John Szabo, MS
Don’t ever ask a serious wine lover what their favorite wine is. It drives them mad. It exposes you as a neophyte, a philistine, a savage. It gets you disinvited to the next dinner party. You might as well go on and ask if wine is made from grapes. You see, true wine lovers are promiscuous. They’re poly-amorous. They don’t play favorites. (Isn’t it enough to sign up forever with one cell phone provider, one insurance company, one bank manager, one spouse?) To expect anyone who’s mesmerized by the fantastic diversity of today’s wine panorama to have an on-going monogamous relationship with a brand of wine is as unlikely as finding a poet satisfied with a single verse, or a culinary genius sated by the same sandwich day after day. To drink the same “favorite” wine, night after night, week after week, year after year would lead to a terminal case of boredom, no matter how good the wine.
Yet the question is still asked, and damned if I can’t come up with an answer. If I were to be trapped on a dessert island, I’d fervently wish that island to be in the imaginary sea of northwestern Italy. Piedmont to be more precise, and the Langhe Hills around the town of Alba to get really geographically specific. This glorious little corner of the vinous world, cradled by gently sloping hills that run like the slender fingers of a piano player, within viewing distance on a crisp day of the majestic snow-capped Alps, is home to some of the world’s most astounding, most compelling most memorable wines.
I suppose that I have a history with the region that colours my view. It was here that I had my first “serious” wine visit, back in the early nineties. By sheer chance, luck, serendipity, with pack on my back and a random list of wine producers before me in a brochure furnished by the Alba tourism bureau, I slotted my lira into the payphone and dialed a foreign number as though I were pulling the lever on a slot machine. The name listed next to the number was that of a certain Signore Bartolo Mascarello, completely unknown to me, as were the rest of the names in the long list I had at hand. As it turned out, said Signore Mascarello was (past tense, he sadly passed away several years ago) one of the last great traditionalists in one of the most storied wine regions in one the most ancient wine producing lands on earth. You can’t get much more lucky than that.
To my surprise, he answered the phone and agreed to welcome me for a visit. But he wasn’t particularly warm or welcoming. In retrospect, he seemed totally amused or rather bemused by this young man from Canada with his broken Italian and next to no wine knowledge. But he indulged my fantasy. We sat in his dusty, antidiluvian office that seemed more like the site of an archeological dig than the nerve center of a modern winery. Me awkward, he calm, as though he’d seen it all before and was simply waiting for me to realize it. It was not in a condescending way, no; he was rather like a grandfather seeing his grandson grappling with the pangs of the first unrequited love: serene, understanding, aware that nothing but time can remedy the situation. And he had patience. Time stood still. He could have been a Zen master, immovable, unencumbered by the terror of silence as I was. We sat for what seemed like an interminable period. Paralyzed by the fear of knowing I might be caught out as a wine charlatan, I made the truth even more plain then it already was by managing to stumble out a series of the silliest questions imaginable. I topped it off with an all-time classic question of the obvious that still makes me shake my head in dismay to this day: “Signore Mascarello, have you been making wine for a long time?” The venerable man, then in his 70s I guess, simply smiled, and I sank further into the old, hard wooden chair opposite his imposing desk, gazing at the dust and cobwebs that had been there for centuries.
I hadn’t come for conversation, obviously. What could I have possibly offered to this legend of the Langhe? I was simply thirsty, eager to taste a cool glass of wine poured straight from the vat, made from those preciously tended vineyards covering the hillsides all around, from which I was certain something special must come. But there was no hurry. Wine, like anything worthwhile, takes time. A lifetime later signore Mascarello introduced me to his daughter, who finally led me into the old cellar filled with towering wooden vats from another era. We tasted the wines from those natty old vats, and I was hooked for life.
Fast forward to another time, another place. I’ve since tasted a few wines or twenty thousand, traveled to most winemaking regions of the world, been dazzled by the sparkle, the dedication, the fanatical devotion to fermented grape juice displayed by countless farmers and poets and philosophers who make their living from it, and yet I still come back to Piedmont for shelter when the storm comes.
