We recently held our much anticipated “Off the Charts” tasting, in which John Caro offered our customers a quasi-religious encounter with all nine single-vineyards (or “Crus”) that make up Produttori’s legendary Riserva range. The reputation of these wines has been made under the guidance of the long-standing head of the Produttori collective, Aldo Vacca (pictured above), who has also ensured that they remain definitive of both incredible quality and unique value in the world of premium wine.
The name “Off the Charts” cames from the world’s leading reviewer of Italian wines, Antonio Galloni, who offered this phrase as as valiant effort to describe the indescribable – i.e. the 2013 Riservas, in which Produttori’s already elevated benchmarks for each site were driven beyond any reasonable term of valuation by an absolutely stellar year in Barbaresco. Under such vintage conditions, the legendary florality and mineral focus of these wines were balanced and grounded in an absolutely perfect ripeness and weight.
This also allowed the wines to show beautifully on the night – albeit that this feminine expression of Piedmont Nebbiolo showed the style’s assertive characteristics when tasted young. Delicate red berries felt as if they were sliced through by vibrant acidity, with their tart juices running long and linear to a drying finish of tactile but super-fine tannins.
Yet floating amongst these more structural elements was an endless array of floral, herbal, mineral, tarry, and rusty earth nuances — not to mention increasingly lush fruit — in addition to more savoury and animal tasting notes such as “rabbit guts” (to quote Ata Rangi’s Chief Winemaker, Helen Masters, who was the group’s most famous and expert taster on the night). So while displaying youthful vibrancy and immense fruit appeal, these qualities were set against a subtle layering of mineral and savoury elements that, as a total picture, defined of what is so infinitely charming – yet inimitable and formidible – about this intense style.
And needless to say, those tasters in the group accustomed to drinking Cru Barbaresco in what might be considered its fully realised state – after fifteen to forty years in cellar – were able to look through all that bracing, limpid purity to contemplate the yet more ethereal, savoury and mature delicacies that these finest of wines were destined to become. An enthusiast and collector who was sitting across from me described the range, quite simply, as “wines for my grandchildren”.
John had recently been to Piedmont himself (he is pictured above at Bruno Rocca) so he was aware of the various ordering protocols by which Produttori themselves might present the wines. The approach that he settled on was slightly different than the one he tasted over there (pictured below), but could not have been more revealing. It managed to highlight the qualities of each site, but also placed them in an overarching sequence that ran from finest to richest – from more cutting or lean to more lush-fruited and round.
Even so, the overall similarity of the various wines and the inherent paradoxes of the style meant there was a lot of room for subjective interpretation. For this reason, some tasters tended to feel almost the opposite – that the sequence moved instead from open and accessible to more dense and brooding, even austere. It seemed to depend on the emphasis or focus of one’s tasting. Also instructive was the way it seemed almost to be arranged in three sub-categories or phases – three groups of three – in which each group or phase seemed to work as a statement or angle on the Barbaresco style. While these phases may be somewhat accidental or arbitrary in a range of such consistency and supreme quality, this method seems as good a way as any to present a quick overview of the night’s wines.
Phase One – Theme: “A Volnay-like purity”
It was only natural that the first Barbarescos in a tasting would attack the palate with their more refined and racy aspects – steely minerals and the various textures of acids and tannin grains. Even so, these first three wines — while not lean in fruit dimension — did have a marginally finer and more mineral focus than all the wines to come. The reference to a most elegant and feminine Burgundy, Volnay, is taken from Galloni’s tasting note on the Ovello — which was the last and most complete wine of this phase.
