Why Are Bartolo Mascarello's Wines Better Now Than Before?

By all accounts, Bartolo Mascarello is a traditional producer. They still blend their vineyards into a single wine resisting the temptation for the status of single cru bottlings. But beginning with the 2006, or perhaps even a bit earlier, they have accomplished a significant uptick in quality. What do you think accounts for this?

Because he died in 2005?

Seriously, have you tasted '04?

What’s your basis for thinking that? I’m just curious. I have very little experience with the wines. Have you done verticals?

A classic troll. Make a statement like that without disclosing the factual basis to support the statement.

But beginning with the 2006, or perhaps even a bit earlier, they have accomplished a significant uptick in quality.

Have you really found them to be that much better? I haven’t had that many but thought some of them, like the 1996 and 2000 were pretty good. Are you finding the newer ones that much better than the others were at the same age?

Wow this assumes facts not in evidence.

Michael, could you please post about your extensive firsthand experiences with pre- and post-06 Mascarello? I look forward to your notes and analysis.

Yes, hard to see on what evidence the question is based.
I have read many times about fantastic older Baroli by Bartolo, and have unfortunately very little experience with them (one beautiful 2001).
Here is one example where an old Barolo by Bartolo (1986) showed better than a Monfortino (1990), apparently by a big margin (it’s in Italian, sorry):

Why would anyone even be drinking these wines yet? I’m referring to the wines made by Maria Theresa.

Maybe one could justify opening a 2009, but that’s about the only vintage since Bartolo died that might even have a chance at being ready.

I’ve tried both the 2007 last year and the 2008 recently, the latter seemed to have more depth and structure, but not painful to drink young either, decent drinkability actually. In both cases it was the best wine on the wine list at a restaurant with good pricing.

Just going by what I’ve heard of the older wines, MT seems to be doing a nice job of sticking to her fathers main principles while finding some room for updates and developing her own style. The wines come off as so pure now, it would be hard to believe that nothing has been done in the last decade, but I’ll look forward to tasting some older wines to compare, only have the '99 in my cellar.

You’re fishing, yes? Trying to catch the Klapp?

He has already caught the Klapp, and this time, there will be a plot twist and surprise ending!

As painful as it may be for me to post it, Michael S. is right on this one. (Suicide watch not required. I had somebody hide my belt.) I like the way that Robert frames the potential differences between Bartolo and MT, but I am not sure that anybody other than MT really knows what those differences are. Michael did assume “facts not in evidence”, as Mr. Coley says. I will take the liberty of putting those facts, and some well-reasoned opinions, into evidence.

First, let me share a portion of the Cantina Bartolo Mascarello producer profile from the venerable and learned Mannie Berk of Rare Wine Company (who, in the interest of full disclosure, imports the Cantina’s wines into the U.S.):

"For more than half a century, Bartolo Mascarello was a towering figure in the Langhe. From just after World War II until his death in March, 2005, he made consistently monumental Baroli—rich, supple, intensely aromatic and deeply colored—that have stood the test to time.

But Bartolo’s greatness as a barolista extended beyond making majestic Barolo. He was also the fiercest defender of the traditions responsible for creating some of the most profound and revered wines ever made.

Today, it is the wine world’s great fortune that Bartolo’s daughter Maria Teresa—who took over Cantina Bartolo Mascarello in 2005—makes wine just as her father did. In fact—while every bit as committed to her family’s methods and traditions as Bartolo was—she may have brought even greater elegance and consistency to the wines through her own subtle refinements.

At the time of Bartolo’s death in March 2005, Maria Teresa had been de-facto winemaker for years, working under the guidance of her wheelchair-bound father and with Alessandro Bovio, Bartolo’s winery assistant. She learned all of Bartolo’s secrets and completely absorbed his philosophy, just as Bartolo had a half-century earlier from his father Giulio, and he from his father Bartolomeo."

