In front of Pelissero Winery on a high point in Barbaresco, Nebbiolo vineyards drape the landscape of the Piedmont hillsides. Directly ahead across the River Tanaro are the vineyard-laden communes of Roero with the prominent tower of Castello di Guarene newly renovated as a hotel. To the southwest are the distant hills of Roddi, Verduno, La Morra and other Barolo communes each crowned with a castle or tower. Down the hill and west of the winery is the gastronomic destination of Alba.
This is Nebbiolo land. Here geography, careful farming, tradition and innovation co-exist with vintners anxious to make their mark with Nebbiolo’s complex, compelling wines. Giorgio Pelissero, the owner/winemaker of the winery, is a restless man. His grandfather started the farm with a few hectares. Now there are 40 contiguous hectares in Treiso, a huge amount by Piedmont standards. “Over 80 percent of farms own less than 30 hectares. I grew up here. The neighbors know I will care for their land if they sell,” said Pelissero who dreams of developing agro-tourism on the property. He makes over 25 different wines; one is Barbaresco DOCG Vanotu, the Piemontese dialect for his grandfather Giovanni.
The slogan for Pelissero Winery is apt for many growers of Nebbiolo, a notoriously finicky and charismatic grape that demands strong sunlight and dislikes cold weather: “Coltivare sogni, vendemmiare passioni: Cultivate dreams, harvest passions.” Tasting a vertical of his wines from the 1990s when he built and then expanded his modern winery shows the power and elegance of his various expressions of Barbaresco.
Like the wines themselves, there is great variation among the vintners. Many winemakers hew to the old ways of using large “botti” or barrels of local oak and chestnut and will not segue as Pelissero has done in his decade-old winery to horizontal, roto-fermenters and smaller barrels.
Yet the respect among Nebbiolo producers is obvious. Early on in 18th century vintners in the Alba area were so proud of their wines they adopted a unique bottle shape which they named the Albeisa. In 1973 Renato Ratti relaunched the idea and rebirthed the Albeisa organization.
Albeisa and Nebbiolo Prima
The Albeisa producers hold an international industry event in conjunction with the release of the new vintage of Roero, Barolo and Barbaresco. The 20th Nebbiolo Prima occurred in May in Alba. During the week, 62 international journalists and 24 Italian writers tasted 500 wines from 255 wineries. The 2011 vintage, we learned, was not normal with an early bud break and then a hot summer with uneven grape ripening. As for 2012, the cold weather peaked in February with a medium hot summer delivering strong daily temperature variations, a positive omen for aging.
I was a novice at Nebbiolo Prima and quickly learned the ropes. The men and women in tuxedos were the only ones to pour the wine. And pour they did. The first day tasting 2012 Roero DOCG challenging—the wines were tight as a drum and could use more time in bottle. The Roero Riserva from 2011 showed moderated tannins and good potential. The next day the 2012 Barbaresco DOCG was also very young and tannin-laden, but some of these were starting to soften.
By Wednesday I got my Barolo groove on. The 2011 Barolo DOCG offering from various communes (villages) showed excellent fruit expressions and typicity. The complexity of these wines shone through on the finish. Thursday brought 2011 Barolo from La Morra, Castiglione Falletto, Monforte d’Alba and Serralunga d’Alba—and 2009 Barolo Riserva. The rich cherry notes and smooth lines of these wines grabbed my attention.
Ah, Friday, when the wines were 2011 Barolo from the Barolo and neighboring communes, or small administrative areas, I was channeling the virtues of Nebbiolo. The balance of leather, wood and licorice on the nose was balanced by a full mid-palate and tight but complex tannins.
The Albeisa wines from Barolo, Barbaresco and Roero are exceptional on many levels including quality designation. In a country with 73 DOCG geographical quality designations, 16 are located in Piedmont. Barbaesco is a UNESCO heritage site for the history of careful winegrowing since Roman times.
Over the years the approach to making and selling nebbiolo wines has changed. One of the biggest innovators was Alfredo Currado, the fourth generation vintner of Vietti Winery. The just-released 2011 Barolo Rocche di Castiglione represents the 50th anniversary of Vietti production of cru or single vineyard wines. In 1961 the idea of producing, year after year, wine from a single vineyard was anathema. But Currado wanted the “rocks and soil to show in the wine” and he broke the tradition. Currado was also one of the first to export to the U.S.
