Diary 20: Masnaghetti wine maps, a complete toolkit

Alessandro Masnaghetti is known as Italy’s Mr Map man. But his contribution is actually a complete toolkit for interpreting vineyards. It is indeed true that his detailed maps of vineyards are the most fantastic resource for wine lovers and students. Whether in your home or in the field, you can examine many top regions of Italy that have been mapped at a remarkable level of detail. The elevation, physical features, soil types and official vineyard sub-zones are beautifully and clearly depicted. And now with the website Barolo MGA 360º, Barolo can be visualised in extraordinary detail and clarity through interactive aerial photography. It is a subscription website but do try it out as there are some free pages that will make you, well, thirsty for more. Here is a snippet from one of his simpler maps of Barolo:

Massnaghetti on La Morra, Barolo

Alessandro Masnaghetti has been on a mission to transform our understanding of top Italian vineyards. Originally an engineer in the nuclear field, he polished his skills as a wine critic for a couple of decades in the footsteps of Luigi Veronelli as editor of Veronelli Editore.  He founded the magazine Enogea in 1997 which in turn led to the publication of his distinctive ‘geo-viticultural’ maps of a good number of Italy’s most important wine regions.  He has also had one foray into Bordeaux and some Californian regions are forthcoming. Latterly, he has published a two-volume books of maps on Barolo, which include much valuable historical material too.

In many ways, this is not such a typical Italian story. Generally speaking, maps are not much valued in Italian life. If you want to find a location in Italy the standard approach is to drive as close as you can to it, stop in a bar and ask. That Italy has the finest wine mapping in the world (alongside Burgundy), is therefore surprising. But it is entirely typical of Italy that these maps are the product of the initiative of one super-talented individual. 

The text is important too

However, what is rarely noted is that the text that accompanies the maps, books and website give a complete toolkit for interpreting a vineyard within its landscape. The world of wine is much given to assertions about direct connections between one important factor and the final wine. Often it is the geology of a region that is said to confer the particular characteristics of a wine. For example, the ‘chalkiness’ of Chablis is derived from the limestone soils of the region. For Alex Maltman’s demolition of this view, see Mineral muddle. By contrast, Masnaghetti emphasises the full range of factors that affect the characteristics of grapes and thus of the wine that is made from them.  In Barolo and Barbaresco, the most important factors are:

Elevation and the steepness of slopes: higher sites have greater day–night temperature difference, slowing down ripening and potentially giving a greater aromatic intensity. The steepness of slopes is also important, affecting light interception and photosynthesis as well as drainage and the impoverishment of soils though erosion.  

Exposure: south-west and south-facing sites are the warmest giving more structure and alcohol, while east and north-facing sites are cooler making for fruitier wines, less alcohol and higher acidity. As the climate has warmed rapidly, the sites that were considered too cool for ripening Nebbiolo are becoming increasingly important.

Microclimate: there are marked differences of the microclimates of even adjacent sites due to a number of factors.  First, the Serralunga valley is much steeper and narrower and is subject to cold winds coming from the higher Alta Langa to the south.  By contrast, the Barolo/La Morra valley is much broader and acts as a bowl, capturing heat. Second, these main valleys are crossed by side valleys, giving the landscape a fishbone structure.  In the side valleys, there is a really striking difference between the cooler north-facing side, typically not suitable for ripening Nebbiolo, and the much warmer south-facing side.  But that is not all. Some of the side valleys are very narrow so that the supposedly warmer south-facing side can be literally shaded by the north-facing side in the afternoons, reducing exposure to the sun and temperatures.  The message is that site microclimate is just as important, often more important than soil type or underlying geology.

Soil type: the older and simpler classification of Serravalian versus Helvetian sub-soils has now been superseded by distinctions between the various formations, the results of the progressive withdrawal of the sea in the Piedmontese Ligurian Tertiary Basin. The most referred to of these are:

  • Sant’Agata Fossili marls, typical of much of the basin in the main Barolo/La Morra valley  
  • the Lequio formation, typical of much of Serralunga d’Alba and eastern side of Monforte d’Alba, the side that faces Serralunga
  • Diana sandstones, typical of the tops of ridges and cliff edges and therefore not suitable for viticulture but also in much of the broad ridge of Monforte d’Alba.
The geology is best studied inside a winery? (Cascina delle Rose, Barbaresco)

An important reminder is that vines grow principally in the soil in which they are planted not in the underlying geology, the subsoil. This is the case even though soil is usually formed from the subsoil via erosion and consequent chemical and physical changes and the farming activity of humans. These processes give rise to a distinction that Masnaghetti uses far more than simple recourse to geological formations.  

  • Younger soils, typical of steeper slopes, are pale in colour. They are the result of continuous erosive action on the subsoil by atmospheric forces and thereby these soils maintain roughly the same characteristics as the initial formation. They tend to result in wines of less colour and fruit and finer tannins.
  • Evolved soils (the translator uses the word ‘evoluted’ here), typical of more gradual slopes, are brown or red, and therefore deeper in colour. The subsoils are less subject to erosion. The evolved soils have undergone greater chemical-physical alteration as they have been exposed to the forces of erosion for a longer time. In addition, they are enriched by the repeated seasons of vegetation and its breakdown. These soils tend to result in wines of deeper colour, more fruit and coarser or more rustic tannins.
A powerful toolkit

The simple takeaway here is that a Barolo will rarely taste of X or have Y structure simply because of the geological formation that underlies the vineyard in which the grapes are grown. Rather, the whole range of factors listed above will have to be taken into account. This toolkit is remarkably similar to the WSET’s list of natural factors that influence the outcome of growth in the vineyard. In effect what Masnaghetti does is to draw together the natural factors that are most relevant to this very special and massively complex region of the Langhe. This does leave the interpreter with a big challenge – which of the many factors are the most important ones in any particular vineyard? – but at least it is a properly comprehensive model.

Incidentally, as there are so many variables here, this also demonstrates why Barolo and Barbaresco are among the most interesting cases for the study of terroir in the world. The Côte d’Or might be the champion of minute terroir differentiation; the Langhe is surely among the most complex examples in the world of differing terroirs within a relatively small region.

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