Piedmont Trip 2013: Conterno – The great protector of tradition and terroir

The estate Giacomo Conterno is legendary in Piedmont and the estate has had a leading role in establishing Barolo on the map as one of the top wine regions in the world. However, still it is the modernist Gaja and legendary Bruno Giacosa who both are more well-known outside Piedmont. Roberto Conterno, who is the third generation vintner, were forced to take charge of the estate when his father Giovanni passed away in 2004, is a man of few words, but with power behind every statement. Since 1988, he had been working closely with his father so he was well educated for the task, but unprepared. Since the last time I was here I get the feeling that even though Roberto is proud of the family’s great wines, he apparently has a heavy legacy on his shoulders to continue on the path set up by his father and ensure its excellence. Amazingly, he appears to be doing most of the work himself, except sales and bookings. Two people in the staff seems to be working with importers and sales as well as one assistant, but there is one elderly man helping out in the vineyard too. Still it is a small team.

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Roberto Conterno

The crown jewel in the estates production is the Monfortino which was first produced in 1920 by Roberto’s grandfather Giacomo shortly after returning from World War I. Actually, the estate was established in 1908 by Giovanni Conterno, grand father Giacomo’s father, but it was Giacomo, who realised his vision of making a really great Barolo for long ageing and supremacy. Monfortino was given its name to celebrate the town of Monforte d’Alba where is home to the Conterno family. At that time the grapes where bought from a selection of local farmers in the same fashion that Giacosa still does. This later changed during the 1970s when many of these growers started bottling their own wine. To solve this problem Roberto’s father acquired the complete Francia vineyard in 1974, a very steep vineyard with south-west exposition, very high altitude for freshness and soil suitable for longevity and since 1978 all grapes for the Monfortino comes from this vineyard.

The Monfortino is only produced in exceptional vintages and with the top selection of grapes.

In June 2008, the second time in the estates history, a vineyard was acquired and this time two sections in the Cerretta vineyard in Serralunga. About 2 ha of nebbiolo and 1 of barbera. Compared to Francia, it has less calcareous and more white clay. The wine from this vineyard has been sold as declassified Langhe Nebbiolo since then, but from the 2010 vintage Roberto has confirmed that the wine will be bottled as Barolo.

Suddenly, Roberto’s assistant, Stephanie, tells us that he is ready to receive us after a previous visit and we shake hands, he apologises for being a little late and we quickly move down for a tour in the cellar. Visits with Roberto is not what we would call informal and laid back, but Roberto is not the open type and apparently he has a tight schedule with multiple things to attend to all the time. Even though, Roberto obviously understands English he still keeps an assistant that translates everything back and forth. The cellar is impeccably clean as it was last time I was here for some vat tasting of the 2008’s about two years ago and there is still plenty of room down here among the big neutral, large 45-50 hl Slavonian and Austrian barrels.

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The Austrian open top vats for fermentation on the skins

Roberto is especially satisfied with his wooden Austrian open vats used for maceration and alcoholic fermentation from Franz Stockinger that are both mobile and has a removable top as well if needed. Actually, he has in recent years exchanged old, used big Slavonian barrels with ones from Stockinger. The vinification process is adapted to the vintage but for the Monfortino they always use an uncontrolled fermentation at high temperature levels with open tops. The maceration period is up to about five weeks, but the exact length is dependent on the vintage and the grape juice is then stored in large oak casks for seven years or more. This produces wine with great structure, complexity and a very long life. Roberto explains that he makes the decision if he will produce a Monfortino during vinification and if it is not up to standard, he pours it into the Barolo casks. The Barolo from Francia undergoes 3-4 weeks of maceration with daily pumping over and/or submerged cap depending on vintage, temperature-controlled fermentation and shorter ageing in cask, typically four years.

Even though the open vats are great, it is in the vineyard the real magic takes place, Roberto assures us, when I ask him what is most important. Without high quality grapes, there is no quality wine no matter what vinification you use appears to be the obvious principle and we can only agree fully. Roberto keeps very high trellising system with his vines for, as he explains, get correct leaves-grapes ratio to optimise energy into the grapes and the rows are very wide to avoid shadowing. The Cerretta vineyard is very young planted in 1994, but in Francia many are much older and the youngest vines were planted in 2002. Moreover, he prunes his nebbiolo and barbera grapes differently but short to perfect ripeness and yields are controlled at about 25-30 hl/ha to achieve top quality. Grapes are harvested entirely by hand.

Back in the tasting room, Roberto offers us his two Barberas from 2011, the 2009 Barolo Cascina Francia and the sought-after 2006 Monfortino. Roberto tells us that the quality of tannins is the key for making great wine of nebbiolo and that is why he usually waits longer to harvest than many others. He explains that he is less focused on sugar levels, but chewing on the skin and seeds to determine when the tannins are ripe. “The tannins shall be ripe, not hard but chewy”, Roberto quickly adds “and the seeds shall be brown and taste wood”. And of course, this is the single most important reason he only use traditional, neutral wood, since new wood or barriques, except for adding non-terroir wood sensations, they add tannins that are not from the soil and the unique terroir of Langhe. Moreover, back in the late 1800 and first half of 20th Century, most farmers still picked very early in classic vintages with cooler temperatures, so the tannins would not be perfect ever and once the tannins had finally polymerised, the fruit had dried out long time ago. This became the vast opinion about barolos for along time as being undrinkable, harsh and dry, which never was the case with Conterno’s barolos. However, still the wines have never been made for early drinking, but to be perfected by slow ageing to be drinkable in two or three decades while stay alive and fresh for more than 50 in classic vintages. According to Roberto, all of this reached another quality level during Roberto’s father’s time at the estate.

