A Visit with Coche Dury: A Delicious 2015 Vintage

Coche Dury has long been one of the most reputed domains in Meursault, famously difficult to visit when Jean-François Coche Dury, known for his reticence, was in charge, somewhat easier now his son Rafaël has taken over. It is still very much a hands-on domain: when I visited last week, Rafaël came straight from the vineyard for our tasting.

Coche-Dury’s winery has recently been extended (at left).

On the road through Meursault, the house is surrounded by vines on three sides, and you can see the church a couple of hundred yards away. Round the back is a second building that has just been extended. While we were waiting for Rafaël, a large door suddenly opened in the new extension, and rather Bond-like, a formidable-looking tractor emerged and set off for the vineyards.

Rafaël is the fourth generation. His great grandfather bought the first vineyard when he returned after being a prisoner of war in the first world war. He continued to work at another domain while buying vineyards, and Rafaël’s grandfather, Georges, continued to accumulate vineyards, although he did not bottle the majority of his wines until the 1960s. When Jean-François started in the 1970s, there were many good opportunities to buy vineyards, and he set up Domaine Coche Dury (Dury being the name of his wife). “Today this would not be possible, because vineyards are so expensive,” Rafaël says ruefully. When Georges retired in 1985, his vineyards came to Jean-François, who retired in 2010. Rafaël has been at the domain since 1999.

From 10 ha of vines there are seven cuvées, starting with the village Meursault. Most of the vineyards are near the house, the most outlying being plots in Puligny Montrachet Enseignères and the Meursault Caillerets (adjacent to Volnay Caillerets). Winemaking is constant. “Élevage always lasts for 18 months and we are not going to change it.” The approach is artisanal to the extent of allowing malolactic fermentation to occur or not occur. “The timing of the malo is very variable, from December after the harvest to almost a year later. Occasionally a barrel does not do malo, I consider that is its wish, but it’s very rare.”

You can see the church in Meursault across Coche-Dury’s vineyards.

Tasting through the entire range of 2015s, the wines already show as delicious. “We harvested the vintage strategically to avoid predicted hailstorms, but fortunately for us they departed for Chablis.” Harvest started unusually early, at the very end of August. “We can’t make wine steadily, like twenty years ago, there is more variation now. It’s very stressful for the vigneron, every year is really different, but it’s been very good for the consumer.”

Usually some time is needed for the intense minerality that characterizes Coche-Dury’s wines to integrate, but the 2015 can virtually all be approached already. Usually “the minimum time to wait is four or five years, but the wines are formidable after ten years, and the Corton Charlemagne will be even better at fifteen years. We haven’t had any great problems with premox, only some occasional bottles.”

Meursault Chevalier 2015 opens with stone fruits in front of citrus, with that steely minerality in the background, and the comparison with Puligny Enseignères epitomizes the different between Meursault and Puligny Montrachet: the Enseignères showcases the linear precision of Puligny. Meursault Caillerets shows the breadth of Meursault more clearly than minerality at the present, Meursault Genevrières is tightly wound, and it’s only the forward character of 2015 that makes it at all approachable now. Meursault Perrières has more penetrating acidity, showing a Rolls Royce sense of power. With more roundness, Corton Charlemagne is almost perfumed behind the smoky oak and citrus palate. “C’est la douceur du Charlemagne,” Rafaël says. Every drop a grand cru: my companion, the Anima Figure, stopped spitting out.

Although they aren’t as well known as the whites, Coche Dury also has some reds. The quality of the domain shows through just as clearly, with each seeming to be equivalent to an appellation one notch above its level. Bourgogne rouge comes from two parcels close to the house; very round for Bourgogne, it makes a faintly nutty impression. Auxey Duresses has lovely aromatics of red cherries, with some faint hints of tobacco at the end. Meursault rouge makes an impression of round cherry fruits, but the palate is quite reserved and needs more time to come around.

Conditions in 2015 seemed to raise some concerns whether whites from the Côte de Beaune might be a little too rich, even a little too flabby, for greatness, which was a problem with some 2009s, but at least at Coche Dury, it seems you can have your wine and drink it: most are already openly delicious, but they should age and revert towards the usual steely, mineral character as the baby fat of the young fruits integrates. Perhaps they won’t be as long lived as the 2014s, but they are fabulous wines if you can find—and afford!—them.

