This week is RJonWine.com’s first anniversary, and I thought this report on a tasting of some exceptional, and in some cases quite rare, old Barolos would be a fitting anniversary post. I had mixed feelings, as you’ll see below, about the organization of the day’s tasting–in terms of flights, and the lack of opening and decanting some of these older wines before they were poured–but there were some incredible wines in this tasting, many of which, eventually, showed quite well.
Bipin Desai, a professor of theoretical physics at the University of California, Riverside, and longtime collector of extraordinary wines has been responsible for organizing legendary winetasting events, featuring most of the world’s greatest wines, since 1983. He’s mentioned multiple times in Benjamin Wallace’s The Billionaire’s Vinegar, as some of those events from the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s featured bottles from Hardy Rodenstock, like 1791 Margaux and 1865 Mouton, which are now presumed to be Rodenstock fakes. His tastings are also mentioned multiple times in Michael Broadbent’s Vintage Wine.
In usual fashion for Bipin, he organized a weekend in Los Angeles comprised of three tastings of great Italian wines, mainly Barolos, and the majority of attendees flew in for the event as I did. I only attended the final day, a Sunday lunch at Valentino’s with Barolos and Barbarescos from traditionalist producers back to 1947, as that was the single event I was most interested in, but on Friday at Chinois he’d held a tasting of newer vintages of Giacomo Conterno’s Cascina Francia Barbera (2003-2009), Cascina Francia Barolo (1989-2006) and Monfortino Riserva (2000-2002). Saturday was a lunch devoted to Monfortino from 1929 to 1999, for a mere $950 for a full pour. Roberto Conterno of Giacomo Conterno was on hand for that event, and I thought he’d be on hand for Sunday’s lunch as well, but he reportedly had to get back to take care of business so I missed meeting and hearing from him. The crowd was a bit smaller for my Sunday lunch than it had been for the Monfortinos, when there were four tables of six people each. Our lunch just had three tables. The 1978 was said to be the star of the previous afternoon, but I was told that many of the wines in the Monfortino tasting, including the ’29, were tired and didn’t show that well. Those who attended all three sessions told me the wines showed the best on Sunday.
I know that François Audouze has complained about Bipin’s practice of waiting until the last moment to open the old bottles of wine in his tastings since, without some airing, many of these old bottles show a lot of bottle stink that needs time to dissipate. I’ve also previously written about an old Barolo tasting organized earlier this year by Rare Wine Co.’s Mannie Berk, who insists on opening old Barolo, in particular, and decanting it for at least a couple hours before a tasting: http://www.rjonwine.com/barolo/1960s-conterno-mascarello-rinaldi-cappellano-oddero/ I arrived quite early, while Bipin’s photographer was still doing an extensive photo shoot of the unopened bottles for the tasting, and raised this issue with the sommelier for the event, Wally’s co-owner Christian Navarro. Christian was very dismissive of the idea of opening old Barolo much before the event–indeed, he acted as though it was the stupidest thing he ever heard. When I pressed further and told him about Mannie Berk’s experience and philosophy on this, and that it is also something Mannie reports that many Barolo producers do as well with their older bottles, Christian responded that he’s been pouring at these events for Bipin for over 15 years, and that he and Bipin know what they’re doing. Oh well. The results at the tasting were a strong argument, for me, in favor of Mannie’s approach. Many of these wines were rather dirty and unappealing after they were first poured. Many of them did clean up quite a bit after an hour or an hour and a half in the glass, but others perhaps didn’t receive enough air time to show their best before the next flight needed to be poured.
We started with a rather lengthy Champagne and passed hors d’oeuvres session, during which I had a chance to meet many of the other attendees. While we stood in the foyer drinking our Champagne, Christian and his crew of helpers opened the bottles and poured out our glasses for the first flight of wines in a large adjoining room. Once the wines were poured out, we went to our seats in the dining room, where we were the only guests, and the wine staff put a clutch of nine glasses in front of each of us. It was then up to us to organize those glasses into the order listed on our menu for the day. I asked a couple of people about how the flights were organized, as there was no clear theme in terms of vintages or producers in each flight–more of the older wines were in the first flight, but they were also scattered through the next two flights. I was told that Bipin organizes wines into flights based on how well they are likely to pair with the food course. So we had a lighter red tuna and veal dish for the first course, and heavier courses after that, so I can see how Bipin would have picked the wines in our first flight as more likely to be lighter, and to go better with that course (if old Barolo can be said to “go” with seared tuna at all). I guess that makes sense, if you’re trying to maximize your food and wine pairing experience. Personally, however, in tastings of this kind I prefer flights organized by vintage and/or by producer, to permit greater opportunity for comparing wines of the same vintage or producer at the same time. If there has to be food involved, I’d pair such a flight with a course that would generally work with that type of wine of that age. Frankly, at an event like this, I’m not really there for the food. I’m there to have a chance, possibly for the only time in my life, to taste some of these old and rare wines, and to learn by comparing vintages and producers. Oh well, again.
