Modernism Redux in Barolo

What does modernism mean to you? International varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon? Powerful wines with dark colors and lots of extraction? Lots of new oak exposure? Well that is not at all the significance of modernism in Barolo.

In the 1980s when the “Barolo Boys” revolutionized Barolo, infighting between modernists and traditionalists was vicious to the point of destroying family relationships. I started my week in Barolo with visits to three arch-modernists, but nobody feels that modernism versus tradition is much of an issue any more. In fact, it seems that modernism has a rather different meaning in Barolo from what you might expect casually elsewhere in the world of wine.

“You have to remember what wine making was like in the seventies,” says Silvia Altare, whio has just taken over the Elio Altare winery from her father, one of the original Barolo Boys. “When my grandfather was making wine, there was no running water, there were chickens running about in the cellar, there was no hygiene, everything was filthy.” When Elio came into the winery and introduced green pruning, there was outrage because he was wasting the grapes. “Yields were 20 tons per hectare then,” says Silvia, “today they are 2-3 tons.” When Elio introduced barriques it was a scandal, especially because the only way he could remove the old foudres, which had been purpose built in the cellar, was to cut them up with a chain saw. His father did not speak to him for the next ten years. And then the use of rotary fermenters to get softer tannins was another scandal. When I visited a few years ago, Elio said that, “Everyone recognized Barolo because of its barnyard smell, and basically the typicity of Barolo was of flawed wine. I just adapted the methods that were being used in France to make great wines.” Burgundy was, and remains, the inspiration at Altare, Silvia explains.

RotaryThese rotary fermenters and barriques created a scandal when Elio Altare introduced them into Barolo

Today the common feature to Altare’s style is a silky smoothness, which increases going from the Langhe Nebbiolo (called Giarborina, it does not identify Nebbiolo on the label), to the Barolo (a blend from several vineyards) to the Cerretto single vineyard wine. Fruits are cut by a savory edge, the tannins get finer and silkier, and the fragrancy of the variety comes out more clearly along the line. The ultimate is the Unoperuno, which comes from the Arborino vineyard, but where the berries are selected by cutting off the bunch, one by one, in order to get absolutely perfect ripeness. “The difference is enormous,” Silvia says, although she wonders whether it’s really economic to achieve perfection at a cost that can’t be recouped by the price of the bottle.

Silvio Grasso is emphatically a small family winery, where the cellar work is handled by only four people, Federico Grasso and his wine Marilena, and their sons Paulo and Silvio. I tasted through the range from 2012 with Paolo. Barolo is about half of production. “We have one traditional Barolo,” he says, “matured in a larger vat, and five Barolos matured in barriques.” New oak usage depends on the year, but can be up to 80%. The traditional cuvée is Turnè, which shows a savory, almost savage, edge, with firm tannins on the finish. The Barolo tout court is a blend from several vineyards, matured in old barriques for 24 months, with smoother tannins than Turnè. This is a halfway house to the single vineyard wines, where I tasted Luciani and Manzoni, both vinified the same way in a mix of old and new barriques. Manzoni is actually a slightly warmer vineyard and the vines are older (planted in 1968 compared to 1982 for Luciani). The difference between the wines is striking. Luciani is the more powerful, with a richer palate, fruits more evident, and the perfume of Nebbiolo coming in at the end. Manzoni is more fragrant, the height of elegance on the palate, with the savory fruits making a delicate impression. I see more of a continuum along the range than a break between tradition and modernism. Paulo surprised me by saying, “Manzoni is our most modern wine.” At Silvio Grasso, “modernism” means increasing refinement. I have the impression that Luciani is the more popular wine, but for me, Manzoni captures the quintessence of Nebbiolo,

Roberto Voerzio was one of the Barolo Boys but his son Davide doesn’t think the distinction between modernism, and tradition means much today. “It’s better to speak about good wines and bad wines. There are two ways of making wines: the result of the fruit or made in the cellar, the results are different. Even if people think we belong in the modern group, we work in a way that is very traditional, the only modern thing here is the barrique, but it’s a very soft use, we have never used 100% new oak, we have never been against using big casks. For us the kind of wood we use is not important. We’ve been making wine in the same style for thirty years, we like a pure expression of terroir and vintage.” In fact, five of the Barolo Crus are aged half in barriques and half in large casks; two are aged only in barriques because quantities are too small to use large casks. For all Voerzio’s reputation as an arch-modernist, I was under no doubt tasting the wines that they capture both terroir and vintage, with Rocche dell’Annunziato conveying a strong mineral impression of precision, Brunate showing as sleeker, and the latest cuvée, the Reserva 10 Anni from Fossatti Case Nere in 2004 showing a powerful character with breadth of flavors. Roll on modernism!

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