Chablis Diary: Global Warming Isn’t All Bad

“They were all so bad in Chablis twenty years ago. For me, concentration is important, lower yields and riper. But everyone said, we are making Chablis, it’s never ripe, the typical Chablis is green. People said, when you make ripe Chablis, it loses its character. But you can’t make wine from unripe grapes—all green wines taste the same,” said negociant Jean-Marie Guffens when I last visited Verget. Twenty years ago he was criticized because his wines had too much fruit to be considered typical of Chablis. But after two decades of global warming, Chablis has changed: fruit is more often at the forefront, although that crisp mineral acidity is usually not far behind.

Chablis1

Chablis is still a quiet town at the center of the vineyards.

Tasting the 2015 vintage at the BIVB tasting in London last week, and then again this week at many individual producers in Chablis, it was striking how attractive the wines are. Based on early reports of the vintage, it seemed that it might be like the 2009: very fruity and ripe, often lovely in their own right, but where the richness has obscured the character of Chablis. Also they tend not to be very long aged. I have been finishing off my Premier and Grand Cru Chablis 2009s in the past few weeks because many show signs of tiring.

“Our experiences with 2009 may have helped us to do better in 2015,” says Vincent Dampt at Domaine Daniel Dampt. Even Petit Chablis  in 2015 often offers attractive light fruits that make a splendid summer wine. I think it’s fair to say that many Petit Chablis of this vintage reach a standard equivalent to, or even better than, Chablis of a generation ago. Even the premier crus and grand crus, where you expect to wait a few years, are immediately approachable in 2015. Indeed, in visiting producers to update profiles for my forthcoming Guide to the Wines of Chablis, I became concerned that I might be misled by this vintage into describing the styles of the wines as more immediately approachable than they usually are.

Most Chablis producers are happy that 2015 shows so well now, but say quietly that they think 2014 is the better vintage, especially if you plan to age the wines over the next few years. I never had great expectations for this vintage because my memories of 2014 date from constant rain in Burgundy in June and July, but the last part of August and September gave an Indian summer that rescued the vintage. Aside from some wines that surprisingly show some over-ripe or tertiary notes, here is the crisp minerality associated with Chablis, but with enough fruit that the wines should come into good balance given another two or three years. The 2016s are somewhere between 2014 and 2016, with good fruits and balance acidity, often quite attractive and approachable if not as forward as 2016.

That said, the most interesting development is a much wider range of styles than I have seen in the past. This is a tribute to the much greater control that can be exercised over viticulture and vinification. Some producers have a light, elegant, fragrant style—none of these being descriptions I would used about Chablis twenty years ago—while others have more forceful acidity or herbal impressions. I suppose it is a matter of personal opinion whether you regard this as a loss of typicity or a change in typicity, or perhaps now one should say typicities. Asking producers about their stylistic objectives, the most common response is that the key point is to retain freshness, but even so, styles in Chablis have become significantly more diverse. Apart from some exceptional unusually hot vintages (which of course may yet become the norm) this broadening isn’t directly attributable to global warming, but global warming is the enabler that has given producers the flexibility to vary their styles. Even though today temperatures are into the nineties (Fahrenheit: thirties in Centigrade) today (6 July) in Burgundy, global warming isn’t all bad.

Cru Bourgeois in 2014: Fresh and Lively

A presentation of twenty Cru Bourgeois châteaux in New York gave a view of the 2014 vintage that will be an interesting contrast with the forthcoming tasting of the UGCB (grand crus).

Perhaps I was biased by the first few wines I tasted, but the first single word that came to mind to describe the vintage was “acidity.” This is perhaps a bit unfair, but continuing on it certainly seemed that fresh and lively would be a reasonable description. These wines are a far cry from the exuberant style to which the grand crus have been moving.

The wines are mostly well balanced in the traditional style of Bordeaux, which is to say showing fresh fruits with a lively palate. Traditional may be a bit misleading if you think back to when Bordeaux was bitter when young, as one impressive quality is that virtually all are ready to drink now. Tannins are light and never obtrusive, there isn’t an overt sense of structure, but there’s enough to stop the wines from becoming simple fruits. None will be especially long lived, but most should last well for six to eight years. What does this suggest about the vintage? More classic than modern would be fair comment.

