Nebbiolo Reexamined: Barolo fashioned by the vine
“In the late 1950s and ’60s, a number of growers in Barolo began bottling their own wines, and what were once small family farms became commercial wineries. In the process, many of the growers began replacing their old vines with more productive clonal selections of nebbiolo. As it turns out, however when growers speak of nebbiolo it is not necessarily one variety, but several distinct subvarieties. ‘Traditionally, the subvarieties were mixes,’ says Roberto Conterno of Giacomo Conterno winery in Monforte d’Alba. ‘A vineyard would consist mostly of lampia, with maybe a portion of michet to boost the quality and a bit of rose to enhance the aroma,’ he says, referring to the three classic subvarieties. Today many producers are reexamining their approach to nebbiolo in their vineyard.
“One of them is Valter Fissore at Elvio Cogno winery in the Ravera area of Novello, where he farms all three nebbiolo subvarieties. ‘When my father-in-law purchased this property in 1991 it was all lampia except for a very old vineyard of michet,’ he says. ‘A few years later, when we had to replant a section of the property, I decided to put in rose so we would have all three classic nebbiolo varieties. I thought we would blend them together. But when we saw how good the grapes were, we decided to bottle the rose separately, at least in years when the vineyards does especially well.’ Rose, he explains, does particularly well in warm vintages. ‘It tends to be a bit lighter in color,’ he says, ‘but has an amazing aroma, along with a distinctive delicacy and finesse, while the michet tends to be full and soft.’
“As we step out into the courtyard Fissore calls out, ‘Elena, dammi le chiave della tua macchina!’ A moment later a young woman, Fissore’s daughter, emerges onto the balcony and tosses a set of keys down. We get into her Fiat 500 and head into the vineyards.
“Fissore points out that his property, 27 acres in the Ravera cru, has many different microclimates and exposures, and that the area in general has more clay (and less sand) than the nearby villages of Barolo and La Morra. He stops in a 70-year-old vineyard of michet mid-shoulder on a southwest-facing hill; the trunks of the old vines are thick and gnarly, and the sparse clusters small and compact. Bricco Pernice, a short walk away, is an older lampia vineyard on the top of a south-facing hill, while the rose vineyard Fissore planted requires a quick drive to a southeast-facing slope on the other side of the estate where the vines catch the morning sun. When we arrive, the difference between these vines and the others is easy to see: The grape clusters are long and cylindrical, and the leaves noticeably larger.
“We head back to the winery where he pours three Barolos, all from the 2007 vintage. All three wines have a lovely transparency and red brick color. Vigna Elena (a riserva aged for five years instead of the three as for regular Barolos) is perhaps a tad lighter than the other two but not at all lacking in pigment. The differences come in the flavor: Ravera tasted the most classically Barolo, with ripe sour cherry fruit, pronounced tannins and aromas of violets and asphalt. Bricco Pernice is softer, with a long, graceful finish, while Vigna Elena shows distinctive aromas of dried rose petals and licorice, with a pleasantly tart acidity and high-toned elegance.
“‘The winemaking is the same,’ says Fissore. ‘The vintage conditions are identical and they’re all from the same area. Yes, there are subtle differences in exposition and soil, not to mention age of the vines. But the differences in the wines have mostly to do with the different types of nebbiolo.’
“When Fissore decided to plant the rose vineyard in 1993, he went to a nursery to get his clones, which is what most producers do today. At Cappellano in Serralunga d’Alba, they went about it in a more traditional way…”