On day two of John’s recent Piedmont trip, it was all just more of the same. As John went to one winery after another, dutifully meeting and tasting with some of Piedmont’s towering legends, he was forced to maintain a minute-by-minute professional pretense that he was a dignified and knowledgeable wine importer, and was in no way like a starstruck kiddie in the world’s best-ever lolly shop. He achieved this calm impression for much of the day, though photos like the above show glimpses of his true state.
The day began in the commune of Serralunga d’Alba, where the famous clay soils produce some of Barolo’s most muscular and texturally profound Barolo reds. The famous Massolino family has been grounded in this Serralunga landscape since 1896, and rather like his experience at Cogno (in the heart of the Ravera vineyard), John was able to look out from the Massolino estate and see almost all the Serralunga vineyards which have made this label, in John’s own words, such a “super-classic” of Barolo.
At once so old and so new, the impressive charisma of Massolino is not about the generosity of their terroir but also the sheer purity of their fruit, which never fails to wrap and deliver this sense of scale and layering. Such clarity and directness is a result of incredible care and attention, which in turn is made possible by an absolutely state-of-the-art winery, with a cellar that lies beneath the carpark. This facility has seen a return to the use of concrete and steel for the Moscato and Dolcetto, while experimentation with different sources of oak for the Barbera has helped to maintain Massolino’s reputation for “top flight” quality at every level. But a more strict and traditional approach is taken for the revered Barolo Cru wines, in which the out-of-town Cru of Parussi sits alongside the local Crus of Margheria, Parafada and the super-premium Vigna Rionda.
In these majestic expressions, Massolino’s massive investment of technology and tradition helps to achieve the somewhat ironic or paradoxical purpose, to use John’s word, of producing reds that are in no way “tricked up”. While a certain masculine intensity comes across in a lush and delicious form, these wines are never “polished to within an inch of their life”. Instead, a certain edge of “wildness” or savage nobility retains a compelling grip on the palate — and on the soul — and this is what makes the wines of Massolino sought-after and inimitable masterpieces of the Barolo genre.
The hosts at John’s next stop were relative upstarts in the region, since they were celebrating only their 40th anniversary of Barolo vintages. This remarkable company began in 1977, when Luciano Sandrone (pictured next to a smiling John at the top of this blog, with Luciano’s daughter Barbara) spent all his savings on a small hillside plot in one of Barolo’s most hallowed sites, Cannubi Boschis. He began making wine in his garage but after years of effort, while scrimping and saving, the Sandrone label now offers a full portfolio from significant holdings of land, locally and in Roero. Today they enjoy one of the highest reputations among truly boutique, family-run Barolo houses.
The quality of Sandrone Barolos are just “stunning”, offering “gorgeous” wines right through the range. Once again, John noticed incredible quality in the standard regional blend, which drinks earlier and in a more complete manner than even famous Cru wines like the Cannubi (labelled Aleste). The latter was so exceptional and individual, but in need of considerable time to reveal its remarkable beauty. A new project being undertaken by the Sandrone family reflects their will to innovate, their confidence in the wines and their obvious drive to build for the future. “Sibi et Paucis” is a commitment to put aside no less than 10% of their production — a staggering sacrifice, especially for a newer family — to age in a special cellar for release after 10 years. Sounds nice, John — will they sell us a few of those?
But the real excitement at Sandrone was all about a new super-premium cuvee, made from a single clone of Nebbiolo. With slightly variant leaf morphology and vigour, the so-called “Talin” clone also has looser bunches with smaller berries and pips. Luciano Sandrone found it in their own vineyards in 1987, and has vinified it separately ever since. The super-rare wine to emerge from this long-standing experiment (which John was sadly not able to taste) is bottled under a special and expensive label, Barolo Vite Talin. This darker and denser style, with broad and mouth-filling tannins, is described as a “game changer for the Sandrone family and for Barolo” and received a perfect 100/100 from the Wine Advocate’s Monica Larner. It seems that hard work and vision are really paying off.
After a booking at the legendary Bovio restaurant (which Sandrone were kind enough to arrange) John’s next stop was a different kind of game-changer. The collective of growers called Cantina Terre del Barolo dates back to 1958, and since then they have functioned in some ways like the Produttori collective over in Barbaresco. Except that Terre del Barolo perhaps lacked their neighbour’s elevated quality-control, and had missed out on access to modern machines of marketing and global distribution. This old game did not change until fifteen years ago, when the co-op leadership realised that the survival of the growers depended on emulating Produttori’s quality charter, and producing a product that was more marketable. The results seem to have exceeded their own — and our — wildest imaginings.
By selecting the top 18 vineyards and growers from the original 300, the new label they created took its name from the cooperative’s original inspiration, former Mayor of Castiglione Falletto, Arnaldo Rivera. Newly-harnessed quality from revered Cru vineyards saw the first release of 2013 Rivera labels described as having woken up a “sleeping beauty” of the region: a Barolo value proposition of incredible scope and potential. What impressed John was not only the sharp pricing and bright, modern-classical style of the wines (our 2013 imports sold out almost instantly), but he was also rather swept up in the sheer energy of these youngsters — both the winemakers and the viticulturalist, pictured above — who have now taken the helm of the project. John got the impression this transformation was seen as the “most exciting thing in Barolo since the War”, and this is no small observation from someone who is already such an avid enthusiast of this extraordinary place.
As the guys at Terre del Barolo returned to their plans for a vast new facility — and an impressive revival of their collective fortunes — John and his companions bid farewell and headed back to the hotel. The day had been quite a sugar-rush for these Piedmont lovers, and they would need rest to prepare for another dose tomorrow.
We will follow John’s journey on Day Three in the next blog. For anyone who would like to see our current Piedmont range, please click Here.