I’ve written about most of these producers in prior posts, and my background paragraphs on Francesco Rinaldi, Oddero, Bartolo Mascarello, Giacomo Conterno and Antonio Vallana can be found here: http://www.rjonwine.com/barolo/1960s-conterno-mascarello-rinaldi-cappellano-oddero/ This tasting also featured wines by Aldo Conterno, Bruno Giacosa, Pio Cesare, Fontanafredda, Ceretto (Bricco Rocche) and Giuseppe Mascarello. I will summarize relevant facts about those producers with the flight details below.
The greatest wines in this tasting for me, that I rated 96 points or higher, were the ’64 Giacomo Conterno Barolo (WOTD), ’52 Bartolo Macarello Barolo Reserva Cannubi, ’78 Giacosa Barolo Pugnane di Castiglone Falletto, ’64 Giacosa Barbaresca Riserva Santo Stefano and the ’67 Giacomo Conterno Barolo.
When I took a bathroom break prior to the start of the third flight, I walked by our sommelier, Christian, and another one of the pourers sitting at a small table in the foyer, with their glasses in front of them, containing a significantly larger pour than those of us who had paid for the tasting received. It looked like a two and a half or three ounce pour compared to our one and a half ounce pours (if that). I consider that pretty poor form in a commercial tasting of this kind. Coupling his arrogance toward me when I asked about the lack of decanting with these gratuitously large pours for himself and another waiter, Christian is the kind of sommelier whose “service” I plan to make it a point to avoid in the future. By the way, the price of this tasting, including California sales tax, was $707.
- N.V. Laurent-Perrier Champagne Brut L.P. – France, Champagne
Light yellow color; tart peach, tart apple nose with light yeastiness; tart apple, ripe grapefruit palate with medium acidity, a little broad; medium-plus finish 88+ points (88 pts.)
1st Flight (’58s and ’61s)
Il Tonno Vitellato – red tuna and veal
This was a delicious first flight, with the standouts being two of the ’58s — the Oddero Barolo and Fontanafredda Barbaresco. Most of the attendees were unfamiliar with Oddero, but were very impressed by this ’58, as well as the ’64 in the next flight. The ’55 Pio Cesare was, unfortunately, maderized. The ’47 Giacomo Borgogno Riserva, our oldest wine, was still going strong, and continuing to show well after 90 minutes in the glass. The two Vallana Spannas seemed outclassed by the other wines in the flight, not showing as well as our Spannas at Mannie’s tasting, with noticeably coarser tannins than the rest of the wines in the flight.
Fontanafredda’s origins go back to its founding in 1878 by Emmanuel Guerrierri, Count of Mirafiori, illegitimate son of King Vittorio Emanuele II. It never attained, however, the status of one of Barolo’s first-rank labels. It did, however, turn out consistently good wines, and in an outstanding year like 1958, clearly a very ageworthy Barbaresco. The estate is now owned by a bank, the Monte dei Paschi di Siena, and includes 100 hectares of vineyards.
- 1947 Giacomo Borgogno & Figli Barolo Riserva – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barolo
Light bricked rose color with 6 millimeter clear meniscus; lovely cigar box, autumnal, woodsy nose; tasty, autumnal, woodsy, tart orange, cigar box, very tart cherry palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish 93+ points (still going strong after 90 minutes in the glass) (93 pts.)
- 1952 Fontanafredda Barolo – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barolo
Light bricked rose color with 8 millimeter clear meniscus; VA but appealing, deep, tobacco, autumnal, sweet ginger cake nose; medium bodied, tart orange, tart cantaloupe, tart roasted coffee palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (93 pts.)
- 1955 Pio Cesare Barolo – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barolo
Cloudy, light bricked rose color with 8 millimeter clear meniscus; big VA, ethyl acetate, tart cantaloupe nose; oxidized, tart cantaloupe palate with medium-plus acidity; medium-plus finish (NR/flawed)
- 1958 Giacomo Borgogno & Figli Barolo Riserva – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barolo
Bricked light medium red orange color with 3 millimeter clear meniscus; autumnal, tea, light tobacco nose; tart orange, light tobacco palate with medium acidity and grip; long finish (92 pts.)
- 1958 Fontanafredda Barbaresco – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barbaresco
Cloudy, bricked, light medium rose color with 10 millimeter clear meniscus; nice ginger cake, light cigar box, tart orange, autumnal nose with a touch of maple syrup; tasty, elegant, cigar box, ginger cake, tart maple syrup palate with firm, sweet tannins; long finish (95 pts.)
