morra across the valley you can pick out the townships on their respective hills, evoking mediaeval times.

Despite the value of Barolo, until quite recently Piemonte was really quite poor. Relying heavily on the land and very much at the mercy of the harsh mountain winters, life was pretty hard. A recurring (and slightly irreverent) theme around the valley was that the men were always groomed to run the small family farms, usually leaving school prematurely. What to do with the girls? – Oh, send them to school and college, maybe they can get a job in the towns and cities…As a result, many of the women speak more languages than the usual Piemontese dialect and Italian. It was Daniela Veglio who smilingly told us “that’s why our men are so stupid!” – one way of looking at it maybe, but they can certainly make great wine!

Although it seems to us as if Barolo has always been a classic fine wine, in the 1800s and first half of the 1900s Barbera was considered the king of wine in Piedmont and Barbera vines were planted in all the best positions. Nebbiolo, the grape which finds its purest expression in Barolo and Barbaresco, was just too difficult, too tough. It needed such a long time in bottle (routinely 20-30 years) to tame its aggressive tannins and awkward acidity. Time was, only a century ago, when Barbera Nebbiolo took over as Barolo and Barbaresco became more valued and Barbera became unfashionable. In the past fifteen years many growers have started taking Barbera more seriously. It makes an excellent counterpoint, with its big flavour and low tannin, to the more tannic Nebbiolo.

Barolo’s stature was increasing in the mid 1960’s and there was a revolution in the mid 70’s led by Elio Altare and friends who modernised their winemaking, seeking to control the tannin levels and boost aromas. There is still a rift between traditionalists and modernistas (usually referred to as “barrique” wines in the area), the traditionalists saying the modern wines are just too oaky and won’t age and the modernistas saying the traditional wines are undrinkable young and why wait 30 years to find if the wine is any good?
What we found on our trip was a rich and satisfying third way opening up – where some growers have eased back on the new oak, aiming for a wine with the weight, body and power of some of the better traditionalists, but with the perfume, nuance and sheer approachability of the modernists.

Like Burgundy, there is a clear definition of styles from township to township; Monforte – powerful, tough. La Morra – elegant, perfumed. Serralunga – sleek minerality and poise. Barolo – power and perfume. Also a “cru” system has taken increasing hold over the past few years with “cru” vineyards such as “Cannubi”, “Arborina” and “Rocche” specified on the label. These are considered a higher level than straight village Barolo – and equivalent to 1er cru status. Mauro Sebaste says the “cru” is now more important than the old fashioned Riserva system.

Many are experimenting with super-cuvées of Barbera and Langhe Rosso blends in various combinations of Barbera, Nebbiolo, Freisa, Brachetto and international varieties like Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Merlot, Pinot Noir. Still, the unique noble grape of the region is Nebbiolo, now planted in all the prime positions and with a string of very good to excellent vintages (with 2 exceptions) over the last 15 years Barolo is highly valued as one of the great red wines of the world. We love it!

Gianfranco Alessandria (Monforte d’Alba)

From the hilltop town of La Morra, across the valley you can pick out the Barolo townships on their respective hills, evoking mediaeval times. There is enormous variety in styles from the different townships. Serralunga is stern and minerally, La Morra is elegant and perfumed, Barolo town is a balance of power and elegance, Monforte d’Alba is considered the bruiser, the most macho and powerful. This is where Gianfranco and Bruna Alessandria and their two daughters Vittoria and Marta live.
Gianfranco Alessandria is one of the brightest stars of the township. With our not-very-fluent Italian, communication has usually relied on warm goodwill here. Vittoria, now 28, has been working alongside Gianfranco in the cellar for a few years and has been studying English. Marta, now 23, has finished her studies in nearby Alba, made some wines with her college friends and is now also working in the family Cantina.
The Alessandria family continue to use the traditional fermentation methods, punching down the cap in open-top fermentation vats. Having said that, the wines are far from traditional. Tiny quantities, low yield – they manage to combine raw power with silky finesse.

