Thursday, November 11, 2010

Giacomo Conterno Barolo and Barbera

I had the pleasure of visiting Roberto Conterno at his family winery a couple of years ago and was, as always when I taste these wines, blown away by their sheer quality. It was my first visit, and I had a sense of reverence as we met and wondered around and took it all in. While he spoke, I began to see a little of what makes these wines what they are. There is his quiet intensity, with a humility that comes out when he speaks about the history, his father, grandfather and family, the land, and the resulting wine. You get a sense that he sees his role as  guardian of something precious, and when you taste the wines you can see clearly that this is true. The winery, like the wines, is clean and perfect - nothing extra, nothing flashy - immaculate, well ordered and to me very much in synch with what I perceive as a style that while traditional, is not rustic or funky in any way. The wines are pure and focused, with the sheer essence of the grapes and the excellent terroir where they are grown conserved  and encouraged to brilliantly shine through. And they are superb!

I also got to taste what I believe will become one of the legendary Barolos of our time, the amazing 2002 Monfortino. In a vintage plagued by rain, hail, cold, and rot, the weather conditions in 2002 decimated the harvest. But it brings up a good point for discussion, what do winemakers do when confronted with such awful conditions? For many, despite their best efforts in the vineyard to eliminate rotten or damaged fruit and lower yields to give the grapes a prayer of ripening, many were simply overwhelmed. Once the nature of the fruit was evident in the cellar, more tough decisions had to be made. At Elio Grasso, in easier vintages with more healthy fruit, they typically make two Barolos from single vineyard sites (Gavarini and Ginestra) and an excellent Nebbiolo d'Alba from younger vines or parcels they feel aren't quite up to the Barolo level. Vinification is different than for the Barolos, shorter, with more emphasis on freshness and fruit notes and resulting in a wine that has Nebbiolo character but is a bit lighter and ready to drink earlier. In superb years, they make a third wine called Runcot, that is a selection of the best parcels of Gavarini at the heart of the Estate. In 2002, they declassified to only a singe Barolo, made in a style that had definite Barolo character, but a tad lighter and earlier maturing, and released it a a fraction of the normal price. The rest they declassified into Nebbiolo, and may have sold off the rest. Production was tiny, but what they offered to us was delicious, affordable and actually quite a great buying opportunity, which "off vintages", if you do the research and taste, often tend to be.

The Conterno story was the opposite - the same miserable growing conditions, but when they got to the end there was so little fruit left that Roberto simply decided to hang on and see what happened. The weather finally cleared, and what was left was a minuscule crop of superb, ripe, beautiful fruit. In an  opposite tack to Grasso (both excellent options and the right thing to do in each case),  Conterno also made only one Barolo, but in this case the Monfortino, a wine from humble and challenging beginnings and now destined to become a legendary wine. Two different outcomes to the same problem, but they both illustrate that wine making is not a rote process, and that even in difficult years there are opportunities and producers who shine. 

For a little history and background on this terrific winery the following quote is from the excellent website of, one of our favorite Importers and Distributors. The site is excellent, with loads of information about their portfolio of small family owned artisan growers. On Conterno they write: 

"One of the greatest names in all of Piemonte, Cantine Giacomo Conterno was formed in 1908 when Giacomo’s father, Giovanni Conterno started a wine bar in the village of San Giuseppe. Giovanni made Barolo from purchased grapes and sold whatever was not needed at the tavern in barrel at this time, as was the custom throughout the region in the early twentieth century. Their flagship Riserva Barolo, Monfortino, was first conceived as a means of showing off the quality of their best wine, and was first bottled on its own in either 1912 or 1920. There are reports that a 1912 Monfortino was made by Giovanni, but the family members cannot recall if this was indeed the case. In any event, after his return from World War I, Giacomo Conterno and his father Giovanni certainly made a 1920 Monfortino, and a legend was started.

