Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Barolo: An Extraordinary Look Back Through the Years

There's a reason people have always called Barolo Il Re dei Vini e il Vino dei Re, the King of Wines and the Wine of Kings: when carefully made it displays unparalleled finesse coupled with a capacity to age that only a few other wines can match. 1996, 1990, 1985, 1978, 1971, 1964, 1958, 1947…

The problem is finding these vintages; few people have cellars that stretch that far back, and even fewer are willing to part with their much loved wines.

So when Andrea Cappelli called me to say he and Gianfranco Soldera were organizing a dinner featuring Barolos ranging from 1978 to 1931, and would I come, I eagerly accepted the invitation. With wines this old it would have been too much to expect them to all be from the same producer, and I actually prefer it so, because they offered us a look at how a number of people worked, including Elvio Cogno, Bartolo Mascarello, Giuseppe Mascarello, Giacomo Conterno, Luigi Pira, and Giacomo Borgogno.

The wines, in the order they were poured:

Marcarini Barolo 1971
This was made by Elvio Cogno, with grapes from the Brunate vineyard. It's pale almandine with ruby rim. Rich, delicate bouquet with dried flowers and warm raw savory accents mingled with spice from grapes and clean, well polished, well oiled saddle leather. Great depth, and it's like listening to a sonata . On the palate it's full, with rich, slightly leathery savory cherry and dried plum fruit supported by tannins that are deft and smooth, with a clean burr that flows into a long deft finish with mentholated overtones. Great depth, and something to remember for years and years.

With time, it becomes more ethereal, gaining in depth, while the fruit also emerges more fully. With more time -- 2 hours -- I also begin to find rhubarb in the nose.

E Pira e Figli Barolo 1971

This is from the Comune of Barolo, and, according to the estate's website, Luigi Pira was the last winemaker to eschew all machinery, working by hand and pressing his grapes by foot. In other words, this is a true window into the past, and -- alas -- a brief one, because after his premature demise, his sisters sold the estate to the Boschis family, which introduced machinery.

Luigi Pira's 1971 Barolo is elegant almandine with almandine rim; it looks younger than it is. The bouquet is clean, with beautiful Moroccan leather and savory accents mingled with dried flowers and some dried red berry fruit and prunes. Quite elegant. On the palate it's delightful, with rich clean bright berry fruit supported by clean slightly leathery acidity and very nice smooth tannins that flow into a long clean bright finish. Terrific depth and a beautiful wine to enjoy.

With time,
kerosene and dried flowers emerge from the nose, while the palate reveals more dried fruit - plum/prune - mingled with leather, and then it settles, but on an even keel, while dried roses emerge. Interesting!

Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo 1978
Deep almandine with black reflections. The bouquet is quite rich, with spice, a mixture of green leather and well polished saddle leather, clean savory accents, dried flowers, and hints of truffle. Very nice, young, and with great depth. On the palate it's rich, with powerful red berry fruit supported by clean bright berry fruit acidity and smooth velvety tannins that have deft slightly leathery accents and flow into a clean bitter berry fruit finish. Extraordinary depth, in a key that is still young enough that it's almost a sin to drink it now -- we're not quite talking infanticide, but it is very, very fresh, and nobody would guess that it's already thirty years old. This said, because of its relative youth it is the most immediate of the wines we tasted.

With time, some kerosene emerges on the nose, laced with dried roses that gradually take precedence. In short, it evolves and grows beautifully in the glass. Last note: A fellow taster found marzipan, which I didn't.

Giacomo Conterno Barolo 1967
This is from Monforte and Serralunga, and is deep almandine with almandine rim. The bouquet is a bit more mature than the others tasted so far, with delicate spice, leather, dried flowers, and hints of marzipan with underlying dried plums. Deft, controlled elegance; it's very fine, with a great lot going on, and rather haunting too. On the palate it's rich, and very fresh, with slightly dry leathery berry fruit that has some brandied accents and is supported by deft acidity, leathery again, that flows with the aid of velvety tannins into a clean savory finish. It's one of those wines one spends one's time sipping and enjoying, and forgets to take notes about.

With time it simply gets better, gaining in richness on both nose and palate.

Bartolo Mascarello Barolo Riserva 1958
This is from an unlabeled magnum (actually, 1.9 liter bottle with a tag; see photo), and is almandine with an almandine rim. Rich bouquet with powerful leathery accents and leaf tobacco supported by clean minerality and spice, with some underlying dried raisins. Extraordinary grace. On the palate it's rich and deft, with clean bright mineral laced berry fruit supported by graceful acidity and spellbinding tannins . Absolutely beautiful, the stuff of dreams, and one of the finest wines it has ever been my fortune to taste.

With time,
it remains spellbinding.

Giacomo Borgogno e Figli Barolo Riserva 1931
The label says this is from "Antichi Vigneti Propri" - Old personally owned vineyards (as opposed to the vineyards of suppliers), that it's 13.5% alcohol, and also says to serve it at 20-22 C (68-72 F), while there's a sticker that says "Riserva Speciale Medaglia D'Oro Concorso Vini di Regime" (Gold Medal at the Vini di Regime competition), the regime being Benito Mussolini's.

Brownish almandine with almandine rim. The bouquet is rich, with plum jam mingled with warmth and savory accents, and some brandied berry fruit as well as brown sugar laced with oatmeal. Beautiful, and very much alive, and it's incredible to think that it's older than either of my parents; concentration on my part reveals very slight hints of oxidation, which in no way detract from the impressiveness of the wine. On the palate it's rich, with clean fairly bright plum fruit supported by deft balsamic acidity and clean bitter accents, while the tannins are still present and smooth too. Bartolo Mascarello's wine is superior from a strictly technical standpoint, but this pulls at the heartstrings, and is an astonishing testament to Piemontese winemaking. I confess to finishing it rather than letting it sit in the glass, but Gianfranco Soldera, who showed more restraint, went on at length about its harmony.

Bottom Line: This was one of the most impressive tastings it has been my fortune to attend, and fully confirms Barolo's title, King of Wines.

One very important thing to note is that all of these wines predate the so-called Enological revolution that ushered in the New Style of winemaking in Langa (softer, smoother, fruitier Barolo that is much closer to being ready to drink upon release). In other words, these wines were bitingly tannic when they were released, and only reached their present depth and finesse through decades of aging. If one were to decide to lay the groundwork for a similar tasting in 2040, one would have to select wines made by those who are now called traditionalists, because the new-style, softer smoother Barolos simply won't hold for that long.

My thoughts about the innovative and traditional schools of Piemontese winemaking, and why I much prefer the traditional.

Last thing: The dinner was at the Ristorante Silene, a very fine restaurant on the slopes of Monte Amiata. As such it's a bit out of the way, but well worth a journey if you happen to be in southern Tuscany.


Anonymous said...

Hi Kyle,

Great post -- these old nebbioli are some of my favorite wines in the world. I did get a chance to taste the '58 Bartolo Mascarello a few years back (from a 750). The unbelievably "scarico" color belied a remarkable amount of power and, yes, I'd agree, grace, with incredible complexity. The finish went on for minutes. I feel like I'm still tasting that wine, years later. One of the most memorable wines of my life.

paul cummins said...

Not sure if I'm duplicating, but...
I have a 1978 Marcarini Brunate Barolo I've been holding for my 70th in April. I'm nervous. How long in advance should I open it. Should I decant it? I also have three bottles of 1974 Conterno Barolo. Do you think it is still good? Same questions apply? thanks so much.
Paul Cummins