These are definitely food wines. I suspect they wouldn’t show so well at a tasting with wines in a more “international” idiom, because you have to look for flavor variety rather than having it thrust at you, but the restrained quality puts them into a class where they should offer a refreshing counterpoise to a meal.

Alcohol is a surprise: it is not noticeable on any of the wines. Given the impression they offer of traditional Bordeaux, you would expect the level to be around 12.5%, but in fact it is usually 13.5%. It’s the first time I’ve been able to accept that 13.5 is the new 12.5 as the alcohol is not accompanied by an impression that dry extract had to be increased to balance it. I don’t know whether the alcohol is all natural or there has been some chaptalization.

These wines are good value, mostly around the $25 mark, and an interesting contrast with, say, New World Cabernet at that price level, where the wines usually seem to me to be trying too hard to imitate more expensive varietal wines. Here the pattern is more bimodal: I see the Cru Bourgeois as striking a different balance, and having a different objective, rather than running as a continuum into the grand crus.

Three wines that particularly stood out for me were Château Labardi (Haut Médoc), for its delicacy and silkiness, Château Peyrabon (Haut Médoc) for a smooth, spicy balance, and Château Rollan de By (Médoc) for its full, generous black fruit impression.

There Is No Such Thing as Minerality

Or if there is, the Seminar on Minerality organized by the Institute of Masters of Wine failed to find it. The seminar had a great format: first three speakers presented views of minerality from geological and sensory perspectives; then there was a tasting to assess minerality.

I thought it had long been established absolutely beyond contradiction that, whatever minerality might be in wine, it is not due to uptake of minerals from the soil, but geologist Alex Maltman presented several amazing examples from supposedly respectable sources, such as textbooks, where minerality was attributed to soil elements. So it’s maybe worth repeating that this cannot be: measured quantities of trace elements in wine are far below the threshold for taste. Any effects they have on taste must be indirect.

Debunking another myth, Alex pointed out that insofar as soil might influence any uptake by the plant, it’s the surface that is important: deep roots basically take up water, but it’s the roots towards the surface (or at least in the top meter) that take up nutrients. So all those efforts to drive roots deeper, all that pride in the deep roots of old vines, if not misplaced is at least misunderstood. Deep roots may be important in ensuring water supply, obviously this may have a big effect on ripening and therefore quality, but if nutrient uptake were to have any effect on character, it would come from the surface. (And if there were any such thing as microbial terroir, which I take leave to doubt, it would be superficial.)

You might even question whether minerality relates to the actual character of wine (that is, some chemical or physical property) or is due to some form of association (think of Proust’s madeleine). Wendy Parr’s experiments show that it’s associated with people’s descriptions of other properties in the wine, and so does at least appear to result from what they actually smell and taste.

But there is the most extraordinary range of characteristics associated with “minerality.” Jordi Ballester finds that people who call Chardonnay mineral fall into three groups, loosely characterized as: flint/seashore, oaky/smoky/wet dog, and floral/apple/banana. Personally I’m pretty much in the first group, I can understand the second group (sort of), but the third leaves me totally mystified as to what people mean by minerality. However, Jordi points out that whereas producers in Chablis have a relatively clear idea of what they mean by minerality, consumers show little agreement, to the point at which he is not working with consumers any more.

We blind tasted 5 Chablis and 10 Sauvignon Blancs and were asked to assess minerality for each wine on a scale from 1 to 10. I got a completely different view from participating in the survey from reading papers on the subject, and at the least a much better idea of the limitations. Here was a group of around a hundred professionals, but the assessment of which wine was the most mineral was totally dispersed in each set, not quite equally, but certainly showing no consensus.

I wondered whether this was because none of the wines (to my palate) actually showed strong minerality. I use minerality as a descriptor quite often, but I wouldn’t actually have applied it to any of these wines. I also wonder whether Sauvignon Blanc is a good variety to test, because its varietal typicity can be so strong. I was surprised that there wasn’t an internal control, that is, the same wine included twice: at a minimum, in a research setting I would not accept the validity of any study that didn’t show that individual tasters rated the same wine reliably—otherwise all we’re looking at is scatter in the data.

