With the Covid-19 crisis in full swing, we are all becoming expert at video conferencing. The new nightmare scenario would be to have simultaneous calls on Zoom, Microsoft Teams and a family call on Whatsapp! But this week I did have a conversation of over an hour with Andrea Sottimano via Zoom. The wifi in his winery in Barbaresco was weak so we used the audio-only option, However, it was still a great experience to be able to talk to a winemaker at length from the comfort of my study. Of course, I couldn’t take any pictures, so I have used some of theirs.
In the days pC-19, pre-Corona, I had been to the Lea & Sandeman Italian tasting and had the chance to taste the wines of several estates from Piemonte side-by-side. What struck me forcibly was that the Sottimano wines were up to a whole percentage point lower in alcohol, even from wines of the same vintage in the same denomination. Thus, their Barbaresco was 13.5%, not 14.5%, and their Barbera was 14%, not 15%.
Rising alcohol levels
As regular readers will know, I am concerned about rising alcohol levels in wine. See, for example, my piece on tackling climate change in southern Tuscany. I am not worrying about the effect of marginally more alcohol on health. Perhaps we should just drink a bit less? It is that high alcohol can easily unbalance wines. In particular, high alcohol in wine, above 14% abv, increases both the sweetness and bitterness of the taste of wine, adds the warmth of alcohol and reduces aromatic intensity. Thus, the issue is particularly relevant to my favourite varieties, Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir. Alcoholic warmth is in my view best saved for spirits or fortified wines. If you want the science behind all this, see the resource list below.
Andrea Sottimano talked me through the estate’s approach to grape growing and winemaking. You could summarise this as slow (in the vineyard), slow in winemaking and slow in maturation, hence the title of this post. The aim in the vineyard is, of course, completely ripe grapes. The challenge, here and everywhere, is to achieve ripe skins and pips and the appropriate level of sugar at the same time. It’s easy to arrive at high levels of sugar while you wait for the skins and pips to be fully ripe, but that would lead to unbalanced wines. What steps have they taken to achieve their goal?
Slow in the vineyard
Firstly, the estate has been organic for 20 years. This has slowed down plant growth in a helpful way. They no longer use animal fertilisers as they provide too many nutrients for the vine. Sowing a crop between the rows and then ploughing it in, so-called green manure, puts the vines on a ‘good diet’, enough to keep them healthy, not so much that they grow too rapidly. Their neighbours’ vineyards can be 10-14 days ahead of theirs.
They have also learned not to strive for very low yields. Andrea recounts that they learned from the hot 2009 vintage that very low yields in pursuit of quality ended up with wines of 14.5% abv and unripe tannins. In the hot 2017 vintage, they left more fruit on the vine and were much happier with the results.
The estate also benefits from a high proportion of old vines, mostly planted by Rino Sottimano in the 1970s and 1980s. 80 per cent of the vines are between 50 and 70 years old, naturally reducing vigour. And when planting new vineyards, the preference is for massal selection from their own vines and all three main clones of Nebbiolo (Rosé, Michet, Lampia), again to keep yields low. Commercial selections can be too productive.
In addition, Andrea reports that they combat the common diseases of the vine – here powdery and downy mildew – with natural products, a mix of beeswax, yeast, seaweed and essential oil of orange, that strengthens the skin of grapes. This, in turn, means that they can keep the grapes on the vine safely late into the season and wait for full ripeness. (And they are using less copper and sulfur than they used to.) In the prolonged warm summer of 2019, they picked their Cottà vineyard on 24 October, weeks after some of their neighbours. The overall result is thicker skins, high polyphenols (colour and tannin) and moderate alcohol levels.
With moderate sugar levels, in the winery they can safely use naturally-occurring yeast. Their approach is to keep fermentation temperature down to around 27-280C and to take a month to complete fermentation. The wine then stays on the skins using the older, submerged cap method for a second month. For Andrea, short maceration would successfully extract fruit and spice notes but a long maceration, an ‘infusion’, gives a much wider range of aromas, greater depth and complexity, and finer tannins. But he is pragmatic at this point. At the end of the day, in a restaurant, we don’t really care how the chef has prepared the dish, as long as we like the outcome.
