From Substance to Essence: A Barolo Dinner

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A pin on mist, like the snapshot of soul, drives heart-search.

Why is anything soulful? The definition lies in its ineffability. Solid ground gives expectations. On those expectations we construct our edifices.

You can’t heap intellect on Nebbiolo. It seems the perfect creature for our minds. But categorization limits discovery. The expression of Nebbiolo, in its purest, most potent form, finds itself in the spaces between things.

The irony of Nebbiolo lies in its great attraction for scholarly engagement and complexity, but its simultaneous mystery of voice. Nebbiolo is difficult to pin in place. A recent dinner with friends and colleagues that focused on flights from the main villages of Barolo proved a lesson in this dual character of one of the world’s most enigmatic grapes.

Dining Barolo

The format of these tastings is semi-blind. We like to challenge ourselves and our expectations. As such, diners guessed the villages, the vintages and producers. Some were remarkably accurate, some entirely off – several wines proved a surprise.

I love the game of guessing and expecting, but the real thread for me in these wines was their surprising, almost shocking range of expression, none of which was simple or easy. Virtually all the wines made us come to them rather than situating themselves in our edifices.

We were hosted by Lucais Syme (of La Quercia fame) at his new restaurant La Pentola. The food and wine service were superb. Not only was all the food of outstanding quality and consistent, it paired beautifully with our wines. The style was focused but delineated flavours, with a focus on simple contrasts and clear expression of the unique flavours of the key ingredient for each dish. The menu was as follows:

Elk bresola, baita, apple cider gelee
Parmesan Souffle

Bitter Greens hazlenuts, balsamic, grapes, shallots
Marrow salsa verde

Risotto funghi
Agnolotti di guido
Mezza luna beet, ricotta

Squab saltimbocca, root vegetables

A March of Villages

There were no obviously dominant villages in our flight of La Morra, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga, Verduno and Monforte, though the two wines we poured from La Morra had issues that had nothing to do with the village’s terroir.

Even within the villages the range of expressions was astonishing. In particular, the Serralunga flight – which consisted of a 1993 Vietti Lazzarito, a 1997 Giacosa Le Rocche del Falletto, and a 2008 Pira Marenca – demonstrated great diversity. We began with the Vietti, a deep, masculine, fully developed wine with astonishing notes of porcini mushrooms and moved into the very pretty, feminine, focused Giacosa, which was one of the best wines of the evening. The 2008 Pira, while young, offered exceptional structure and balance and fantastic notes of metal and blood along with cherry and blackberry fruit, and will undoubtedly turn into a superb wine. Given its very reasonable price under $100, this is a top value Barolo in this market.

The 1996 Cavallotto Bricco Boschis, from Castiglione Falletto, was for many the wine of the night given its near perfect structure, fully integrated tannins and haunting notes of iron, minerals and rich cherry fruit.

The most intriguing flight for me was a trio of wines from the northerly village of Verduno. These wines are rare, but offer a fascinating interpretation of Nebbiolo that is unlike anywhere else in Piedmont. The sub-alpine terroir creates wines of higher acid and brighter fruit. In particular, the 1996 Burlotto Monvigliero proved utterly distinct, with olives and felt tipped marker, amazingly similar to great Cote-Rotie such as Jamet. This similarity is likely aided by the use of stem inclusion by both producers. Burlotto is one of the most historic estates in Piedmont, and was the first estate in Barolo to gain international recognition back in the 19th century. Upon Giovan Battista Burlotto’s death in 1927, however, the estate disappeared and became unknown. Amazingly, it was Giovan’s great great grandson Fabio Alessandria who brought the estate back into the spotlight. They are still very traditional and use foot treading, stem inclusion, 60 day maceration and aging in large wooden botti. Burlotto’s greatest wine is the Monvigliero, which is arguably one of the top sites in Barolo. This wine is known to have unique notes of olive tapenade, cedar and truffle and I can confirm this stamp of terroir was very noticeable in the wine we had. It was my wine of the tasting and I rated it Excellent+.

The 1996 Claudio Alario Riva offered more power than elegance, with dense beet root, balsamic, iron and blood notes. It wasn’t at the same level as the Burlotto, but it was a delicious wine, particularly with the expertly prepared beet mezzalunas.

The 2008 Paolo Scavino Monvigliero was also fascinating and entirely different from Burlotto. These wines are made in a highly reductive environment, with almost no oxygen exposure, as is the Scavino way. It offered sweet, rich red fruit with a very unusual character. It was a bit awkward at this point but it was also compelling and had a lot of beautiful raw material. I think this will be fantastic with some age.

The 2001 Conterno Fantino Sori Ginestra – the lone offering from Monforte – was powerful and intense. It was still youthful and had a touch of oak structure that still needed integration. However, it was an excellent wine and proof of the quality of both the producer and the Ginestra vineyard.

The biggest disappointment was the 2001 Giuseppe Rinaldi Brunate/Le Coste, who is one of the very top producers in all of Barolo and a hyper-traditionalist to boot. The wine was over developed and most at the table guessed it was from the 80’s. It had really nice balsamic aromas and was a pleasurable wine, but the structure was gone, the acid seemed low and the wine lacked the focus that those who had previously tasted Rinaldi experienced in his wines. It also did not accord at all with Antonio Galloni’s note, which highlighted the powerful fruit. In our 2001 the fruit was entirely dead. A real shock given that this wine was shipped directly from the cellars of Rinaldi and not via the gray market. I did notice that some of the cellar tracker comments on this wine also noted these problems, which suggests some serious bottle variation issues.

The 2001 Ceretto Brunate was an over-oaked, terrible wine with virtually no terroir. This is not what Barolo is about and shows how too much barrique utterly ruins these wines. An edifice wine.


Barolo offers some of the most diverse wines in the world made from a single grape. The range of expressions, from focused and linear to intense and powerful, smoky and masculine, deeply fungal and foresty to pretty, floral and feminine, is astonishing, even for the initiated.

Not only does each village have a unique character, but each vineyard is clearly distinct from others, even those situated very close to each other. This is likely the source of its comparison with Burgundy; however, I find that comparison to be inapt. Nebbiolo from Barolo is decidedly far stranger than red Burgundy – not more complex or ethereal: strange.

This weirdness is what attracts me to Barolo – it is the substratum of these wines that eludes our intellect, keeps challenging us and breaking down our edifices. Why pin something down when the exploration of substance in these wines is so close to a search for their essence. Put otherwise, as much as these are physical items with physical properties, unlike other wines they don’t end with those physical properties. Rather, the strangeness of these wines’ physicality is a direct line to their essence – that part of them that transcends their immediate physicality.

That dynamic is exceptionally rare, and why Barolo is one of the world’s greatest wines.

Posted in: Features, Wine Dinners


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