Piedmont trip January 2020
By Miles Davis, 27th January 2020
Piedmont is on the up, the area and the wine. The region is extremely picturesque, and the food and wine scene is superb. Winemaking is better than ever with younger generations bursting through full of energy and enthusiasm and the wines are getting better and better. In my experience, they are becoming more approachable too. The natural acidities of the grapes and the soils can handle, if not benefit, from the warmer climate and there have been some very fine vintages in the recent past. In global terms, Piedmont is relatively undiscovered and comparative values to other great regions make for a compelling story – read on!
I have just returned from three glorious days in Piedmont. The weather was fine, the food was finer, and the wines were finer still! As readers will know, I have been singing the virtues of Piemontese wines, and the value they offer, for many months now. I was not expecting to have my enthusiasm heightened, just confirmed really, but this trip exceeded all expectations. I have been a few times before but the combination of seeing some top-notch producers, having a local courtier (David Berry Green, DBG Italia) as a guide, and in the company of both an experienced wine journalist (Victoria Moore, Daily Telegraph) and a wine merchant (Mark Roberts, Decorum Vintners), the stars aligned and we hit some celestial heights.
Compared to Bordeaux and Burgundy, Piedmont has not been making wine for very long, certainly not commercially. Producers have been operating for decades rather than centuries. The Nebbiolo grape that provides us with Barolo and Barbaresco was not even the top variety in the region 30 years ago, that was Dolcetto. Back in the eighties, Conterno Fantino encouraged larger orders by giving away six bottles of Barolo for every sixty bottles Dolcetto ordered! Now Dolcetto vines are being grubbed up and replaced by Nebbiolo - oh how trends change! This one will not be reversed, however. Producers are defensive on Dolcetto, arguing it makes wine for everyday drinking and whilst I really wouldn’t mind drinking Bartolo Mascarello Dolcetto most days, it doesn’t compare to the joys produced by Nebbiolo.
Victoria Moore & David Berry Green - © Miles Davis, Wine Owners
The striking and salient points derived from the trip were all positive. The region has never generated so much international interest, both generally and in the wine department, but largely thanks to the wine department. In 2014 ‘The Vineyard Landscape of Piedmont: Langhe-Roero and Monferrato’ became the official name of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and this has brought tourism flooding in, although some of it is now becoming a problem. The village of Barolo itself and its 700-800 residents now plays host to international rock concerts; Bob Dylan and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam have played to 7,000 (presumably ageing and wine loving) rockers in the last couple of years. Basta! scream the residents, producers are less concerned. The U.S., Germany and England are already major markets for the wines, but others are growing. Australia, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, Singapore were all mentioned, as was Scandinavia. There was one noticeable absentee – China. ‘Not yet’, the producers said.
© Miles Davis, Wine Owners
The wines we tasted were largely brilliant and we all agreed what a good reminder it was when we had our first poor tasting - it offered reassurance that we hadn’t become so inured to the place that we had become complacent! To be fair the Baroli we were tasting were mainly from the fabulous 2016 vintage and we were tasting at very good growers, some famous, some less so, but more on them later.
I was surprised by the approachability of most of the wines, a marked difference to previous experiences. The wines were pale, supple and elegant and with a weightlessness (something that perhaps Nebbiolo can deliver more than any other variety) yet packed with fruit, power and nuance at the same time.
Times have been a-changing in Barolo country and where they haven’t changed too much, the results have improved dramatically. The ‘Barolo wars’ are well documented, indeed there has even been a film made about them and concern the traditionalist approach versus the modern. Briefly, this translates into long maceration periods and ageing in large oak barrels (botti), the traditional approach, versus shorter maceration, temperature controlled fermentation and small oak barrels, the modern. It was interesting to note that the two wineries employing the highest percentage of small oak barrels produced the least good wines. The better wines were made in the traditional way but are harvesting better fruit, implying improved work in the vineyard.
As with other regions, alcohol levels in Piedmont have been rising, largely due to climate change. Most of the wines tasted were at 14.5%, but such are the natural acidity of Nebbiolo and the soils you really don’t notice, at least not until you’ve had the whole bottle yourself! It is a very different experience compared to drinking Bordeaux wines at the same level. Another local variety, Pelaverga, produces an even paler juice which is amazingly light and fruity. I had just started dreaming of summer barbecues when I noticed G.B. Burlotto’s offering weighed in at 15% - keep it away from the kids!
-G.B. Burlotto © Miles Davis, Wine Owners
As previously commented on here, the market in Piedmont wines is firm. Without the geopolitical issues currently hanging over the wider market, it would be a fair chunk firmer. The very loudly heralded 2016 will be released this year and buyers are waiting to pounce. If 2010, another great vintage, is anything to go by they most certainly will, and probably in far greater numbers than back then. In the grand scheme of things, Piedmont is an adolescent and will continue to grow. Wine making will continue to improve and prices will rise.
The Producers (in brief) (and not all)
Punset (Nieve) – previously unheard of (by me). Bio-dynamic and very in touch with climate and nature. Only releases when the wines are ready. Marina Marcarino’s Barbaresco Basarin 2013 (a year very similar in weather to the brilliant 1982, her first vintage) is available now. Delicious and only 13% alcohol. So desperate to make wine, she lied to her parents about the course she was taking at University. They wanted her to join their family widget making business – we were all glad she didn’t! Her range is just great, elegant and refined. She may even save the planet too.
