June 8, 2016
“Ah, the masters. You are fortunate.”
Such was Giacomo Conterno’s response when I mentioned Pio Cesare was up next. Founded in 1881 and the only winery still based in central Alba, it is not a stretch to suggest Pio Cesare is a pillar to Barolo’s winemaking tradition with an established track record that’s unrivaled in the area. Now run by the fifth generation, Pio, as it is commonly known, isn’t opened to public but somehow I managed to secure an invitation after a few email exchanges with David, who was in charge of business development.
Pio is obviously proud of its heritage. Certificates of competitions won a century ago decorated the walls of its meeting room. “We do have the history here. What we don’t have is a systematic approach of showcasing our heritage like the French,” explained David, “When Bordeaux came up with its classification system Italy was not even a country yet. Slowly we are storing our older vintages but we are still decades away.”
Like many producers in the area Pio is a family business; daily operation is run by four people while harvest is outsourced to a contractor that mainly hires Eastern Europeans. Under Pio’s control are more than 50 hectares of vineyards in Barolo, represented by Ornato and Colombaro in Serralunga d’Alba, Gustava in Grinzane Cavour, Roncaglie in La Morra and Ravera in Novello. It also owns Treiso’s Il Bricco and San Stefanetto crus in Barbaresco. Pio grows 90% of the grapes used for its wine production. 80% of its wines are exported mainly to the United States, Great Britain and Switzerland. Domestic market has stagnated — pricey wines like Barolo is a hard sell in the sluggish Italian economy.
A century-old heritage could be both a blessing and a burden, as David repeatedly pointed out while leading us around the maze-like cellar which he labeled “a logistical nightmare.” The cellar was composed of two parts — the original building, constructed during the Napoleon era, retained sections of a wall that dated back to the Romans. An extension that handled fermentation was built in the early 2000s.
The unfinished wine is constantly on the move; fermentation in the new section; aging is spread across the entire estate depending on which barrels and barriques are used; at last bottling and storage take place in the new wing. For Barolo the maceration lasts between 15 – 20 days. The wine ages in both large casks and new barriques, both made with mildly toasted French oak.
Towards the end of our tour we came across a cabinet full bottles of wine that were decades-old. None was drinkable anymore. Without much branding value they sat in the darkest corner of the cellar, any drawing the rarest of attention when the occasional outsiders like us gave them a curious glance.
We began our tasting with the 2014 L’Altro Chardonnay, a blend from crus in Treiso, Serralunga d’Alba and Trezzo Tinella. 75% of the wine was fermented in stainless steel tanks and the remaining 25% in new French oak barriques. Lees were kept for 5 months until bottling.
A classic Burgundian style Chardonnay, the wine had a clean palate with a touch of oak and lees. A simple and light wine good as a pre-dinner drink.
“There is no such thing as a basic Barolo,” David shook his head while pouring the 2012 Barolo into our glasses. “Those who label their Barolos as basic are disrespecting the standard of this premium wine. Would Prada ever release a line of bag calls basic?”
With a cold spring followed by hailstorms in summer, the 2012 vintage was a challenging one that varied greatly depending on the producers. This Barolo was fermented with skin in stainless steel tanks for 20 days then aged for 3 years with 70% in casks and 30% in barriques.
Not yet its peak, this medium-bodied Barolo had high tannin and medium-plus in red fruit with a medium-plus finish. I found it fruiter than expected and could be consumed within a decade.
Seeing we were not exactly in awe by the Barolo, David revealed his trump card and came back with the 2012 Ornato Barolo. The namesake cru is located in Serralunga d’Alba and is considered one of the top vineyards in the area. Maceration spanned 15 days, followed by the mandatory 3 year aging in casks and barriques, 30% and 70% respectively.
The Ornato Barolo cost about 50% higher than the Barolo in retail, but the difference was substantial. The palate included a sweet dose of cherry, along with a minerality and an earthiness that distinguished Barolo. This wine was far from its peak and could age for a long time.