1) Produttori Barbaresco Riserva Pora 2013 – “The Dulce Vita Wine”
“The Dulce Vita Wine” is Produttori’s own nickname for Pora (pictured below). This site is a relatively low-altitude but breezy site in a moderate microclimate by the Tanaro river. The early morning warmth and soil fertility is said to give the wine an openness and accessibility. But as the first in the line up, the finesse and structure had more impact than the fruit. A somewhat mute or restrained nose led to an elegant palate in which limpid fruit flavours washed over red fruits, ferrous earth and flesh tones (“rabbit guts”) before coming to ground on nicely granular tannins. (Galloni Gave the Pora 94/100: “layers of fruit…continue to build with time in the glass”)
2) Produttori Barbaresco Riserva Paje 2013 – “Evergreen”
The site of Paje (below) is on limestone soils but low-lying, next to the Tanaro river, where the cooling influence allows the ripening to develop nice fruit weight and aromatic definition. This also seems to have nicely wrapped up any higher acid levels given by the soils, making it highly approachable and complete on the day. Fruit generosity and flow on the palate are nicely balanced with tannins that are more fine-grained than Pora, but very present and alive. Again a subtle finish of dusty earth, with rust and blood notes providing a point of contact between mineral and organic themes on the after palate. (96/100 Galloni: “compelling inner sweetness and total sense of poise”).
3) Produttori Barbaresco Riserva Ovello 2013 – “The Tomboy”
The gently fuller body and texture of Ovello (below) perhaps comes from the calcerous clay soils of this large site, which runs from east to west and rises in altitude from a starting point on a bluff above the river at 300 metres. The rougher tannins usually associated with this site and soil-type were not in evidence on the night, perhaps because of the vintage’s exceptional ripeness. A core of serious fruit purity and weight comes across in less primary, more glossy and polished effects on the nose and palate. These broader and less invasive flavours leave room for subtle details of sandalwood to return upon the finish (a less extended one, this time), where we also find loamy, soft-earth notes playing through. This less bracing and more gentle nature made the Ovello a nice bridge to the next phase. (96/100 Galloni: “A Volnay-like purity to its fruit”)
Phase Two – Theme: “Deep layers of fruit virtually bury the tannins”
This title from Galloni’s note on the Rabaja, and seems to typify what was happening in these three wines. There was a sense that the cutting acidity and mineral tannins of the first three were now embedded in a slightly more generous and deep fruit presence, and more voluminous aromatics. The tannins were not buried but “virtually” so, with these three wines showing a relative balance of all the Barbaresco elements we expect to see – florals, mineral and rusty earth notes, dusty sandalwood and rosewood, and tar and gamey blood notes providing detail to succulent red fruits (though getting darker). This more expansive fruit served to wrap up the bright acids and made the tannins much less obviously palpable. In a word, the effect in this phase might be called balanced or classic.
4) Produttori Barbaresco Riserva Rio Sordo 2013 – “The Silky One”
This vineyard near the river (below) has a relatively low calcium in the soils, which results in a wine of smooth and “silky” character with gentler acidity and nice round tannins. A core of deep fruit and tannins retains a clear Barbaresco feel, but the focus – especially in this ripe year – is toward a balanced impression of appeal and approachability. This was registered in a notably lusher and slightly darker fruit aspect, in which this fruit and accompanying earthy licorice flavours shut down quite quickly to reveal a long and open finish of very fine tannins. While approachable, this less than even development on the palate may be why JancisRobinson.com called it a “sleeping beauty” that is destined to get even better in the future. (93/100 Galloni: “Succulent dark cherry, plum, tobacco, mint, licorice and lavender grace the effortless finish.”)
5) Produttori Barbaresco Riserva Asili 2013 – “A Word on its Own”
Asili (below) is an historic and highly renowned vineyard that borders Rabaja and forms a protected bowl facing south-west to the afternoon sun. The result is a Barbaresco with a personality that is singular and imposing, although technically medium-bodied relative to some others. This showed with superb completeness on the night: a generous aroma and palate of ripe fruit was infused with floral essences and packed with surprisingly dense savoury, meaty and mineral notes. All these wonderfully balanced flavours and textures nicely wrapped around the wine’s long-tapering frame of refined tannins. (97/100 Galloni: “Silky tannins add to an impression of total sensuality.”)
6) Produttori Barbaresco Riserva Rabaja 2013 – “Pure Breed”
Produttori describes this as a quintessential Barbaresco, with a complete and balanced nature. This may be because the increasingly revered Rabaja (below) lies at the meeting point of Barbaresco’s two main soil types – more fertile and more calcerous – and this allows it to retain freshness and aromatic definition against a palpable richness of fruit and texture. This allowed it to show on the night with beautiful openness and drive, in which an almost compote-like fruit presence was harmoniously integrated with mineral, tar, floral and meaty layers of flavour. The tannin structure was pervasive but very refined and likewise integrated. Perhaps the wine of the night. (96/100 Galloni: “an utterly vivid, compelling Barbaresco of the highest level.”)
