We sometimes poke fun at John Caro for his rarely expressed, yet seemingly unbounded passion for the wines of Piedmont. True, these elevated and varied foothills of the Northern Italian Alps are as picturesque as they are a perfect place for making beautiful wine. And as the home of numerous delicious styles in addition to the famous ‘King and Queen’ of Italian wine – the Nebbiolo-based reds from Barolo and Barbaresco – this eminently traditional (yet newly dynamic) region could be the most exciting place for premium wine-making in the world right now. In those respects, John’s rational faculties are still working perfectly. It’s just a question of whether, with an already huge and growing portfolio from Piedmont, Caro’s might already be importing too much of a good thing. And John’s answer is…(he drifts away, needs to make phone call, etc).
Luckily for us, John has no intention of slowing down this love affair. In fact he recently took a trip there in person, where he found himself clutched in the embrace of some of Italy’s most revered winemakers. These encounters elicited a nearly constant stream of smiles from John – many of which were captured in rare images, so beautifully taken by one of his travelling companions – which just provide further evidence that something rather unique is happening in Piedmont right now.
All three days were packed with memorable experiences. One of John’s key takeaways from the trip was just how wonderfully the soon-to-be-released 2014’s are shaping up — especially in Barbaresco, where John spent most of day one. Although it was a tricky vintage and a lighter-weight style, John was genuinely impressed by Barbarescos that did not lack concentration but simply showed an even more feminine kind of power, with a “beautiful” poise on the palate and an aromatic nuance and precision that was just “gorgeous”.
But the day began over in Barolo, where John met (and was no doubt embraced by) a larger than life, smiling giant of Piedmont — Valter Fissore of the Cogno estate, pictured above. As the husband of Nadia Cogno (daughter of the owner and namesake, Elvio), Valter is the long-standing heart and hands of the Cogno operation. While seeing their place as among traditional Barolo producers, Valter is able to produce wines of such unique depth and charisma by an obsessive focus on purity of fruit flavour. In other words, his exceptional craft as a winemaker comes along with a pet hatred of oxidation. To this end, Cogno have implemented a number of modern protective measures such as CO2 blankets during harvest, and the use of some carbon over submerged caps during remarkably long, 50 day ferments by which Valter ensures that each wine is fully steeped in the flavours of their place. And what a place!
The wines of Cogno are all about the beautiful Ravera vineyard (above). Ravera used to be considered too elevated in the already cooler region of Piedmont. And since it was located in Novello rather than one of the traditional ‘big five” communes, it took vision and hard work for the Cogno team (assisted by an increase in warmer conditions) to help raise Ravera to its current status. Now considered on a par with the greatest Cru vineyards, Ravera’s elevation has in fact become its greatest asset: with open sunlight and a nice long ripening period, Ravera also benefits from exposure to the health-giving breezes that sweep these hilltops.
The next stop was in Barbaresco, where Produttori were kind enough to offer a tour and tasting of their famous Cru wines. As you can imagine by looking at them, it was in front of the above line-up that John sampled his way to a conversion moment regarding the virtues of the 2014 vintage. Yet again every one of these vineyards was beautifully on show, to be sold under labels that are still wildly under-priced for their sheer quality and definitive status. Another fact that hit home was the continued excellence of the standard Barbaresco label. Even cheaper than their Cru wines, the regional Produttori Barbaresco ($50ish on our shelf) is such a superbly complete and satisfying expression because it is in effect a blend of extra juice from these top sites, which in 2014 includes a particularly high proportion from the renowned Cru of Ovello. John was even more impressed to see this trend happening across the region. Gone are the days when fruit of ‘ordinary’ vineyards make it into a standard Barbaresco or Barolo: today it is all about wines of exceptional sites, simply made more polished and ready as they are blended into regional benchmarks that still set new standards of great drinking, and supreme value.