So is minerality at all useful as a descriptor? I know what I mean by it, but evidently this is not necessarily the same as anyone else means by it. There is an amazing panoply of components that have absolutely no taste but that are used to describe the flavors or smells of wine: graphite, flint, rocks, iodine just to start with. Where a smell is ascribed to an odorless compound, it may come from association—the solvent used in tincture of iodine, or the aromatics released by sparking flint, for example. I don’t think it would matter particularly if iodine was used as a descriptor, even though the smell is not actually of iodine, if it was a reliable descriptor.

The problem is that minerality is anything but reliable. There is a cynical view (people were too polite to express it directly) that minerality is nothing more than a marketing ploy. I don’t accept that, because I do find it useful in my tasting notes, although maybe what I really mean is gunflint or smoky. I guess we end up with the old philosophical question of how we know whether any two people smell and taste the same thing, which of course implies that tasting notes are useful only for the person who wrote them.

A Visit to Michel Drappier is Full of Surprises

Given that the basic concept of Champagne is to maintain consistency of the product by evening out vintage variation by blending, one tends to think of Champagne as a bit static in its approach. A visit to Michel Drappier gave me a different perspective, when I visited last week as part of research to update my Guide to Wines and Top Vineyards of Champagne.

Located on the Côte de Bar, well south of the main area of Champagne, and in fact closer to Chablis than to Reims, Drappier seems to occupy the center of Urville with a large group of buildings off the main road. Driving from Troyes to Urville along the Route Touristique de Champagne gives a rather different experience from, say, driving along the Côte de Blancs south of Epernay. The Côte de Blancs gives the impression of a monoculture of vines on gentle slopes: the Route Touristique along the Côte de Bar passes through more fields of sunflowers than vineyards, giving somewhat the impression of an alluvial valley. The vineyards in fact are along slopes a mile or so off the main road.

ChampagneRoute2The Route Touristique on the Côte de Bar passes by sunflower fields and granaries rather than vineyards

The visited to Drappier started with a trip out to his top vineyard, Grande Sendrée, in a fleet of old Citroens, led by the bright yellow Torpedo from the 1920s, followed by a 1930s model, and ending with the famous DS (which for me always brings Maigret to mind). The name of Grande Sendrée reflects its origins. A big fire in 1836 burned the whole village and the forest around. The ash was a good fertilizer so the area was planted with vines. Before phylloxera the village reached 370 ha, but now has only 170 ha. “This is an improbable place to make wine but it’s become iconic,” says Michel.

GrandeSendee1Michel Drappier’s fleet of old Citroens provide unique transport to the vineyard

“Grande Sendrée is a terroir not a clos. The name comes from cinders, it should be Cendrée. But whoever made the mistake made our fortune, because it’s a monopole.” The particular feature of the soil is that the limestone was broken up so it has more clay and humus. “It’s Grand Cru Chablis soil with Pinot Noir from Burgundy to make Champagne,” Michel says. Grande Sendrée was one of the early single vineyard cuvées. “In 1974 we decided to make a separate vinification and wanted to have a separate cuvée, but it was an awful vintage so we did not declare it. The first release was 1975,” Michel explains. It’s usually produced every 2-3 years.

From the 5 ha of Grande Sendrée you can see back to Urville and some of Drappier’s other vineyards beyond the village. Michel points to a plot of Pinot Noir that is used to make a red Coteaux de Champenoise. Adjacent to it are plots of some old varieties, no longer much grown in Champagne: Arbane, Petit Meslier and Pinot Blanc. These are the basis for the unusual cuvée, Quattuor.

“Quattuor was almost a joke. I wanted to make a new Blanc de Blancs with no Chardonnay. I planned to have one third each of Arbane,  Petit Meslier, and Pinot Blanc, which I planted in 2000. The first crop was 2004, and the first release in 2007. The blend was too vegetal–it was like Sauvignon Blanc–and at the last minute we decided to add Chardonnay. So now it has one quarter of each. Pinot Blanc gives fat and texture, Chardonnay gives balance and makes it all come together. Some years Arbane dominates, some years Petit Meslier.”

“We blend and press Arbane and Petit Meslier together, the others are made separately. The total surface of Arbane in Champagne is 1.6 ha, and we have 0.6 ha, so we are the largest producer of Arbane in Champagne. I found out why my father and his generation spent 30 years pulling it out, you work for nothing. But it’s elegant. We don’t produce Quattuor every year because I want to have one quarter of each cépage.”

