Every now and then you go to a really special tasting, an event which leaves you with a sense of extraordinary privilege, one that moves you with admiration and even awe at what wine can do in the glass. Such was the Borgogno Barolo tasting in November 2016, organised by Astrum Wine Cellars to show the potential of these wines to the UK trade.
Borgogno presents itself as the oldest winery in the Barolo denomination, perhaps Italy’s most prestigious and famous denomination. It traces its history back to 1761 when it was founded by Bartolomeo Borgogno but its real roots go back, impressively enough, to Cesare Borgogno. In the 1920s he took the remarkable decision to hold back significant volumes, 50%, of their riserva Barolo to be released after 20 years. As a result of this tradition, the house has the largest holdings in the denomination of old vintages which it still can produce for tastings and indeed for sale.
Borgogno owns 16 hectares of vineyard, most of it in prime Barolo vineyards – Cannubi, Liste, Fossate and the less well-known San Pietro Delle Viole. (Of their total production of 140,000 bottles, 65,000 are Barolo.) Thus, one of the reasons for its success is this irreplaceable heritage of top vineyards.
One of the remarkable things about Barolo and Barbaresco is how difficult it has proved to make convincing wines from the demanding Nebbiolo variety in other parts of the world. It is the antithesis of the well-travelled Cabernet Sauvignon, though enterprising Australian growers are doing their best to disprove this point.
The other reason is that Borgogno has stuck to a strongly traditional approach to making this wine. This includes giving the wines the time they need to show their qualities. While nowadays the company does produce individual vineyard wines, there is a special place in their offer for the blended Barolo Riserva which made from fruit across their vineyards, a traditional practice. The wines are then made in concrete tanks with natural yeasts. Temperature control is limited to keeping the wines under 30ºC. Maceration times belong to another age. While common practice these days is 20-30 days (itself a return to the past), Borgogno, according to chief wine maker Andrea Farinetti, leaves the young wines on the skins for the Reserva until just after Christmas. (The website gives shorter times but I am not sure how reliable the technical specifications are. For example, the alcohol level is always 13.5% .) Long maceration time of this sort requires the practice of a submerged cap and it seems to work here. The wines are aged for six to seven years in old Slavonian large-format casks. The exception to neutral oak is the last chestnut cask which now has got to the 120 year mark. After a period of rest, the bottled Riserva is released a minimum of eight years after the vintage – ready to drink, if you are not inclined to age it further. However, the over all goal is to make a wine that can be cellared for 50 years. And we were about to put this remarkable ambition to the test …
The warm up act was a perky Freisa (fragrant, raspberry-scented, parent of Nebbiolo) and a fine Barolo declassified to Langhe DOC (‘No name’ 2012), a protest label at the ridiculous bureaucracy suffered by Italian wine makers. We then tasted the latest estate Barolo, 2011, as a bench mark. This a very good standard – genuinely fragrant, intense and long, firm fine tannins, and all that from an early drinking vintage. The fruit for this bottling comes from the good but not the best parts of the vineyards. The best is saved for the single vineyard bottlings and of course the Riserva. We also had the chance to try the latest micro-offering of a multi-vintage wine called – and dedicated to – Cesare. The blend is from bottles of 2004, 1998, 1996 and 1982. Mellow, autumn fruit, softened tannins, long. Very good but I am not sure what the point of this is beyond a unique offering for collectors and somms insatiable for something new.
Barolo Riserva 2006 – a warmer year, this is currently quite closed with earthy aromas, warming red berries, the first leather and tobacco notes. Judging by what was to follow this would best be kept for … well, as long as you wish.
Barolo Riserva 2004 – a much-lauded cooler vintage which apparently took 10 years to come around. It is now in light truffle, leather and forest floor mode with fine sour cherry fruit, supported by tannins which are beginning to soften. It clearly had the concentration to continue to develop.
Barolo Riserva 1997 – at nearly the 20 year mark we move into fully mature wine territory with lovely volatile acidity, developed mulberry to red plum fruit, tobacco and more. On the palate the structure meets the fruit perfectly with that firmness associated with Barolo and a still grippy finish. This has it all.
Barolo Riserva 1985 – from an outstanding vintage this 30-year old had remarkable freshness, outstanding complexity and broad structuring tannins. Wonderful. Contender for the best wine in this tasting but there is better to come.
Barolo Riserva 1978 – a hot year and therefore a real test of a wine’s ability to age gracefully. It led with more tertiary notes than fruit, tar, old plum, full on maturity. But certainly nowhere near passed it.
Barolo Riserva 1967 – for all practical purposes we have arrived at the 50 year mark and were rewarded with an absolute treasure of a wine from a great vintage. The most inviting, enticing nose, this wine stopped me in my tracks with its extraordinary beauty. It had the usual old Barolo components – pronounced fragrance, incense, leather, sour red fruit – but what should out was its extraordinary integration and seamless charm. The mid palate is now textured and completely accessible. To retain one’s critical faculties, the palate did not quite hit the standard of the nose but this was still truly outstanding. Fine acidity and a still firm finish, plus concentration, suggests this continues to have time on its side.
Barolo Reserva 1958 – the effects of a long life under cork are beginning to show here with cinnamon, furniture polish, leather and tobacco leaf the dominant themes – but then the wine is nearly as old as I am! But there is still a core of cherry to plum fruit. It is not entirely clear who is ageing better.
Barolo Reserva 1937 – the oldest wine in our tasting by some margin, my first Barolo from the 1930s and the first wine that is not available to buy from the winery. Very pale rose-tinted garnet, a limited nose, fine mellow fruit, surprisingly fresh and alive with Nebbiolo’s famous tannic structure now softened and not obtrusive. A remarkable performance from a wine that is within a year of being 80 years old. Decanted at 11am, tasted at 1.30, without deterioration.
This was a remarkable and a remarkably instructive tasting. Nebbiolo has a capacity to age which puts it at the top table of the world’s wines. Borgogno shows that it is not just the tiny elite of very top quality growers which can do this. Great vineyard sites, the Nebbiolo variety, the climate of the Langhe, vinification aimed to create a long-lasting wine and, uniquely, a commitment to ageing them for decades produce a great vinous experience.