Giacosa Fratelli is rather different from most of the wineries we visited in our recent week in Piemonte. The winery is much bigger than most of the places we went to, a large, functional building coincidentally right next door to Bruno Giacosa, who, after Gaja, is probably the biggest name in Barbaresco. The business is based in Neive, one of the three main communes of Barbaresco, though the firm has its best vineyards in the Barolo area.
This tasting came about because of the success of Giacosa Fratelli’s Barolo Bussia 2005 which won a prestigious 5-star rating in a Decanter tasting late last year. When I enquired about the wine from Coe Vintners I discovered that they have a number of other Nebbiolo based wines from the same company and a number of vintages, the perfect opportunity for a comparative tasting. At a subsequent London event with Coe Vintners the wines tasted a little rough and not quite ready to drink but by then I had already bought the wines and all was set.
A fine wine supper with a group from Andover Wine Friends was a perfect opportunity to re-evaluate the wines. First impressions are important. Nebbiolo, made for ageing, initially comes over as perfumed, only moderately fruity and tannic. Janet commented that she could smell the floral and woody notes upstairs as I was decanting the bottles two hours before the tasting. That pale ruby red with an orange edge even in young wines is also a bit different. Then there is the surprise when you taste the wines. We are so used to fruit led wines that the austerity of Nebbiolo is an initial hurdle to get over, followed of course by the mouth drying finish of lively tannins. It was always said that the growers used to drink the (fruity) Dolcetto and the (zippy) Barbera while they waited – for up to ten years – for the Nebbiolo to come around.
And it is quite a wait. Traditional Barolo and Barbaresco is made by long maceration of the wine skins in the must, 20-30 days or even more in some cases, followed by some years in large, relatively inert oak barrels. The wine has to then have a year in bottles before it is released an absolute of minimum of two years (Barbaresco) or three years (Barolo) after the harvest. So a five year old is still a young wine, perhaps a decade off its initial peak with several decades ahead of it in the best cases.
Our five wines were a good sample of styles and ages. The first two were generic Barbaresco and Barolo, in other words wines made from grapes from anywhere with the two adjacent wine regions of those names which flank the town of Alba. Both were from the quite tricky but ultimately decent 2005 vintage. And both these wines were true to to type, the Barbaresco being rather more approachable and ready to drink after five years, the Barolo more structured, denser and still quite demanding. Both have notes of Turkish delight (rose water) and red fruit on the nose.
Barolo Bussia 2005 is quite a step up and this was the wine that got the 5-star rating. This is a single vineyard wine from the magnificent Bussia vineyard with its long, undulating, south-facing slope. The biggest difference in the finished wine is riper, fuller fruit. The wine continues to be high in acidity and tannin but despite being bigger is more approachable because it is better balanced.
Also true to type was the difference between the two Barolo single-vineyard wines. The Bussia vineyard (or at least this part of it) is in the Barolo commune, while the Vigna Mandorlo is from the adjacent commune of Castiglione Falletto. They may be only a few kilometres apart and both are still in the quality wine area of Barolo but the geology has changed. The wines of Castiglione Falletto are characteristically more structured, more demanding, longer-lived.
Barolo Vigna Mandorlo 2004 is from the excellent 2004 vintage now just starting to get into its stride. The perfumed nose is wonderfully pronounced but the wine is much tougher, all set for the long haul to vinous perfection. The vineyard name itself, Mandorlo, is the historic name of the best, top, part of the Rivera vineyard, on the steep slope just below the picturesque town of Castiglione Falleto. There is a perfect picture of it on the introductory page for the whole Italian section of the latest edition of the world wine atlas (Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson). Life’s not fair is it – it’s both beautiful to look at and is a great wine!
Our final wine is a 1996 vintage of the same wine, coming up to the mid-point of its second decade. In the last ten plus years, the wine has knit together into a seamless velvety texture and a richer, deeper unity in terms of flavours. You could try to describe this (balsam and liquorice from the wood ageing, fruit more in the blackberry, mulberry range), but the point is that they are no longer individual components. The tannins and acidity are still with us but now provide structure for this remarkable wine. This really makes the point – if it’s a well-made wine to start with and from a good year, these bottles do develop into something far more than the sum of their parts. The perfume develops, the austerity remains but now as a component of something which is much more than a glass of wine – a glass with a history, a range of sensations for nose and palate, a place, of course, and a stimulus to the brain as much as to the senses.
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