“My father is very experimental and is always trying things,” says Charlene Drappier, as she takes us round the cellars, which date back to 1155 and were built by St. Bernard (who left Burgundy to found the abbey of Clairvaux). St. Bernard is supposed to have brought Morillon (a possible ancestor of Pinot Noir) from Burgundy. “So we have 800 years of Pinot Noir in the house,” Charlene says. “The cellars are made of Kimmeridgian limestone, so the vines grow on Kimmeridgian limestone and the bottles mature in it.” One experiment manifested itself in a wooden “egg,” in which the wine is supposed to mature with a natural movement of fluid that in effect keeps it in contact with the lees without any battonage.

After visiting the vineyards and cellars, we tasted through the range. Quattuor makes a sophisticated impression with faint herbal overtones. Michel says this release is dominated by Petit Meslier. Later in the week, at Champagne Duval-Leroy, we taste an unusual 100% Petit Meslier, which shows a distinctive herbal spectrum; you can see why it adds complexity in a blend. Drappier’s Millésime Exception from 2012 is quite different. “For Millésime Exception the idea is the vintage not the terroir. It has to reflect the weather of one season. It is chosen from lots in the cellars, not by picking–the other cuvées are chosen in the vineyard—but for Millésime we choose those wines that are an especially good reflection of the vintage.”

Grande Sendrée 2008 is not so much overtly rich as simply full of flavor. The Grande Sendrée rosé is unusual for its perfectly integrated red fruits. For me, obvious red fruits give a rosé a disjointed impression, but this is a rare case in which they really integrate to make a characterful wine. And then there is the Charles de Gaulle cuvée, faintly toasty, showing the typical body of Pinot Noir, which certainly dominates, with an impression more towards stone fruits than citrus. “The Charles de Gaulle cuvée is named for the general because he was a customer in the sixties, but not a big one. We would have preferred to have had Winston Churchill. That is probably why Pol Roger is a major house and Drappier is a small one,” Michel says wryly. Dosage is modest on all the cuvées. “My father used to have 13 g dosage, when I began it was 12 g, then it came down to 11 g, and from the nineties to 2005 it was 9 g. Now it’s always under 7g,” Michael says.

We wound up with a wine that had been matured under the sea. This was Grande Sendrée 2005, placed under the sea at St. Malo for a year, and then retrieved to be sold as part of a charity event. It was very smooth and supple, with only the first touches of development. “I have done experiments to see what affects aging,” Michel explains. “I tried putting Champagne at altitude in the mountains, but altitude is not the answer, it ages very quickly in the mountains, so I thought I would try the opposite, under the sea. The idea was to see the effect of pressure. The temperature is 9-10C, the pressure is 2.5-3 bars, and of course there’s no light. So you lose less pressure. There’s a slight difference, for me it seems a little better after a year under the sea.”

Drappier5 Jeroboams are riddled by hand

Michel is on a constant quest to understand and control every aspect of his wine. The liqueur d’expedition is produced in house and matured for 15-20 years in oak vats and glass demi-johns, there is no transvasage and sizes up to 30 liters are matured in the bottle, and a new shape of bottle is about to be introduced with a narrower neck to reduce oxidative exposure. It’s all go.

Ungrafted Vines and Rare Varieties: the Unusual Wines of Henry Marionnet

I have been following the wines of Henry Marionnet ever since I first encountered his cuvées from nongrafted vines, so I was delighted to be invited to have lunch at the domain when I was in the Loire updating my Guide to Wines and Top Vineyards of the Loire. The vineyard is pretty much at the eastern edge of Touraine, not far from the great Chateau of Chambord (of which more in a moment).

“Here we only make special wines that others don’t make. All my life I have looked to make the best wine, and not like the others,” says Henry Marionnet. Henry’s father started the domain before the first world war, but he had 20 ha of hybrids. Henry built it up to its present level, mostly with Gamay and Sauvignon Blanc, but with an interesting in reviving the original wines of the area, in this case meaning cultivating some old varieties, planting vines on their own roots, and making wine without adding sulfur. Today his son Jean-Sébastien is the winemaker, but Henry is still very much in evidence.

