June 7, 2016
Good wine, interesting company, beautiful setting — I should be enjoying myself, but the questions kept coming and I felt almost like interviewing for a job.
“So tell me, why are you interested in visiting us?”
“Who are the traditionists? Modernists?”
“What differentiates Nebbiolo?”
“Who do you get your Piedmont news from? Not James Suckling right?”
The person sitting at the end of the dining table bombarding me with questions was Giacomo Conterno, one of the three sons of the late Aldo Conterno. In charge of the vineyards, he along with his two brothers Franco (sales and marketing) and Stefano (wine making) have taken up his influential father’s namesake winery.
Giacomo was extremely welcoming. Since his cellar was under renovation, he invited us to his dining room and started opening bottle after bottle of wine while opening up about his philosophy on wine and hospitality.
“You have done the hard part coming all the way here. It is only fitting for me to open my door and show you some of my wines,” he said while popping open a bottle of Nebbiolo. “Only because I am the producer doesn’t mean I can’t learn from you.”
And there began his string of questions.
“Setting the record straight”
“Why did your dad leave Giacomo Conterno?” After surviving his onslaught without embarrassing myself, it was my turn to throw one at his direction.
We were now onto our fourth bottle of the afternoon, the Barolo Colonnello, and his eyes lit up after hearing what I said. A generic question, I thought, but perhaps not given how keen he was to pounce on it.
“I know the word on the street is my father voluntarily left Giacomo Conterno because he wanted to create his own thing, but the truth was he got pushed out by his sister-in-law. After my father went to the States, my uncle Giovanni and his wife never expected him to come back. When he did return, they felt uncomfortable about what might happen so my aunt forced him out.”
“I just want to set the record straight. I am glad my father did what he did and left us with this great estate, but there was no way he would have left Giacomo Conterno if given a choice. All the publications cling to one side of the story that strangely wasn’t originated from my father. He was hurt about how it turned out and he never wanted to talk about it publicly. When he ventured out he barely had any money and he had no winemaker with him. It was an impossible situation.”
Asked if he personally had any ill feeling towards Giacomo Conterno, he took the high road and commented his cousin’s wines are some of the best in the area but they have no personal relationship.
Not to linger on this note, soon our conversation returned to topics like winemaking and vineyard maintenance.
Before I get to the wine, here is some background on Poderi Aldo Conterno. When Aldo Conterno acquired Favot in 1969, the farm included a significant portion of Bussia, Monforte d’Alba’s most important cru. The 300-hectare Bussia contains vineyards of all qualities, from inarguable superstars such as Colonnello to many mediocre ones. Aldo Conterno’s three crus — Colonnello, Cicala and Romirasco are belonged to the Bussia Soprana subzone and along with Pianpolvere are generally considered the best in Bussia.
Facing southwest and rich in calcium carbonate and iron, Aldo Conterno’s share of Bussia Soprana totals to about 25 hectares at an average altitude of 400 m. The winery grows both Michet and Lampia varieties of Nebbiolo and has converted to wholly organic since the early 2000s. Annual production is 80,000 bottles, down from 200,000 in 2000.
Giacomo was eager to begin with a bottle of the 2013 Bussiador Chardonnay. Since both Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo emphasize on expression of the terroir, Chardonnay is understandably a favorite white wine variety for Langhe growers.
The Chardonnay is harvested about one month earlier than the Nebbiolo in early September. After fermenting in stainless steel tanks the wine was aged in new wood barriques for one year. Good structure and intensity with a hint of honey, this white wine rivaled some of the better offerings from Burgundy and can age for a few more years.
Leading off the Nebbiolo lineup was the 2013 Il Favot Langhe Nebbiolo. Except for a bout of peronospera in early spring which didn’t impact Aldo Conterno much, the 2013 season was ideal for the late-harvesting Nebbiolo — one with a warm summer and cool autumn.
The Il Favot contained grapes from vines averaging 15 years of age from across Aldo Conterno’s estate. Maceration last for only 6 – 8 days, then was aged first in stainless steel tanks for 5 months then 1.5 year in new wood barriques. The resulting wine was light ruby in color but bursting with aroma of black fruit. The tannin and structure of Nebbiolo were slightly toned down but still apparent, which allowed for a relatively easy drink even when young.
Next up was the 2012 Barolo Colonnello. This wine was a little darker than the Il Favot, revealing Barolo’s longer period of maceration (30 vs 8 days). Following the Barolo tradition, the Colonnello is aged in large Slavonia oak casks for 28 months. The soil in Colonnello is rich in magnesium and manganese. Nebbiolo Michet around 45 – 50 years old are grown at this cru. With a cold spring followed by hailstorms in summer, 2012 was a challenging year that required Giacomo to prune more than half of his crops.
The Colonnello, even at this young age, was surprisingly approachable, with flavors of dark cherries and ripe strawberries and hints of mint, licorice and tar. Strong notes of floral. Obviously with longer aging it would reveal more complexity — which applies to most less-than-two-decades-old Barolo.
The 2007 Barolo Cicala followed. The winemaking is identical to the Colonnello. The Cicala cru has the poorest soil of the three, with vines mainly of the Nebbiolo Lampia variety that average 45 – 50 years old. As for the vintage, 2007 was a season of reliable weather, resulting in what most agreed as an exceptional vintage, especially in the southern part of Barolo such as Serralunga and Monforte.
The Cicala was quite a contrast to the Colonnello. The additional five years of aging hadn’t soften the Cicala much — the high concentration of iron in Cicala’s soil gives birth to a wine that’s very tannic and powerful. Less fruity and floral than the Colonello, it had a strong expression of minerality and earthiness. At least another decade of aging would be beneficial.
2006 Barolo Romirasco — our last bottle of the afternoon. Compared to the other two this Barolo was aged for two additional months in oak casks. This cru consists mainly of Nebbiolo Lampia at an average age of 50 – 55 years old. 2006 began with some serious hail which devastated many places and especially La Morra, but fortunately the rest of the year was blessed with well-balanced weather and cool nights during the harvest. With the notable exception of Bruno Giacosa the general consensus of 2006 is above average.
The Romirasco cru features the uniqueness of both Colonnello’s floral note and Cicala’s structure, but what really set the Barolo Romirasco apart is its spiciness. A rich aroma of spices, menthol and plums filled the nose, and the palate was full of vanilla and spices. My favorite of the day — both drinkable now and still had much aging potential.