Yet another visit to Piemonte with thoughts, tasting notes

It’s the season for posting notes on one’s summer visit to Piemonte, so here are mine, which complement Howard Davis’s and Daniel Moritz’s threads here and Ken Vastola’s blog posts from his visit in July.

My approach: I spend six days in Barolo and Barbaresco the weeks of Aug. 29 and Sept. 8. This was my ninth visit to the region over 20 years. Each time I aim to visit a few headliners, but I’m just as interested to taste with up-and-coming winemakers and those that offer good value.

On my first visits in 1996 and 1997, I visited a lot of producers in the modern camp – Scavino, Azelia, di Gressy. Over time, I found I preferred more traditionally made wines and this year’s line-up reflects that bias. I tasted at Germano (Serralunga), Brezza (Barolo), Burlotto (Verduno), Fratelli Alessandria (Verduno), Cogno (Barolo), Vajra (Barolo), Rizzi (Treiso) and Cortese (Barbaresco). Note: Germano was the only place I tasted at on the Serralunga/Monforte side of the Barolo appellation; the others are all toward the west and north or in Barbaresco.

Weather: A powerful thunderstorm was moving in when I arrived at the Hotel Barolo Monday night, Aug.29. There were stars overhead but lightening ringing the distant hills as I dined on the hotel terrace at 10 pm. Soon, the storm hit Barolo itself, with heavy rain over night and showers off and on on Tuesday. The winemakers said it was beneficial – it was a dry summer and it had been unusually hot the week before and the vines were dry. The rain also slowed down maturation, which was moving a bit quicker than they preferred. It was cooler, less humid and breezy for two days after the rain, so the vines quickly dried off. Overall it was somewhat warmer than usual over the ten days I was there – mid-80s Fahrenheit/30C-ish – but the nights were pleasant, generally in the high 60Fs/20C-ish.

Bottling: Bottling was underway that week. I assumed that was due to the impending harvest of the whites and the need to empty out their tanks. But several winemakers said the timing was dictated by a new moon. Fabio Alessandria at Burlotto said that the biological activity is slower under new moons, so the wines may age better if they’re put in the bottle at that point.

I’ll put my tasting notes in separate posts to make it easier to quote and respond. Before I get to those, here are some takeaways:

• There are scads of good wines hitting the market or in the pipeline from the 2011-15 vintages at all levels, from barbera and simpler nebbiolos to Barolo and Barbaresco, and 2016 looks very promising. So I don’t see it as a do-or-die/vintage-of-the-era time from a buying standpoint. But then I take the general view that no single wine is indispensable.

• I had a hard time getting a good take on the vintages because I was not able to taste across vintages of the same wine except in a few places and the winemakers seemed reluctant to give decisive characterizations. By one measure – how many riservas will be made – 2011, 2013 and 2015 are the stronger vintages. But as I said in the separate thread I started on the 2012s, there’s a lot to be said for ‘12s.
o 2011: Ripe, full in the mouth. Maybe a tad less acid than I’d like, but that’s a matter of preference.
o 2012: Elegant, less powerful but with great perfume. To me this was a Burgundy-lover’s vintage. All the producers I spoke with were very positive about the way the wines have turned out. But cf. Greg dal Piaz’s takedown of the vintage.
o 2013: Powerful, rich. Fabio Alessandria at Burlotto described it as being like a cross of the ripeness of 09 with the finesse of 12. Cortese’s 2013 Rabaja has sold out, in part because of the quality and in part because a quarter or a third of the production is going to a riserva.
o 2014: Problematic because of rains shortly before the barbera and dolcetto were harvested and hail in Barolo. More successful for nebbiolo, which ripens later. No one is talking up the vintage, but I tasted a number of very good wines (e.g., Cogno barbera; Brezza Nebbiolo d’Alba; Germano dolcetto; Rizzi’s barbera and dolcetto). Barbaresco did not have hail and the Produttori di Barbaresco will bottle their crus in 2014. So it’s not a simple story for the vintage.
o 2015: A year for big wines. Winemakers said the growing conditions were near perfect, and the barberas, dolcettos and nebbiolos I had were very good.
o 2016: Through last week, conditions again had been ideal and the winemakers are very optimistic.
o I noted that there were 2009s and even some 2007s on store shelves, but no 2008s or 2010s. The 2010s sold out at the wineries very quickly in most cases.

• Don’t overlook the normale/classico bottlings or other blends that are lower priced than the crus. Oddero’s classico and Burlotto’s Acclivi were outstanding in 2012, I thought. Oddero sees theirs not as a lesser wine but simply following the older tradition of blending vineyards, in part because some of their parcels (e.g., Fiasco) aren’t big enough to bottle separately.