Ungrafted vines are a specialty of the domain, and there are presently 6 ha, including Gamay, Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and Romorantin. Both the cuvées of Romorantin come from ungrafted vines. Romorantin is an old variety of the area that has almost disappeared, possibly because it’s a late variety—it is always the last to be harvested. (It is permitted in Cheverny AOP and is the basis for Cour-Cheverny AOP). Indeed, most examples of Romorantin give me the impression of having struggled to reach ripeness. It is different at Henry Marionnet, where there are two cuvées.

Pucelle de Romorantin comes from a plot of ungrafted vines planted in 2007, while Provignage comes from a plot of vines that precede phylloxera. We started with Provignage before lunch, because “it has so much finesse and elegance it deserves to be appreciated alone,” Henry says. The very old Romorantin was a small part (a third of a hectare) of a 4 ha plot that Henry purchased in 1998. The plot was not regarded as anything special by the previous owner, who included the grapes with other varieties he sold to the cooperative, and it’s lucky it survived; it would probably have been pulled out but these were among the only vines to survive the great freeze of 1956, so they were left alone.

Charmoise3Are these the oldest vines in France? Henry Marionnet dates this plot of Romorantin from the 1850s.

“The owner proposed to sell the vines to me 15 years ago. I immediately called INAO and asked them to come and take a look at the vines. They couldn’t tell the age, and asked if they could pull out two vines. They dissected them at Montpellier and reckoned they had been planted in the first half of the nineteenth century.” The plot still contains more than three quarters of the original vines; when a vine dies it’s replaced by using marcottage (sticking a branch into the soil until it roots). Curiously for the era in which the vines were planted, they are in tidy, well separated rows. Henry claims these are the oldest vines in France. Provignage has dense flavors, with an impression somewhat reminiscent of white Burgundy with a touch of Chenin Blanc. It is unique.

Other varieties have multiple cuvées. “We’ll compare the normal cuvée­—well, there is nothing normal here—with the ungrafted vines,” Henry says, as we start our tasting. In fact, things rapidly became more complicated as there are three lines: “normal,” Première Vendange, which is made in exactly the same way but has no sulfur used at all in vinification or maturation; and Vinifera, which comes from ungrafted vines. For Gamay, Renaissance is a cuvée that is a two-fer, coming from ungrafted vines and having no sulfur. Jean-Sébastien first made it in 2014. There is also Les Cépages Oubliés, a cuvée from the unusual variety Gamay de Bouze. This is thought to have come from a village near Beaune, around the 18th century. It’s a partial teinturier (the juice has some color) and was banned at one time—“because it made good wine,” Henry says dryly.

The Sauvignon is very good but the Vinifera has an extra level of purity. “The damage that phylloxera did lingers on,” Shakespeare might have said. When you taste the Gamay, you think, this is very good, it puts most Beaujolais to shame, then when you taste Première Vendange, you think, this goes a step further, and then Renaissance pushes that back, Each wine successively becomes more subtle and complex. “This is a pure wine, no sulfur, no rootstock,” Henry says when we reach Renaissance. Gamay is the heart of the domain: “here you drink Gamay and you eat Gamay,” Henry comments as we finish lunch with a fruit tart made from Gamay with a sauce made from Gamay de Bouze.

As if all this was not enough, the Marionnets are presently involved in a project to recreate the vineyards at Chambord, the great chateau built by Francoise Ier, who is supposed to have brought the variety Romorantin (from Beaune) to the region in 1517 when he built the chateau. A new vineyard has been planted about 1 km away from Chambord, 14 ha altogether, including Romorantin, Pinot Noir, Pineau, and Sauvignon Blanc, in an attempt to recreate the varietal mix of the original vineyards. Of course, the vines are ungrafted. The name of the wine is undecided, as the authorities will not allow it to be called after Chateau Chambord—”it’s crazy,” says Henry, “but that’s France.”

Chambord

The fist vintage at Chateau Chambord (although not under that name) will be 2019.

When I mentioned to the sommelier at my hotel that I had visited Henry Marionnet, he said that the wines were good but rather expensive. That they are: but how often do you get to drink wines from 150-year-old vines, or for that matter from ungrafted vines in Europe? They are worth trying, and the comparison between vines on rootstocks and franc de pied (what the French call vines on their own roots) is fascinating.

Tradition Lives in Barolo

Following a day visiting three “modernists,” where the hallmark was elegance and delicacy, I set out to visit three “traditionalists,” to see if I could define their common distinguishing feature.