Only MT knows the extent of her involvement in the winemaking while Bartolo lived (he died in March, 2005), and given her close relationship with her father, she surely would have powerful negative incentive for taking credit for anything that happened while Bartolo lived, but it is certain that all wines from the 2003 vintage forward are hers, and if I had to make a guess, I would say that the 1998 may have been the last pure Bartolo wine (“No Barrique, No Berlusconi” labels and all). (Galloni assumes that 1999-2001 are all Bartolo’s wines, perhaps because he did not like the 2000 or 2001 and found unacceptable bottle variation, flaws and uncleanliness in the Bartolos of all three vintages, but he did not address the timing of MT’s ascent or involvement, except to say that 2003 was her wine.) One need take only a cursory glance at the consensus reviewer scores (yes, this is not to be only about Galloni this time) to understand that something has changed, and that the reviewers uniformly believe that the change is for the better. I believe that, too, and have voted with my man-purse: while I have drunk my share of old Bartolo over the years, including all of the great vintages (the 1986 Bartolo was among his very best, by the way, Gilberto, although I suspect that comparing that wine, one of Bartolo’s all-time best, with the 1990 Monfortino, a middle-of-the-pack wine at best by the extraordinarily high Monfortino standards, was not a perfectly fair fight), as I look in my cellar today, I have exactly 3 bottles left of Bartolo’s wines (1964, 1971 and the sentimental favorite, 1998) and almost two cases of 2006, 2008 and 2010 MT wines. I am unlikely to buy any more old Bartolo, as the likelihood of a flawed bottle is simply too high.

When considering reviewer scores of Bartolo’s wines, it can be a problem to rely upon historical new-release scores in some cases. The WS tasting politburo, including the young (well, younger, I suppose) Suckling, was particularly clueless about traditionally made Barolo, awarding a 76 to the 1989 Bartolo, as well as a 78 to Giacosa’s 1989 Collina Rionda Riserva, a 55+ to Giacosa’s 1990 Falletto Riserva and an 84 to his 1989 Falletto Riserva. (Luckily, WS ignored Monfortino until the 1996 vintage, and largely ignored the wines of Bartolo, Giacosa and other traditionalists, so the WS score taint is not widespread. But in retrospect, it is humorous in its abject ignorance, or at least, pandering to the palates of a less-sophisticated redership.) Galloni awarded an all-time high 97 to the 1955 Bartolo from magnum on one occasion, as well as a 95+ to a 1.9-liter bottle of the 1971, but an 89 to the same wine from a 750ml bottle a year later. He also awarded 95s or 96s to a tiny handful of strong-vintage Bartolos: 1978, 1982, 1985, 1986, 1989 and 1999. Otherwise, Bartolo’s Baroli were 88-94 wines for Galloni, and never more than a low 90s wine for Tanzer. There are only a tiny number of Parker scores, led by a 96 for the 1989 and a 94-97 bracketed score for the 1990, but otherwise, largely mid-80s. WS did not cover Bartolo at all prior to 1989, and once Suckling decided to cover the wine, the scores were sub-90, save the Suckling 100-point, “summer of love” 2000 vintage, which netted a 95, and the 1999 vintage, which scored 93. From a reviewer perspective, this is just not a track record that can justify mentioning Bartolo’s wines in the first tier. I always enjoy Bill Boykin’s “facets of a diamond” approach to Barolo, but this is just not a facet that is consistently as smooth, polished and radiant as those of Giacosa or G. Conterno (both Monfortino and CF, really), nor a host of others, such as Cavallotto, Aldo Conterno, Mauro Mascarello (even with some possible bottle variation questions of his own), Cappellano, Massolino Rionda Riserva, G. Rinaldi, Sandrone and Vietti. I would never suggest that there are not some great bottles of Bartolo that eclipse many of the wines of those that I just listed, but for me, consistency counts for a lot. Mannie offered us mere hyperbole when he said that Bartolo made “consistently monumental BAROLI” that have “stood the test of time”. He made SOME monumental Baroli, and he made SOME that stood the test of time, and many bottles, too many, that did not chin either bar. And that is where Mr. Monie’s rubber meets the road…so far, MT has a consistency and excellence that her father never achieved.

A quick look at MT’s performance beginning with 2004 (2003 being a lousy vintage for all): Galloni-95, 95, 96+, 96, 98, 94 (2009 vintage), 99, 93+; Tanzer-93+, 93, 96, 93, 93(+?), 93, 95(+?); WS-95,94, 94, 92, 92 (no scores for 2007 or 2010). There are better Barolo score track records over that stretch, but none more consistent. And one can do as one likes with the reality of score inflation and the fact that MT has enjoyed a number of strong vintages, but I am not sure that changes the quality analysis, and it surely does not change the consistency analysis.

