This was another Mannie Berk and Rare Wine Co. organized event, this time highlighting one of the nine single vineyards produced by one of Barbaresco’s greatest producers, Produttori del Barbaresco. Like the wonderful Rare Wine Co. old Barolo tasting earlier this year that I wrote about here, this event was held at Acquerello in San Francisco, with dishes from Chef Suzette Gresham-Tognetti that were not only delicious in themselves, but that also paired splendidly with our Barbarescos from different decades.
Barbaresco is a powerful, ageworthy wine made from the Nebbiolo grape. It is produced in an area of Italy’s Piedmont region located east and north east of the city of Alba, in the townships of Barbaresco, Treiso, Neive and a portion of Alba. It is a smaller area than that of Barolo, the other great source of Nebbiolo based wines, which lies southwest of the city of Alba. Nebbiolo is a late ripening grape, which is why it does best on the south-facing slopes in this region that are not too high in altitude (i.e., below an altitude of 1,150 feet). Barbaresco’s vineyards tend to be slightly lower and warmer than those of Barolo, presumably in part due to the close proximity of the Tanaro River. Picking therefore typically starts earlier in Barbaresco than Barolo. As a result of the grapes’ earlier ripening, the wines in Barbaresco are often lighter in body than those of Barolo, and the minimum aging requirements of the Barabaresco DOCG call for only two years, one of which must be in oak, whereas Barolo DOCG rules require three years of aging.
The history of the wine called Barbaresco is also shorter than that of Barolo. Traditionally late ripening Nebbiolo had such a high sugar content when picked, and the cellars in Piedmont were so relatively cool in November and December after the harvest came in, that it was virtually impossible for the indigenous yeasts to successfully transform all the grape sugar into alcohol. The wines of this region therefore had the sweetness that derives from residual sugar. Barolo as we now know it was made possible in the mid-1800s when French enologist Louis Oudart found a method for completing fermentation of all the grape sugar. Barbaresco did not achieve this feat until the mid-1890s, when Domizio Cavazza, headmaster of the Royal Enological School of Alba, who was also director of the Barbaresco co-operative, likewise succeeded in fermenting all of the sugars and producing a powerful, dry red wine. The methods used in both cases required late picking, long extraction, the use of particular prepared yeasts, and long aging in large oak casks. Thus began what we now refer to as the “traditional” style of making Barolo and Barbaresco.
One of the great producers of traditional style Barbaresco is Produttori del Barbaresco. This producer is actually a co-operative, whose grapes derive from the vineyards of its grower members, currently numbering over 55, with a combined vineyard ownership of about 250 acres, or one-sixth of the vineyard area of the Barbaresco DOCG. Most critics call it the wine world’s greatest co-operative. The Produttori got its start in 1958 when a local priest from the township of Barbaresco convinced growers that they needed to band together to produce wine if they were going to survive. The first three vintages were made in the church’s basement, after which the members built a winery across the square from the church. The Produttori wines are still produced in this facility. The Vacca family have been in charge of the winemaking for the Produttori since the beginning, and Aldo Vacca is the current managing director. The Produttori makes wine solely from Nebbiolo, and produces three different sets of wine. First are the Nebbiolo Langhe appellation wines, from the larger area that includes the Barbaresco DOCG, which account for about 20% of production. The Barbaresco normale or regular bottling represents about 40% of output in a good year, when single vineyard wines are also produced. In such years, another 40% of bottlings are the single vineyard wines from the nine different vineyards, or crus, in which Produttori members own vines. One of the unusual things about the Produttori is that they list on the back label all the names of the families that own the vineyards that are included in each of the single vineyard bottlings. Mannie told us that those family members of the Produttori have been remarkably consistent over the decades. Only a few families have left the Produttori in that time to bottle their holdings separately, like Marchesi di Grésy and Bruno Rocca.
The nine single vineyards from which the Produttori produce single cru bottlings in good years are Asili, Moccagatta, Montefico, Montestefano, Ovello, Pajé, Pora, Rabajà and Rio Sordo. Rare Wine Co. founder Mannie Berk’s favorite of these is Rabajà, which was our focus on this particular evening. John Gilman, author of the View from the Cellar newsletter, who was also in attendance, indicated that he prefers the Asili bottlings, with their distinctive “curry notes,” to those of Rabajà, which are second for him of the nine crus. He proposed that the next Barbaresco focus dinner should be devoted to Asili, or a comparison of Asili and Rabajà.
The first year that the Produttori separately bottled any of the individual vineyards was 1967, and we got to taste this first vintage of the Produttori’s Rabajà at this dinner. It was my WOTN. Rabajà totals 4.6 hectares (11.5 acres) and lies on a southwest facing slope at an elevation of about 1,020 feet, on the highest hill in Barbaresco. The soil is calcareous, with veins of sand. The vineyard gained great renown in Italy in the 1970s and ’80s because Guido Alciati, a well known restaurateur in Costigliole d’Asti, bought huge quantities of the Rabajà bottling and featured them at his restaurant. According to Mannie, Alciati purchased the entire production of the Produttori’s Rabajà in 1971–all 1,000 cases.
