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!