In conclusion, a couple of thoughts: Bartolo is not a man who should be measured only by his Barolo. He was an archetypal Piemontese character who delighted many people with his stories over the years. Some loved him for his far-left politics, which are prominent in the Piemonte. Above all, he deserves the lion’s share of the credit for defending traditionalist methods against the worst of the tomfoolery of the Barolo Boys, and he should be properly credited with promoting today’s resurgence and popularity of traditionalist Barolo, even if his wines are not the best exemplars of the style. By the same token, MT deserves a lot of credit for carrying on her father’s tradition, and, so far, improving upon it.

And a final thought: Bartolo Mascarello Barolo is a blended wine, the product of the grapes of four different vineyards. Bartolo believed that the best expressions of Barolo will always result from artful blending. That is an appealing, even romantic notion, and perhaps applicable to Bordeaux (or Gaja!), but the numbers over a long period of time now do not lie…the best single-vineyard Nebbiolo-based wines trump blends every time. Why? I doubt that anyone possesses the blending knowledge and skill, nor perhaps the access to the requisite mix of grapes, to compete with the best single-vineyard wines. I see no reason to blend in a terroir-driven region that has more in common with Burgundy (where there is no blending at the important premier cru and grand cru levels) than with Bordeaux. The last is my opinion, of course, but if you look at thousands of reviewer scores over decades, it is hard to believe otherwise…

See, Michael? Was that so hard? [wink.gif]

Hey, I wouldn’t tease him. This is his thread, afterall. [cheers.gif]

Damn right it is. And you’re still batting 1000.

Bill’s impressive post really touched on two relevant issues: consistency and bottle variation. These are different things. Bill is much more qualified to speak to consistency, and it’s also reflected in reviewer scores. My own more limited observation is that bottle variation has also improved under MT. I recently had my third bottle of 2001 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo. All were drunk in the past year. Both of the first two were off-bottles. The third was a great bottle of wine – as delicious as anything I’ve had more recently from B. Mascarello. I’m glad I didn’t sell it, which I’d been tempted to after the first two (all from the same lot).

I’ve only had a few post 2005 bottles of B. Mascarello. But I have not yet had a bad bottle. Obviously, my sample size is small, but it’s consistent with what I’ve heard from others. It’s also consistent with my understanding that, among the things she has done in the past decade, MT cleaned up the cellar, which apparently used to be on par with the other Mascarello’s.

That’s interesting. It was quite primitive when she showed me around in 1996 – dirt floors in part, as I recall.

Mauro Mascarello’s cellar is less primitive but not as pristine as most other cantine, or was in 2005.

This is all from memory and based entirely on what people who have visited recently have relayed. So, with appropriate grains of salt in hand, it’s my understanding that she has purchased new botti and some new equipment.

That said, I was actually thinking more of microbes than modernity. “Not as pristine” is one of the nicer ways I’ve heard the G. Mascarello cellar described. People often speculate that the bottle variation that continues at G. Mascarello may having something to do with sanitation issues. Was the B. Mascarello cellar similarly “not as pristine” when you visited back in 1996?

Very nice post, Bill.

I cannot put dates on when Maria Teresa took responsibility, but she said once that Bartolo was drawing labels when he was not able to do any real work anymore. That was his way of being useful.

This is a very interesting point on which I tried to start a discussion both with Maria Teresa and Giuseppe Rinaldi. My impression is that they did not have very strong arguments defending their blending practice. The main reason was tradition/identity. Perhaps even a way to stress their diversity from Burgundy.

When I visited the Rinaldi cantina some 5 years or so ago, I asked a similar question - in fact I asked why they decided to blend Brunate with Le Coste and not Brunate with Cannubi. I seem to recall Giuseppe’s wife pointing to a business-like decision, in that having a strong vineyard in each blend makes both wines more desirable. So perhaps something like that played a role in the decision to blend vs. produce single vineyard wines.