Barolo, ancient and modern
- Thursday 2 February 2006
On a recent visit to one of Barolo’s finest producers, Mauro Mascarello, I was taken aback when he fished out an email I had sent him months earlier, commenting on his top wine, Cà d’Morissio. My comment had been favourable, and had concluded with the assertion that the old distinction between ‘traditional’ and ‘modernist’ producers of Barolo was losing its importance. Mascarello is a high priest of the traditionalist wing, and he took polite exception to being lumped in with other fine winemakers whose approach was very different. My attempt at lordly arbitration had clearly not gone down well.
This was a vivid reminder that the debate is, in some eyes, very much alive. Traditionalists see themselves as the guardians of authentic Barolo, the outcome of a long, slow vinification followed by prolonged ageing in large, oak casks. Modernists, by and large, favour shorter macerations and more overt fruitiness, and often use barrique ageing to give the wine its structure and additional flavours.
Mascarello’s gripe against the modernists can be summed up as follows: ‘I don’t, for one minute, dispute that some modernists are making great wines. But they are not making great Barolo.’ Elio Altare, a pioneer among the modernists, once told me: ‘I’m not interested in making great Barolo. I simply want to make great wine. And all the world’s great red wines are matured in barriques.’
I have sympathies with both camps, which are both betrayed by their excesses. Poor traditionalists produce volatile, astringent and often dried-out wines with ferocious tannins; mediocre modernists swamp the complex aromas and fruit of the Nebbiolo grape with toasty, chocolatey, new oak flavours. Yet few would dispute that there are brilliant winemakers in both these opposed schools.
Of all the red grapes in the world, Nebbiolo must be the most tricky to vinify. Pale in colour, yet high in tannin, acidity and alcohol, it demands a difficult balancing act from the winemaker. Should one element obtrude excessively, the wine will be unbalanced. California winemakers often talk about ‘tannin management’. Their struggle with the genial Cabernet Sauvignon is nothing compared with the battle undertaken by Barolo and Barbaresco producers in taming the tannins of Nebbiolo.
One of the major differences between the two camps lies in their approach to maceration – that is, the amount of time the juice remains in contact with the skins and pips during fermentation. Traditionalists such as Mauro Mascarello, his namesake, the late Bartolo Mascarello, or the late Giovanni Conterno thought nothing of a maceration of 30 days or more. Inevitably, this will extract more tannins than a briefer period.
‘But I know how to compensate for this,’ explains Mascarello. ‘I pick the grapes very ripe – sometimes a little over-ripe – so as to avoid bitter tannins from underripe pips. And I age the wine for a long time in large casks before it is ready for bottling. Traditional Baroli like mine don’t show well when young, so they often suffer in blind tastings.
‘The advantage of a traditional vinification is that you don’t get aromas of vanilla and chocolate, and the fruit isn’t masked with wood flavours. Barrique-aged wines can easily tire the palate. With a short maceration, the quality of the tannins doesn’t matter, but with long, traditional vinification, that quality is crucial.’
Clearly, Mascarello knows what he is doing, as do other traditionalists such as Bruno Giacosa, Aldo Vajra and the Conternos. But many traditionalist wines were awful. Claudio Fennocchio, also a traditionalist, explained how, 40 years ago, the wine could be so tough that it would be taken up to the attic in demijohns during the baking summers, so as to accelerate the evolution of the otherwise-undrinkable wine. The use of old casks could, if not scrupulously maintained, radically increase the risk of bacterial contamination; volatile acidity was an ever-present problem.
I have had the dubious pleasure of tasting many traditional Baroli from the 1960s and 1970s, and a clear majority have not aged well. On the contrary, they exhibit extreme volatility, dry tannins, a lack of fruit, and off-flavours.
So it is not hard to understand why the modernist pioneers – Elio Altare, Domenico Clerico, Roberto Voerzio, Angelo Gaja, the late Renato Ratti, and others – were keen to make a break from this dubious past. Their voyages to Burgundy and Bordeaux persuaded them of the virtues of shorter vinifications and barrique ageing. Indeed, Ratti argued that the so-called traditional methods were an aberration, brought on by labour shortages during periods of war and economic crisis. The truly traditional, but labour-intensive, practice of breaking up the cap had been replaced by maintaining the cap submerged, often weighed down by stones, thus inevitably maximising tannin extraction, which in turn required long ageing in casks.
There can be little doubt that the modernist pioneers revolutionised the making of Barolo out of a genuine desire to improve quality. Enrico Scavino, who employs both casks and barriques, insists he isn’t after oaky flavours. ‘I use barriques because they make it easier to fix the colour and anthocynanins, and give the wines some necessary micro-oxidation,’ he says. ‘All of this helps set the wine on the right path. Then it is aged in French-oak botti, which are neutral containers. If you use nothing but barriques, the evolution of the wine is more rapid. But that’s precisely why I restrict my use of barriques – I want a slow evolution.’
Scavino’s methods illustrate why the debate is by no means clear-cut. He is neither a card-carrying traditionalist nor a modernist. Instead, he is an intelligent, sensitive winemaker, who borrows those techniques that, in his view, contribute to greater quality, while discarding others.
This is what characterises the outstanding Barolo producers, of whom he is indisputably one. Elio Grasso ages his cru ‘Runcot’ in new oak, but his other Baroli are aged in botti, which are renewed every 10 years. Renato Cigliutti in Barbaresco also varies the kind of wood according to the character of his different crus. Domenico Clerico insists he is a traditional producer, despite his use of barriques. His Baroli are macerated for 18 to 25 days, yet they are also aged in 90% new oak for at least two years. ‘The only reason I am seen as a modernist is because I installed temperature control before many others,’ he says. ‘My most important role is to respect and express my different terroirs, which have been known for centuries by our ancestors. Intelligent growers matter more than clever winemakers.’
