When we went to Piemonte to taste Barolo and Barbaresco this fall we were hosted by Fontanafredda, which is perhaps Piemonte's most historic winery: In the mid-1800s King Vittorio Emanuele II, who found the rigid etiquette at Court stifling, was want to sneak out of town whenever he could to hunt, enjoy fine foods in friendly surroundings, or to see Rosa Vercellana, the fetching daughter of one of his soldiers.
Though he had a reputation as a ladies' man the relationship was serious; he built her a home on a hundred-hectare hunting preserve not far from Serralunga d'Alba, and following the death of his queen made her Contessa di Mirafiori and married her. Since she had started out a commoner the marriage was morganatic; this meant that upon the King's death their children didn't have access to the Royal treasury, and to guarantee Count Emilio Guerrieri's future Vittorio Emanuele willed him the estate that had been Contessa Rosa's home.
A hunting preserve, beautiful as it may be, doesn't offer much of an income. However, in nearby Grinzane Cavour the vineyards below the castle were producing wonderful wines, and Marchesa Falletti, who lived a few miles in the other direction, was gathering the Nebbiolo-based wines that had been known by their vineyards -- Cannubi, Bussia, Sarmassa and so on -- under a single glorious heading: Barolo. Conte Guerrieri cleared his land, planted vineyards, and in 1878 founded Mirafiori Vini Italiani.
Having done this he had a problem: A hundred hectares of vineyards require considerable manpower to maintain properly -- not just during the harvest, but during the rest of the year as well. Mirafiori, while beautifully positioned for making wine, was several hours' walk from the nearest town, over roads that would turn to mud during the wet seasons. So he built a town for his workers -- a fully functional village, with general store, school, and church. Though company towns were fairly common in other industries (especially in the United States), this is the only Italian winery built following 19th century industrial precepts.
Taken as a whole, what Count Guerrieri built resembles other 19th century factory complexes, for example the textile mills one finds along rivers in New England, but with a couple of twists. Rather than have plain brick or stone facing, he chose to paint the plaster with red and gold stripes, the colors of the House of Savoy, and added decorative elements in silver and blue, his family colors, under the eves -- a clever way to remind people of his roots, and one which is especially beautiful in the light of the setting sun. What really sets the complex apart, however, is the setting: Nestled in a valley, with vineyards draping the slopes, and a pretty park in the flatland surrounding Contessa Rosa's house. Nothing like this in New England, and it's well worth a visit if you are in the area.
Any illusions you might have about being in a traditional factory vanish upon entering the cellars, however, as you behold hall upon hall of botti, the huge traditional oaken casks where Barolo and other wines quietly mature.
The winery was extremely successful, and would probably still be Mirafiori Vini Italiani today had the Count's son not gone into politics -- while he was busy with affairs of state the winery languished, and in 1931 went bankrupt. The property went to the major creditor, Siena's Monte dei Paschi (the world's oldest bank, founded in 1472) while the name was bought by the Gancia winery. Monte dei Paschi settled upon Fontanafredda (Cold Fountain) for their new estate, after a very cold fountain on the property.
And thus things remained until a couple of years ago, until Oscar Frinetti, the man behind Eataly http://eatalyny.com/, approached Monte Dei Paschi and asked if he could buy into the winery. They said yes, and now he is the major shareholder. Little has changed since his arrival, at least on the grounds: the team working in the winery is still the same. However, Mr. Farinetti also approached the folks at Gancia and asked them to give back the Mirafiori name. Gancia did, and now Fontanafredda's top line is called Mirafiori.
At the end of the second day of our visit we returned to Fontanafredda, where we were greeted by Monica Tavella and Danilo Drocco, who gave us a tour of the winery, that ended in the new, rather space-age tasting room they just opened.
Where we tasted: Mirafiore Dolcetto D'Alba 2010 This is from an east-facing vineyard, and it spends two months in large wood prior to bottling. Deep cherry ruby with cherry rim. The bouquet is rich, with lively violets and some berry fruit supported by graphite shavings and bitter almonds, with almond blossoms as well and pleasant savory notes. Quite pleasant. On the palate it's fresh, with bright cherry fruit supported by lively acidity and tannins that have bright peppery accents, and flow into a bright warm cherry finish with violet accents and a peppery tannic underpinning. It's quite aggressive, and is a wine that will drink very well with fattier foods, for example grilled meats such as sausages or lamb chops. If you like the style you will enjoy it. 2 stars Mirafiore Barbera D'Alba 2009 This is harvested a bit earlier than some, to have ripeness but also acidity. It spends a year in large wood, without racking. Deep pyrope with black reflections and cherry rim. The bouquet is closed at the outset, and bordering on reduction, demanding that one swish it to oxygenate it, as it opens it reveals berry fruit and acidity shot through with graphite shavings and some acidity that increases as it oxygenates. On the palate it's bright, with rich cherry fruit supported by bright berry fruit acidity and by tannins that are fairly light, and there is a touch of sweetness too that comes from alcohol content -- it's 14%, and it flows into a warm tart cherry finish. Pleasant in a fairly aggressive key, and will work very well with succulent meats. Particular, however, and if you like heavily oaked Barbera it won't work for you, because though there is some wood that smoothes some, the acidity very much rules, and leves the teeth squeaky clean. 2 stars