What makes these wines so special is an unmistakable sense of place. It’s not just fruit or acids or tannins; the wines of Piedmont taste like they come from Piedmont. Like a signature, they can’t be duplicated. Flowery white arneis from the Roero Hills is a nice introduction, never too serious, always enjoyable. But reds are the region’s pride. There’s dolcetto, the plump little grape that ripens earliest and gives deeply fruity, succulent wines. Then there’s barbera, dismissed in the past as a simple carafe wine though since discovered to be capable of greatness. It’s vibrantly juicy, red berry-flavoured, with little-to-no tannins that give it an infinitely drinkable quality. Small barriques add structure, sheen and a sweet cacao flavour that has made it into a more “serious” wine.
These two grapes alone would be enough to put the Piedmont on the map of great wine regions. Yet as though just to make absolutely certain, natural selection has given the Langhe Hills another native treasure that overshadows all else: nebbiolo. Nebbiolo can make wines of astounding depth, breathtaking complexity, legendary longevity. It’s not an easy grape and nor is the wine. Like Signore Mascarello, it demands time and patience. At first it’s austere, reserved, even difficult, and one wonders what all of the fuss is about. But in time, beyond the impenetrability of youth, once the requisite waiting period in the awkward silence of a cellar has been fulfilled, only then does it reveal layer upon fascinating layer of flavour and texture that make one wonder how it’s all possible. I’m happy that it’s not an easy wine. Nothing worthwhile ever is.
In the past month, between Toronto and Verona, I was able to get my Piedmont fix from a handful of the region’s great interpreters. The styles of these more modern-leaning producers couldn’t be further from those first few drops of Mascarello Barolo, to be sure, but the spirit of the Langhe Hills isn’t so dogmatic, so restrictive. Those hills allow for a magical myriad of idioms, like the Latin languages that are all distinct but derive unmistakably from the same origin.
Chiara Boschis (E. Pira & Figli)
The vivacious Chiara Boschis has infectious energy and enthusiasm. Her wines display the same vibrancy and fantastic tension, refined by a feminine touch. In the last few years she has been reducing the amount of new wood used in the cellar, from 100% in the ‘90s and early 2000s to more moderate levels (approaching 50% for the Via Nuova Barolo in 2009), a welcome change in my view. The purchase of a fully south-facing 4ha parcel of vines in Monforte d’Alba called Conterni (1 ha each of dolcetto and barbera as well as 2 ha of nebbiolo for Barolo) will add to her limited production and provide the opportunity to produce another Barolo cru. The grapes from this parcel were formerly sold to Luciano Sandrone for his Barolo Le Vigne vineyard blend, so you can be sure that the vines were well tended to and yield top quality fruit. Boschis is currently in the process of selecting an agent for Canada, with plenty of suitors lining up for the privilege.
2009 Az. Agr. E. Pira & Figli Chiara Boschis Dolcetto d’Alba Piedmont, Italy 88
A clean, open, fragrant version of dolcetto here, with bright fruit flavours and very vibrant, elegant and fresh appeal. It’s an infinitely drinkable style that demands little but rewards handsomely. Drink 2010-2014.
2008 Az. Agr. E. Pira & Figli Chiara Boschis Barbera d’Alba Piedmont, Italy 88
Recently bottled and somewhat closed currently, but with time opens to show the usual lightness of structure, high acid, and red fruit flavours of barbera. There’s little/no wood treatment – just a hint of vanilla and gently resinous spice. Needs another year I’d say to move into the groove.
2005 Az. Agr. E. Pira & Figli Chiara Boschis Barolo Via Nuova Piedmont, Italy 91
The Via Nuova Barolo is made from a sub-plot of the Terlo cru, to the south of Barolo town at 300-350m elevation. The vineyard is part south and part southeast facing, though cooler than Cannubi and harvested later on average, with very low yields. The nose is very perfumed, open and delicate, toute en finesse, in the sweet red cherry and wild strawberry spectrum. The palate is fresh yet has an expansive, mouth filling richness. Wood is marked, more marked than the Cannubi, with some astringence on the finish. Needs 3-5 years to come together. 4,000 bottles produced.
