Sat 27 Mar 2010
The Barbera 7 were busy on Thursday, March 11. In the morning we arrived at Palazzo Zoya at 9 for a blind tasting of 40 red wines of Barbera d’Alba, followed by a walk-around tasting of many of the other, non-Barbera wines of the same producers, which, on the fourth day of the conference started to feel a lot like work. Then we were allowed to eat lunch.
The conference, basically, was over, and we were heading out of Asti to visit nebbiolo properties that our leader, Jeremy Parzen, had set up, but the organizers arranged for us to have a van (adorned with the “Barbera Meeting 2010” logo) for us to use in trundling around the countryside. It took longer than expected for Jeremy to pick up the van, though, and we didn’t get away from the square near the Palazzo Zoya until almost 2:30, headed, well, I didn’t exactly know where. It turns out that a young man hanging around with us was Enrico Rivetto, the proprietor of his family-run winery high in the hills of Loirano, near Alba. In his car, he led us through narrow winding roads, up and up, twisting and turning, until we reached a summit on which the winery perched, surrounded by a stunning landscape of snow-covered hillsides and vineyards and distant villages. Across the valley stood the hamlet of Sinio and the haunting Castello Serralunga d’Alba, dim and shadowy.
The heritage of winemaking in the Rivetto family goes back to 1902, but it wasn’t until 1939 that the family purchased the Loirano estate from the Counts of Vassallo. The winery is now surrounded by 89 acres of vines.
After a tour of the cellars, we assembled in the cozy Rivetto tasting room to try three vintages of the Rivetto Barolo Leon, made from vineyards planted in 1990 and 1975. Depending on the year, 10 to 30 percent of the wine is aged in small French barriques, the rest going into 3000-liter Slavonian oak casks. These were followed by the Barolo Riserva 1997.
Rivetto Barolo Leon 2001. The first impression is of amazing structure; the wine is sturdy and substantial but with a sense of fleetness and lightness from keen acidity. The color is medium ruby with a hint of brick-red at the rim; the nose teems with macerated black cherries and plums supported by roasted walnuts and walnut shell, somehow like a warm piece of toast. The wine is quite dry, dense and chewy, permeated by slightly metallic tannins and fairly austere on the finish. Try from 2011 to 2015 or ’16.
Rivetto Barolo Leon 2000. The color is brick-red with a touch of garnet at the rim; the bouquet is sedate, a sweet amalgam of dried spice and flowers and a heaping portion of dusty minerality like crushed slate and granite, slightly dampened by rain. One is, however, on the receiving end of a mouthful of soaring tannins, finely milled, perhaps, well-grained and integrated but almost impenetrable. Will they subside and become more tolerable in three or four years?
Rivetto Barolo Leon 1999. A ruddy brick-red/garnet color seems at one with aromas of spiced red currants, plum dust, potpourri and lavender with, as a sort of bonus, a fillip of dried orange rind. Flavors of macerated and slightly stewed red and black currants and black cherries are enveloped in deeply rooted tannins and granite-like minerality that feel ageless. This is an ecclesiastical wine, packed with the elements of old wood, incense and ancient dust that we associate with silent country churches. If it didn’t possess such dignity, the Rivetto Barolo Leon ’99 would beg, on hands and knees. for a roasted pheasant. Through 2016 to ’20.
Rivetta Barolo Riserva 1997. At 12 and a half years old, this nebbiolo-based wine is warm, rich and spicy, very attractive indeed, but the structure of the wine is tremendous, with expanding tannins and swingeing acidity. One wishes it were a bit more generous.
When our visit to Rivetto concluded, the Barbera 7 piled back in the van and headed to Neive, a town that I’m certain has its charms, but the most we saw of it was a flat section of light industry, warehouses and railroad tracks at dusk; we could have been in Newark. We were looking for the office and tasting room of Bruno Giacosa, a renowned, indeed revered producer of Barolo and Barbaresco. Read what Sheldon and Pauline Wasserman write in the second edition of Italy’s Noble Red Wines (Macmillan, 1992): “Bruno Giacosa is without question one of Italy’s — make that the world’s — finest winemakers. A man of few words but eloquent talent, Giacosa has the ability to bring out a richness of flavor and intensity of character in his wines, to produce wines of meditation. The man is an artist.”
We didn’t meet the elderly Bruno Giacosa; he had a stroke in 2006. For an account of Jeremy’s visit to Giacosa in February to taste wines with the man himself (and Jeremy’s bride, Tracie P), see this post on Do Bianchi.
Unlike most of the winery tasting rooms we visited while we were in Piedmont — comfortable, homey, welcoming –the tasting room at Bruno Giacosa is about as amenable as a doctor’s office. Winemaker Giorgio Lavagna didn’t provide an array of cheeses, salamis and bread sticks; it was just us and four glasses of superb nebbiolo wines.
“Twenty years ago, Giacosa decided not to follow fashion,” said Lavagna, a man so modest and sincere that the thought of taking his picture seemed to me to be a violation. (Not so fellow Barbera-blogger Whitney, who posted this image of Lavagna on Brunellos Have More Fun.) “He doesn’t like modern wines. He’s a traditionalist and a classicist. He makes the wines he wants to make. The style of Giacosa is to have very clean wines with as little intervention as possible to show the grape variety and the terroir.”
