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Ongoing Evolution in Barolo's Mainstream

July 11, 2001|ROD SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The roiling fog carries a fragrance of wet stones and ripe grapes as it drifts through the Piedmont hills at harvest time. You don't want to be driving those snaky northern Italian roads in the stuff. But from a perch on a medieval castle wall, it adds a certain magic touch to the pageantry of the vintage.

Italians call the mist nebbia , and they call the grape that loves it Nebbiolo. On the meager limestone-based soils of Barolo and Barbaresco, in the heart of nebbia country, Nebbiolo gives some of Italy's greatest red wines.

There's been a lot of comment in the press lately (including these pages on May 30) on a supposed controversy in Barolo and Barbaresco. Ostensibly it pits traditional producers against iconoclastic modernists. However the rhetoric only involves a few high-profile producers.

What's really happening with most producers is at once more simple and more profound.

The region is evolving, as it has for centuries. Yes, there are stodgy producers who determinedly toe the old-fashioned line with tannic, high-acid wines that take decades to mature. And there are progressives who have heard the clarion call of fruity, easy-drinking wine in the international style that goes over so well with the almighty American consumer.

Yet most producers are, and always have been, somewhere in the middle. They respect their traditional roots, but they're also savvy business people with a product to sell. They make adjustments in style and method as necessary, deliberately changing with the times. Many such firms were in business a century ago and have every intention of being in business centuries from now.

Giacomo Borgogno & Figli is a salient example of this sort of prudent, conservative producer. The family dates its property from 1761 and its label from 1848. The Borgogno cellar still holds bottles from the 19th century, including a special 1886 cuvee bottled to commemorate a visit by the Russian Czar Nicholas II in 1902.

Current enologist Cesare Boschis represents the ninth generation of his family. Young, dynamic and well-educated, Boschi is well aware that change is constant. Just in the last few years he has made small but significant adjustments in the Borgogno cellars.

The most telling changes have to do with managing fermentation through the use of temperature-controlled tanks and cultured rather than native yeasts. "Fermentation is a delicate moment," says Boschi. "Technology gives us a chance to control every aspect. Why not?"

Still, he continues to age the wines in large Slavonian oak ovals for more than the required two years (the '82 spent four years in wood), then move it to neutral tanks for a rest before another six months' aging in bottle. And he's not committed to innovation for its own sake. "We decide each year how to make the wine," he says. "The only rule is that we have no rules."

Perhaps most importantly, Boschi is resisting the current trend toward single-vineyard Barolos. But not because he's horrified by a break with tradition. He just thinks blending wine from multiple sites makes better wines.

Borgogno has some of the best vineyards in the zone. Some are in the northern part, where the sandy, soft limestone soil produces fine, elegant wines with refined aromas. Some are in the southern part, where the heavier clay soil yields more powerful, massive wines. "The tradition is to blend the two," he says. "They're complementary--together they make a whole Barolo."

Thus, Borgogno is simultaneously one of the oldest Barolo producers and one of the new-wave modernist estates. Ironically, this traditional style was ultra new-wave in its day. In the early part of the 20th century, a typical Barolo was sweet.

I recently sat down with Boschi for a vertical tasting of Borgogno Barolo Riservas going back to 1952. Significantly, the 1952 and '61--both fermented the old-fashioned way in wooden tanks, using native yeast--showed the best. They might have been hard as nails in youth, but they've unwound slowly over the years to reveal astounding complexity and depth.

The '52 in particular supported the case for Barolo as the longest-lived wine in Italy and one of the most age-worthy in the world. It was autumnal but vibrant, showing its age with Port-like notes but releasing a steady wave of elegant, high-toned perfume. I wrote, "Here's proof that the secret of life is to die young, as late as possible, aged but not old."

The '61 also had a sweet, high-toned perfume. It danced on the palate, succulent and perfectly firm with a long, clear finish. Where most wines of that age would be tending toward a nondescript old-red-wine character, the '61 still showed the tar, leather and dried rose scents typical of Nebbiolo.

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