Giovanni Conterno passed away in 1934 and his son Giacomo took over running both the tavern and the winery. Giacomo had two sons, another Giovanni and Aldo, who were given the reigns of the family business in 1961. Giovanni (grandson of the estate’s founder) had vinified the 1958s with his father, and was responsible for the estate’s wines from 1959 onwards. Younger brother, Aldo Conterno was interested in experimenting with a more modern style of Barolo, and the estate was split between the two brothers in 1969. Giovanni continued on making wines as his father and grandfather had done before them, making great, traditional Barolo of uncompromising quality. The Conterno style of Barolo is ultra-traditional, with a long maceration followed by extended aging in large, old oak casks (botti) for anywhere from four to ten years prior to bottling. The regular Barolo is aged for four years before bottling, and the Monfortino used to be held in a single 4,000-5,000 liter botti for a minimum of ten years prior to its bottling (the 1970 Monfortino was not bottled until 1985). Today the Monfortino now stays in its same old oak botti for seven years before its bottling- the only modernist concession in the entire vinification and aging process! 

For many, many years, the Conternos made their Barolo from purchased grapes, produced by some of the best growers in the commune of Serralunga d’Alba and surrounding villages. The 1920 Monfortino was made from purchased grapes from the Le Coste vineyard in Monforte d’Alba. Since 1920 there have been two bottled versions of Barolo produced by the estate, a “regular” (an oxymoron when used here if ever there was one!) bottling and a Riserva Monfortino. Not every year produces grapes of sufficient quality to make a Conterno Barolo, and some years there is only a regular Barolo, some years no Barolo is sold under the Conterno label, and occasionally there is only a Monfortino made. Up until 1974 these bottlings were always made from purchased grapes (primarily from Serralunga), but in this year the superb 16 hectare vineyard of Cascina Francia in this same commune was purchased by the Conternos. Since that year both Barolo bottlings have hailed from the Cascina Francia. Interestingly, while the 1978 “regular” Barolo was made from grapes in Cascina Francia, it was not until the 1980 vintage that the name of the vineyard appeared on the label of the regular bottling. 

The two Barolo bottlings from Giacomo Conterno are earmarked while the grapes are still on the vine. In years of outstanding quality, a selection is made of the very best grapes in Cascina Francia, and these are then destined to become Monfortino. Fermentation of both bottlings is identical with the exception that the Monfortino witnesses no temperature control; no matter how high the fermentation temperatures may go, there is no intervention on the part of the Conternos. The wines are then racked into their respective botti for elevage, and as noted above, the Barolo “Cascina Francia” destined for bottling after approximately four years in wood and the Monfortino at age seven. In addition to the two profound bottlings of Barolo made by Giacomo Conterno, there is now only a Barbera d’Alba produced and an occasional Nebbiolo d’Alba from declassified Barolo in lesser vintages. This was a decision that was undertaken by Giovanni’s son, Roberto Conterno, who now runs the estate. Roberto worked for many years at the side of his father, until Giovanni’s recent passing in 2003. Roberto has budded over all the Dolcetto and Freisa vines that was previously planted in Cascina Francia to either Barbera or Nebbiolo, as he feels these are the most noble varieties in Piemonte. 

The producer Giacomo Conterno is clearly one of the two greatest names in all of Piemonte (the other being Bruno Giacosa), and each and every wine that bears the Conterno label is a profound example of its varietal and underlying terroir. While Monfortino is justifiably celebrated as one of the world’s very greatest red wines, the Barolo “Cascina Francia” is often very close to the quality of the Riserva, and is also one of the finest bottlings in all of Barolo. The Conterno uncompromising commitment to quality does not stop with Barolo, as their Barbera is one of the most age-worthy and brilliant examples of this underrated grape to be found in Piemonte. And on the rare occasions when one can find a bottle of Conterno Nebbiolo d’Alba, rest assured that it is a lovely bottle of lighter styled and complex nebbiolo that would outclass many another producer’s Barolo."

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