Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Traditional Love

Over at Do Bianchi, Jeremy Parzen recently posted his translation of a newsletter article from Francarlo Negro. The article was about two of the greatest Barolo producers, Bartolo Mascarello and Bruno Giacosa and how they first met back in the 1960s (the article was initially highlighted by Jeremy’s colleague (and my friend) Franco Ziliani, who is co-author of the blog VinoWire along with Jeremy (I also contribute from time to time on vinowire).

Beyond being a wonderful recollection of two great vintners, the article (especially the second part) is an impassioned plea by the author for the preservation of traditional Barolo, as practiced by Giacosa and Mascarello (note: Bartolo Mascarello passed away a few years ago, but his Barolo is as traditional as ever, thank to the efforts of his daughter, Maria Teresa).

Botti Grandi in the cellar of Sergio Barale in the town of Barolo These are the traditional casks for aging Barolo
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

I’d like to add a few thoughts on this article and on this subject in general. Loyal readers know of my love of traditional Barolo, so I was pleased to read such an emotional defense of this style of wine. Italians love to speak of the anima or soul of the wine. This has to be achieved by minimalist winemaking; you cannot recognize much in the way of terroir in Barolo (or any great red wine) when the fruit is covered up by the spice of new barriques.

Negro is correct that international demand has altered the style of Barolo and he is also on target when he states that too many winemakers in Barolo have altered their practices to assure more modern wines that will often result in better scores.

He goes on to write that certain publications have been unfair to Giacosa and Mascarello at awards time each year, as these magazines generally prefer the more international style of Barolo. While it is true that Gambero Rosso in Italy does hand out its Tre Bicchieri ranking (its highest) to dozens of Barolos made in a more modern style, they have not forgotten the traditional producers. Giacosa is a regular Tre Bicchieri recipient, while Mascarello has also achieved this honor several times (though not as often as Giacosa). (At least two comments, those from Gary Chevsky and Alfonso Cevola at the site, pointed this out as well).

While of course, the article was about a meeting between Giacosa and Mascarello, let’s not forget other great producers that continue to produce Barolo in a traditional style. I will certainly forget a few names unintentionally, so forgive me, but here a few of my favorite Barolo vintners that stay with tradition:

Cavallotto (Bricco Boschis, Bricco Boschis “Vigna San Giuseppe” Riserva)
Elio Grasso (Vigna Casa Maté, Gavarini Chiniera)
Maracarini (La Serra, Brunate)
Brezza (Sarmassa, Bricco Sarmassa)
Vietti (Rocche)
Giuseppe Rinaldi (Brunate Le Coste, Cannubi San Lorenzo Ravera)
Ettore Germano (Prapo)
Giuseppe Mascarello (Monprivato, Villero)
Massolino (Vigna Rionda Riserva, Margheria)
Giacomo Conterno (Monfortino Riserva, Cascina Francia)
Rocche Costamagna (Bricco Francesco, Rocche dell’Annunziata)
Sergio Barale (Cannubi, Castellero, Bussia)
Giovanni Rosso (Cerretta, La Serra)
Giacomo Fennochio (Bussia, Villero)

GianLuca Grasso, winemaker, Elio Grasso, with botti grandi for aging his Barolo
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Again, there are other examples, but what evidence these bottlings are for crafting Barolo in a traditional style! All of these wines are routinely excellent, with a few (Cavallotto “San Giuseppe”, Rinaldi “Brunate Le Coste" and Conterno “Monfortino”) rising to world class ranking.

Now having said that, I want to address another issue – the use of barrique. Negro states that these small French barrels are the tool of the winemaker who wants to produce a more modern style of Barolo; he also indirectly reasons that traditional producers will have nothing to do with them.

I agree that barriques have been the preferred choice of the international style Barolo producers; the flashy notes of spice and vanilla are often pointed out by certain journalists as highlights of these wines, as though the beautiful Nebbiolo fruit wasn’t enough of a treat. There are some producers today who use either all new French oak or a large percentage of it for their Barolos; there are many of these wines I do not like, as they taste more like a young, ripe Syrah than a Barolo. I am not going to mention these producers, as that’s not my point in this essay.

