Giacomo Conterno Cascina Francia Barolo 1990

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There are wines that are so prohibitively rare and expensive that it is near ridiculous to tell someone just how amazing and wonderful they are. Nonetheless, it is many a wine geek’s passion to occasionally taste such wines and run off in exuberance about the experience.

In my mind, such legendary wines are most important for providing perspective and history, rather than as a trophy or achievement. The reason true wine geeks lust after these wines is not for status, but rather because they offer an experience unlike anything else in the world – an experience that is unrepeatable, rare, and focused distinctly in the moment while at the same time providing a sense of gravitas and scope.

The greatest insight such experiences have provided me is that there is no special aura to experiencing ‘greatness’, no epiphanic moment that you can isolate as the moment of greatness you have been waiting for. Instead, the greatness lies in realizing the fullness of experience: anticipation, disappointment, confusion, excitement, amazement, loss, memory. All of these things work together to produce the globs of experience that form our psyches. Tasting ‘legendary’ wines is most important at subtly modifying the trajectory of our experience in the moment such that over the long run we are in a completely different place than we otherwise would have been.

Tasting the Origin of Barolo

Giacomo Conterno is the great traditionalist of Barolo. The winery’s status as legend has arisen largely because it is one of the very few to remain obsessively devoted to old-school techniques while at the same time being a complete master of those techniques. The proof, however, arises in fine differences.

The 1990 started like any good Barolo, roses, tar, cherries, and nut skins. At 22 years of age, it had the structure of a 5 year old wine, with firm tannins that initially refused to give way. However, previous experience with ‘great’ traditional wines had already altered my trajectory so as to give me patience when most needed. I let the wine open over the entire evening and into the next day and the transformation that took place taught me more about Barolo than I have learned from any other wine.

The History

The Conterno family first started making wine in 1908. After fighting in World War I Giacomo bottled his first Barolo Riserva in 1920. The family originally made Barolo entirely with purchased fruit – though their wine making skill gained them a considerable reputation. Their decision to bottle the wine rather than selling it in bulk was not only revolutionary but also the driver towards increased quality.

Giacomo’s son Giovanni split with his brother Aldo Conterno after a difference of opinion. Aldo wished to use more modern methods, including some barrique treatment. The original estate, in contrast, uses extremely long macerations and long aging in old neutral oak botti for 4-10 years before bottling. The estate was split between the two in 1969, but it is arguably still the Giacomo Conterno estate that produces Barolo’s greatest wines.

In 1974, the Conternos purchased the Cascina Francia vineyard in the Serralunga – one of the most important parts of Barolo. The vineyard is a mere 5ha and has some of the best soil (calcerous) and exposure in Barolo. The G. Conterno wines are now made by Giacomo’s grandson Roberto.

A Return to the Source

The next day, I took a sip in the early afternoon. The wine was still firm, but its structure had softened just enough to unleash an entirely different spectrum of flavours. Now there was mushroom, earth, herbs, and faint hints of smells our species probably hasn’t experienced for millenia. But none of these flavours were obvious – they were as nuanced as language. Just as the simple juxtaposition of two words can produce insight into a well-trodden concept, Giacamo Conterno’s Barolo told me something I had never noticed about Barolo before, even though all of the underlying notes were the same: Barolo is majestic because of its contrasts.

After 22 years, the tannins were still firm. In fact, it is unlikely they would soften up much more. Yet, the texture of the wine was as perfect and silky as the greatest of Burgundies. The aromas are immediately pleasurable, but the flavours of the wine can be off-putting: beauty with ugliness. A pretty wine that is as mottled and tobacco-stained as an old drifter’s coat. And yet, somehow, it all makes sense.

Posted in: $60+, Italian Wine, Nebbiolo


  1. Frank
    May 8, 2012

    Wonderful post. By the way, when you say “let it open over night”, did you do that in a decanter or was that done in the original bottle. I sometimes read people let their wines breathe over night, but was not sure exactly how they did it.

  2. Shea
    May 8, 2012

    Thanks Frank. The wine was decanted for about 3 hours just after opening, and then re-bottled. It was half consumed and then left in the bottle (with the cork in the top) at room temperature overnight. There were no signs of oxidation the next day (probably because of the tannins).

  3. Frank
    May 8, 2012

    Amazing wine! I’m always humbled and grateful whenever I am fortunate enough to drink an old wine that clearly “still got it” after all those years. Your post really resonated with me. A great bottle is so much more than just a trophy. To truly enjoy it, one has to be honest, humble, and open-minded. If you are successful, a great bottle can be a glimpse at perfection, a portal to unfading memories, a rare moment for self-reflection, and so much more. This is why my hunt for the next great bottle will never end.

    Keep us the amazing work Shea!

  4. Shea
    May 8, 2012

    Frank, I’m glad the post resonated with you – it is all too easy for us to go into these sorts of experiences with a limited perspective and thinking only of being ‘blown away’. But you are right that the only way to get something out of the experience you have to be honest, humble and open minded. Cheers!

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