If I had to limit my wine drinking to just three wine regions in the world, I'd choose Champagne, Bordeaux...and Piedmont.
My love for Piedmont--its wines, its food, its people, and the land itself--began with my first journey there, back in 1981 (I owe a big debt to my wife, Mary, who brought me there). Torino, Piedmont's capital, has been receiving the world's attention lately, as host of the Winter Olympics. Just an hour south of Turin (the city's English name) lies one of the great, unique wine regions of the world, the Langhe hills, home of the Nebbiolo grape and its two most prestigious wines, Barolo and Barbaresco. Nowhere else in the world does Nebbiolo make such fine wines as here. The important wine town in the Langhe is Alba; both the Barolo and Barbaresco wine regions surround the town.
Barolo and Barbaresco are difficult wines to understand and appreciate, and this was especially so back in 1981. They were so tannic and austere! But I knew of their potential greatness; a 1947 Borgogno Barolo that I had tasted in New York in the mid-1970s had opened my eyes to the wonders of Barolo; my first great Barbaresco was the 1971 Gaja, which I drank in the late 1970s (and the 1971 Gaja Barbaresco is still superb today!)
One of my great discoveries on my early trips to Piedmont was the region's exceptional "everyday" red wine, Barbera. I became hooked on Barbera, both the heartier Barbera d'Alba and the typically leaner Barbera d'Asti (there are no better wines with pizza!).
Over the years, I've developed my list of favorite Piedmontese producers; eight, in particular, stand out. I list them alphabetically: Ceretto, Giacomo Conterno, Angelo Gaja, Bruno Giacosa, Bartolo Mascarello, Giuseppe Mascarello, Giuseppe Rinaldi, and Vietti.
Those of you who know about Piedmontese wine styles will discern that my favorites are dominated by traditional producers: Giacomo Conterno, Bruno Giacosa, both Mascarellos, and Rinaldi. Two of my favorites combine modern methods with tradition (Ceretto and Vietti), while Angelo Gaja is the one modernist. I plead guilty as charged; I have a definite preference for traditionally-styled Barolos and Barbarescos. (I wrote about the differences in the two styles in a previous column for Wine Review Online, dated August 30, 2005: "Barolo and Barbaresco Regions are Blessed.")
Vintages have been particularly good in the Langhe during the past decade; 1996 (still too young), 1999, and 2001 are especially great. Also, 1998 and 1995 are quite good, while 2000 and 1997 are fine, but perhaps a trifle too ripe, and will not have the longevity of the other vintages.
Two months ago, I visited five of these star producers: Angelo Gaja, Roberto Conterno (of Giacomo Conterno), Mauro Mascarello (of Giuseppe Mascarello), Giuseppe Rinaldi, and Luca Currado (of Vietti). The following is a brief description of these wine producers, along with reviews of their current wines:
No one has done more to popularize Piedmontese wines than Angelo Gaja. Even though I normally prefer traditional Piedmontese wines, I make an exception for the wines of Gaja, because they are so great. Unfortunately, they also happen to be Piedmont's most expensive wines. Gaja has expanded from his home base, the village of Barbaresco, and now also makes Brunello di Montalcino and super-Tuscan wines, but I will stick to his Piedmontese wines in my reviews below.
Gaja was the first Piedmontese producer to make "international" varietal wines--such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Cabernet Sauvignon--in the region, much to the consternation of his father and some fellow-winemakers. But as time went on, quite a few producers followed his example, and also made wines from these varieties. Angelo Gaja is an iconoclast, fiercely independent, creative, and a leader. For me, he is one of the great wine producers of our time. Whether people admire him or not, few would deny that his wines are superbly crafted. They have elegance, great balance, and wonderful mouth-feel. And they stand the test of time; I cannot remember ever tasting a Gaja wine that was over the hill.
Gaja makes only one wine today that is actually labeled "Barbaresco." In 1996, he decided that for his five single-vineyard wines, he would not use the Barbaresco and Barolo DOCG classifications--which requires that wines labeled as such be 100 percent Nebbiolo--so that he could add a little Barbera into these wines if he thought it would improve them. Typically, Gaja adds about 6 percent Barbera to his single-vineyard wines, all of which now carry the Nebbiolo Langhe DOC classification.
