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.

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!