Phase Three – Theme: “So much depth to the fruit”
The quote above comes from Galloni’s note on the Montefico. While the previous wines were putting more and more flesh on the style’s mineral bones, these last three took this lushness to a whole new level. A silky array of fresh and sweet compote notes were now fully wrapping up wines that remained feminine — though only just — as they moved into more flowing, generous and expansive expressions. The sheer presence of this sensuous and mouth-filling style was balanced by deceptively powerful savoury complexities, and supported by a core of a real tannic density. Ageworthy and brooding — yet wonderfully complementary to the senses — these last three seemed almost to leave behind the bracing nature of Nebbiolo and, capturing this warm vintage perhaps, were compared by some tasters to a more generous and richer-fruited style of Burgundy.
7) Produttori Barbaresco Riserva Muncagota 2013– “Pristine Beauty”
Muncagota (below) is a cooler site with a south-east tilt toward the cooler morning sun. Its resulting reputation – finer, piercing fruit and florals set on firm tannins – was belied by its position here in the line up. On the other hand, since it is considered a classical expression of this distinctively edgy Barbaresco style, it was not entirely surprising to find it serving as a bridge from other mid-weight or “classical” expressions such as the Rabaja. And the paradox of greatness was here too, in which something “Galloni” called potent could also be experienced as a kind of delicacy, perhaps, at least in the sense that the youthful muteness of the wine – coupled with the inherent body and ripeness of this generous year – had the effect of polishing the harder edges and leaving the taster with floral and mineral details floating in a silky fruit presence that was at once brooding and restrained. (94/100 Galloni: “Succulent and yet also structured”.)
8) Produttori Barbaresco Riserva Montefico 2013 – “The Academic”
Montefico (below) enjoys the same high-calcium soils as the Montestefano, and likewise receives a full south-facing sun exposure. This full-noise ripeness is slightly more moderated by the cooling river, however, meaning this Montefico is said to reach not quite the same supreme density and structure as the Montestefano, which is next in line. While the wine’s darker red fruits had a gleam of steeliness as well as a background of real meatiness (“meat broth” was our resident Master of Wine’s term), there was also a much grander and more encompassing sense of scale. This bigger presence lavished the wine’s structural elements with a flavour spectrum from tart and refreshing to generously ripe and dark red fruit, all of which brooded long and impressive on the after palate. With such big bones and flesh, this was compelling now but needed time to put all those powerful elements together and quiet itself down. While incredibly impressive and yet accessible – even to the general red-drinker – some of the stylistic purists in the room were not exactly seeking that kind of body in their Barbaresco, even in a ripe year. (96+/100 Galloni: “there is so much depth to the fruit that some of the more angular contours have been softened”.)
9) Produttori Barbaresco Riserva Montestefano 2013 – “The Barolo of Barbaresco”
Montestefano (pictured below, with the other two vineyards in this phase) is a fully south-facing site that generates extra heat and serious ripeness, while the high-calcium and well-drained soils ensure a consistently intense fruit expression with firm tannins and bright supporting acidity. This powerful yet also dimensional wine offered darker fruit profile, but this fruit also ranged from dried or port-like, to compote notes, to delicate nuances of yellow fruits and flowers. Along with an increase in savoury themes there were also precise herbal and mineral ones, which seemed to occupy less the nose than the palate — where they were supported by gripping, almost clenching yet chalky-fine tannins. Some people’s comparison was to a very generous style of Grand Cru Burgundy, as there was an almost infinite array of both complementary and opposite pleasures to be gained – and to be anticipated after a very long time in cellar. But again, this comparison with Burgundy is a double edged sword: for some Barbaresco connoisseurs it offered many qualities of staggering depth, though not the qualities they particularly look for in a Barbaresco. ( (95+/100 Galloni: “Smoke, leather, licorice and game add to an impression of raw, almost unrestrained, power”.)