Bruno Giacosa was born in 1929, but his family had been making wine since 1871. He went to work for his father and grandfather at the age of 13 and took over the business when he was 20. Since 1996, the company is divided into two parts. Azienda Agricola Falletto di Bruno Giacosa makes wine only from the property’s estate vineyards; Casa Vinicola Bruno Giacosa makes wines from purchased grapes, benefiting from long-term relationships with excellent growers and vineyards. In fact, until 1982, when Bruno Giacosa purchased the Falletto vineyard, the firm owned no vines; now it owns 37 acres.
Here are my notes on the wines we tasted:
Bruno Giacosa Valmaggie Nebbiolo d’Alba 2008. This is a Casa Vinicola wine; it had been in the bottle three months. The color is moderate ruby with a slight garnet rim; an intoxicating bouquet of leaves and moss permeated by dried red currants and plums is laced with minerality akin to crushed gravel. The wine offers quietly spicy red and black fruit flavors, more spare than obvious, and is substantial without being weighty or ponderous; it is, in fact, quite lively, with terrific tone and presence, an engaging (yet serious) combination of personality and character. Still, after a few minutes Valmaggie ’08 is awash with dusty, grainy, chewy tannins that dictate a couple of years in bottle. Drink through 2018 to ’20.
Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Asili 2007. This is an Az. Agr. Falletto wine, from one of Piedmont’s greatest nebbiolo vineyards. Seductive aromas of dried spice and flowers are wreathed with smoke and tobacco, spiced and macerated strawberries and raspberries and deeper notes of briers and brambles. The wine is very young yet not awkward or adolescent; it delivers too much in the way of austere tannins and staggering acidity for any such foolishness. Sip by sip, it feels geological, as if it were moving at the speed of the vineyard or the pace of geography. Despite the tannic structure, though, the wine is lively, lithe and agile, a testimony to the marriage of detail and dimension. Drink from 2012 or ’14 through 2024 to ’27.
Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Santa Stefano 2007. The Wassermans write of Bruno Giacosa’s Santa Stefano: “It is, for us, simply the single finest example of Barbaresco today,” their “today” being some 20 years ago. Would there be any reason to alter that assessment now? Fanatics of nebbiolo could no doubt go to the barricades in defense of Asili or Santa Stefano; cooler imaginations might say that each is great and that they are different. Bruno Giacosa’s Santa Stefano ’07 is notably earthier and more girt with granite-like minerality than his Asili ’07; even the aromas, from depths of warm tar to elevations of spiced and macerated red fruit, seem layered in geological strata, with, at the top, an almost winsome filigree of dried rose petals, and that perceivable only after 30 minutes of coaxing. The wine is quite dry, leaning toward austerity, and with bastions and buttresses of tannins, though, as is the case with the wines of Bruno Giacosa generally, there’s also a quality of vivacity and transparency to the structure. Try from 2014 or ’16 through 2025 to ’30.
Bruno Giacosa Barolo Riserva Rocche del Falletto 2004. This wine spends 30 months in casks and two years in bottles; it has just been released. As a reserve wine, it gets what is usually called the “red label,” though the hue is more distinctively maroon. The color is brick red infused with glowing garnet; the bouquet, reticent at first, is warm and spicy, a little fleshy; macerated red currants, cherries and plums peel away to reveal licorice and mossy earthiness. And then, in the mouth, the tannins take over, not hard, woody, parched tannins — oh, poor Barbera! — but tannins that feel natural, authentic and essential to the character of the wine; nonetheless, they also feel unassailable. The paradoxical quality is that whatever the monumentality of this wine — and it possesses immense size and scope — it exerts a sense of ineffable delicacy and decorum, a presaging of its future.
Great wines destined for aging are balanced from the beginning of their existence in the bottle, through development into the accomplishment of maturity and into slow decline. The point is that the intention of the balance shifts, the wine’s gravity and focus are transformed through the cool, dark years into different aspects of inevitability; in a great wine’s beginning lies its end. If you manifested the fiduciary prowess to afford a case of this wine — $3,000 to $3,600 — and the appropriate cellar and the necessary patience, you could have a fine old time testing this theory for the next few decades, that is, through 2030 or ’35.
These four wines from Bruno Giacosa brought another impression, that they are not heavily extracted to produce deep colors or jammy flavors, that they are not induced or coerced into performing beyond the purposefulness of the grapes or the character of the vineyard. I don’t mean that the examples of Rivetto Barolo Leon we tried earlier in the afternoon fall into the manipulated category. I enjoyed those well-made wines, particularly 2001 (guardedly) and the irresistible ’99. There is, however, a degree of extra achievement, both in the vineyard and the winery, that lends to the Bruno Giacosa wines aspects of elegance and finesse as well as power that most wines do not reach.
The wines of Bruno Giacosa are imported in the U.S. by Winebow; they are expensive. The website for Rivetto indicates that their wines are available in a handful of states, but I cannot find who the importer or importers might be.