When Modernism Becomes Tradition in Barolo: A Visit to Chiara Boschis

Right in the center of Barolo, the building looks a residence, too small to house a winery, but inside there’s a long garden running back, with cellars underneath, extended to two levels. From the garden you can see out over the hills around Barolo.

Boschis1The winery is behind and underneath an old building in beautiful downtown Barolo

Chiara was one of the “Barolo Boys” who revolutionized winemaking in Barolo in the eighties. “My generation had to face the problem of whether to sell the vineyards and abandon winemaking or to take it back. I was lucky that I was in a group of people who decided to make wine here, I was the youngest, and I was lucky to be included in the group. I was regarded as their mascot because I was the only woman,” Chiara recollects.

Chiara comes from a winemaking family who owned Borgogno, a large traditional producer. After working there with her brothers, she purchased the tiny estate of E. Pira, following the death of Luigi Pira in 1980. With under 5 ha, production was very small, not much over a thousand cases. In 2010 her brother Giorgio left Borgogno and joined her, and that gave them the resources to buy more vineyards, more or less doubling the size of the estate.

She’s definitely a modern winemaker. She started fighting with her father, doing green harvest at night to pass unnoticed, but anyway her father heard from other winemakers—“do you know what your daughter is up to?” She remains dedicated to organic viticulture, to the point of persuading all her neighbors in Cannubi to make the whole Cru organic (no mean feat in Piedmont!). Fermentation is in rotary fermenters and also conventional stainless steel vats, but maceration time has been extended recently, and is now about two weeks. Chiara has moved away from exclusive dependence on barriques, and the cellar also contains botti. “You can get too much taste of oak, this is why I have reduced new oak, today it is one third new, one third one year, and one third older.”

Boschis9Chiara now uses Botti as well as Barriques

Presently there are six wines: Barbera and Dolcetto, Langhe Nebbiolo (from the Barolo area), and three three Barolos—via Nuova, Mosconi, and Cannubi.All the Barolos used to be from single vineyards, but things changed generally after 2010. “After we bought more vineyards, it was possible to go back to the tradition of assemblage from different vineyards.” Via Nuova used to come from a single plot but lost its name after the classification, so now it is a blend from six small plots in three villages.

One of the most famous vineyards in the Barolo commune, Cannubi has the delicacy that comes from sandy terroir, and is matured half in barriques and half in botti. Mosconi comes from the recent purchase in 2010 of a 4 ha vineyard in Monforte; this gives a more powerful wine and is matured in barriques.

Cannubi is my favorite of Chiara’s Barolos, and a recent experience with an older vintage, the 2001, cast some light for me on modernism. Half of the bottle tasted immediately after opening was like a different wine from the other half tasted the following day. On opening, it was clearly the work of an arch modernist, showing lots of new oak with aromas of vanillin hiding the fruits, although the steely backbone was clear underneath. A day later, the wine reverted to classic type, showing a linear purity of sour red cherry fruits, and a crystalline elegance supported by fresh acidity. It should become increasingly elegant with age.

A sign that the style has backed off a bit in the past decade is that the same experience with the 2011 vintage at the winery in 2016 showed taut precision and freshness on opening, but a rounder impression with more sense of viscosity for a bottle that had been open for a day, suggesting the path of future development. A silky sheen was clear for both, with a sense of underlying minerality. From the Mosconi vineyard, the 40-year-old vines (her oldest) give a warmer, richer wine, firmer and more powerful than Cannubi.


Profile of Luciano Sandrone

“I believe that Luciano straddles the divide between modern and traditional in a way that no one else does. He’s constantly experimenting,” says Alan Manley, who has been at the Sandrone winery since 2008. Built in 1998, the winery has a group of quite spacious modern buildings around a courtyard, with a workmanlike interior sunk into the hillside. Although there are vines immediately around the winery, “this is not our vineyard, this is a horrible place for Nebbiolo, but many people are planting Nebbiolo in north-facing vineyards where Dolcetto used to be grown.”

Sandrone1The Sandrone winey is located just off the main road north of Barolo

Luciano Sandrone does not come from a wine family, but went to agrarian school, then started working at traditional producers. In 1977 he put his life savings into buying a piece of land that he heard was for sale at Cannubi Boschis. The first vintage was made in 1978 in his mother’s garage, and was only 1473 bottles. Everything developed from the sale of these bottles, when he met a distributor in 1982 who bought them all, and continued to be his export agent for the next twenty years.

Additional vineyards were added every few years, and today Sandrone produces five wines, all from estate grapes (including a small proportion of rented vineyards): Dolcetto and Barbera d’Alba, the Nebbiolo d’Alba Valmaggiore (the vineyard is just north of Alba), Barolo le Vigne, and Barolo Cannubi Boschis. Le Vigne is a blend from four vineyards in Barolo (all the holdings except for Cannubi). “Luciano wanted to make a top blend in the classic tradition.” It’s been made since 1990, although at that time it came from only two vineyards, and sources have changed over the years.

Vinification is very particular here, in stainless steel, although Luciano is experimenting with two wood fermenters. Luciano is fanatical about ensuring not only that indigenous yeast are used, but that every lot is fermented specifically by its own yeast, so every piece of equipment is sterilized between loads of grapes. Fermentation is started by using a pied de cuve (some grapes are selected from the vineyard about a week before harvest and allowed to start fermentation to form a starter colony). Everything goes into 500 liter tonneaux, about 20% new—“we do not use barriques. Pumpover, punchdown, or delestage are used according to what Luciano decides is appropriate for the year; that’s why he straddles modernism and traditionalism.” About 20% of the oak is new for the Barolos. Every tonneau is tasted separately; there is no second wine, as anything not of sufficient quality is sold off in bulk.

Sandrone7Only 500 liter tonneaux are used for vinification

I suppose I would call Sandrone a modernist because the wines are so smooth and elegant, with tannins completely mastered. The hallmark of the house is the exceedingly fine structure of the wine. The Nebbiolo d’Alba Valmaggiore is light and fragrant, Le Vigne is slower to develop but makes an elegant, savory impression, and Cannubi Boschis has that silky sheen of the top Barolos with lovely aromatics.