2005 Az. Agr. E. Pira & Figli Chiara Boschis Barolo Cannubi Piedmont, Italy 96
Here’s an absolute cracker of a Barolo, one of the best I’ve tasted and a highlight of Vinitaly to be sure. This is classic, elegant Cannubi: licorice, faded flowers – intense but still refined, more savoury that fruity, with a long, long finish. In sum, a sensual, beautiful, more delicate vintage, that has been underestimated by many, and should last 10-15 years without trouble. I hate to draw vulgar comparisons, but it’s like fine Charmes Chambertin from a top producer. 8000 bottles produced. Best 2012-2020.
2006 Az. Agr. E. Pira & Figli Chiara Boschis Barolo Cannubi Piedmont, Italy 93
The 2006 Cannubi from Boschis is a departure from her usual ultra-feminine, finessed style. It shows significant ripeness and power, and an almost new world-style concentration that is vintage-driven. Tannins are super ripe, alcohol is high, finish is long and chest warming. All in all, there’s less elegance and more sheer power here than the previous vintage (2005). In time, this will settle no doubt, but patience required. Best 2013-2025.
2006 Az. Agr. E. Pira & Figli Chiara Boschis Barolo Via Nuova Piedmont, Italy 94
An large step ahead of the Via Nuova 2005, the 2006 shows much better oak integration (only 80% new wood vs. 100% in 2005). The fruit is ripe and sweet, spice is exotic, tannins are firm but ripe, and the finish is long. Really fine wine here, which shows the potential for this cru to really shine as the vines age and the hand in the winery is a little more tender and loving. Best 2012-2020.
La Spinetta (Giorgio Rivetti)
Contact: John Turco <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Giorgio Rivetti describes himself as a farmer. Well, he’s a pretty polished and educated farmer, even if he still has trouble connecting his phone to his car via Bluetooth. He understands the world of wine and travels regularly to support his markets. His tireless efforts on both the production side and the marketing side have paid off handsomely: Rivetti enjoys something of a cult-like following on international markets. and in some ways regrets the high prices his wines fetch around the world. To address the issue of greedy middlemen, he has started an import and distribution business in the US.
2005 La Spinetta Barolo Campé $195.00 96
The 2005 Barolo Campé (a single vineyard site monopoly of La Spinetta) is a wine of superb elegance and concentration, with very refined, silky tannins and ripe, juicy acids. The nose is high toned, with floral, dried rose petals and violets, sweet red fruit, but the volatily is in check. This has the aromatics of the La Morra and Barolo side of the appellation, with the power of Monforte and Serralunga. Sleek, like a runway model, and the finish goes on and on. A great example from this cooler, more elegantly style vintage. Best 2012-2025.
2006 La Spinetta Barbaresco Valeirano $179.95 95
The nose is surprisingly open and fragrant at the moment, with sweet, ripe nebbiolo fruit, exotic spice and floral notes. But the palate is still firm, tight, very concentrated and shows loads of power; wood is still evident. This is one of the classy modern styles wines. Long, long finish. Tannins will need 5-7 years to soften I suspect, but there is more than enough fruit and extract to see this through to the mid 2020s without problem. Should be a classic. Best 2015-2025.
2005 La Spinetta Barbera d’Alba Gallina $67.95 93
There’s a lost, little 2 hectare parcel of ancient barbera vines in the Barbaresco vineyard of Gallina, which is the origin of this ultra concentrated and complex example. The density and richness on the palate are quite extraordinary, yet the wine remains refined and elegant despite masses of extract and evident minerality. Tannins are still firm and grippy, making this a highly age worthy wine. Top notch. Best 2010-2020.
2005 La Spinetta Pin Monferrato Rosso $67.95 93
A blend of nebbiolo and barbera, named after Giorgio Rivetti’s father, nicknamed “Pin”. The nebbiolo part of the blend is from the Gallina, Starderi and Valeirano vineyards, and the barbera is from the 85 years old Bionzo Barbera d’Asti Superiore vines. Wonderfully fragrant and complex on the nose. The palate is fullish and succulent, with firm but not aggressive tannins, acid is lively and juicy, finish is long. This is top class wine, and fair value to be sure.
2009 La Spinetta Bricco Quaglia $27.95 90
Year in and year out one of the top Moscato d’Asti’s on the market, this version has the expected wonderful fragrance and perfume of muscat, but the 45 year old vines deliver considerable minerality and freshness (acidity), balancing the sweetness and making this particularly classy. There’s a price premium, but this is super refined and worth the extra.
