Nebbiolo's Identity

11 August 2011
Author: Jeannie Cho Lee


“I was a mosquito trying to have sex with an elephant,” says Angelo Gaja, the iconic winemaker from the Piedmont region. He is recounting the time when he was approached by the late Robert Mondavi to consider embarking on a joint venture. Explaining his decision to decline Mondavi’s overtures, Gaja adds, “What possible pleasure would we have gotten in such a union, except for frustration?” Looking back, it was one of many wise decisions made by this trail-blazing figure-head of the modern Italian wine industry. The Mondavi empire slipped away from the family’s grasp and into the powerful hands of Constellation in 2004. With his slicked-back silver hair and sharp, piercing blue eyes, Gaja is as charismatic at 71 years of age as he was at 51. He not only has the movie-star looks – at certain angles he looks exactly like Michael Douglas – he has a personality and presence that commands attention. He speaks with the confidence of a man who has accomplished much in his life, including many firsts: He was the first to experiment with small French barriques back in the 1960s, eventually using them for most of his wines a decade later. He was among the first winemakers to emphasise lower yields and severe pruning to increase grape and wine quality. He pioneered the concept of single vineyards in a region where blending was the norm. He was the first to plant Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay in Piedmont and opted to leave the DOCG system for his most sought-after single vineyard Barbarescos. Angelo Gaja is a man with a strong, clear vision of the future of his wines but so are many of his Piedmontese compatriots making top quality wine. At the opposite end of the winemaking spectrum is Maria Teresa Mascarello of Cantina Mascarello Bartolo. She rejects small barriques, refuses to change the traditional method of long maceration time and continues to use the cement tanks that were used by her family since 1919. She is passionate about her role as the caretaker of the family’s five hectare vineyard holding and says, “Every year I give birth to another child, another vintage. During the year, I am pregnant and these wines are my children.” Maria Teresa Mascarello is devoted to preserving the essence of Barolo and explains, “Market tastes change every ten years or so. Barolo has a strong identity and this should not change with the market. Barolo must be constant. My goal is to do things better, to improve little details but not to change Barolo’s identity.” Being traditional means rejecting single vineyard designations and trying to make wines that suit an ‘international palate’. With her grey hair and probing eyes, she is as intense as Angelo Gaja and equally clear in her vision for the wines she produces. Interestingly, the wines of Mascarello and Gaja are not that different given their very different approaches to winemaking and blending – both are very clearly Piedmontese. Mascarello’s Nebbiolos are elegant, perhaps less slick and polished compared to Gaja’s interpretation, but no less interesting and complex. What is noticeable is the distinct sense of place and the attempt to allow the land to speak through the wine. For this reason, many of the most highly regarded producers are reverting to large oak vats and shunning new barriques. Ceretto is one such producer and since the 2006 vintage, he utilises old barrique for aging Nebbiolo for the first nine to twelve months, after which the wine is moved to large oak vats. For fifteen years prior to that, Nebbiolo used to be aged in barrique for twenty-four months. Federico Ceretto says, “We want our Nebbiolos to breath but we don’t want to over-do it. The wine needs to express its origin and identity. We realize that some sites and vineyards are so amazing and unique, like Barolo Cannubi, that its unique expression must be preserved.” Roberto Voerzio, one of the most controversial winemakers because of his adherence to very severe yield control, has also moved back to large oak vats since two years ago. Starting with the 2008 vintage half of Voerzio’s Barolos spend the first year in medium size oak vats and the other half in old barriques. In the past, the wines were placed in 30% new barriques and 70% older barriques. Voerzio admits that limiting new barrique use helps to express Nebbiolo’s character and the site from which it originated. Another movement that is being embraced to define Nebbiolo’s identity is the identification of crus, or specific vineyard sites, that have proven to create wines with unique, distinctive characteristics. The Consorzio for Barolo and Barbaresco have mapped out and delineated over 200 specific crus in the region and a new official map with vineyard designations is being created at the moment. Despite the different winemaking philosophies and vineyard practices, the top producers committed to site expression are together helping to define the Nebbiolo identity and specifically, the Barolo and the Barbaresco identities. What other wines can express floral, delicate, beguiling aromas then unleash its tannic, forceful, concentrated power on the palate like a young Barolo? The full-bodied Nebbiolos from this region reflect the producers who craft these remarkable wines – brimming with Italian individuality and passionate personality.


Photo Credit: Hilloah Rohr