After two days fighting the temptations of Piedmont, John’s battered taste-buds limbered up for a final round with this terribly fine, but also rather fearsome and formidable Italian wine — Barolo. The day began with a reminder of how long and noble is the history here, as he visited the very old family of Francesco Rinaldi whose ledgers (pictured below) show local village winemaking back centuries. In a cellar that stretches under the modern road — which was of course a mere track when they built it — John was introduced to one of the patrons, Piera Rinaldi, and her wonderfully refined, restrained and traditional Barolo styles.
Their top single vineyards are Brunate and Cannubi (on the latter hillside stands their winery) and both are located in the sub-regional village of Barolo itself. In this special place, the meeting and mingling of the broader region’s two famous soil types — sand and clay — allows Nebbiolo to balance the style’s aromatic precision and richness of texture, producing wines that almost literally define the region that carries its name.
While 2014 was a more delicate and “laid back” vintage for Barolo, this played beautifully into a portfolio in which the Cannubi was more rounded, the Brunate more gripping, and the standard Barolo again showcased the house style — refreshing and floral, yet stoic and savoury — with exceptional quality based on fruit mainly from the Brunate Cru.
The next stop was with the Scavino family, who have also been here a long time but whose reputation has risen to a status not so far from royalty. The Scavino label we have imported for years still lies at the heart of our range. Azelia began in 1920, when Lorenzo Scavino (father of Luigi, pictured with John at the top) first vinified fruit from the family vineyards.
Since then they have expanded from their native Castiglione Falletto (Bricco Fiasco) to gather other holdings in neighbouring Serralunga d’Alba (Margheria and San Rocco). This family does not lack resources, but they are so attached to their cramped little cellar that they would rather not replace it with a fancy big one. Instead they acquired some specially made stainless fermenters which, being octagonal from above, will pack in more tightly. Other than this use of steel (not concrete) theirs is a relatively traditional vinification and aging in large oval oak (with vessels sitting atop others to make space, of course). Yet so expert are these simple methods that they produce something not far from the best virtues of modern sensibility: utterly “polished” and “svelte”, these wines can at times be so poised, mineral and floral that they seem to capture the feminine side of these usually masculine, clay-soil sites.
In a stunning tasting of four vintages — 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 — John saw spectacular promise, but was particularly enthusiastic about the “knock-out” 2016s. Then after departing Azelia and travelling just around the corner, the final visit of John’s trip was another family with more than century’s history and a truly inimitable status, Vietti.
The historic, if not epochal importance of Vietti is not only a matter of sheer quality, or of their winemaking and incredible sites — many of which are now far flung from their base in Castiglione Falletto. In the mid-Twentieth Century it was Alfredo Currado (husband of Luciana Vietti) who not only became one of the first Barolo producers to export to the US, but was more famously a pioneer in single-vineyard or “Cru” Barolo — from vineyards like Brunate, Rocche and Villero. This paradigm change toward terroir has come to define the rising esteem (and returns on investment) that Barolo now enjoys. Not satisfied with this, Alfredo spent the late sixties recovering the nearly-lost Arneis grape from the vineyards of Barolo (where it was used to attract birds away from the Nebbiolo). By vinifying it separately he saved the grape and created a wine that, today enshrined the Roero Arneis DOCG, is recognised as the foremost white wine of Peidmont. The Vietti Arneis is on our shelf, and tasting especially delicious this vintage.
But his penchant for innovation was carried in the genes, for Alfredo’s son Luca Currado (above) was responsible for an innovation that to this day he proudly calls “crazy”. Once Luca had gained enough trust from his father to take care of a prized Barolo vineyard, Scarrone, the first thing he did was rip out the precious Nebbiolo vines and replace them with Barbera — a rustic grape usually relegated to poor sites and cheaper labels. Crazy this was not however, for years later the Scarrone Barbera sells for $100 on strict allocation while their other two Barberas — and those of so many other producers who have followed suit — offer such satisfying lushness and intensity in the glass that what seems crazy is that this style took so long to be given its due.
So while the legacy of Vietti is easy to describe, what is harder to pin down is just what it is that makes their wines so beautiful. While John Caro is not the most avid conversationalist you’ve ever met, he’s never short of a pithy descriptor that tells you all you need to know. But after a few minutes trying to find out what he thinks of the Vietti style — or at least put it on spectrum of terms like “polished” or “savage”, “modern” or “traditional” — the poor man puts his head in his hands and stares at the table. He really can’t work out what to say. All I can get out of him is that they’re “balanced”.
While this may seem like a diminutive assessment, it is obviously the opposite. There is something about these wines that’s just too great to be explained, at least in a single word (even by John). So his term “balance”, as far as I can tell, refers not only to this peculiar kind of X factor — this ethereal combination of barely perceptible qualities which make their wines so much more than the sum of their parts. But it seems to also suggest, in a broader sense, that their many labels and styles typify all that is wonderful about Barolo, capturing so much that is cherished and distinctive about the extraordinary region of Piedmont.
It was a hell of trip, and John extends his warmest gratitude to his kind Italian hosts. Now that his cheek muscles have recovered from smiling, he is comfortably frowning again. And his life as New Zealand’s most Piedmont-obsessed wine importer goes back to some version of normal. For John that means, of course, overloading the Piedmont lolly shop that Caros has already become by adding just a couple of new gems he spotted on his trip.
But that, it seems, is another story.
For anyone who would like to see our current Piedmont range, please click Here.