• The oddball bottlings such as nascetta (indigenous white), pelaverga (indigenous pale red), riesling (Germano and Vajra) and sparkling wines (including those from nebbiolo, like one of Germano’s) offer some very interesting drinking.

A few other wine observations:

The Asian market is becoming much more important. Danielle Cortese said that sales to all parts of Asia now equal the U.S. and Canadian sales for him. So Asian buyers are not just trophy-hunting for Gaja and Giacosa (the usual stereotype).

• I was struck by the number of sickly individual vines in Barbaresco compared to Barolo where I had been struck by how perfectly green and healthy the vines were – scarcely a leaf had turned color. I’m not sure if weak vines reflect a lack of care or lower prices for Barbaaresco or a bit of both. At the same time, there is a great deal of replanting in Barbaresco. On most slopes, you can see at least one swath that has been torn up and is barren at the moment – something that is rare in the Barolo zone. Looking southwest from Rizzi’s cantina in Treiso, for instance, there are a series of bald, plowed plots across the valley. Enrico Dellapiano at Rizzi told me that someone bought much of that ridge and has torn up old barbera and dolcetto as well as fruit trees and is replanting, partly with nebbiolo.
The scale of the replanting should bode well for Barbaresco over the longer haul, once the vines mature.

Two non-wine observations:

• Bleached blond has gone out of fashion among Italian women. This is good.

• Italy has discovered speed bumps. This is a pity. But, what the hell, it’s a rental car.

Thank you, John, very good report.
I’m curious to hear more about your tasting at Germano, whose wines (well, one in fact) I tried only recently, and found very good and fairly priced.

Ask and you shall receive:

My first stop was Ettore Germano in Serralunga on Aug. 30. The cantina is being torn up to add a new tasting room, which will look over Prapo below and Ceretta to the left and above. Sergio Germano was busy dealing with the contractors and handed me off to his son Elia, who is completing his wine studies in Alba.

Germano is basically traditional when it comes to nebbiolo, with long maceration times but, in a twist, he uses untoasted tonneaux for his Ceretta bottlings rather than botte. Like many traditionalists, his experiments are with non-indigenous grapes and categories. For example, he grows riesling and nascetta in the Alta Langa hills near Ciglie’, south of Dogliani, some distance from the winery, and he makes a beguiling sparkling white from nebbiolo. Oliver McCrum, who imports the wines on the West Coast, has good background info about the wines on his website.

2012 Alta Langhe (sparkling white) (80% pinot noir; 20% chardonnay; 30 months on the lees): Nice nutty, leesy nose. Very good acidity plus a good dose of a fruit. A very nice wine all around.

2013 “Rosanna” (salmon-tinged sparkling wine; 100% nebbiolo, from the green harvest in Serralunga; 16 months on the lees): Lovely aromas. Elia says it needs time and I can see it improving, though it’s lovely now. Great acidity at the back. Oliver has served prior vintages to me several times and I’ve always liked this. A good example of an unexpected Piemontese wine that really hits the mark.

2013 Nascetta (Alta Langa): Nice dried apricot scents on the nose which carry over to the mouth (the same flavor I got in Cogno’s nascetta four days later). A distinct saline element on the mouth, too. This wine really held my interest, as did Cogno’s nascetta. More interesting to me than most arneis. I hope the grape catches on – it’s very distinctive.

2015 Hirzu’ Riesling (Alta Langa): The name is Alta Langa dialect for “steep.” From Austrian clones, made to resemble a full-bodied Alsatian riesling. Certainly it could fit in with Austrian rieslings, too. Elia said they make three passes through the vineyard. The first, about 50% of the total, is from younger vines. The last picking has some botrytis he said, though I detected only richness; no botrytis. The 2015 is richer than the one or two earlier vintages I recall, but very good. Very different stylistically than Vajra’s leaner, more German-inflected riesling.

2014 Dolcetto (Lorenzino vineyard near Lazzarito in Serralunga): Dark cherries and plums on the nose and in the mouth. Very nice. So 2014 wasn’t a disaster for all dolcetto.

2014 Langhe Nebbiolo (4-5-day maceration; aged in stainless steel): Nice, balanced, but a bit simple.

The 2013 Barolos had been bottled the day before (Aug. 29). The bottles I tasted off of had had been opened about three hours before my visit and showed very well. I tasted these against ‘11s and a ’12 and an ’09 that had been open longer. If 2013 is like this across the board, we have a lot of good Barolo to look forward to.