I very much enjoyed the evening, as I always do the events that Mannie and Rare Wine put together. I can now see why Rabajà is said to be a source of Barbarescos with great power and muscularity, as well as finesse and elegance. The wines were top notch; the food was excellent; the comments from Mannie, John and others were informative, as always; and I was delighted that my good friends Keith and Al were able to be there with me. It was also a treat to hear from two more very informative gentlemen who sat with us. They turned out to be father and son winemakers: Ravenswood’s Joel Peterson (the “Godfather of Zin”) and his son, Morgan Twain-Peterson, who makes wines under the Bedrock label. Joel, in turn, was the son of a wine aficionado and wine writer, Walter Peterson. I very much appreciated Joel and Morgan’s comments on our wines and faults like brett from the standpoint of a winemaker.
We tasted a total of 15 vintages of the Produttori’s Rabajà at this event, missing only a few of the vintages they’ve produced from this vineyard. Several of our vintages were poured from magnum: 2005, 2004, 2001, 1997, 1990, 1989 and 1985. Unlike our old Barolos in January, which Mannie decanted for three or four hours, given his experience that old Barolos need and can handle that much airing, these Barbarescos were only decanted for 20 to 30 minutes and then returned to the bottle. For more details on our flights, and my tasting notes, see below.
Királyudvar is a Tokaji producer whose history goes back centuries. In 1997 Anthony Hwang, one of the owners of Domaine Huët, purchased the former estate’s buildings and cellar, and began restoring them, as well as collecting and restoring some of the best vineyards in the area. The domaine now owns 75 hectares of vines across six hillside vineyards within the appellations of Mád and Bodrogkeresztúr. This single vineyard sparkling wine was first produced in 2007, inspired by Domaine Huët’s Pétillant. I quite enjoyed it, and I think it has aging potential. I do believe it’s the first sparkling Furmint I ever tried.
- 2008 Királyudvar Tokaji Peszgő Henye – Hungary, Hegyalja, Tokaji
Light medium straw yellow color; lively, ripe peach, tart apricot nose; tart peach, very tart apricot, medium bodied palate with medium-plus acidity and grapefruit on finish; long finish (85% Furmint, 15% Hárslevelu; fermented in 100% Hungarian oak, then aged on its fine lees for 12 months) (91 pts.)
These were the babies, and all were fairly tight, tannic monsters, as one would expect. The 2005 stood our for me as the richest, with silky texture and great structure. It was fermented at 85 degrees farenheit for 24 days on the skins. It spent 36 months in large oak barrels, and eight months in bottle before release. The 2004 was next best for me, with tar and tart cherry on the palate, but also an unusual note of pine on the nose and palate. Both the 2001 and 1999 had some brett, which was particularly off-putting on the 2001. John Gilman liked the ’99 best, finding this more “old school” in style than the younger wines in the flight.
- 2005 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Riserva Rabajà – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barbaresco
From magnum – dark red violet color; rich, focused, ripe cherry, berry, dried cherry nose; tight, silky textured, tart cassis, tart cherry palate with firm tannins; needs 10-15 years; long finish (93 pts.)
- 2004 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Riserva Rabajà – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barbaresco
From magnum – medium dark red violet color; tart cherry, dried red fruit nose with a sense of pine; focused, tart cherry, tart cassis, mineral, tar, dried cherry, pine palate with firm tannins; needs 10-plus years; long finish 92+ points (92 pts.)
- 2001 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Riserva Rabajà – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barbaresco
From magnum – bricking medium dark red violet color; touch of brett, tart cassis, tart cherry, truffle, dried cherry nose; tight, tart cassis, touch of band aid, iodine palate with dusty tannins; needs 5-6 years; medium-plus finish (90 pts.)
- 1999 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Riserva Rabajà – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barbaresco
Bricking dark red violet color; touch of brett, cinnamon, lifted dried cherry, green herb, woody nose; tight, tart cherry, cinnamon, brett, woody palate; needs 3-plus years; medium-plus finish 90+ points (90 pts.)
My favorite of this second flight was the very appealing 1997. It was fermented for 18-20 days on the skins, and then spent 36 months in large oak barrels and eight months in bottle. The 1995 was the first one that seemed mature enough for drinking now. The 1990 seemed quite mature, with less evident structure than the prior vintages.