2007 La Spinetta Barbera d’Asti Ca’ di Pian $39.95 90
The vines are about 30 years old in this vineyard now, approaching 30 hectares in size. Smooth, richly flavoured and textured, with evident ripeness and class, this barbera sits comfortably in the modern style category, certainly finessed and refined yet with considerable depth and length. A fine wine.
2007 Il Nero di Casanova Toscana Sangiovese $27.95 89
The first vintage for sangiovese in purezza from Giorgio Rivetti’s (La Spinetta) Casanova estate in Tuscany. The nose is clean, fresh and clearly very ripe, with fruit tending to blueberry, with well integrated wood. The palate is silky smooth in the La Spinetta style, with plenty of finesse and elegance, and approachability, without sacrificing character and depth. Lingering finish. Tasted March 2010.
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When I asked Luciano Sandrone what had changed recently, the answer was a straightforward “not much”. Well, why change what is working. Sandrone developed his pioneering style as early as the 1990 vintage, and through some fine tuning such as moving to 500l tonneau exclusively, has refined his expressions to reach the highest levels in the region. Despite all of the international success he’s enjoyed, Sandrone remains an eminently humble winegrower, approachable, affable, as honest and forthright as the wines he produces. In short, he’s a model for all others to follow.
Regarding the two Barolo, both the Cannubi (single cru) and the Le Vigne (blend of 4 crus) are fermented with natural yeast; vinification proceeds in identical fashion with minimum intervention. Both are aged in 500l tonneau; there are no barriques any longer chez Sandrone. There is not meant to be a hierarchy between these two: both are intended to be top wines, but reflect the natural differences in expression between a more “traditional” approach of blending multiple vineyard sites versus the more modern tack of bottling the wine of a single cru. Don’t get your hopes up about obtaining any of these wines, they are tightly allocated.
2009 Luciano Sandrone Dolcetto d’Alba Piedmont, Italy $22.95 87-88
This tank sample is not yet bottled and shows a little reduction, but with air sweet notes emerge such as violets and ripe black fruit. This is the only wine in the Sandrone range that is filtered since it is bottle so young. The tannins here are smooth and soft, well managed, with vibrant acidity. Simple but very tasty. Tasted April 2010.
2008 Luciano Sandrone Barbera d’Alba Piedmont, Italy $26.95 89-90
To be released in September 2010. 7 different parcels are kept separate during vinification, after which the best parts are blended and aged in 500L tonneau, with about 25% new wood. And the wood is marked at this stage, but knowing how this wine evolves, it will digest it soon enough. Acid is typically juicy and firm, tannins very moderate (virtually all wood tannins), long finish. A solid wine from a generally cooler vintage. Tasted April 2010.
2008 Luciano Sandrone Nebbiolo d’Alba Valmaggiore Piedmont, Italy $46.95 91
18-20k bottles are made yearly from this amphitheatre-shaped cru in the Roero zone. It’s aged in 2 and 3 year old barrels. Light spicy, red fruit dominated, lots of old wood spice, pomegranate, apple, red currant. The palate is medium bodied, firm, tightly wound, peppery and herbal, typical for the vintage and a little fresher than either the 2007 or likely the 2009. Tasted April 2010.
2006 Luciano Sandrone Barolo Cannubi Boschis Piedmont, Italy $145 94-96
The Cannubi is a little less expressive on the nose at the moment, though this is typical for the early stages of development. The palate is delicate but firm, full of power and finesse. Classic black licorice notes come out with much aeration, but this needs another 3-5 years minimum to come around. This will no doubt be a wine of great longevity and class. Tasted April 2010.
2006 Luciano Sandrone Barolo Le Vigne Piedmont, Italy $145 94-96
Le Vigne, in contrast to the Cannubi today is wonderfully open, fragrant and ripe. The palate however is very firm and structured, with big chewy, ripe tannins, reflective of the Monforte parcel. Flavours tend to slightly overripe black cherries with some resinous notes on the palate. All in all a powerful, big and burly wine, that will surely need 7-10 years to come around. Tasted April 2010.
