Nicolas Belfrage MW compares old- and new-style Barolo wine by analysing the approach of two top producers.
The debate as to what exactly Barolo wine is – or ought to be – has been going on for a couple of decades and, although you might think we would have a definitive answer by now, we still haven’t reached a conclusion. Indeed, extremists still exist in both the traditional and modern camps, putting out wines of such spectacular stylistic difference as to make one wonder how they could belong to the same denomination.
On one side there is the light-coloured, oranging-at-the-rim, tarry not-to-say Marmitey, drying-tannin version, beloved of the old guard who would maintain that a true Barolo is ‘undrinkable’ when just made, and only begins to show its true colours after several years in bottle. On the other side there is the deep, concord-jam hued, purple-at the-edge number, richly fruity and even more richly oaky, with lashings of just about everything from ‘leather, soy, truffles, meat, allspice and cherry liqueur’ to ‘lead-pencil, cedar, smoke, earth and vanilla’, to pinch a few terms from one of the most famous wine reviewers of our time.
This is the sort of wine of which, according to Aldo Conterno, ‘you drink one glass of and throw the rest away,’ yet the modernist view is that if a wine doesn’t smell and taste good at inception, it never will. Roughly speaking, Aldo Conterno and Enrico Scavino of Paolo Scavino represent the moderate aspects of tradition versus modernism and both produce wines which, while quite different in style, are widely admired and which I would personally be happy to drink any time. Aldo Conterno is well known to all wine lovers. The younger scion of one Barolo’s most venerable houses, with roots going back to the early 18th century, Aldo separated from his brother Giovanni, of the firm Giacomo Conterno, in 1969. At that time he was regarded as avant-garde in approach, but today he is generally viewed as more of a traditionalist. Aldo’s wines have, for decades, been considered the acme of Barolo quality, and if he isn’t currently pulling in the accolades from pundits at home and abroad as he once did, it is not because his finely crafted, and structured but fresh, complex, elegant wines have in any way deteriorated, but rather because the Barolo paradigm has moved towards the rich, fruity-meaty style of the modernists – and because Aldo is sometimes too candid for his own good in his dealings with the influential journalists who dish out the points. Enrico Scavino, like Aldo, is one of the thoroughly delightful characters of Barolo and though, at 60, he is just a decade younger than Aldo, he is viewed as being among the front- runners of modern Barolo. Until the early 1970s his father, Paolo, divided his efforts between vines, cows, grain and fruit, but from 1974 the azienda gave up the other activities to concentrate on wine.
Enrico has experimented in the vineyard and cantina, but has pulled back from the verge on various issues. Today, while an enthusiastic member of the modernist clique, Langa In, he can be counted among the moderates. His wines, full yet with an element of restraint, concentrated and multi-faceted, are among the most highly rated at home and abroad. He is, to use a modernism, ‘on a roll’. So what practices characterise the extreme traditionalists and the extreme modernists, and how do our two more moderate Barolistas, Conterno and Scavino, compare?
Barolo is supposed by law to be 100% Nebbiolo but in the past traditionalists might have added, say, 5% Barbera to give the wine more colour and fruit and to cut the tannins. Modernists would be more likely to add Cabernet Sauvignon. Neither Conterno nor Scavino add anything to the Nebbiolo. Planting The traditionalist would favour low to medium density, with relatively high yield per plant; the modernist medium to high density with relatively low yield per plant. Scavino has experimented with higher density (6,000 plants per hectare) but is convinced it is a mistake and has dropped back to around 4,000. Conterno has been more or less in the middle all along.
The traditionalists would be inclined to leave the yield to nature, though they would, like the modernists, prune severely in winter and remove excess foliage in summer. The modernists would also resort to bunch-thinning where necessary to limit volume.
Machines have not really caught on in Barolo, except for the quasi-industrial, which doesn’t include our exemplars.
The best in all categories prefer whole berries, so they use small containers.