2013 Prapo (45-year-old vines, 40-day maceration; aged in 2,000 liter botte): Dark cherries on the nose – just oodles of fruit. A trace of reduction and what seemed like a faint oak note. Yum! Good tannic bite here.

2011 Prapo: Sweet aromas, “Squisito!” I wrote – exquisite. Rich, ripe fruit, but elegant. Mouth-coating. A standout wine.

2013 Ceretta (55-year-old vines, 40-day maceration; aged in untoasted 500-liter tonneaux barrels): Tighter, more restrained the the Prapo (i.e., less fleshy and fruity), perhaps because of more limestone in the Ceretta soil. But very, very promising.

2011 Ceretta: Some oak showing on the nose, plus ripe black cherries. Much more fruit showing than in the 2013. This showed very well even though the bottle had been open too long and was a bit tired. I bet a fresher bottle would be really stellar.
2012 Lazzarito (80-year-old vines, 60-day open-tank fermentation; according to Elia; 35-40 days according to Oliver McCrum’s website): Elia poured the 2012 Lazzarito instead of the 2013. It was less concentrated than the ‘13s from Prapo and Ceretta, but well balanced. This was my first ’12 of the trip and I wrote “elegant” for the nose and mouth – a recurring descriptor in my notes for the vintage.

2011 Lazzarito: This, too, showed a more feminine profile and a bit less concentration than the 2011 Prapo and Ceretta, notwithstanding the old vines. (Note: Burlotto’s Monvigliero also has a ~60-day maceration and is always very feminine, so long periods on the skin does not necessarily lead to heavy extraction.) Very pleasing.

2009 Lazzarito: Georgeous, very ripe black cherries on the nose. Fleshier than the ’11 or ’12. Lots of dark fruits in the mouth – again with black cherries. Delicious!

[Edited 8/21/17 to correct 2013 Prapo harvest date.]

Next up was Brezza in Barolo.

I’d stayed in the Brezza family’s hotel, adjoining the winery, in 1997 and 2000 and it felt like home to return. The elder Signora Brezza always gives a gracious greeting at the desk and they were kind enough to serve me dinner very late upon my arrival after a delayed flight and a 150 km/hr drive in the dark from Linate airport. Enzo’s handle-bar-moustached father is very much a presence around the hotel and dining room.

In my modernist-leaning youth, I wasn’t sure what to make Brezza’s wines. They were not flashy like the Di Grazia portfolio wines that were my introduction to the region. But on a visit in 2005 a friend in the trade told me that Enzo had taken the wines up a notch. We drank the excellent ’99 Bricco Sarmassa with dinner in Monforte on that trip and I tasted at the winery. A ’78 I picked up on that trip was spectacular a year or so later. (Damn, I wish I’d filled my suitcase with that wine at 50 euros a bottle!) On another visit, in 2011, I fell for the 04s and 06s tasting them with Enzo. The family is blessed with good holdings very near the winery and nearby in the direction of La Morra (Sarmassa and Cannubi).

I was running late after my Germano trip and was generally fatigued from four days in London and a hectic 24 hours on the run, so I’m not sure I gave these wines their due that afternoon. In addition, because of a lively and very informative chat during the tasting my notes are a bit sketchy. Amanda Courtney, formerly a sommelier in LA, handles guests and she is a font of knowledge about their wines and the area.

2015 Rosata (di Nebbiolo Langhe) (rosé) (24 hours on skins, 2% residual sugar): Intense aromas of white peach. Amanda said that nebbiolo that hasn’t gone through malolactic fermentation has that peach nose. Very nice and quite unique. Refreshing.

2015: Nebbiolo Langhe (from young Barolo vines; aged in stainless steel): Quite dry, not much fruit. I drank this again with dinner at the hotel the following night and it showed very similarily. It’s more like a barbera than a nebbiolo – lots of acid. After this and Germano’s all-steel nebbiolo, I think I prefer nebbiolo with some aging.

2013 Nebbiolo d’Alba – Vigna Santa Rosalia: Nebbiolo grown wood within the Barolo and Barbaresco DOC zones has to be labeled as Langhe, not d’Alba. But this wine comes from a hill just west of Alba, between the two DOCs. Very good concentration/depth, with fruit and a real backbone of tannin and acid. A baby Barolo. This was the first clue for me that it will pay to seek out the lesser wines in 2013.