Vietti is located in the heart—well really one might say at the top of—the hilltop town of Castiglione Falletto. Set in two buildings around a charming courtyard, the only place to build the winery is below, so it extends for three storeys underground. The oldest part is right up against the medieval town walls. The modern era at Vietti started when Sabino Vietti returned from the States to take over in the early twentieth century. Known as the “crazy Americano,” he had strange ideas such as buying land in other communes.

“We have always been known as a Barolo producer,’ says Elena Vietti, but Barbera is very important to us—we try to make extraordinary wines from the ordinary.” Some of Vietti’s vineyard sites in the Barolo DOC area that could be planted with Nebbiolo are planted with Barbera. La Crena comes from vines planted in the 1930s, and Scarrone Vigna Vecchia comes from vines more than 85 years old. Far from the rustic reputation of Barbera, these offer a creamy sophistication with deep flavors.

Vietti7A stainless steel vat stands in front of a window in the old fourteenth century walls in the Vietti cellars.

“We consider ourselves one of the most traditional wineries,” says Elena, “for example, in using very long maceration times, but many things that are modern are normal now. It’s not just about botti and barriques.” She describes Vietti’s philosophy. “So long as you do not impose your personality, so long as you respect the soil, it’s traditional.” Vietti has vineyards in 15 different areas, but produces one blended Barolo and four single vineyard wines. “It would be very complex to produce 15 different Crus.” All the wines are vinified by parcel, but after two years of maturation in botti, all except the single vineyard wines are selected either for the Barolo blend (called Castiglione) or are deselected into the Langhe Nebbiolo, which is effectively a second wine. Going up the line, the Lange is quite restrained, Castiglione shows more aromatic life and delicacy, and the single vineyard wines are yet more refined. There’s a lovely contrast with the Barbaresco, which has a more savory, earthy character. No argument here that traditional winemaking is representing the differences in terroir.

From Vietti’s terrace on one side of the valley, you can see across to Serralunga d’Alba on the other side, where my next visit was to Massolino, which is in full flight of expansion, with a large extension to the cellar, just being completed, looking over the valley from the edge of the town. “All our Barolos are aged in traditional large botti, with very neutral oak,” says Franco Massolino. Neutrality of the oak, which comes from Slovenia and Austria, is a major concern here. Wines are vinified in cement vats. “We did experiments with stainless steel and cement, we always preferred the cement, although it’s a very fine detail,” Franco explains. Vinification for the single vineyard wines is always exactly the same in order to bring out the differences in terroir.

Massolimo6Massolino’s new cellar contains both traditional botti and modern barriques.

The Barolo makes a classical impression with relatively light color and delicacy of expression. Then Margheria shows a little more intensity, a sort of silky sheen covering the palate. Coming from older vines, Parafaoa is deeper and velvety, a lovely balance between concentration and delicacy. Then Parussi shows more power and a more savory inclination. There is simply no mistaking the fact the terroir is the driving force, as the wines show the full range of Barolo, from subtle delicacy to smooth elegance, and each is quite distinctive.

There could scarcely be a greater difference between the snazzy modern cellars at Massolino and the old cellars of Guiseppe Mascarello, located by the railway station in Monchiero. “We are 3 km out of the Barolo DOC,” explains Elena Mascarello, “but we are a historic cellar, so we are authorized to make the wine here.” The building, a slightly dilapidated looking warehouse, dates from the second half of the eighteenth century, and Mascarello has been making wine here since the 1920s. Concrete or fiberglass tanks are used for vinification; everything is matured in rather old botti—there isn’t a barrique in the place.

Mascarello1I had to move my car to make way for a huge truck arriving at Mascarello.

The famous Monprivato, coming from a vineyard in Castiglione Falletto, is the biggest production here. Tasting the 2010, I was startled by how approachable it is already. I quizzed Elena as to why Monprivato today should be more approachable than it was when first produced in the 1970s, but it seems that whatever changes are responsible lie more in viticulture than vinification. Purity of fruits shines out, the tannic structure is very fine but somewhat hidden behind the fruits, and there’s a silky finish. Coming from what is surely one of the most traditional producers, this has none of the toughness of youth that you might think is the marker of tradition, and perhaps shows the greatest purity of fruit in my tastings so far. Roll on tradition.