Twenty years ago, Clerico was regarded as a firebrand. Today, he sees himself as a conservative.
There are producers and wines that are unashamedly modern, such as the new-oaked ‘Enrico VI’ from Cordero di Montezemolo, and the three Baroli from Conterno Fantino, all aged in new oak. Many growers in La Morra, ardent disciples (and often neighbours) of Altare, follow his preference for rapid vinification in roto-fermenters and barrique ageing.
Federico Ceretto, not a traditionalist, takes a dim view of this rather formulaic approach. ‘It’s easy to make so-called modern wines,’ he says. ‘You do short macerations at high temperatures, usually in roto-fermenters for maximum colour, and you use lots of new oak.’ He implies that though the resulting wines may be perfectly good, they are unlikely to express the nuances of terroir. I share some of that scepticism, especially when it comes to Altare’s treasured short macerations. It seems significant to me that no top producers in Burgundy or Bordeaux – benchmarks for modernism – have adopted the technique.
I arrive at no conclusion, except that I welcome the variety and quality of the present-day wines from Barolo and Barbaresco. I can take great pleasure from a complex, traditional Barolo from the likes of Mascarello, Conterno, Fennocchio, Cavallotto or Giacosa, without it spoiling my appreciation of the richly structured, barrique-aged wines from the modernist camp. Consumers are all the richer for the choice of styles now available.
It is also worth underlining that only at the extreme ends of each stylistic wing – the names of Mauro Mascarello and Elio Altare – are entrenched positions maintained. Most winemakers here are pragmatists, borrowing and adapting from ancient and modern ideas. In Barbaresco, the dynamic Giorgio Pellissero ages his regular Barbaresco in older barriques and in botti, whereas his top cru, Vanotu, is aged entirely in new oak. Vietti also uses both barriques and botti. Aldo Vajra favours a lengthy maceration and prolonged ageing in botti, but he also uses pumpovers and mechanical punch-downs, which would probably cause some traditionalist eyebrows to raise. Roberto Voerzio uses a lot of new oak, but his fermentations are quite long. In short, the winemaking techniques are adapted to the structure of the wines.
Not long ago, the oenologist Donato Lanati wrote to Mauro Mascarello in support of his traditionalist approach. Long macerations, he confirmed, will extract grape-seed tannins, which therefore need to be ripe; and there
may also be some loss of colour.
He concluded, ‘This wine will perhaps be somewhat less concentrated, with
a little less colour and slightly more tannin, but it will be more distinctive, more elegant, more authentic, and it may even be a little more “true to its roots”, as we would like all our relations with life to be.’
I find this to be persuasive and eloquent, just as I am persuaded by the thoughtfulness and passion for quality of a Clerico or Scavino.
Bruno Giacosa, Rocche di Falletto, Barolo 1998 *****
Reserved cherry nose, but marvellously expressive on the palate; intensely ripe fruit, integrated tannins, and perfect balance and length. Up to 2020. £65.80; F&R
Mauro Mascarello, Monprivato, Barolo 1999 *****
Arguably the pick of the traditionalist bunch;
sweet, intense, raspberry-and-violet nose;
fine attack but rich and velvety; very elegant, ripe and persistent. Up to 2020. £47.75; BBR
Cavallotto, Bricco Boschis, Vigna San Giuseppe, Barolo Riserva 1999 ****
Smoky, leathery aromas, but fruity, peppery
and remarkably delicate on the palate.
Up to 2012. £34.22; HHC
Elio Grasso, Chiniera, Barolo 2000 ****
Discreetly perfumed floral nose, cloves;
intense, spicy and elegant; tight and concentrated, with lively acidity on the
finish. Up to 2015. £35.95; L&W
Vajra, Bricco delle Viole, Barolo 1999 ****
Intensely perfumed nose of cherries and violets; rich and tight, with tannic grip and
a chewy aftertaste, though no harshness. Elegant and built to last. Up to 2016.
Produttori del Barbaresco, Rabajà Barbaresco 1997 ***
Sour-cherry nose; firm, weighty, fresh
acidity; classic style; good length. Up to 2014. £45.75; EnW
Conterno Fantino, Sori Ginestra, Barolo 1999 *****
Dense, damsony nose; toasty and smoky;
plump and lush, velvety texture; powerful, plummy fruit enlivened by a spicy finish.
2007–2016. £44.65; F&R
Paolo Scavino, Carobric, Barolo 1999 *****
Rich, oaky but stylish black-cherry nose;
bright, concentrated, powerful, spicy, full-bodied black fruits and mint. Excellent.
2008–2018. £40.60; J&B
Clerico, Pajana, Barolo 1999 ****
Rich, gamey, leathery aromas; concentrated, tannic and vigorous, with power and persistence more than finesse. 2008–2015. £38.08; J&B
Roberto Voerzio, Cerequio, Barolo 1998 ****
Imposing, sweet, plummy aromas; elegant, too, as is the opulent-yet-assertive palate, with its long, powerful, peppery finish. Up to 2020. £79.90; F&R
Altare, Barolo 1998 ***
A blend of La Morra vineyards, this has redcurrant and mint aromas, and fresh, charming, red-fruit flavours. Stylish if not complex. Up to 2010. £35.08; J&B
Veglio, Castelletto, Barolo 2001 ***
A dense and structured wine, with fruit
winning over the firm, oaky, chocolatey
tannins; stylish and with a long, peppery
finish. 2008–2020. £25.17; F&R
Stephen Brook is a contributing editor.