Cavallotto (Castiglione Falletto)

We have long admired Cavallotto’s Barolos. They are the epitome of elegance, power and poise. If you start your journey into Barolo with Cavallotto, you would be forgiven for finding them a bit stern and ungiving. But just wait. Come at them with respect, with context and they will reveal their refined beauty, their precision and glimpses of perfection.
There was a moment when, having admired them from afar for long enough, we had to make the call. After an unhurried and complete tasting with Giuseppe Cavallotto, it was inevitable their wines would find their way onto our shelves. We have been back again to visit the camera-shy Giuseppe and to marvel at the consistency and quality of their wines, year-in year-out.
The Cavallotto history is a useful example of how the region evolved, albeit much earlier than most. In common with every other grower of the era, the family sold all of their production (apart from what they used themselves) to the big local merchants and Cantina Sociale (the townships’ Co-ops).
In 1944 they took the bold step to vinify and bottle their entire output themselves. So in 1948, when the wine was released, their label was born. Many other growers followed their example in later decades. There was a big move towards self-bottling in the 1970s, 80s and 90s as Barolo became increasingly sought-after and valued.
San Giuseppe is a 3.78 ha parcel within their monopole Bricco Boschis vineyard with vines planted between 1932 and 1956. They have made a Barolo Riserva from these vines in the good vintages since 1970.

Il Chiosso (Gattinara)

North, due north, to the Alps, up into Alto Piemonte. Past the rice fields of Arborio to Gattinara – the other home of Nebbiolo.
Carlo Cambieri and Marco Alunno brought their two families’ vineyards together to form Il Chiosso in 2007 and make beautiful, high toned, high-altitude Nebbiolo in the Alto Piemonte.
Carlo has a day job as an engineer. Marco is an Oenologue and, with his Dad, takes cares of their vines over in the Colle Novarese, including their Ghemme. Carlo and his Dad look after Il Chiosso’s Gattinara vines, including their monopole Gattinara Cru vineyard “Galizja”.
Il Chiosso means “home garden” or “Clos”. It’s still a small winery and small is beautiful.

Guasti Clemente (Nizza Monferrato)

One of the highlights of our recent trip to northern Italy was stumbling across a ridiculously good Barbera d’Asti in Le Due Lanterne, a restaurant in Nizza Monferrato in Piedmont. We were there to visit the iconic Scarpa winery and were wading through a bottle of their delicious Barbaresco 1999 when we asked the patron if he could recommend something else from his winelist that was in a similarly unreconstructed and old-fashioned vein. He thought for a moment and said “there is just one other wine I can think of”. He disappeared and came back with a bottle of Barbera d’Asti Fonda San Nicolao 2007 by Guasti Clemente. It was excellent. Plump, deep, dark autumnal fruit and a whisper of truffles and distant bonfire.

The following day, after a wonderful tasting at Scarpa, we hotfooted it around to meet Andrea and Alessandro Guasti and to be dazzled by Andrea’s incredibly mobile and expressive hand gestures. And the wines.

Marchisio Family (Castellinaldo d’Alba)

Palladino (Serralunga)

We were looking for an uncompromising, old-style Barolo and were convinced we’d find it in the mediaeval township of Serralunga d’Alba, famous for its particularly tough, untamed, tannic Nebbiolo. After several teeth-staining tastings we stumbled across Palladino. Tar and roses, truffles and more tar…Mission successful!
Maurilio and his niece Veronica make a wonderful range of classic regional wines mainly from the chalk & clay soils of Serralunga. Dolcetto, Barbera, a Barbera Superiore “Bricco delle Olive”, a Nebbiolo from the nearby township of Roddi. The range of Barolo has been growing. The Barolo Serralunga, Vigna Broglio and Riserva San Bernardo (a magnificent parcel rented from the church for decades) have recently been joined by two more Crus, Parafada and Ornato. They also make small amounts of Roero Arneis, a Gavi (which almost entirely goes to Malta), a Moscato d’Asti and a Barolo Chinato. Alongside their wonderful, classic Barolos, we often snap up unexpected old vintages of their Dolcetto and Nebbiolo whenever we spot them. Old Dolcetto? Yes, really! To give an example, we were lucky enough to be having dinner at Elio Altare’s home and one of the most startling wines was a 15 year-old Dolcetto. Who would have thought it could age? We have just taken delivery of the last few bottles of Palladino’s 2009 Dolcetto. Move quickly!