Mannie indicated that Aldo Vacca and others at the Produttori had indicated to him in about 2000 that the quality of the Produttori single vineyard bottlings had declined some in their estimation since 1990. In the early ’90s, there wasn’t much good wine being made in general in Piedmont, although John Gilman wishes they had done single vineyard bottlings in 1993, which he feels was a very under appreciated year. Starting in 1995 there was a good stretch of years in the Piedmont, but sources at the Produttori didn’t feel their wines were as good as they had been. Mannie thinks they underestimated those vintages. I thought the 1995-1997 were good in our flight, particularly that 1997. John’s favorite in this flight was the 1996. He found the ’97 and ’90 to have more “roasted fruit” than he wants in fine Barbaresco.
- 1997 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Riserva Rabajà – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barbaresco
From magnum – medium dark red violet color with a little bricking; dried cherry, dried berry, tar nose; very appealing, tasty, tightish, tar, soapstone, tart cherry, sandalwood, dried cherry, ginger cake palate with a touch of chocolate; needs 3-4 years; long finish 93+ points (93 pts.)
- 1996 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Riserva Rabajà – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barbaresco
Medium dark red violet color; lifted, soapstone, ginger, ginger cake, brett, iodine nose; tart dried cherry, tar, brett, iodine, ginger cake palate; needs 4-5 years; medium-plus finish (92 pts.)
- 1995 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Riserva Rabajà – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barbaresco
Bricking medium dark red violet color; maturing, tar, dried cherry, dried berry, integrated oak, sandalwood palate; medium-plus finish (92 pts.)
- 1990 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Riserva Rabajà – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barbaresco
From magnum – very bricking medium red violet color; beet sugar, beets, brett, soapstone nose; mature, tart cherry, tart beets palate with less evident tannin than normal; medium-plus finish (91 pts.)
We really started cooking with this delicious flight. The 1989 was beautiful, full of dried cherry and tar, and still in need of more bottle age. I much preferred it to the ’90, as did John. The 1979 was also delicious and complex. My wine of this flight and my second place wine for WOTN, however, was the 1978–a particularly great vintage in Barbaresco. It had the autumnal nose and delicious, meaty, autumnal flavors I most relish in older Barolo and Barbaresco. Mannie told us that 1978 was his epiphany year for this region.
Herb blanketed lamb loin, fennel gratin, Castelvetrano tapenade and polenta taragna
- 1989 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Riserva Rabajà – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barbaresco
From magnum – bricking dark red violet color; tar, dried cherry nose; tasty, lifted, a little tight, dried cherry, tar, dried red fruit palate; needs 5-plus years; long finish 93+ points (93 pts.)
- 1985 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Riserva Rabajà – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barbaresco
From magnum – bricked medium dark red violet color; brett, dried cherry, camphor nose; mature, dried cherry, dried berry, tar, camphor palate; medium-plus finish (92 pts.)
- 1979 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Riserva Rabajà – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barbaresco
Bricking dark red violet color; brett, soapstone, ginger cake, venison jus, autumnal nose; tasty, mature, venison jus, ginger cake palate with grip; long finish 93+ points (93 pts.)
- 1978 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Riserva Rabajà – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barbaresco
Bricked medium dark red violet color with pale meniscus; lovely, autumnal, beef jus, venison jus, soy sauce nose; delicious, mature, venison jus, autumnal, ginger cake, toffee palate; drinking great now; long finish (95 pts.)
In our final flight, with our oldest wines, we had not only the first vintage of Produttori’s Rabajà, which was absolutely stunning, but also the next two vintages they produced as single vineyard bottlings from this vineyard, including the ’71, which had all been purchased by Guido Alciati for his restaurant. Our fourth wine in this flight was a mystery wine, which was ultimately revealed as a 1971 Osvaldo Barisone Barolo, made by great Barolo traditionalist producer Francesco Rinaldi. Rinaldi reportedly used glass demijohns to prolong the aging of this wine. It was an interesting comparison, as it was from the same era as our final Produttoris, but showed coarser tannins and less finesse than our Produttori Rabajàs.
- 1971 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Riserva Rabajà – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barbaresco
Bricked medium red violet color with 2 millimeter clear meniscus; tar, roses, pine nut nose with a sense of alcohol; mature, autumnal, tar, dried cherry palate with roundness and sweetness; medium-plus finish (92 pts.)
- 1970 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Riserva Rabajà – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barbaresco
Bricked medium orange red color with pale meniscus; evocative, lovely, blood orange, dried cherry, incense nose; gorgeous, dried cherry, orange, tar palate with sweetness; long finish 93+ points (93 pts.)
- 1971 Barisone Barolo – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barolo
Bricking medium red violet color with 2 millimeter clear meniscus; mature, beef jus, tar nose; tasty, autumnal, tar, meat jus with depth, near medium acidity and coarse tannins; long finish (92 pts.)
- 1967 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Riserva Rabajà – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barbaresco
Bricked medium red violet color with pale meniscus; lovely, autumnal, tar, cherry, dried cherry nose; rich, youthful, dried cherry, cherry, dried berry, subtle spice palate with firm sweet tannins; will go 15-plus years yet; long finish 95+ points (95 pts.)