G.B. Burlotto (Verduno) – Premier League status and I now know why! Verduno, at the northern tip of Barolo country, is the village of the moment and its best vineyard, Monvigliero, known for its elegance, is the piece of dirt everyone wants a piece of right now. Fabio Alessandria makes c. 8,000 bottles of Monvigliero - Investment Grade ‘A’. His whole range is superb.
Fratelli Alessandria (Verduno) – Cousins of Fabio and not to be confused with the Glaswegian band. Rising up into the Premiership. Traditional methods, improvements in the winery and focusing on improving quality, not expansion. Their Langhe Nebbiolo ‘Prinsiot’ 2016 is already in my cellar for drinking and I’ve been buying ’13 Monvigliero for investment.
Trediberri (La Morra) – Nicola Oberto and his parents bought a 5 hectare site in La Morra in 2008 and have 2 prime hectares of Rocche dell’Annunziata. Definitely one to watch, this guy is on the move and has been studying Bruno Giacosa’s methods. Refreshingly honest, he was genuinely most excited about his recently made Annunziata 2019 - at three months of age! The Langhe Nebbiolo ’19 might be one to sample. Moving from on the radar to gentle accumulation…
Trediberri (La Morra) – Nicola Oberto © Miles Davis, Wine Owners
Roagna (Castiglione Falletto and Barbaresco) – Now in the hands of Luca Roagna, they are one of the few growers making really serious wines in both Barolo and Barbaresco. The star has been rising for some time. Organic with old vines. We tasted wines from the poorly reviewed 2014 vintage (he releases later) at 10 degrees in the cellars. Although the wines were also cold, they sang their heads off. Both from Barbaresco, the Albesani (2,000 bottles) with the most amazing nose and the Montefico (1,000 bottles) stood out for me. Invest with confidence!
Crissante, La Morra – not on my radar before, Alberto has been running this family affair (we met Nonna (his nan), 88 and still dancing) since 2008. The family owns 6 hectares of vines, 5 of hazelnuts and a lovely holiday house they rent out. The Barolo Classico ’16 will ticks a lot of boxes when released. Thier Capalot ’15 will also give immense pleasure. The ’13 is currently available. Firmly on the radar now.
Bartolo Mascarello, Barolo – Investmnent Grade A. Brilliantly understated and traditional with a touch of jazz, but only in the artwork on display. Maria Theresa’s 2018 Dolcetto was superb, the ’16 Barolo sublime. A blend of 4 vineyards with production at 15-20,000 bottles. Genius. Interesting to spot an empty Trediberri box by the back door!
Giovanni Rosso (sounds so much better than Red John!), Serralunga – Proprietor Davide turned up as we were leaving, completely unphased by his tardiness. How someone so laid back has managed to create such a bustling business is amazing; two tasting rooms, one with a full restaurant style kitchen, a helipad, a contract to make BBR house Barolo and sales all over the world. Our impromptu host excelled in showing us the famous Vigna Rhionda vineyard. Once our feet were double caked in clay he informed us the terroir was nearly all limestone! A rushed tasting followed which was a bit inconclusive but with their top cuvée selling at £500+ a bottle, something is working. Another visit required!
Luciano Sandrone, Barolo – impeccable presentation. Famous for their Barolo labels Cannubi Boschis (Aleste since 2013) and Le Vigne, and now the uber rare Vite Talin, that they vinify themselves, they not only sell a lot of grapes from their Roero sites, they also sell finished wine to others. A mixture of traditional and modern. Barbara works with her Uncle Luca, only 3 years apart in age and Luciano (Barbara’s father and Luca’s brother) is still on site having begun his wine life with Giacomo Borgogno, bang next door and right under the slopes of the Cannubi Bioschis vineyard. Great 16s, the 15s also very attractive. Lovely wines, I have been buying and will continue.
Sandrone © Miles Davis, Wine Owners
It was an inspiring trip and easily surpassed expectation, particularly in the wine department. Growers tend to be family run businesses, are friendly, engaging and genuinely passionate. The bigger businesses are the antithesis of this and, dare I say it, more reminiscent of Bordeaux producers. These personalities are clearly reflected in the wines and different styles are very apparent.
On my return to my desk I found the tail end of the Burgundy 2018 en primeur offerings. The relative prices just do not make sense. On every level, there is no comparison; there are dozens of Grand Cru Burgundies from a host of producers releasing wines at more than c. £150 a bottle, in Piedmont a tiny handful. From a recent release of Giacomo Conterno’s 2015 wines, only the legendary Monfortino (the most expensive wine in all Piedmont) was above this price level. Many Burgundy premier crus cost more than exceptional Barolo cru, village wines more than ‘classico’ blends etc., etc.
For drinkers and those wishing to dip their toe, all of the producers make an entry level wine, be it a Langhe Nebbiolo, a Langhe Rosso or a Nebbiolo d’Alba. These are released earlier than the aged Barolos and offer an inexpensive way of treating yourself and opening the door.
As ever, please fire away with questions.
© Miles Davis, Wine Owners
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