The Italian writer Luigi Barzini once said that Italians live in a “penumbra of half-truths”. Wine-loving visitors to Piedmont know the feeling. We know that Barolo is the region of Nebbiolo. But at Fratelli Alessandria – the first winery I visit, and one of the 12 oldest estates in Barolo – the first wines we try are not Nebbiolo, but Favorita and Pelaverga, a white and black grape both new to me.
At our next stop, we taste Nascetta, a waxy white, and more Pelaverga. I’m soon in love with this pale, fragrant red with cracked pepper aromas – the sort of almost-red you can chill and serve with fish. Thereafter, we travel from winery to winery, and Elio Grasso, Barbara Sandrone, Luigi Pira and Chiara Boschis all pour us Dolcetto, telling us how much they love it – but that they can’t sell it, “because all people think of in Barolo is Nebbiolo”.
Barolo has been constantly touted as “the new Burgundy”
In recent times, Barolo has been constantly touted as “the new Burgundy”. Plutocrats have priced us out of the Côte d’Or, so Barolo is where you’re meant to go if you’re a less-wealthy lover of the precise expression of a single grape from a single vineyard. Yet with every glass, I’m reminded of a morning (unsuccessfully) studying for the Master of Wine. “All today’s wines are from a single grape, and a single region,” said the tutor. We tasted in silence. The wines were translucent. Fragrant, earthy, marked by cherry and raspberry, and clearly high quality. After we put down our pens the tutor asked if anyone would like to suggest what the grape was. “Pinot Noir?” said one. “What?” asked the tutor, astonished. “Who else had Pinot Noir?” Half the room put up their hands. “But where are the tannins?” she asked, exasperated. “Where is the acidity?”
The answer is that they’re here, in Piedmont. Barolo is not a Burgundy switch-out stylistically. Or philosophically. At the top of the Burgundian pyramid are wines from single, acclaimed sites. It’s true that Barolo’s individual crus are gaining the recognition some of them deserve. But is the best Barolo the product of a single site, or something else? There’s no clear answer. Luigi Pira’s pinnacle is his glorious single-vineyard Barolo Vigna Ronda, made in the Burgundian model. But Michele Reverdito’s is his super-blend Riserva from four different vineyards, while Elio Grasso’s Barolo Riserva Rüncot is from one vineyard, but made up of two terroirs, and produced only in certain years. Confused? You could be.
All wines are an interplay between the land they are sourced from and the people who make them, but in this Italian free-for-all, the interplay is all the starker. And confusing. We taste Fratelli Alessandria’s Verduno wines outside the house of Vittore Alessandria, their creator. Reserved, thoughtful, meticulous about observing social distancing, he quotes Giorgio Armani: “Elegance is not to be noticed, it’s to be remembered.”
“You have to be a connoisseur to like Verduno,” he adds. “For power, you go to Serralunga”. So we do, to visit Davide Rosso at Giovanni Rosso. He immediately hugs me warmly, kisses me on both cheeks and takes me inside to taste his fleshy, confident Barolos that peak with the £300 Ester Canale Rosso Vigna Rionda – a wine that, at three times the price of Luigi Pira’s from the same vineyard, wants to be noticed. Also conspicuous in the house is a vast portrait of “Our Lady of Vigna Rionda”, standing on a cloud above the town of Serralunga, holding an infant, flanked by a medieval couple, above two small, chubby angels who look up in adoration. It’s modern, with bright, vivid colours. The faces appear too real. Then I realise they are real. The infant carried by Our Lady is not Jesus, but Davide’s mother, Ester, honoured in the name of Davide’s most prized wine. The dark-haired angel at the bottom, with folded arms looking up adoringly, is Davide himself. Dr Freud will see you now, Mr Rosso.
At E Pira we meet Chiara Boschis, one of the most celebrated makers of “the wine of kings”. Yet when her father made wine, he earned more in four months from his truffle dog than he did from the vineyard patrolled by his eight other canine helpers. Chiara was the first female winemaker in the area and is an icon for those who followed. She talks about wine in the language of the feminism of the 1960s and 1970s that inspired her, speaking with such energy that her English drops: “Treat well the plant; do not rape the plant. Everything is violence. Cutting is violence. Harvest is violence. Treat with love and you will be paid back.” She explains how her determination meant that she “forgot my personal life. I have no children”, so she is passing her business on to her young nieces who are working on the bottling line. “They are in the phase where they need some kicking up the backside.” Tough love, then.
The writer Tim Parks described Italy as “a nation at ease with the distance between ideal and real. Italians are beyond what we call hypocrisy. Quite simply they do not register the contradiction between rhetoric and behaviour”. In these rolling hills, clothed in green corduroy vineyards, we find a dissonance between what Barolo is, and what we have been led to believe it is. Piedmont is the most Italian of wine regions – which is why it deserves our love.