- 1958 Oddero Barolo – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barolo
Light bricked orange red color with 10 millimeter clear meniscus; intriguing cigar box, tobacco, truffle, porcini mushroom nose with a touch of maple syrup; solid, truffle, mushroom, autumnal, ginger cake palate with remarkable grip; long finish (another brilliant showing by this relatively little known producer, WOTF for me) (95 pts.)
- 1961 Giacomo Borgogno & Figli Barbaresco Riserva – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barbaresco
Bricked light medium red orange color with 3 millimeter clear meniscus; tart cigar box, smoke, truffle nose; intense, advanced, cigar box, smoke, truffle, autumnal palate with medium acidity, should be drunk in next 3 or so years; medium-plus finish 93+ points (93 pts.)
- 1955 Antonio Vallana e Figlio Piemonte Nebbiolo Spanna Campi Raudii – Italy, Piedmont, Piemonte DOC
Bricked medium red color with pale meniscus; rich, mature, dried berry, dried cherry, sweet smoke, light chocolate nose; tasty, dried berry, light chocolate, tart orange palate with firm tannins; long finish 92+ points (92 pts.)
- 1961 Antonio Vallana e Figlio Piemonte Nebbiolo Spanna Cinque Castelli – Italy, Piedmont, Piemonte DOC
Bricking medium dark red color with 3 millimeter clear meniscus; dried cherry, dried berry, VA nose; dried cherry, dried berry, herbal, ginger, earthy palate with coarse tannins; long finish (91 pts.)
2nd Flight (’71s and ’78s)
There were a few outstanding vintages represented in this flight: 1961, 1964, 1971 and 1978. The ’78 Giacosa Pugnane di Castiglione Falletto dominated the flight for me, with a very appealing, complex and youthful roses, dried cherry and tar palate. It also had an elegance that made it stand out. We weren’t really expecting much from this relatively obscure bottling, so this one overdelivered. It was a strong flight across the board though, in keeping with the great vintages represented. The ’78 Ceretto Barolo Brunate, from one of Barolo’s finest vineyards, also showed well, as did the ’71 Pio Cesare Barbaresco. The ’64 Oddero, which I’d had before at Mannie’s event, managed to take me on an evocative trip, giving me what felt like a glimpse of a wild game dinner from a prior century at the end of a successful autumnal hunt. The only dud was a very flawed ’71 Ceretto Barolo Zonchetta Brunate.
Pio Cesare was known for very traditional Barolo and Barbaresco, making blends of different vineyards. Our delicious ’61 and ’71 were in that traditional style, which has begun to change, under Cesare Pio’s great grandson Pio Boffa, as single vineyards bottlings are now being produced, and new French barriques used for aging. The single vineyard Ornato Barolo was first produced in 1985, while the single vineyard Barbaresco Il Bricco had its debut with the 1990 vintage.
- 1961 Pio Cesare Barolo – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barolo
Light bricked orange red color with 12 millimeter clear meniscus; savory, light meat jus, tart orange, cigar box nose; poised, elegant, tart cherry, tart orange palate with smooth, refined tannins, that changes after one hour to more of a cigar box palate; long finish (94 pts.)
- 1964 Oddero Barolo – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barolo
Bricked light medium orange red color with 3 millimeter clear meniscus; truffle, venison jus, autumnal nose, that somehow invokes a vision of a long ago late fall dinner in the Italian countryside following a successful hunt; tasty, elegant, light venison jus, with restrained power; long finish (94 pts.)
- 1967 Francesco Rinaldi e Figli Barbaresco – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barbaresco
Bricking medium red orange color with pale meniscus; subtle dried berry, subtle cigar box, tart orange, dried spices nose; rich, poised, tart dried cherry, light dried berry palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (94 pts.)
- 1971 Azienda Ceretto s.r.l. Barolo Zonchetta Brunate – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barolo
Odd, mercaptan and TCA nose; nasty, tobacco, mercaptan palate (NR/flawed)
- 1971 Pio Cesare Barbaresco – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barbaresco
Bricking light medium red color with 5 millimeter clear meniscus; nice tart cherry, light cigar box, light tobacco nose with depth; tasty, rich, powerful, tart dried berry, dried cherry, sweet mushroom, cigar box palate with intensity and grip; long finish 94+ points (94 pts.)
- 1978 Azienda Bricco Rocche (Ceretto) Barolo Brunate – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barolo
Bricking medium cherry red color with 4 millimeter clear meniscus; very appealing, dried mushroom, light venison, cigar box, autumnal, tea nose; tasty, tart venison, dried mushroom, porcini, venison palate with grip, needs another 5 to 7 years; long finish 94+ points (94 pts.)