But are barriques necessarily a bad thing for Barolo (or Barbaresco for that matter)? I think not. Technology is always changing and that means that wine styles will change. Much as I would love to see every producer use only grandi botti for Barolo, it’s not going to happen. I compare this to technology that is available to movie makers these days. Computer-generated images (CGIs) are popular these days and we’ve probably all seen a few films that have used them. Is a computer image necessarily a bad thing in a movie? Of course not. If a film has to depend on CGIs for its appeal, then it’s probably not a good piece of work. The strength of any particular movie usually depends on a well-written script along with excellent direction. If a film doesn’t have that, then all the CGIs in the world aren’t going to save it. But a well-crafted film that also uses CGIs can be a good piece of work – one that is honest and is not trying to win an audience merely on visuals. It’s the same with Barolo; if the appeal of the wine is the character of new oak, then it’s probably not that great a wine.

My point here is that there are dozens of Barolo producers that use barriques in conjunction with botti and make gorgeous Barolos. Try the “Rocche Marcenasco” from Renato Ratti and see if this doesn’t taste like a classiclaly styled Barolo. The same holds true for several bottlings of Barolo from Oddero, such as their “Rocche” or “Villero”. At Fontanafredda, winemaker Danilo Drocco starts aging for his cru Barolo (“La Rosa”, “La Villa” and “Lazzarito La Delizia”) in barriques and then transfers the wine to botti. His reasoning is that the barriques will preserve the color of the wine as well as decrease oxidation. Yet he believes that too much time in barriques will mean that the wine will be dominated by wood, so he switches over to botti. Drocco has been making beautifully-styled Barolos for more than twenty years (he enjoyed a successful tenure at Prunotto before moving to Fontanafredda in the late 1990s) and today produces wines that strike a lovely balance between tradition and modernity.

Danilo Drocco, winemaker at Fontanafredda. Drocco ages his Barolos in barrique and botte grande
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

At Ceretto, winemaker Alessandro Ceretto has recently decided on tonneaux - mid-size barrels of 500 liters - as opposed to the 225-liter barriques. Ceretto is another winemaker who belives that barriques are often too strong for Barolo; given his wines from 2004 and 2005, I’d have to say that his decision has been an excellent one.

Perhaps the philosophy of Luca Currado at Vietti is the best way of deciding on the proper use of oak for aging Barolo. Currado makes cru Barolos from several sites; the most famous being Brunate and Rocche. As Brunate is in La Morra, where the wines are more floral and contain less assertive tannins, he ages this wine in barriques, as he believes this will add some tannic backbone to the wine. For Rocche, which is from Castiglione Falletto, this is a site that produces a Barolo with strong, almost aggressive tannins; thus he uses only botte grande for this wine, as he wants to downplay the youthful bitterness in this wine. Currado once told me that his winemaking choices are like that of a tailor. Just as every man needs a suit that will fit his measurements, so his wines must be tailored to the individual site. For Currado, it’s a decision of what’s best for the wine and not the market.

There are many ways to make Barolo or many other full-bodied red wines. For myself, I think the most important factors with Barolo are making a wine that is varietally pure and one that displays its terroir. Much as some people would argue that there is only one way, I respectfully disagree. Let the debate continue!


  1. Tom, thanks for the shout out and thanks for this excellent post! I agree that Francarlo is not 100% correct in his assertions and I am glad that my translation has stimulated a dialectic here! :-)

    Great post and great photographs.

  2. Jeremy:

    Thanks for the nice comment. Your original post was great and I'm sure we'll read lots of other comments.

  3. Nice paean of praise to a great wine. the good news is, as you know, that more and more so-called modernists (all Italian winemakers now are modernists to some degree or other) are returning to their base in tradition -- for example, Massolino, whom you rightly praise, until fairly recently used a lot more barriques than he now does, and Luca Currado, whom we both like and respect, has in the past shown a pretty heavy hand with new oak. But the tide is turning, and articles like yours can only help it along.

  4. Iteresting article. I am in agreement with Frabcarlo Negro.Bartolo Mascarello knew the true use for barriques. Tom Maresca say's the tide is turning. We should be so lucky.
    When are we going to stop listening to what some producers tell us when the wine tells us something else. There is only one way.I would go on but look for my comments on my blog as soon as Tom Maresco finishes his article on Chianti- it addresses the same issues!

  5. Charles:

    Excellent comment. Nothing gets Italian wine lovers more riled up than this debate on modernism vs. tradition.

    Certainly the modern-styled Barolos still get much more praise from the influential publications than do the traditional bottlings. We need to remind people of the glories of Barolo aged in botti.

    I look forward to your comments on this on your blog.