Winefriend by David Way

Writing about the wines of Piemonte, Italy and France

Diary: 8 – taking the temperature

Grandi Langhi

‘Diary of a Wine Writer’ has become ‘Diary’, rather simpler than DWW, an opaque acronym, if close to my initials.

I have just returned from a first, exploratory visit to the Langhe, the most well-known wine area of Piemonte. The occasion was Grandi Langhe, a presentation to the trade of the new vintages from Barolo, Barbaresco, Roero and Dogliani, the big hitters if you will of the region. The tasting lasts two days, and Janet and I stayed on for another three days of visits – roughly a day in each of the first three denominations mentioned. This diary entry reflects briefly on what I learnt and how it might set an agenda for my research.

I anticipated much more of a scrum for this event than turned out to be the case. Surprisingly, we managed to rent a small apartment three minutes from the event without any difficulty and restaurants were not fully booked or even crowded. The reason for this is that most attendees are from businesses and especially restaurants within the region. Monday was busy. Many restaurants are closed on Monday lunchtimes and so the somm can come to the fair. Tuesday was less crowded. Of course, there was the obligatory queue to get in on Monday morning but the sun shone and we could hardly complain. Here are my highlights from Grandi Langhe 2020.  

Alessandro Masnaghetti’s presentations of his geo-viticultural maps of Barolo and Barbaresco

Italy is not famous for its road maps but Masnaghetti’s maps of wine regions are simply fabulous, with detailed information on sub-zones, altitude and vineyards. His presentations are equally insightful in that he is that rare expert who does not overstate the importance of his own field.  He underlined the point that wind direction, shading from nearby hills, exposure and elevation, and the nature of soils (younger v. evolved) are much more important than sheer geology.  Thus, in Barolo, Monvigliero and Ginestra, two important sub-zones, have the same altitude and southern exposure but the micro-climates are very different.  Monvigliero faces the open land to the north of the denomination and thus is very warm. Ginestra, by contrast, is shaded by the ridge of Mosconi, especially in the lower parts. Geology is rarely the whole story.  Masnaghetti has as much commitment to multi-factor explanations, human and natural factors, as the WSET! 

Styles of Barolo and Barbaresco

Most recent discussions of style have made the perfectly reasonable point that the old days of modernists v traditionalists are long over. (For the background to this, see Ed McCarthy’s informative, The return of the traditional Barolos.)  Modernists no longer insist on deep coloured wines aged in exclusively new French barriques, while most traditionalists have shortened maceration times and may use a small proportion of barriques in the mix along with large casks.  A new consensus has been reached, it is said, in which each has learned from the other.

I was therefore surprised to find a wide range of styles in both denominations.  La Spinetta is keeping unabashed modernism alive with its deep coloured wines and overt new oak, dominant even in a 12-year-old Barbaresco I tasted.  By contrast, Ceretto 2016 Barbaresco, another restaurant purchase as it happened, is a simply lovely wine with fragrant, precise fruit. It is a delight to drink now, though it would no doubt repay ageing. It is aged in an undeclared mixture of small and large barrels but the oak does not impose itself at all, despite the wine being so young.  It is even traditional in the sense that is a blend of more than one vineyard. I will no doubt return to this subject many times but there were many wines with at least some evident new oak on release.  It is perhaps no coincidence that these denominations’ most important export market by far is the USA, where many wine lovers are not averse to the aromas of fine French carpentry with their wine.  Barbera is if anything much more the victim of over-oaking, perhaps because producers are trying to demonstrate its potential to be a great, rather than every day, wine. What a shame – top  Barbera does not need lashings of oak!

Finally, it was great to meet a few old friends and to make many new contacts.  Valerie Quintanilla (Girl’s gotta drink) is based in Alba and runs high-quality wine tours with the advantage of inside knowledge. It was a complete and very pleasant surprise to run into Martin Hudson MW, a former neighbour and inspiration for those of us who got into wine as a second career.  

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