The tasting

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The line-up for our tasting

The vintage 2011 for barbera, that we are tasting today, Roberto explains, is great for this grape that does its best in warmer years and in this case it rendered more structure and complexity than usual, whereas nebbiolo gets its most classic expression in cooler years when the growing cycle is slower and the tannins may reach perfect ripeness very late, Roberto points out.

The 2009 vintage was far from ideal for nebbiolo and suffered from a too hot summer that endured into September causing precisely this undesired fast growing cycle as well as an early, patchy ripeness. However, by doing a ruthless selection in the vineyard, he rendered a really good result. The 2009 barolos were bottled in June this year and Roberto thinks that the 2009 vintage offers just a little less fruit, but more tannins compared to for example another warm year, 2007. He likes the more simpler early drinkable, but still quite impressive, 2009’s, but like 2007 it obviously did not have the classic expression of the terroir and quality for long ageing suitable for Monfortino. In the Cerretta, he thinks the vintage is even better than the more classic and in his opinion fantastic 2008. In Francia, it is the other way around and here the soil contains more minerals, whereas in the Cerretta, tannins and fruit dominate. We ask him about the somewhat unexpected coolness and freshness of the fruit in the warm 2009 vintage and his reply is that this is very much due to the altitude in Francia. In fact, the altitude reaches 420 meters above sea-level so this make sense and you can easily grasp that cool winds from the mountains at nights can build a lot of necessary fresh acidity.

2011 Barbera d’Alba Cerretta

The colour is very dark, crimson with light-light orange edges.

The nose is fresh, pure dark fruit; mainly dark cherries and plum. Some herbs and minerals.

The mid palate offers creamy, quite deep layers of black fruit (cherries, plum and blue berries), smoke, herbs, spices and complex minerals. Incredible concentration, the structure is quite big for a Barbera and it’s fat, rich and intense. Texture is fine sandy and tannins are thick and chewy. Acidity is energetic and needs to calm down further for a few years.

Right now this vineyard is a little more about earthy notes and loads of minerals, but we think in some years the vines will most likely produce more fruit. It is already an impressively deep, pure and overall balanced wine considering how young the vineyard is. Open 2015-2020.

92p/100

2011 Barbera d’Alba Cascina Francia

The colour is dark garnet red with light-purple edges.

Immediately deep, elegant perfumes and dried rose petals emerges from the glass. Incredibly fresh and ripe fruit. Very balsamic notes and some solvent and autumn leaves.

The palate offers deep, complex and very fresh layers of ripe black fruit. There is some shale here too, crushed stone and balsamic notes. A very energetic and very balsamic-fresh acidity. Quite weightlessly powerful but with slim structure and a lot of fine tuned, complex saline lime stone minerals. A slimmer, more fresh, a more balanced and much different expression of the two Barberas, that is really conveying the unique terroir of the Cascina Francia vineyard. Impressive depth, concentration and balance. Simply a fantastic Barbera. Open 2014-2025.

93p/100.

2009 Barolo Cascina Francia

The colour is dark ruby red with transparent edges.

Very deep, very fragrant, quite feminine, perfumes and dried rose petals emerges from the glass. Incredibly fresh and ripe fruit follows. Very balsamic and there are some complex autumn scents.

The mid palate offers impressively deep, complex and super-fresh layers of cool, very ripe and pure fruit; typically raspberry, cherries and wild strawberries. There is some shale here too, crushed stone, tiny grape-peel, some tar, dry licorice-root, mint and balsamic notes. A very fresh, balsamic acidity that is already quite integrated. Texture is fine sandy, almost silky already and tannins are thick and pleasingly chewy. Weightlessly powerful and with slim structure and a lot of fine tuned, complex little saline lime stone. A very approachable Barolo with a lot of complex aromas and great cool, fresh and ripe fruit indeed. This is a wine of impressive depth, concentration and balance as well as being incredibly persistent and very elegant at the same time. This year, all the grapes went into the barolo, since no Monfortino was made. Open 2017-2035.

96-97p/100.

2006 Barolo Monfortino

The colour is dark ruby red with orange edges.

Very deep, very fragrant top notes, feminine, perfumes and dried rose petals comes out of the glass. Incredibly fresh and ripe fruit. Very balsamic too and complex autumn scents at the base.

The mid palate offers impressively complex, super-fresh, breath-taking depth of cool, fresh and very ripe fruit. In addition, there is shale, some licorice-root, very balsamic, tiny notes of grape-peel, gravel, notes of tobacco and distinct minerals. The little saline, balsamic acidity is already well integrated with the tannins that are polished, ripe and chewy. From a vintage that is very powerful and tannic, it was a surprise how soft and polished they are already.

With this wine, everything gets up a notch and you grab for descriptive words like purity, insane balance, complexity, unbelievable depth and sheer elegance. Wow! What an iconic wine. It is all in here, the combination of power and elegance as well as the deep, complex aromas to be explored and all so effortlessly balanced into wonderful harmony. A surprisingly very approachable Barolo this young when considering the vintage, but it will most likely peak much later. Open 2020-2050.

99p/100

Summary

Well we already knew that people around the world worship this estate’s wines and especially the Monfortino, but after this tasting and meeting with Roberto, we can confirm that we are more convinced now of the estate’s importance and quality level where the wines ranges from fantastic to extraordinary. The 2006 Monfortino was the best wine we tried during our week long visit in Piedmont.

We did expect depth and complexity in the wines but in addition we where impressed especially by the cool freshness and impeccable balance the wines offered. And there is the 2010 barolos to be released next year too and we can hardly wait. It is obvious that this estate makes top quality wines that with pride celebrates the greatness of Barolo, “the wine of kings”, whose unique territorial expression is best conveyed by its delicate, noble grape nebbiolo.

We will certainly be back.

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Andreas, Roberto and Frederik

 

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