2011 Barolo (classico): Here the conversation seems to have taken a toll on my notes. I wrote “very nice” and that’s it.

2012 Castellano (45-year-old vines, sandy soil): Elegant, medium bodied.

2012 Cannubi (sand and limestone): “Elegant,” my notes say, and no more.

2012 Sarmassa (45- and 75-year-old vines; more clay): Much more concentrated and tannic than the others, but with good, ripe fruit. This and the 2013 Santa Rosalia were the standouts for me here.

Amanda said there will be no Bricco Sarmassa Riserva in 2012 because that patch of the vineyard didn’t yield as distinct a wine as it did in 2011, 2013 and 2015, when the riserva will be bottled. That’s the same thing Aldo Vacca of the Produttori di Barbaresco told people about his decision not to bottle 2012 crus.

Overall, the ‘12s here didn’t seduce me as much as others but, as I said, I was distracted and tired from racing around, and I’d just come from a long tasting at Germano, so I might be underestimating these a bit. Greg dal Piaz, despite his dislike of the vintage, liked the Cannubi (91 points), for instance.

FYI, here’s a link to my posting on my visit in 2011.

(Edited to add link to Greg dP’s tasting notes.)
View from Hotel Barolo .JPG

Thanks a lot, John, much appreciated.
The one I tried was the Lazzarito 2007 and from your notes it seems it does well in all vintages.
I’ll try to visit. Sounds very interesting.

Oliver McCrum, on his website, says he loves the Ceretta and Prapo, but that the Lazzarito makes him weak at the knees.

Thanks for your interesting observations and reports John. A few specific comments:

Sparkling wine from Nebbiolo: I tried one for the first time this past summer, at Poderi La Collina in Dogliani. I found it quite charming and bought half a case. Possibly, making sparklers from Nebbiolo is a new trend, just like the one of making still rosé from the same grape (partly or wholly) that started already some 10 years ago (with Burlotto’s Teres, now named Elatis). A nice side effect in the latter case is that letting some of the juice “bleed” at an early stage improves the skin-to-juice ratio for the serious reds. And for Germano’s sparkler, it means that grapes that would otherwise go to waste can be put to good use. At any rate, sparkling wine from Nebbiolo seems like an excellent idea based on the one example I have so far tried. And I can’t say I am particularly surprised. If it works so well with other aromatic reds, like Pinot Noir and Nerello Mascalese (I have found the Etna sparklers I have tried very convincing), why shouldn’t it work with Nebbiolo?

Nascetta (or Anascetta or Nas-cëtta): Clearly this is a new trend that’s moving very quickly. When I visited the region two years ago, I didn’t see a single bottle. Now they were all around. I haven’t tasted enough to say what I think about it, but the producers in the region seem to love it. I suspect that part of the reason is that this is the first dry and reasonably serious white that has its roots in the Langhe. The same can’t really be said for Arneis or Favorita (Vermentino).

Fermentation/maceration time and extraction: I think the reason why Burlotto’s Monvigliero is anything but overextracted in spite of two months on the skins is that it is made with whole-cluster fermentation along with the gentle crushing (by human feet) that this necessitates plus the lack of any form of “agitation”. The cap is permanently submerged and the fermentation spontaneously relatively slow and cool (which explains why temperature control is not really necessary).

Re sparkling nebbiolo, Rizzi’s sparkling wine had a high proportion of nebbiolo in the past but he’s reduced that. I forgot to ask Enrico there why that is.

As for Burlotto Monvigliero, my point was simply that long maceration does not necessarily mean heavy extraction, as one might assume. In the case of Monvigliero, I suspect terroir is a big factor, and the cooling effect of the Tanaro River on the vineyard, as the Fratelli Alessandria version has a very similar, feminine character.

I realize what you tried to say when using Burlotto’s Monvigliero as an example and I agree. I simply tried to explain why that particular wine is not heavily extracted in spite of the very long maceration, as I think would be the case with a wine macerated that long on the basis of “traditional” as opposed to “ultratraditional” techniques.

You are also right that Fratelli Alessandria’s Monvigliero is an elegant rather than powerful Barolo just as Burlotto’s. But their version is made with more “traditional” methods and therefore does not stay as long on the skins (about three weeks).

As you point out, terroir is a factor here as well. Monvigliero has never been known for its power but for its “finesse” and I think few try to turn it into something more powerful than it is really capable of. Nearly all of the Monviglieros I have tried (Alessandria, Burlotto, Bel Colle, Castello di Verduno, Mauro Sebaste, Terre del Barolo) are elegant rather than powerful. The Scavino version that recently appeared may be a partial exception though. Unlike all the others I mentioned, Scavino uses some new barriques which gives the wine a bit more punch but simultaneously, in my view, obscures the aromas that Monvigliero is all about. Although it would be amiss to call it overoaked and although I consider it a well-made wine in the style it is going for, it is nevertheless not something I feel tempted to try again.