A device now ubiquitous in Barolo – from the devil, say the traditionalists, though it’s used even by top Bordeaux estates – is the must concentrator, which removes water from the juice with the intent and effect of deepening colour and increasing concentration. Widespread among modernists, traditionalists such as Conterno wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole. Nor would they resort to bleeding the must to increase juice-skin ratio or to any similar contrivance which, they would claim, denatures the wine.
Extremists at both ends might chance elevated fermentation temperatures – up to the high 30s centigrade – in the early stage of fermentation, in order to increase extraction (this is what Aldo’s brother, Giovanni, does with his famous Monfortino). While neither Aldo nor Enrico would risk the possible resultant cooked flavours or, worse, stuck fermentation, Scavino starts off at 32 to 33?C and comes down to 28?C after the first few days. Conterno never likes to go above 30?C.
Traditionalists would have used glass-lined concrete or, today, stainless steel vats with submerged cap. This is anathema to modernists, who tend to use a roto-fermentor to mix must/ wine and skins very gently. Enrico Scavino reckons that this is the most important factor in Barolo’s improvement. ‘We have 24-hour movement,’ he says. ‘They [referring to those who use ‘more aggressive’ pumping over] can only do it two or three times a day.’ Aldo Conterno, who still uses pumping over to break the cap, is therefore one of ‘them’, but says he’s happy with the technique. He is, on the other hand, trying out a couple of upright oak ‘tini’.
In the olden days, maceration might continue for weeks, or even months. Aldo Conterno remembers that his father sometimes didn’t rack until December, even January, but this would not be possible now as the law requires consignment of the solids by the end of November. Nonetheless, there are those who still macerate for 25 to 30 days or more which, say the modernists, extracts both harsh and benign tannins, requiring years in barrel to smooth them out. On the other hand, there are those on the left who will cut maceration to a couple of days or even less, to minimise, according to traditionalists, the concession of positive flavonoids and aromatics, thus requiring heavy barriquing to disguise the wine’s emptiness. The older generation would, without hesitation, describe these people as ‘pazzi’ or mad. Scavino, for his part, macerates for up to eight days and rack when there is still some unfermented sugar in the wine. Aldo Conterno racks as soon as the sugars are all converted, which may be in eight, 10 or 12 days.
Oak ageing: wood
The traditionalist’s maturation device is the large botte of Slavonian oak. Decades, indeed centuries, of trials have told producers that this is the right receptacle for a wine like Barolo whose character so vitally depends on its perfumes. These, despite the wine’s notorious strength, are really quite delicate, subtly floral, complex, ephemeral and easily submerged under oak fumes. By large I mean over 50hl. Aldo Conterno’s – he uses nothing else – are 75 to 100hl. Arch modernists spit blood at the very mention of the word botte, insisting on new French barrique or at least a mix of new and used. Enrico Scavino, one of the more enlightened modernists, is aware of the danger oak-related aromas pose to Nebbiolo and splits the ageing period between new barrique and 50hl French oak botte. The new oak, he says, helps to fix colour and endow elegance, but too much sacrifices the grape to the wood.
Oak ageing: duration
I remember tasting a great Barolo from barrel in the cellars of Giovanni Conterno in 1983. The vintage was 1974. Even Giovanni doesn’t wood-age his wines that long any more, though Monfortino does spend five or six years in botte. Aldo Conterno draws the line at two to three years even for his top cru, Granbussia. Scavino does the required two years, half and half, as described. Extreme modernists are not beyond reducing the wood-ageing period below the legal limit. There are a few other minor differences between the modernists and traditionalists, such as the bottle form and the label. Aldo Conterno’s presentation has stayed the same for years, retaining the classic Albeisa bottle which few modernists would use. Label design tends to be more conservative here than in other parts of Italy, though a few of the newer boys, Scavino not among them, have gone quite trendy. The main point is that there is mutual respect between the best of both wings – and, I would submit, Aldo Conterno and Enrico Scavino do represent the best – plus a willingness to agree to differ on those points where they do differ. If its fruits are as positive as this, then long may the debate continue.
Nicolas Belfrage MW is an expert on Italian wines and author of Brunello to Zibibbo