Mirafiore Langhe Nebbiolo 2009 This is from grapes that are exposed to the East, and therefore don't have the terrific tannic structure Barolo would have after two years; it spends a year in oak, during which it is never racked, and is almandine with black reflections and almandine rim. The bouquet is savory, with rosa canina and minerality, berry fruit, earthiness, spice, leather and leaf tobacco that is fairly intense, and p0elasantly green. Quite a bit going on. On the palate it's rich, with bright berry fruit supported by sweet tannins and fairly bright acidity; the tannins are peppery and fairly aggressive, and flow into a clean bright cherry laced finish with a peppery underpinning that's quite pleasant. A perfect food wine that will work quite well with a steak or roast. 88-90
Mirafiore Lazzarito Barolo 2007 This wine macerated 45 days on the skins after fermentation, and then, after the malolactic fermentation spent 2 years in cask, without racking. Deep almandine with black reflections and almandine rim. The bouquet is powerful, with leathery berry fruit supported by leaf tobacco and brambly accents, also greenish vegetal accents, spice, alcohol and pleasant spice, with underlying licorice root, sea salt and cedar, supported by slight pungency of alcohol. On the palate it's full and smooth, with powerful cherry fruit supported by mentholated accents -- the alcohol confers a degree of mineral sweetness -- and spice, and by bright acidity and warmth, while the tannins, which are sweet at the outset and powerful throughout, become drier in the finish, and this is a factor of youth. Quite pleasant with considerable depth, and though it ahs a youthful brashness to it now, it is quite elegant and will go places with time. Impressive. 88-90
Mirafiore Barolo Riserva 2004 With this wine they assembled the best grapes of the vintage, picking from here and there to obtain the best from everywhere. Deep black almandine with black reflections and almandine rim paling to white still; it has held remarkably well. The bouquet is powerful, with rich berry fruit laced with green leather and leaf tobacco, and also with spice and some rosa canina with considerable underbrush as well, and some bitterness too. Quite pleasant. On the palate it's full, and rich, with powerful cherry fruit supported by savory tannins and fairly brisk acidity that flow into a clean savory tannic finish. Quite pleasant, and will work very well with grilled meats or roasts; it's still very young -- and this comes out in the dryness in the finish -- but displays considerable potential, and though one could drink it now with grilled meats along the lines of a porterhouse steak, it will also age very well for 15 or more years. Needs time still, and is remarkably young. 2 stars
The tasting was followed by a relaxed and delightful dinner during which Danilo Monica poured us a number of older wines that Luciano has described with a poetic vision that I simply cannot hope to match. So I will simply give my impressions:
Fontanafredda Barolo 1967 Almandine with almandine rim. Rich bouquet with leaf tobacco, spice, acidity, some chocolate and carob tending towards tamarind, balsamic notes, sea breeze. Beautiful and very much alive. The palate is bright and rich, with lively sour berry fruit supported by tamarind-lemon acidity and tannins that are bright and rich, with a warm burr that flows into a fairly long clean bright finish. Very impressive, and though it is full mature one wouldn't guess its age.
Fontanafredda Barolo Vigna La Rosa 1982 The bouquet is rich, but not as rich as the 67's, with berry fruit and leather mingled with spice, leaf tobacco, musty dried orange peel, licorice root, and underlying spice with savory acidity providing direction. On the palate it's full, rich, and smooth, with spice and berry fruit supported by tannins that have sweet leathery accents. Terrific finesse, though not as lively as the 67, nor does it have the power. But it does have quite a bit to say.
Fontanafredda Barolo Vigna La Rosa 1996 Deap leather almandine ruby. The bouquet is rich, with spice, leather and leaf tobacco mingled with some hardwood ash and underlying savory accents, minerality, and some mineral acidity. Considerable finesse. On the palate it's full, rich and deft, with minerality mingled with underbrush and spice, and moderate fruit, with nice acidity as well. Great depth and elegance.
Fontanafredda Barolo Vigna La Rosa 1999 Lively ruby with brilliant reflections. The bouquet is bright, with berry fruit and greenish leathery accents mingled with spice and sea salt, with some underbrush as well. Nice depth and elegance. On the palate it's rich and full with pleasant fruit supported by smooth sweet tannins that flow into a clean deft finish. Quite fine.
Fontanafredda Barolo Vigna La Rosa 2004 Deep ruby with brilliant reflections. The bouquet is fairly rich, with berry fruit mingled with spice and cedar, and leaf tobacco too, with underlying rosa canina and red berry fruit. Quite pleasant. On the palate it's full and bright, with rich berry fruit supported by deft acidity and tannins that are smooth, with hints of spice and flow into a clean rich finish. Considerable elegance and very pleasant to sip. By comparison with the 2004 Mirafiore its tannins are smoother and richer, and I found it to display greater finesse.
Fontanafredda Barolo Vigna La Rosa 2007 Cherry ruby. The nose is bright with cherry fruit and some greenish vegetal accents, berry fruit, and warmth -- pleasant but in its infancy. On the palate it's full, and bright, with red berry fruit supported by tannins that have a youthful peppery burr, while mineral raspberry acidity provides direction, and it flows into a rather bright angry finish. It's pleasant, and has considerable potential, but needs time. Something to wait for.
NO STAR goes to wines that are correctly made but nothing to get excited about.
ONE STAR goes to wines that are good. TWO STARS go to wines that are very good to excellent. THREE STARS and a POINT SCORE (90-100) go to wines that are superb to extraordinary. And I will give pairing suggestions, which I consider much more important than the scores.