Gaja, Langhe (Piedmont, Italy) Sauvignon Blanc "Alteni di Brassica" 2004 ($65, Paterno Imports): This is the best Sauvignon Blanc from Italy that I've tasted. It has intense, piercing, citric aromas, with gentle hints of oak. It's rich, yet elegant, with complex citrus flavors, especially lime, and has great depth and length on the palate. In quality, similar to a great white Bordeaux. It will live for 15 years plus. Excellent wine! 93
Gaja, Langhe (Piedmont, Italy) Nebbiolo "Conteisa" 2004, barrel sample (estimate, $200, Paterno Imports): Gaja's Conteisa obtains its grapes from the famed Cerequio vineyard in Barolo. Conteisa is the more elegant and fruity of Gaja's two single-vineyard wines from the Barolo region. It has concentrated raspberry and strawberry aromas and flavors, along with soft, oaky tannins. It is pure, fresh, and modern, without the tension of traditional Barolos, but is quite delicious! (The 2001 and 1999 Conteisas are the current vintages available.) 92
Gaja, Barbaresco (Piedmont, Italy) 2003 ($160, Paterno Imports): With black cherry aromas and flavors, along with firm tannins, this is a bit harsh on the palate right now. The 2003 is a chewy, powerful wine, presently dominated by its black fruit flavors. It is quite ripe, as is typical of the hot 2003 vintage. It needs at least another five years to develop. (Gaja's 2001 Barbaresco is the currently available vintage.) 91
Gaja, Langhe (Piedmont, Italy) Nebbiolo Sperrs 2003, barrel sample (estimate, $200, Paterno Imports): Gaja owns the Sperrs vineyard, in Serralunga d'Alba. The 2003 Sperrs is an intense wine, with fascinating chocolatey, oaky aromas, and flavors akin to raspberry grappa! It is very dry, fleshy, and concentrated, with high acidity and firm tannins. In short, a classic Serralunga Barolo, and a great 2003. It can use another eight to ten years to mature. 93
Gaja, Langhe (Piedmont, Italy) Nebbiolo Sperss 2001 ($200, Paterno Imports): The 2001 Sperrs is a more concentrated version of the 2003. It has incredible aromas of black fruit and burnt sugar, along with mineral and herbal notes. I would not open the 2001 Sperrs for another ten years. Ultimately, it will be even finer than the 2003. 95
Gaja, Langhe (Piedmont, Italy) Nebbiolo Costa Russi 2001 ($380, Paterno Imports): Gaja's Costa Russi is always the most approachable of his three single-vineyard wines from Barbaresco. The 2001 Costa Russi has raspberry and tar aromas, with powerful tannins. Its flavors have medium intensity compared to Gaja's other single-vineyard wines. It is the most Burgundian Gaja wine, featuring finesse over power, but with the classic, Gaja concentrated finish. 92
Gaja, Langhe (Piedmont, Italy) Nebbiolo Sori' Tildin 2001 ($380, Paterno Imports): The 2001 Sori' Tildin, a single-vineyard wine from Barbaresco, is a powerhouse of concentrated tar and strawberry aromas and flavors. It has great depth and length on the palate, much more intense than the Costa Russi, yet a bit more forward than Gaja's San Lorenzo. It should be magnificent in ten years. 93
Gaja, Langhe (Piedmont, Italy) Nebbiolo Sorì San Lorenzo 2001 ($380, Paterno Imports): Sorì San Lorenzo, Gaja's third single-vineyard wine from Barbaresco, is always the most full-bodied of the three, and requires the most time to develop. The 2001 has pure, concentrated aromas and flavors of licorice, dried herbs, and black fruit. It is fleshy, with firm tannins, but with exquisite balance and latent power. Right now, the tannins still dominate, but the 2001 Sorì San Lorenzo will be superb in ten years plus. 94
Gaja, Langhe (Piedmont, Italy) Cabernet Sauvignon "Darmagi" 2001 (($200, Paterno Imports): The 2001 Darmagi has unmistakable, penetrating Cabernet aromas of cedar and blackcurrants. It's a real nod to the Bordeaux style, much more so than to the Super-Tuscan Cabernets. It is soft, supple, and elegant, perhaps a trifle under-ripe. A fine Cabernet Sauvignon, yes, but for $200, I'd buy Gaja's Sperrs. 91
Gaja, Langhe (Piedmont, Italy) Cabernet Sauvignon "Darmagi" 2000 (($160, Paterno Imports): The 2000 Darmagi is rich and ripe, with concentrated coffee and chocolate aromas and flavors. Along with the richness, the 2000 has a sweetness and softness characteristic of the 2000 vintage. It will be ready to drink soon. 90
When Giovanni Conterno, the acknowledged king of traditionally-made Barolo, passed away two years ago at the age of 76, some people were concerned about the direction his winery would take. I can assure you that such fears are entirely groundless; Roberto Conterno, Giovanni's youngest son, is making Barolo and Barbera exactly the way his father made them. In fact, he has been the defacto winemaker for many years now, because Giovanni had been in poor health for several years before he died. (Aldo Conterno, Giovanni's younger brother, is also one of Barolo's premier producers.)