At the wineries
Today Alfredo’s son Luca and wife Elena run the historic winery whose cellar had a secret tunnel to the Duke’s castle. The Currados continue to innovate with new labels and contracts with an additional seven vineyards to the nine they own. The intensity of the Lazzarito cru bottling from Serralunga d’Alba and the more approachable but complex Castiglione Falletto bottlings are excellent examples of Barolo grown well and made to pair with food. The Vietti Riserva are held to a high standard—they’ve been produced only 10 times from 1982.
There are striking contrasts in winemaking styles. Take Bartolo Mascarello. Maria Teresa Mascarello of the famed Barolo family hasn’t added any technology to the winery or added vineyard property since her father died. She also doesn’t do email or social media. Following family tradition, she wants to introduce people to her wines at the winery, in person. Here visitors get a virtual tour of the vineyards with an actual map and a walk though the cellar to behold the elderly “botti” and rare vintages.
Bartolo Mascarello is the rare winery to make only one Barolo, an assemblage or blend of crus. “The Barolo tradition was always to mix vineyards. The clay soil would give tannin, power and longevity. Sandy soils brought elegance. Cru wines—from one site—could be good or bad. Depending on the weather one year, it may be better to select from different communes. We mix the fruit from different vineyards in the fermentation tanks. Most people pick and vinify separately. We do it traditionally because my father and grandfather did it this way,” said Mascarello.
The tradition methods pay off for Mascarello. The 2011, vintage for Barolo, she adds, combines best of a classic, cooler vintage and one with warm summer to yield sweet ripe tannins. I agreed with her assessment and enjoyed the vintages she poured, including the 1986 which still show lively fruit.
Other communes also display an interest in the old ways while adding modern features. Sobrero is now run by third generation Flavio Sobrero in Castiglione Falletto in the Barolo DOCG. His grandfather raised animals and grew grapes in the 1940s; his father started vinifying in the 1960s. A graduate of the wine school in Alba, Sobrero is building a new winery on the site with the latest process controls. During a vertical tasting, the 2004 showed the classic vintage characteristics of wood and leather balanced with acid and fruit. The 2011 Barolo is full bodied with structure to age. Sobrero’s top export market is the U.S.
The next generation of Albeisa leaders is being groomed. Giuseppino Anfossi, proprietor of Ghiomo Winery in Guarene at the heart of the Roero region, is on the Albeisa Board of Directors elected by the 243 wineries. He assumed winemaking of Ghiomo in 1999; his father started making wine in addition to selling grapes in 1980.
Calling himself “seventh generation farmer” and not vintner, Anfossi produces three Albeisa wines and plans on making more. Anfossi has led efforts in a regional crop farming project to reduce the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Anfossi represents the passion and energy of the next generation of Piedmont producers. His Nebbiolo d’Alba Sansteu is named for a church, restored by his grandfather Mario, that stands in one his vineyards. In tasting a vertical of these wines, Ghiomo’s full bodied Sansteu carries great ageability and ability to pair with hearty foods.
Another familiar name in Nebbiolo production is Burlotto in the commune of Verduno. Two hundred years ago Burlotto wine was the favorite of the King of Savoie who ruled Piedmont. A hundred years ago three Burlotto siblings split the family grape holdings. Gian Carlo Burlotto restarted his heritage winery in the 1960s.
Verduno has a storied history with only 12 producers. Giancarlo Burlotto and now his son Luca produce from the cru Massara, and the winery now uses the name Cascina Massara. Their 2009 Barolo is elegant with vanilla and cherry notes.
While the connections to the King of Savoie from France seem distant, the impact of the French on the Peimontese is still very present. Gian Carlo and Luca speak Piemontese at home and note the many French touches in their food and language, a mix of old French and native Piedmont dialects.
Nebbiolo may have transformed itself into international fame. But the familial and historical roots of Piedmont are ever present throughout the area. In the old cellar at Bartolo Mascarello amidst rows and rows of old Barolo, some worth $1,000 or more a bottle, handwritten signs on small blackboards perch on shelves. The Piemontese words “Tuca Nen” catch your eye—“Do Not Touch” along with the Italian and French equivalents. But I wanted to disobey and grab a bottle. But of course, that is something Maria Teresa Mascarello, her father Bartolo or and her grandfather Giulio would never approve. My main take from Nebbiolo Prima: Respect and appreciate your Barolo, let it rest and age in peace.