|Geoffrey Dean on his discoveries in Piedmont|
|Friday, 19 October 2012 16:07|
In contrast to the wettest British summer for a century, Piedmont enjoyed such a dry, sunny growing season that the harvest was completed much earlier than normal.
"This year would have been even warmer than 2003 but for four days of heavy rain in early September that totally changed the vintage from a hot one to a classic one," said leading Barolo winemaker, Alessandro Ceretto, whose team finished picking on October 2. "The yields are down by about a third because of the week of -20º in February, as well as a bad hailstorm in late July and the lack of rain, but the quality could be very high."
Ceretto's views were echoed by nearly all the winemakers I visited in the area. It is early days, of course, and a succession of fine vintages have blessed this heavenly wine region in the past decade since the disastrous 2002 one, but 2012 could rival the great 2008 vintage in the view of Elisa Scavino, winemaker for the Paolo Scavino winery.
Roberto Voerzio, famed for producing some of his regal Nebbiolo from yields as low as 12hl per hectare, could hardly keep the smile off his face when I dropped in at his winery in La Morra the day after he had waved goodbye to his pickers for this year.
Voerzio embodies all that is so special about this corner of north west Italy. I had read of Piedmontese hospitality and charm, but this consummate winemaker, notwithstanding the tragic passing of his wife recently, is as delightful as they come.
After a drive in his Land Rover through his steep Cerequio, Brunate and La Serra vineyards, stopping to talk to virtually everyone along the way, he then led a tasting of his wines that lasted three hours. We tried everything he had in barrel – including eight different single vineyard Nebbiolos – as well as umpteen vintages already bottled.
For those drinkers who bemoan that top-class Barolo can only be drunk after many years in bottle, they should try Voerzio's Rocche dell'Annunziata Torriglione 2010 when it is released. Beautifully integrated and very long, its soft tannins make it a pleasure to drink now. "I must make a drinker smile," says Voerzio. It is hard not to when consuming his wines.
Another warm welcome can be found at Voerzio's near neighbour, the Michele Chiarlo winery, which has some of the nicest accommodation in the Barolo appellation as well as boasting one of the smartest tasting rooms in Italy.
Stefano Chiarlo, though, is far from a showy host, oozing rustic genuineness and delighting in uncorking a succession of single vineyard nebbiolos of different ages. "Try this Cannubi 2001," he urges.
"It's more powerful than the Cerequio. It's almost like the wine is saying: 'Look at me – I am Cannubi!'"
Even more masculine was La Spinetta's flagship Barolo 2008 from the highest rows of their Garretti vineyard at 300m. La Spinetta is well known for the rhino on its labels, but this wine, named Vursu (meaning "strongly desired" in Piedmontese dialect) aptly has a lion instead. Made from 70-year-old very low-yielding vines and aged for 24 months in French oak (85% new), this wine scored top marks in the so-called BLIC test – balance, length, intensity of flavour and complexity.
So too did Ceretto's 2008 Barolo from its best Briccho Rocche vineyard near Castiglione Falletto, a 1.75ha site yielding 30hl/ha. A curious combination of power, austerity and elegance, this wine was so well balanced that it was a surprise to hear it was 15% abv.
While French oak is much favoured in Piedmont, Marcarini in Barolo are unusual in that they use only Slavonian oak from Serbia with its low aromatics and medium-level tannins. "We find that for us French oak has too much tannin and vanilla, while old Slavonian oak maintains better the typical grape characteristics of Nebbiolo," Carla Vada, Marcarini's cellar master, told Harpers.
GD Vajra is another pre-eminent Barolo producer which prefers ageing in Old Slavonian oak. The winery, which is hard to find as there are no signs, but well worth the trouble, is an understated gem run by a charming family. Aldo Vaira and son Giuseppe are an engaging winemaking team, who make a fuss over visitors, describing it as an honour to have them for tasting. They lay on a superb range, including Riesling, Pinot Noir and Freisa as well as some outstanding Nebbiolos.
Marchesi di Gresy, on the other side of Alba in Barbaresco, is equally difficult to locate, but another winery not to be missed. New Zealander Jeffrey Chilcott, the affable cellar master, who presides over another brilliant collection of wines, argues "it's not true that Barbaresco is the big tannic monster that can't be opened for 10 years". His Martinenga 2008 Nebbiolo proves his point.
Perhaps the last word should go to Gaia Gaja, elder daughter of Angelo, aka the king of Barbaresco. She spends a week of every month overseas, marketing the Gaja brand. "Barbaresco was considered the poor brother of Barolo – less structured, tannic, agreeable and interesting," she said. "In reality, Barbaresco has something that Barolo doesn't have – more delicate tannins and definitely more elegance. When I travel the world, you have no idea how many people say ‘I prefer Barbaresco'. That makes me smile as it is a great sign of the change of taste of people."