The Giacomo Conterno winery is located in Monforte d'Alba, but the vineyard, Cascina Francia (owned entirely by Conterno) is in nearby Serralunga d'Alba. Roberto Conterno makes only three wines from Cascina Francia, all magnificent: two Barolos, one simply called Cascina Francia, and a premium Barolo, Monfortino, plus a Barbera d'Alba. It's a small winery (less than 10,000 cases per year), and so the best places to find these wines would be wine shops which specialize in Italian wines. If you want to try Barolo at its best, and also one of the very best Barberas, you must try Giacomo Conterno's wines. But please let the Barolos age; in good vintages, they require 15 to 20 years of maturation to really show their stuff.
Giacomo Conterno, Barbera d'Alba (Piedmont, Italy) 2003 ($24, Polaner Selections; Rare Wine Company): Giacomo Conterno normally makes one of the very best Barberas in the region. The 2003 will appeal to you if you like rich, easy-drinking, plummy wines. I would prefer more acidity. But then, 2003 is not my kind of European vintage, generally speaking; many wines are just too ripe and soft. Having said that, this 2003 Barbera d'Alba is quite delicious right now. 89
Giacomo Conterno, Barbera d'Alba (Piedmont, Italy) 2000 ($24, Polaner Selections; Rare Wine Company): The 2000 Barbera d'Alba from Giacomo Conterno is fresh and vibrant with good acidity and tart black cherry fruit. It is just a lovely wine to drink now. Although 2000 was also a very warm vintage, it was not quite as hot as 2003. 91
Giacomo Conterno, Barolo (Piedmont, Italy) Cascina Francia 2001 ($120, Polaner Selections; Rare Wine Company): The 2001 Barolo Cascina Francia has the characteristic Nebbiolo aromas of tar, licorice, and strawberries, with exceptional balance. It is in a quiet stage right now, and requires several hours of aeration. But it should be exceptional in another six to eight years, and will have a long life after that. 93
Giacomo Conterno, Barolo (Piedmont, Italy) "Monfortino" 1998 ($275, Polaner Selections; Rare Wine Company): The 1998 is the current vintage of Giacomo Conterno's magnificent Monfortino, as it normally ages for seven years in large casks. It has incredible, explosive, perfumed aromas of wild strawberries, tar, and licorice. With rich, voluptuous flavors, it's enjoyable even now, although it will only improve with age. Giacomo Conterno Barolos generally age as well as First Growth Bordeaux. 96
Roberto Conterno was fortunate in that he inherited a great winery from his father. Even though the Mascarello family owned vineyards in the region since 1904, it really was Mauro Mascarello, the current proprietor, who has made Giuseppe Mascarello the great winery that it is today. The winery itself is in Monchiero, a hamlet outside of Monforte d'Alba, but Giuseppe Mascarello has all of his vineyards in nearby Castiglione Falletto. Mauro Mascarello makes a range of Piedmontese wines, but he is most renowned for his Barolos.
Mauro Mascarello has two things in common with Roberto Conterno: both are great traditional Barolo producers, and both completely own prized vineyards (what the French call "monopoles") in the Langhe. Monprivato is the gem of the many great vineyards in Castiglione Falletto; Mauro managed to buy the entire vineyard in the 1980s, and since then, has established himself among the elite Barolo producers. Since 1993, Mauro has been making a super-Monprivato from a special, 2-acre plot, called Ca' d'Morissio. He also produces a fine but less costly Barolo, Santo Stefano di Perno. Like Giacomo Conterno's Barolos, Giuseppe Mascarello's Barolos need time to develop, but are somewhat less expensive. And like Conterno's, none of Mascarello's Barolos are ever aged in barriques.
