Winter’s wine is colored red and knitted with ripe fruit, firm tannins, and palate cleansing acidity. Your choice might be the Rhone Valley’s Hermitage or Cote Rotie; Australian Shiraz, or Californian Zinfandel. Mine is Barolo.
The Barolo zone is located in Italy’s Piedmont region, an area bordered on three sides by the Alps. The cold Alpine air mixes with warm currents from the nearby Mediterranean Sea creating a constant early morning fog. This “nebbia”, the Italian word for fog, is the root for the name of the region’s most important grape, Nebbiolo, and the source for Barolo.
Southwest of Alba, Barolo is a very limited wine area with five principal villages: Serralunga d’Alba, Monforte d’Alba, La Morra, Castiglione Falleto, and Barolo. It was only thirty years ago that viticulture, winemaking, and wine regulations produced Barolos that were often astringent and brownish, requiring fatty meats to offset the tannic structure. Small vineyards ruled throughout the villages, and owners planted everywhere, often mixing other agricultural products with their vines. But by the mid-1970s, a few winemakers began to change things.
I began traveling to Piedmont and the Barolo zone in the early 1980s. It was a time of upheaval and family fights about winemaking. Traditionalist wanted to retain the practices of harvesting large amount of grapes (with many unripe and all with high acidity); employing long fermentation lasting 3 weeks to a month (that extracted nebbiolo’s intense tannins); and five years of aging in large old barrels (that often resulted in brownish, oxidized wine).
The modern camp recognized the changing world of winemaking and tastes. They advocated controlling the vine’s yield, a short fermentation of days or slightly more than a week, and limiting the aging to two to three years in small new French oak barrels that would soften and tame nebbiolo’s tannins.
The opposing sides often inhabited the same house, the same street, and the same village. It was the Piedmont version of the Hatfields and the McCoys.
Today, those arguments are settled. Some Barolos are New World-shaped: extra ripe raisin-y fruit aromas and flavors, plush tannins, vanilla and coffee-laced from extravagant use of new French oak barrels. A few maintained most of the traditional techniques and style. And others choose to adopt modern viticulture and winemaking without throwing tradition out the window. My palate favors the last style as exemplified by Pio Cesare.
Pio Cesare has been a respected name since its founding in 1881 by Cesare Pio. Recently, Pio Boffa, the founder’s great great-grandson, was in New York presenting a retrospective tasting of his Barolos. Boffa explained that the Piedmonteses have a tradition of reversing names, which is why the winery is named Pio Cesare.
Boffa was born in 1954, and began working in the winery with his father when he was 17-years old. In 2000, he assumed full responsibility with the retirement of his father. Boffa doesn’t push the modernist envelope too much. His wines are in the mainstream of Barolo winemaking styles, which allow for current enjoyment while maintaining Barolo’s aging potential.
We began the tasting with the bright red 1982. It was winemaker Paolo Finnochio’s first vintage at Pio Cesare. He is still at Boffa’s side making wine. The 1982 marked other changes at Pio Cesare: in the vineyard, vines were pruned in late July and August to reduce yields (known as a “green harvest”). With less stress, the vines produced fewer but riper grapes. In the cellar, fermentation was introduced in new stainless-steel, temperature-controlled tanks. Thirty years later, the 1982 remains fresh with fruit and floral aromas, tasty fruit flavors, and balanced with Nebbiolo’s natural acidity.
The other three mature wines in the tasting were the 1989, 1990 and 1997. All are alive-and-well with translucent red color, aromas and flavors ranging from cranberry to cherry to black cherry, and tannins that are integrated and supporting the ripe fruit. The 1989 was the middle of three great Barolo vintages, 1988-1989 and 1990. It was the first time in Piedmont’s record keeping that great wine was produced in three consecutive years. This set was a harbinger for the coming of a warmer climate that would produce six consecutive ripe years from 1996 through 2001.
Cellared properly, these older wines will offer pleasure for years, possibly decades. Each of the four vintages occasionally appears in the auction market, bearing a cost of around $100 per bottle. The 1982 and 1989 are no longer in the retail market; the 1990 and 1997 can be found at a few stores with the 1990 having a price tag of about $150 and the 1997 around $85.
These mature vintages contain the essence of Nebbiolo: its resemblance to Burgundy’s translucent red hue, ethereal fruit and floral scents and delicate texture; and there is a slight bitterness in the finish that Italians seem to love in their wine and other beverages. Consumers unfamiliar with Barolo think it to be a massive wine. It is not—unless you drink the ultra-ripe modern style. At its best, Barolo is like a fine cashmere scarf around your neck on a winter day.
We entered this Millennium with glasses of the 2000, 2001 and 2004 Barolos. From candy red to black cherry-colored, these three youthful Barolos billowed fruit fragrances and coated the palate with lush, ripe flavors built on refined tannins and harmonizing acidity. The 2001 was the peacock with its depth and length and the most New World-styled. It demanded your attention. Its older sibling, the 2000 is a more classic Pio Cesare wine; and the younger 2004 displayed exuberant red fruit and vivid acidity. If you drink any member of this trio, decant it for at least an hour, and if possible, two hours.
The 2000 and 2001 Pio Cesare Barolos retail for approximately $90; the 2004 is about $75. Only the 2000 has entered the auction market, at about $60 per bottle. All will age gracefully for 20 to 30 years.
The most recent vintages of Pio Cesare Barolo in the market are the 2007 and 2008. The 2007 is an opulent wine with its rich aroma and flavors and creamy-vanilla finish. Its very modern style seduces you from the first taste. The 2008 also has the seductiveness that comes from the softness and vanilla imparted by aging in new French oak barrels. But both need at least five years of cellaring to forge a uniformed personality.
From the 1982 to the current vintages, Pio Cesare has continued to make its Barolo from grapes of its vineyards in Serrulunga d’Alba and La Morra as well as purchased grapes from nearby growers. The result is the wines of this decade have the DNA of the earlier vintages, showing that at Pio Cesare, progress is the slow and steady march of building on its successful past.