The young Andrea Sottimano has been touted as a winegrower to watch. Well, it’s time to stop watching and start tasting. This is a new reference point for elegant, modern style wines with more than a passing resemblance to top notch Burgundy, an association I don’t think Sottimano would mind too much. He spends a great deal of time in this French spiritual counterpart of Piedmont, and counts many of Burgundy’s most revered producers as friends. Across the range of outstanding Barbarescos, Sottimano practices what he calls an “all natural” vinification: wild yeast, no fining, filtration, with just 20% new wood. He sends samples of each wine to François Frères in Burgundy, who then custom-coopers barrels for him to bring out the best characteristics of each cru.
2008 Sottimano Barbera d’Alba Pairolero Piedmont, Italy 90
The nose of the 2008 barbera from the Paiolero vineyard is open, vibrant, with bright red cherry fruit and spice. The palate is likewise lively, high acid, uncompromising, with light but firm tannins. Long finish. Needs another couple of years. Serious wine.
2008 Sottimano Langhe Nebbiolo Piedmont, Italy $33 91
This Langhe Nebbiolo is in fact made from young vines in the Basarín vineyard, a cru within the Barbaresco denomination; they are between 10-15 years old. The nose is somewhat closed at the moment, but the palate is firm and full of flavour. A classic vintage – well structured with power and richness. Top notch Langhe Nebbiolo and great value to be sure. Best 2012-2018. Tasted April 2010.
2007 Sottimano Barbaresco Fausoni Piedmont, Italy $33 92
All of the cru Barbarescos undergo a 20-25 days fermentation, and are then racked and put into barrels, of which 20% are new. They then sit one year or so on the fine lees without sulfur and malolactic happens naturally, at its own pace. The wine is then racked into old barrels for another year before bottling. The Fausoni vineyard has clay limestone soils with a touch of sand. About 35 year old vines. Supremely elegant and delicate yet with power, lots of clay-minerality. Linear, a feminine cru. Tasted April 2010.
2006 Sottimano Barbaresco Fausoni Piedmont, Italy $80 93
The 2006 is super firm and tight, closed up, a classic vintage that will require a decade or more. Wet clay, mineral. Serious.
2007 Sottimano Barbaresco Currà Piedmont, Italy $80 93
More clay in the Currà vineyard gives a wine with additional fruit and power, yet it’s still closed up for now as would be expected. The palate is more ample, fuller, riper, a bit more generous than the average, with long finish. Best 2012-2020.
2007 Sottimano Barbaresco Cottà Piedmont, Italy $80 95
The Cottà is showing very expressively here today, with savoury, resinous herb notes like bay and rosemary, alongside vibrant red fruit. The palate is fullish, ample, with great depth and power, and a very long peppery finish. Top notch. Best 2012-2020.
2007 Sottimano Barbaresco Pajoré Piedmont, Italy $80 96
The Pajoré cru sits at 420 meters elevation; there’s a higher limestone content in the soil relative to Sottimano’s other vineyards, and the vines are quite old at 45+ years of age. The nose is super elegant with beguiling floral-violet notes, exotic curry spice and fresh tobacco. “A pure, classic, mineral Barbaresco”. There’s a linearity of form and purity of aroma that sets this wine apart. Finesse and elegance reign supreme. Long, long finish. Outstanding. Best 2012-2022.
2005 Sottimano Barbaresco Riserva Piedmont, Italy $120 96
Just 1,800 bottles are made of this rare riserva, and only in certain vintages when there’s no risk of diminishing the quality of the single cru bottlings. It comes from the oldest vines (50+ years) in the Cottà and Pajoré crus, and is harvested later than the vines destined for the single vineyard bottlings. It macerates for 25 days on the skins during fermentation, then spends two years on the lees without sulphur or racking to invoke a more traditional expression. The nose is classic Barbaresco: fragrant, elegant, with decidedly savoury, herbal- anchovy and soy notes; and the palate delivers high tradition, with very firm, unyielding tannins and tight acids that will need another 8-10 years in the cellar to become fun to drink. It should easily hold 25+ in a good cellar. Tasted April 2010.
Filed under: Featured Articles, Wine, Andrea Sottimano, Chiara Boschis (E. Pira & Figli), John Szabo, La Spinetta (Giorgio Rivetti), Langa, Luciano Sandrone, Piedmont