Giuseppe Mascarello, Barolo (Piedmont, Italy) Monprivato 1999 ($55, Polaner Selections; Rare Wine Company): The 1999 Monprivato is a classic in the making, with rich aromas and flavors of wild strawberries, tar, and camphor. It has great depth and complexity on the palate, with a long finish. Superb value! 94
Giuseppe Mascarello, Barolo (Piedmont, Italy) Monprivato 1998 ($80, Polaner Selections; Rare Wine Company): At this stage, the 1998 Monprivato is even better than the 1999! Classic aromas, similar to the 1999, but more complete on the palate. Just an outstanding Barolo, even now. 96
Giuseppe Mascarello, Barolo (Piedmont, Italy) Santo Stefano di Perno 1999 ($45, Polaner Selections; Rare Wine Company): The Santo Stefano vineyard in Perno is just outside of Castiglione Falletto. Stylistically, this is a bigger wine than the Monprivato, although not as elegant, with black fruit flavors and excellent length on the palate. Another great value from this producer. 92
Giuseppe Mascarello, Barolo (Piedmont, Italy) Ca' d'Morissio 1997 ($190, Polaner Selections; Rare Wine Company): Mauro Mascarello uses only the Michét clone of Nebbiolo for his 2-acre plot of Ca' d'Morissio in his Monprivato vineyard. The 1997 is the current vintage, and only the fourth vintage of Ca' d'Morissio (following 1993, 1995, and 1996). The wine has proven to be even more intense and explosive than Monprivato; a classic Barolo, even in the rather precocious 1997 vintage. 95
Giuseppe Mascarello, Barolo (Piedmont, Italy) Ca' d'Morissio 1996 (estimate, $190, Polaner Selections; Rare Wine Company): The 1996 Ca' d'Morissio is due to be released sometime in 2006. The combination of this premium Monprivato plot and the great 1996 vintage has produced a massive wine, complex and rich. Only 200 cases made. It will need years to develop, but will be superb. 98
I love Beppe Rinaldi's traditional Barolos, but I must admit that I am frustrated every time I visit him. He always keeps us waiting! He can't help it, I guess, it's the way he is. I'm sure we all know people who are always late for every occasion. That's Beppe Rinaldi. He's eccentric, he's an intellectual, and he's a great winemaker. Beppe Rinaldi is a young cousin of the late Bartolo Mascarello (who died just last year), and the two had a lot in common. Both have their wineries in the village of Barolo, both have vineyards in Barolo and nearby La Morra, and both do not really believe in single-vineyard Barolos (especially the late Bartolo Mascarello), believing that the blend of vineyards yields a finer wine. Giuseppe Rinaldi's Barolos stress power and purity of fruit, Bartolo Mascarello stresses elegance. Because Giuseppe Rinaldi (who makes even less wine than Giacomo Conterno) is not so well-known, his great wines are a relative bargain.
Giuseppe Rinaldi's Barolos are wonderful, but he also makes fine Barbera, Dolcetto, and Freisa. In truth, like the other producers mentioned here, any wine made by Giuseppe Rinaldi is a wine worth buying.
Giuseppe Rinaldi, Dolcetto d'Alba (Piedmont, Italy) 2004 ($15, Vinifera Imports): Giuseppe Rinaldi's 2004 Dolcetto d'Alba is classical in style: somewhat lean, tannic, and austere at first, but then reveals its richness, especially when accompanied by food. The perfect red wine with antipasto, Dolcetto is at its best in its first three years. 91
Giuseppe Rinaldi, Barbera d'Alba (Piedmont, Italy) 2004 ($17, Vinifera Imports): The 2004 Giuseppe Rinaldi Barbera d'Alba has rich, tart cherry aromas and flavors and excellent acidity. It is drinking well now, but will even be better in two years. 91
Giuseppe Rinaldi, Barolo (Piedmont, Italy) Brunate-Le Coste 2001 ($80, Vinifera Imports): Le Coste is a special section of the Brunate vineyard in La Morra which Giuseppe Rinaldi particularly favors. Rinaldi makes classic traditional Barolos--not a barrique in sight in his winery. The 2001 Brunate-Le Coste has rich, intense aromas and flavors of tar, licorice, and red berries. It is quite tannic now, but is well-balanced, and has all the makings of a great Barolo. 93
Giuseppe Rinaldi, Barolo (Piedmont, Italy) Brunate-Le Coste 1999 ($80, Vinifera Imports): What a treat the 1999 Barolo-Le Coste is! When we left Giuseppe Rinaldi's winery, we stopped for lunch at Il Cantinetto, a small restaurant in the village of Barolo, and enjoyed the 1999 there. It is rich and fine, very much like the 2001, but with the advantage of two more years of age. 94
Alfredo Currado, husband of Luciana Vietti, made wines at Vietti from 1961 into the late 1990s. Then he turned the winemaking over to his son, 36-year-old Luca Currado. As Michael Franz did in a recent column when he reviewed his friend Paul Lukacs' book, I am obliged to make full disclosure. The Currado family have been dear friends of Mary and me for 25 years. Not a year goes by when we don't visit them in Piedmont, at least once or twice. The winery is in the village of Castiglione Falletto; their terrace overlooks one of their prized Barbera vineyards, Scarrone. Nearby, lie two of Vietti's finest Barolo vineyards, Rocche and Villero.