- 1978 Bruno Giacosa Barolo Pugnane di Castiglione Falletto – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barolo
Bricked medium cherry red color with 6 millimeter clear meniscus; lovely roses, dried cherry, dried raspberry nose with depth; gorgeous, dried cherry, dried berry, dried raspberry, light tar palate with lots of fruit, depth and grip; long finish (96 pts.)
3rd Flight (’64s and ’67s)
Most of our greatest wines were in this flight, after we’d already sampled 16 wines. The ’64 Giacomo Conterno showed even better than when I’d had it twice before–truly an amazing bottle. The ’67 was likewise spectacular. Giacomco Conterno had passed the business on to his children in 1961, the year our Reserva Barolo in the first flight was made. Son Giovanni became the winemaker, and made our ’64 and ’67 Barolos. Giovanni died in 2004, and his son Roberto is the current winemaker. Giacomo’s other son, Aldo, started his own winery, and I felt that our two Aldo Conternos, from ’64 and ’67, while good, did not hold a candle to the Giacomo Conternos from the same years. The ’64 Giacosa Barbaresco Riserva Santo Stefano (Red Label) was also outstanding in this flight, and was the favorite for many of the tasters. Bipin had obtained the bottle for this tasting from Mannie Berk. It was delicate and complex, as well as having a tremendously appealing nose.
We also had two Giuseppe Mascarello Barolos in this flight, and the ’71 was particularly good. This producer was founded by the first Giuseppe Mascarello in 1881. The winemaker for the two wines in our flight was his great grandson Mauro, who assisted his father, the second Giuseppe, starting in the ’60s. Mauro went through a period of experimentation with different types and lengths of fermentation in the ’70s, before going back to the traditional long fermentation with the ’77 vintage. He continued to age the wines in the large Slavonian botti his father had purchased in the ’50s. The family now own all six hectares of the esteemed Monprivato vineyard.
Il Capretto in Umido – braised kid on a bed of polenta
- 1952 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo Reserva Cannubi – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barolo
Bricking light medium orange color with 10 millimeter clear meniscus; focused, refined, autumnal, ginger cake, ginger tea, truffle nose; tasty, powerful, autumnal, ginger cake palate with grip; long finish 96+ points (96 pts.)
- 1964 Poderi Aldo Conterno Barolo – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barolo
Bricking light red orange color with 12 millimeter clear meniscus; muted dried currant, tart orange nose; tight, tart dried currant, dried cherry palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish 92+ points (92 pts.)
- 1964 Giacomo Conterno Barolo – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barolo
Bricked light medium orange color with 10 millimeter clear meniscus; subtle roses, light beef jus nose with lovely, subtle mushroom notes underneath; tasty, poised, dried berry, roses, venison jus palate, very sexy; long finish 97+ points (97 pts.)
- 1964 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Riserva Santo Stefano – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barbaresco
Bricking medium cherry red color with 6 millimeter clear meniscus; roses, dried cherry, dried berry, dried raspberry nose; rich, dried berry, raspberry, tar, dried cherry palate with unusual delicacy; long finish 96+ points (bottle obtained from Mannie Berk) (96 pts.)
- 1967 Poderi Aldo Conterno Barolo – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barolo
Bricked light orange red color with 8 millimeter clear meniscus; autumnal, earthy, rabbit jus nose; tight, tart currant palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (92 pts.)
- 1967 Giacomo Conterno Barolo – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barolo
Bricked light medium orange red color with pale meniscus; autumnal, venison jus, dried red fruit nose; rich, tasty, dried cherry, ginger cake palate, rich and appealing; long finish (96 pts.)
- 1971 Giuseppe E Figlio Mascarello Barolo – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barolo
Slightly bricked light medium cherry red color with pale meniscus; dried flowers, hibiscus, dried cherry nose; youthful, dried cherry, hibiscus palate with depth and grip, needs 5-7 more years; long finish (95 pts.)
- 1978 Giuseppe E Figlio Mascarello Barolo Villero – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barolo
Bricking medium cherry red color with pale meniscus; dried cherry, dried berry, juniper nose; youthful, dried cherry, dried red fruit, roses palate; long finish (93 pts.)
After a surfeit of great wines, I hardly expected anything from the Moscato that was served with our dessert, but it was quite a wonderful and complex Moscato d’Asti, with flavors that included lavender and sea salt. I’ve only once had one of this producer’s Barolos, a good ’64, but based on this very well made Moscato, I’d like to try their current lineup of Barolos, Barberas and Barbarescos.
- 2006 Fratelli Barale Moscato d’Asti – Italy, Piedmont, Asti, Moscato d’Asti
Light yellow color; intense pear, seawater, lavender, sea salt nose; rich, ripe pear, mineral, orange blossom, lavender, sea salt palate; medium finish (very impressive Moscato) (92 pts.)