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Anson on Thursday: The gentleman from Turin

Jane Anson unravels the wine tension between Italy and France and finds a Barolo merchant in Turin who has managed to straddle the divide. How did he do it?

Anson on Thursday:

The slopes of Piedmont at this time of year are an assault on the senses.

I am driving through the early morning fog with Archille Baroli, picking out different vines according to the colour of their autumn leaves, by turns yellow, burnt orange, russet and glowing red. The winner is the scarlet of dolcetto, cutting through the mist like a burning lantern.

We are discussing the tentative steps made by overseas buyers to stake a claim in Barolo or Barbaresco, drawn by the two appellations’ rising international profile. Both are areas that unashamedly celebrate their own.

It’s not just buyers that struggle to get a foothold here; at last count (University of Turin, 1997) 97% of the 53,000 hectares of vines grown on Piedmont slopes are indigenous to the area. But insurgencies are growing.

Back in the early months of 2015, American company Krause Holdings came close to buying the Arione vines of Gigi Rosso, who was selling up part of his vineyard in the commune of Serralunga to concentrate on his holdings in Castiglione Falletto, close to Baroli’s own vines.

The sale was halted before completion, when local legend Roberto Conterno exercised his pre-emptive right as closest neighbour to buy the 22 acres. Krause Holdings has since completed the purchase of Enrico Sarafino in Canale d’Alba, but it was a roadblock that is far from unusual.

‘Barolo owners are reluctant to sell to outsiders,’ Baroli says, before catching himself and looking over at me with a wide grin. ‘Although it’s not the Chinese or Americans that we particularly worry about. It’s the French – our great rivals in food, fashion, cars, football and wine’.

Baroli knows a little about this, as his wines have a distribution agreement with Moët Hennessy’s Estates & Wines. He sees a gradual opening up as an ‘inevitable and healthy part of Piedmont’s growing reputation’. But I thought about this conversation again last week, when back in Bordeaux and tasting through Franco Martinetti’s astonishing range of Piedmont wines.

Martinetti is not bound by convention, even if described as ‘pure gentleman’ by more than one person I asked. He has created some of the most rightly celebrated wines from Piedmont without owning any vines or even a winery of his own.

‘Would you expect a chef in a first class restaurant to raise his own cattle?’ he has been known to say. ‘You expect him to use the finest quality ingredients.’

Instead of Barolo, Martinetti lives in Turin (‘a city dweller, but with two of my own truffle dogs’), and works with carefully selected producers, sourcing grapes and making the wines himself. He has two sons, one of whom Michele works with him, while the other, Guido, channeled the family’s love of flavour into creating Grom ice-cream with a childhood friend.

They started as an artisanal shop in Turin in 2003 and spread worldwide to include boutiques in Malibu, Osaka, Paris and New York and that was just last month bought up by Unilever, owners of Ben & Jerry’s.

A Piedmont négociant?

The négociant approach is unusual in Piedmont, but Martinetti’s wines are a testament to the fact that this model can reap rewards. His contracts are long-standing, up to 40 years in the making, with winemakers such as Walter Massa in southeast Piedmont that he likes and respects.

My personal favourites are his Barberas, both the Montruc and the Bric dei Banditi, that are some of the best examples of this grape that I have tried, and wipe the floor with the idea of Barbera as a distant second to Nebbiolo.

But, he plays perfectly with Nebbiolo also, crafting the fabulous Marasco into a sleek, elegant take on Barolo from vineyards in both Serralunga and Castiglione Falletto.

The 2006 that I tasted this week needed its decade of softening, and has blossomed into a perfectly balanced mix of florality, pencil-lead minerality and tobacco spice.

French leanings

Look closer at his range, and you also see the story of a man who has broken through French-Italian rivalries. Martinetti is the first and only Italian member of the Académie du Vin de France.

In fact he is one of only four overseas members – counting besides him Belgian restaurateur Franky Baert, Spanish lawyer and collector Joan Josep Abo and Decanter’s consultant editor, Steven Spurrier.

His French sympathies come through in his Sul Bric that is an equal blend of Barbera and Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine is rich round and savoury, as close to a Super Tuscan-style Bordeaux blend as you are going to get in Piedmont, sitting right alongside Gaja’s Darmagi Langhe in terms of succulent impact and energetic black fruits but for a fraction of the cost.

Sparkling wine

You’ll see them again with his traditional method sparkling wine. There are an increasing number of these in Piedmont since the Alta Langa Metodo Classico appellation was introduced in 2011, but this uses the VSdQ vino spumante di qualita label and sticks to a classic French mix of 55% Pinot Noir and 45% Chardonnay.

Aged for nine years on the lees, the already richly toasted notes are given an extra touch of quince and spice by the bas d’Armagnac 1943 in the liqueur d’expedition; his birth year. The current vintage is 2006.

‘French wines have always been a passion of mine,’ Martinetti tells me when we catch up after the tasting.

He then gives me an insight not only into why he is so accepted by the French, but into his approach to pursuing perfection.

In 1963, aged 20, Franco Martinetti visited his first love, a French girl, at her home in Paris. He had no money, but was desperate to eat at the Tour d’Argent restaurant, so borrowed a suit and went on his own.

‘I only knew one name on the wine list, and it was the most expensive. I of course ordered the cheapest, but asked if I could buy the list to take home with me’. Three weeks later, back in Turin, the sommelier from the Tour d’Argent sent him the list, and he began to study it.

‘It would be more accurate to say that I consumed it,’ he says. ‘I learnt about every wine that was on that list, and two years later I had memorised every single cru, learnt about the impact of each of the terroirs.

And later, when I was able, I began to buy the wines, to taste them and understand them. They gave me a sense of ambition for my own wines, to always be searching for that extra nuance of sensibility and sense of place’.

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