After an ethereal experience akin to a spiritual homecoming for someone such as John, he and his companions were naturally in need of some more earthly sustenance. Being an Italian, their kind and legendary host at Produttori, Aldo Vacca, was far from oblivious that it was almost lunch time. As they stepped to the restaurant next door, the sustenance they were to recieve was more earthly, and more delicious, than the visitors may have expected. For this local restaurant often serves ‘peasant’ dishes made of assorted offcuts from the butcher. But it is only once a week — on this particular day — that they happened serve their piece de resistance: the offcuts of the offcuts. A simple stew of heart, brains and tripe all finely chopped, John was too busy enjoying this dish to ask his host the name of it. (If he had asked, it might have been slightly embarrassing to discover that the locals called it a special name that, after some fumbling with the iphones, would indeed be translated as “stew.”) But if this dish sounds like it would leave little room for further satisfaction, the second course was a superb pasta that was naturally made on-site but which, more uniquely, followed a specially rich recipe of no less than twenty eggs per kilo of flour. After such generous hospitality — and much-needed fortification of solids in the stomach — it was time to drop in on another world-renowned estate, Bruno Rocca.
Here John found a slightly more modern orientation, with a newly built cellar that is so clean you could “eat off the floor” (and you might almost want to with so much delicious wine close at hand). In a region known for racy reds driven by a crunchy brightness and edgy structure, Rocca is often noted for the subtle sensuousness of its cuvees, or what John calls a perfect sense of “polish”.
While traditional Piedmont producers tend to use only large oak “botti” — often running vintages of Barbera or Dolcetto through new ones first, to ensure the oak is neutralised before seeing any Nebbiolo — Bruno Rocca maintains these techniques while also experimenting with newer oak in various smaller formats. This slightly deepens the more savoury and mouth-filling dimensions of the wine, while allowing the delicate fruit of the Barbaresco style to retain its brightness and florality — seeming to enhance it, in fact, by the softening grace of a gentle oxygen exposure in barrel.
This controlled contact with new oak not only produces new and beautifully integrated flavours, it can also contribute significant structure to a style already defined by strident tannins. This was in evidence while tasting Rocca’s beloved top cuvees, the Rabaja and Curla, both of which John regards as on a par with anything from Gaja. In these wines, a staggering depth was held together by “plenty of structure”, and yet — cue all those references to the paradox of great wines — there was also a real sense of flow, with nothing forced, everything effortless, weightless and impeccably “classy”.
The final stop of the day was Cantina del Pino, a remarkable site from which the first wines to use the label ‘Barbaresco’ were once produced. The second owner of the property was the grandather of Renato Vacca (the current proprietor, pictured below), and for many decades since then the whole Vacca family have made this place their life as well as their work. As is typical of many small operations (even in famous regions), while John was there Renato’s sister was working the bottling line, his wife was in the office and his father was defying age by labouring away in the vineyard. This hands-on focus on their vineyards especially — of which the now-recognised Cru of Ovello is their native territory — conveys to the glass all their gorgeous fruit captured in the tight and bracing grip of a native Barbaresco acidity and tannins, a style resembling Produttori for its delicious array of traditional regional virtues. In one moment admirably direct but in the next, ethereal, in one sense the wines of Cantina del Pino are humble and unassuming, but in another they are authentic and classical expressions of one of the most noble landscapes and styles of all Italy. Made in a beautifully clean but never polished or overly modern way, these family treasures are the heart and soul of true Barbaresco.
There was real quality on show too in Cantina’s standard Barbaresco, an “excellent” and “very complete” wine because, like Produttori’s, it was heavily sourced from really serious Cru sites. Smart buyers might also like to hear another little known fact: their Cru Albesani is a superb wine on its own merits, but it so happens that this fruit is picked from rows which once supplied a towering legend of Barbaresco labels, the ‘Santo Stefano’ bottling by Bruno Giacosa. Such fanfare means little around here however, as the vines get tended and the bottling line trundles away, and Renato kindly farewells his smiling visitors from Nuova Zelanda.
We will follow John’s journey on Day Two in the next blog. For anyone who would like to see our current Piedmont range, please click here.