As to the climate, I am not sure how much of a cooling effect the relative proximity of the river really has, particularly since there usually isn’t a whole lot of water in the Tanaro during the really warm/hot part of the growing season. I spent two weeks on the top of Breri, just below Monvigliero, in the summer of 2003 and I can tell you that I certainly didn’t feel much of a cooling effect then. [wink.gif] Also note that Monvigliero is one of the few Barolo crus that are exposed entirely to the south and that the altitude isn’t particularly high (about 300 meters). I would think that the Monvigliero profile (aromatic complexity and finesse rather than power) has more to do with the soil than a somewhat coolish micro-climate.

John, many thanks for your write on your thoughts, much appreciated

Outstanding, thanks for taking the time to write such a nice piece.

Two non-wine observations:

• Bleached blond has gone out of fashion among Italian women. This is good.

• Italy has discovered speed bumps. This is a pity. But, what the hell, it’s a rental car.

How about the pointy shoes? champagne.gif

Both Fabio Alessandria at Burlotto and Vittore Alessandria at Fratelli Alessandria cited the cooling effect of the Tanaro. I told Fabio that seemed surprising because the river was on the north side, away from the nebbioio, but he said the effect was quite marked.

I didn’t see a lot of those this time. And I didn’t see any shoes I liked in the shops. Everything was wingtips or souped up wingtips.

Another observations: The tattoo has come into fashion for men and women in Italy. Groan. Another American cultural export, I guess.

This is an interesting point, I find that the tannins in wines that are macerated for a very long time (over 30 days, say) tend to be rounder, if anything. One of my Taurasi producers had a small cuvee they macerated for 90 days that was very soft in texture.

Thank you for your notes, I wish I were there now!

Hopefully the Asian buyers will follow the Italian lead and give up their peroxide blondes.

Could I ask you why you travel every year to Piedmont? I know you like the wines, but are you somehow in the business?


I doubt that the Germano ‘Rosanna’ sparkler is saignée from a red wine, it’s too crisp. Most good rosés aren’t saignée either, in my experience, for the same reason; the picking decision would be different.


Not only do I doubt that Germano’s Nebbiolo sparkler is based on saignée. I know that it isn’t since John told us it was based on grapes from the green harvest. [wink.gif]

For rosé, by contrast, I think that saignée isn’t out of the question, particularly if it’s a blend, as Burlotto’s Elatis, which contains some Barbera and Pelaverga apart from the Nebbiolo. When we first tried it at the winery some ten years ago, I remember that Marina Burlotto stressed that the Nebbiolo that went into it wasn’t just any Nebbiolo but “Nebbiolo per Barolo” and I took that to mean that it is a saignée. But I didn’t inquire further so I am open to the possibility that I might be wrong.

The longer the maceration, the more phenolic compunds will be extracted (not least the more astringent ones), everything else equal. But as a rule, everything else is not equal, as for example in the case of Burlotto’s Monvigliero discussed above.

A factor not already mentioned via that example is grape quality. If you have grapes that with a high degree of phenolic ripeness, you can macerate longer without any serious risk of making the wine overly astringent. Claudio Fenocchio of Giacomo Fenocchio now macerates his Barolo Bussia Riserva for 90 days, beginning with the 2010 vintage. But I am sure the grapes selected for that wine are superior with regard to phenolic ripeness. I haven’t had an opportunity to taste the 90-day version yet but look forward to doing so. I know that the 2006 Riserva, which I am happy to have in my cellar, is already drinking nicely although I am in no hurry to touch any of my remaining bottles. On the other hand, the 2006 edition macerated for a measly 40 days only. [wink.gif]

OK. They obviously know the microclimate far better than I do. But if the river has a cooling effect, the other two factors that I mentioned (exposure plus an altitude that is even lower on average than the figure I gave in my prior post; Monvigliero ranges from 220 to 310 meters according to Masnaghetti’s Barolo MGA, p. 203) tend to work in the opposite direction. Here’s what Masnaghetti points to (same source and page) as the distinctive characteristics of Monvigliero, emphasizing the impact of the soil just like I did:

“The light-colored and loose-textured soils, which in dry vintages can also create a certain vine stress, if, on the one hand, reduce the intensity of the color, on the other hand give a larger and ampler range of aromas (with a particular presence of spicy and floral notes) and, with that, an elegance accompanied at times by a certain austerity.”