Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Winery visit with Roberto Conterno of Giacomo Conterno

"The Barolos of Giacomo Conterno are among the most beautiful wines in the world: gorgeously pure and packed with flavors that feel almost three dimensional" -- Eric Asimov, New York Times.
"The estate is most renowned for the great Barolos Cascina Francia and Monfortino Reserve. The latter ... is regarded as one of the finest Barolos produced today and by many as the finest wine made from Nebbiolo in the world" -- Berry Bros & Rudd.

And this is but a sampling of the accolades that this estate continues to garner; accolades that are the result of implementation of a vision and a longstanding commitment to protecting and perfecting what has been attained.

Prior to World War I, Barolo was made to be drunk early and was sold in casks and demijohns. Giovanni Conterno purchased high-quality fruit from Serralunga d'Alba growers and made wine to be sold in his restaurant and to the general public. After son Giacomo returned from the war, he worked with his father to make an untraditional Barolo, one with significant aging potential. The formula that they hit upon -- extending the maceration time and aging in large wooden botti -- met early success and continues as the foundation of "the finest wine made from Nebbiolo in the world." The history of the estate from those early days on is captured in the chart below.

Bev, Ron, Parlo, and I visited with Roberto on the afternoon of May 17th of this year. After a morning visit with the high-energy Silvia of Elio Altare (report forthcoming), and a wonderful lunch at Ristorante L'Argaj in Castiglione Falletto, we were in great frames of mind for our visit with Roberto. After a short wait in immaculately appointed surroundings, Stephanie led us downstairs to meet Roberto. We had all met Roberto at La Festa del Barolo and expressed our pleasure at seeing him once again. And then we began to talk about the estate and his practices.

The fruit for the estate's flagship Monfortino is sourced from the 14-ha Serralunga d'Alba cru Francia; as is the case for the Barolo Francia (previously Cascina Francia). Five of the crus hectares are planted to Barbera with the remainder Nebbiolo. Both a Barolo (2 ha) and a Barbera (1 ha) are produced from Cerretta fruit. The recently purchased Arione vineyard (6 ha) has just been replanted with Nebbiolo. According to Roberto, all three crus have limestone soils and similar climates. The details of the fruit sources are shown below.

Monfortino is made from the best grapes in the greatest year and that search begins in the vineyard with selection and vinification of "proto-Monfortino" and Francia wines. The proto-Monfortino wines are subjected to higher fermentation temperatures and longer maceration time (4 to 5 weeks versus 3 to 4 weeks for the Francia) in search of greater structure (They are also aged for three additional years). A decision is made after tasting as to whether there will be a Monfortino that year. According to Roberto, "Francia you drink, Monfortino you chew." He tastes each wine 15 times a year and would have tasted the wines 40 to 50 times before making a decision. If the decision is made to not produce a Monfortino, the proto-Monfortino is plowed back into that year's Francia.

In terms of an overall winemaking process, everything is destemmed and the grapes vinified by plots. Fermentation is conducted in wooden conical oak vats (They had started out with wood, then switched to stainless steel. Twenty years ago they began using wood again.). He loves wood for fermentation because the thick staves keep the temperature well and, in his view, allows better polymerization.

I have seen many an article which mention that Conterno uses natural yeasts. So I asked him about that. Natural is not always positive, he said. He went on to assert that 95% of all yeasts in the vineyard are damaging to the wine. Today they work with selected yeasts from their vineyard, determined after a lengthy research process. They are currently using two strains for Nebbiolo and three for Barbera.

All wines are aged in botti: 55-year-old Slavonian oak or newer Austrian oak barrels from Franz Stockinger. The Barbera is aged for 2 years, the Barolo for 4 years, and the Monfortino for 7 years. The wines are racked three times in the first year, first to get rid of the gross lees prior to malolactic, and the second and third for clarity. Beyond that, racking is based on taste (combating reduction and tannin).

Steel tanks are used when racking the wines or bottling. In no case is the wine held for more than 1 day in steel tanks.

After the discussion, we turned to tasting some wines. We tasted 2015 Barbera and 2013 Barolo from Cerretta and Francia out of botti.

Roberto said that 2015 was a great vintage. It had been a warm summer and Barbera likes those conditions. Francia, he said, delivers minerality while Ceretta delivers fruit. The Barbera Cerretta showed a rich floral nose, sweet fruit, and beautiful acidity. Roberto sees that richness as emanating from the vineyard. The Barbera Francia showed a core of minerality surrounded by blue fruit. Great balance along with a cupric finish.

The year 2013 was a great vintage for Barolo. Normally Nebbiolo likes cooler temperatures. According to Roberto, 2015 had had a warm summer and, as a result, the Nebbiolo was more approachable. 2013, on the other hand, was cooler and produced a more structured wine. The Barolo Cerretta showed mint, herbs, and eucalyptus. Huge structure and lots of tannin. Excellent weight on the palate. Balanced. The Barolo Francia was perfumed, floral and restrained. Hay, sweet fruit, and spice. Silky, mature tannins resulting from, according to Roberto, being picked at ultimate ripeness. According to Roberto there will be no 2013 or 2014 Francia as those grapes will be used in Monfortino.

Roberto Conterno is a thoughtful and accomplished individual whose wisdom shines through even while his words are being translated. I was enthralled by his presentation at La Festa del Barolo and was no less so during this visit. We would like to thank him for taking the time to meet with us and to thank Stephanie Flou for her efforts in getting the trip arranged and then doing an excellent job of translation during the course of the visit.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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