The leisurely theme continues into maturation. Malolactic conversion is delayed as long as possible, meaning that the wine can stay on the fine lees longer. The 2019 Barbaresco still has not started malolactic (end of March 2020) and will probably stay on the lees for 18 months. Maturation follows in French oak, Burgundian pièces, from François Frères. The rationale is that as the wine is going to spend three years in these barrels, without further racking, they need to be small as the wine needs the micro-oxygenation that small barrels provide. The percentage of new oak is small, perhaps around 10 per cent. Three years in oak is much longer than the minimum nine months required; indeed the finished wine could have been released 10 months before the Sottimano wines have finished their time in wood. The wines are not filtered and fined, they are cold stabilised, sent to the lab for analysis and then bottled for release.
In sum, the Sottimano wines are the fruits of extended time – and labour and love – in the vineyard and the winery. They deserve our time and attention in the cellar and on the dining room table.
Enjoy … slowly
My German-speaking mother used to say that we should enjoy food treats mit Andacht, with reverence. She was trying to slow us children down, but it’s not bad advice for fine wine either. Here are my tasting notes from the Lea & Sandeman tasting:
Paiolero, Barbera d’Alba Superiore, 2017, 14% – fruit from the Basarin and San Cristoforo vineyards in Neive; wine aged in barriques, 15 per cent new for 16 months. Lifted, elegant, damson and a touch of black cherry fruit, well integrated moderate alcohol. This is dangerously drinkable, unlike too many Barberas on steroids from this very hot year.
Langhe Nebbiolo 2018, 14% – fruit from young vines (15 year olds) in the prestigious Basarin subzone of Neive. 20 days of maceration on the skins and then aged in barriques, 15 per cent new for 14–16 months. Elegant and fresh with firm tannins, very high quality for this quality level, like a mini Barbaresco.
Cottà, Barbaresco 2012 (NB), 14% – fruit from 50–70 year old vines in the Cottà cru, with a yield of just 28 hectolitres per hectare; vinification as described above, aged in barriques, 15% new for 18 months. Very, very elegant, even exquisite and lifted red fruit, floral and spice notes, refined if structuring tannins, long finish, has the depth and balance for longterm ageing, outstanding. This was the best of the single crus tasted on this occasion. (I later noticed that Walter Speller on Jancis Robinson had given this 18+/20, a very high score indeed.)
Fausoni, Barbaresco, 2012, 14.5% – from a vineyard directly outside of Neive village with 45 year old vines. Moderately intense Nebbiolo aromatics, a touch of new oak, a keeper for its lively tannins and acidity,
Barbaresco Pajoré, 2012, 14.5% – old vines (50 years) and punishingly low 25 hL/ha yields, vinification as described. Very dense and firm example that really demands extended time in the bottle or very hearty food. Walter Speller memorably described the just-released 2016 as ‘built like a stone house and monolithic for the moment’.
Barbaresco Currá, 2012, 14% – like the Cottá above, Currá is close to the boundary of the villages of Neive and Barbaresco. Old vines again, vinification as above. The estate likes to keep this in bottle for longer – but I had the luxury of tasting all these wines in their eighth year. Chocolate and smoke tertiary hints now showing over very attractive fruit, a substantial mid-palate, plenty of fruit for longterm ageing.
Overview: Goode, J and Harrop S, Authentic Wine: toward natural and sustainable winemaking, University of California Press, 2011, ch. 10
Jordão, A.M., Vilela A. and Cosme F, From Sugar of Grape to Alcohol of Wine: Sensorial Impact of Alcohol in Wine, Beverages 2015, 1, 292-310;
Goldner, M.C., Zamora, M.C., Di Leo Lira, P., Gianninoto, H. And Bandoni, A. (2009), Effect of ethanol level in the perception of aroma attributes and the detection of volatile compounds in red wine, Journal of Sensory Studies, 24: 243-257.