Pugnane (Castiglione Falletto)

We had been losing sleep. Agonising over the small gap in our range of Barolo. We were missing one of the key townships, Castiglione Falletto, where power and structure harmonise with perfume and elegance. We had to plug the gap, pronto.
How did we come across Pugnane? There is a Cantina Communale in Castiglione Falletto run by Alan Tardi, a New Yorker who settled here ages ago. It’s a great place to do some research and, following our trawl of Alan’s shelves, Pugnane was top of our shopping list.
Pugnane is a family winery, owned by the two Sordo brothers, although Enrico does almost everything as his brother Franco works in a Salami factory nearby. Enrico’s cousin Matteo is also onboard and his parents are still in attendance. His mother works daily in the vines and, when we returned to pick-up our order, his father Giovanni appeared with the presence of a mature movie star, complete with fantastically low voice, to present us with a basket of Nebbiolo grapes from their Barolo Villero vineyard.
Enrico’s grandfather started the Azienda in 1950 with 2 hectares of vines. They now have just under 12 hectares. 2 for Dolcetto, 8 for Nebbiolo, the rest Barbera and a tiny parcel of Chardonnay. Enrico joined as soon as he left school. Winemaking is totally traditional, wild yeasts, three years in the classic, big Botti – 3,000 and 5,000 litre casks made from Slovenian oak. Wines also rest in concrete vats. Not a single barrique in sight. Jewel in the crown is their Barolo, which all comes from the Villero vineyard. We love their wines, which are unmessed-with, authentic and balance elegance and power.

Scarpa (Nizza Monferrato)

There is a very useful restaurant in La Morra called Il Duca Bianco. The food may lack the finesse of some of the other local restaurants, but it is always reliable. The main draw for us is that you can buy a bottle in the wine shop next door, the Gallo Wine Gallery, and drink it with your meal. The shop may be touristy, but it’s still great. A succession of rooms that start wide and end in tighter and tighter focus. The first room features the rest of the world outside Italy, next is Italy outside Piedmont. Next is Piedmont, then the rest of Barolo and finally a room filled with growers from La Morra. There is also a glass case with some of the stupidly expensive stuff. We had been eyeing up a bottle in the glass cabinet for a while. Scarpa. Never heard of them. Expensive yes, but, in the context of current Barolo pricing, not outside the realms of reality. So one lunch on a Sunday last October we sat eating outdoors at the restaurant. What would you like to drink? A bottle of Barolo Tettimorra 1999 by Scarpa please. Less than a minute later the guy from the shop burst into the courtyard with the bottle and a decanter. “This is the best Barolo in the shop”, he said. “Sure you can spend more” (here he peppered the expectant air with high profile examples) “but this – this is proper Barolo. Anything else is boolshit.”
Turns out he was right. It was jaw-dropping – certainly one of the best Barolos we had ever tasted. Old-fashioned but without the faults you could occasionally come across in earlier decades. We were hooked. So we made our advances and hurried over again as soon as Christmas was done with.

Scarpa is a very unusual estate. It is the only winery in Piedmont allowed to vinify its Barolo outside the Barolo boundaries. Started in 1854, Scarpa pre-dates all the new wine laws and has the only official exemption. Originally set-up by a winemaker from the Veneto, Antonio Scarpa, the estate passed from the Scarpa family at the end of the 1800s and has passed through the hands of five local families. Today it is run by Martina Barosio and her mother Maria Piera Zola. Martina’s stepfather, a Swiss banker, bought it in 2001.
Mario Pesce, who owned the estate from the 1970s until 2001, was responsible for Scarpa’s DNA. He farmed organically (although to this day they are un-certified) and eschewed modern techniques. No temperature control – if you want the cellar cooling, you open the door. No use of barriques – preferring the big traditional casks, Botti. Pesce felt they should be able to offer mature vintages, built up a stock of older wine and had a special bottle made with a slimmer neck for slower maturation. The style was designed to accompany the local food and therefore could, should be more austere.

The Zolas were determined to continue in the same style. They have had the same winemaker for the last 50 years, Carlo Castino, and have continued with the same philosophy and techniques set up by Pesce.

While it was their Barolo which brought us knocking, Scarpa have a much wider range than just Barolo. Being based in Nizza Monferrato, it is natural that they should be well-known for their Barbera d’Asti. There are three bottlings – the entry-level Casa Scarpa, and two, increasingly serious bottlings, I Bricchi and La Bogliana. There are also several local oddities – varietals you don’t see outside their zone. Dolcetto d’Acqui, Brachetto Secco, Freisa Secco (a close, wild relation of Nebbiolo) and Rouchet. Rouchet, thought to have originated in France, is a very unusual, alcoholic red with a marked floral perfume. Scarpa have vintages in each varietal going back at least one decade and often two or more.