Vietti makes a full range of typical Piedmontese wines, but is most renowned for its Barolos and Barbera. For me, Vietti is the finest producer of Barbera, which reaches even greater heights than its Barolos (granting the fact that Barbera is a humbler variety than the noble Nebbiolo)--although the family might dispute my ranking of their Barbera over their Barolos.
I've often wondered, why are Vietti Barberas so great? I can think of two reasons: they have great Barbera vineyards, and they put as much care into making Barbera as they do Barolo--probably not true of other Langhe producers. Vietti makes three rather expensive ($35-$40) barrique-aged Barberas, a single-vineyard Barbera d'Asti "La Crena" and their two home-based wines, Barbera d'Alba Scarrone "Vecchia Vigna" (old vines) and Barbera d'Alba Scarrone; plus two standard but excellent Barberas, Barbera d'Alba "Tre Vigne" and Barbera d'Asti "Tre Vigne" (both about $19-$20).
When he was the winemaker, Alfredo Currado made traditional Barolos. Luca Currado blends tradition with a more modern approach; the single vineyard Rocche and Villero (Villero only made in the best vintages) are traditionally made, while Lazzarito, Brunate, Ravera, get some barrique aging. Vietti's least expensive Barolo, the blended Castiglione gets just a bit of barrique aging. For me, Rocche and Villero are Vietti's best Barolos. Both have great depth and exceptional longevity; they rank with the finest Barolos in the region, vintage after vintage.
Vietti, Barbera d'Alba (Piedmont, Italy) Scarrone "Vigna Vecchia" 2003 ($38, Remy Amerique): About 20 percent of Vietti's Scarrone vineyard has 80-year old vines, and the Currados have been vinifying a separate Barbera from these vines since 1992. I especially love this wine with some age, after the oak tannins from the barrique aging become resolved in the wine. The 2003 Vigna Vecchia is rich and ripe, with intense, tart cherry fruit flavors. It has great concentration and depth for a Barbera. It will be even better in two or three years. 92
Vietti, Barbera d'Asti (Piedmont, Italy) La Crena 2001 ($40, Remy Amerique): When Vietti bought the La Crena vineyard in the Asti region about ten years ago, it was a symbolic move. Alfredo had always made wine from his home region of Alba. His son Luca pursued the purchase of La Crena, with its now 75-year old vines, and expanded the vision of the winery. Like the 2003 Scarrone Vigna Vecchia, the 2001 La Crena--Vietti's most full-bodied Barbera--still needs a bit more time to integrate the oak tannins. With age, La Crena becomes profound: delicious and complex, with great depth. Give it two more years. 94
Vietti, Barolo (Piedmont, Italy) Castiglione 1999 ($40, Remy Amerique): The 1999 Castiglione is Vietti's one 1999 Barolo that you can drink even now. It is made from a blend of about five different vineyards, and vinified to be ready sooner than Vietti's single-vineyard Barolos. A great value. 92
Vietti, Barolo (Piedmont, Italy) Rocche 1999 ($85-$90, Remy Amerique): Vietti's single-vineyard Rocche has always been Alfredo Currado's favorite among his Barolos. It is a massive wine, quite tannic and brooding at present, but will be spectacular in another five or six years. It has great depth of fruit, and a long, concentrated finish. 94