It was an amazing visit – a living history of Piedmontese red wine at the highest level. We learnt a lot that day including the fact that, a century ago, Barolo was impossible to sell. The merchants would give a vat of Barolo away free with every two vats of Dolcetto. How times have changed!

Mauro Veglio (La Morra/Annunziata)

There are two houses on the Cascina Nuova outcrop overlooking the “Arborina” vineyard. One belongs to the chief revolutionary (recently retired) Barolista Elio Altare, the other to his protege Mauro Veglio. With help and guidance from Elio in the early years, Mauro and his wife Daniela started making wine in 1992 and have built up a formidable reputation with their basket of Barolo “crus”, their Nebbiolo, Barbera and Dolcetto. Elegant, feminine La Morra perfume. Think tar, roses, truffles, tobacco leaf and Earl Grey tea. Their La Morra Crus are Arborina, Gattera, Rocche dell’Annunziata. There is also a butch, structured one from Monforte, Castelletto, which came from Daniela’s side of the family – she was originally a Saffira. Their two Barberas are always brambley. In addition to their regular Barbera, made in stainless steel tanks, they treat their oldest vines (over 60 years old) to a spell in some new oak and bottle it as Cascina Nuova. The Dolcetto vines have distinctive purple leaves, are early ripening and usually deliver light, charming, breezy wines. Mauro coaxes surprising complexity from his “little sweet one”. Elegant, feminine La Morra perfume with a fuller body.

Osvaldo Viberti (La Morra/Serra dei Turchi)

We were brought to Osvaldo’s door by his fabulous Barolo Serra dei Turchi 2001. His house is in a small cluster of farm buildings on a small ridge between Alba and the hilltop village of La Morra called “Serra dei Turchi”. There was a Turkish encampment on this ridge centuries ago. We love the handmade quality of his wines.
Over the last decade he and his family have added a vineyard in Serralunga – famous for its more macho Barolo. In 2010, a couple of friends offered him some grapes from the legendary Cannubi vineyard from which he made a sensational Barolo Riserva. It’s a shame that it was always going to be a one-off but try to catch it while we have a few bottles – it is possibly the finest wine Osvaldo has made so far! Another of his latest projects is his first white wine. Nascetta is a grape variety that had all but died out in the Phylloxera epidemic in the late 1800s. Until very recently there were just five or six growers in the nearby village of Novello who still had a couple of rows. Now there are a couple more, including Osvaldo.

Cascina Besciolo (Gorzegno)

Cascina Corte (Dogliani)

Cornarea (Canale)

Cascina delle Rose (Barbaresco/Tre Stelle)

Chain-smoking powerhouse Giovanna Rizzolio had had enough of the fashion journalism world in Milan when she moved into her grandparents’ house (with her new husband and his teenage sons) in the Tre Stelle hamlet along the ridge from Barbaresco. She started a guesthouse and decided to bottle her own wine.
Most Dolcetto is light, bright, breezy and crunchy. Brace yourself, Giovanna’s is quite different, with its dark, meaty, almost sweaty nose and startling weight and body. This may all sound a bit “locker room”, but fortunately there’s a wonderful core of blackberry fruit running through it. She makes the full compliment. Surprisingly meaty Dolcetto, lush Barbera, bold Nebbiolo and excellent Barbaresco.

Fontanassa (Rovereto)

Gavi, made from a grape called Cortese, is considered one of the finest white wines of Italy and evokes wet straw, white flowers, honeysuckle and bitter almonds.
The town of Gavi, north of Genoa, has an imposing citadel, some fantastic almond biscuits and, surprisingly, no vines. The best Gavi is called Gavi di Gavi and comes from a small village called Rovereto on the gently undulating plateau above Gavi and its gorge. Marco Gemme, who runs Fontanassa with his brother Roberto, is possibly one of the most bearded men we have ever met. A visit there is a truly rural experience with children, chickens and dogs running underfoot, and a beaten-up car under a tree. Roll back the big door of the barn and you get a surprise – the shiniest modern winery.

Edoardo Sobrino (Diano d’Alba)

Edoardo is a manufacturer and dealer in tiles. Longtime Barolo-lover, he bought a house next to legendary Barolo producer Roberto Voerzio. He also bought some very old vines. We have a vision of Edoardo leaning over the garden fence and asking his neighbour, “so my tanks are at 23 degrees, what do I do now?”