March 1, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Honoring the land

By |2018-04-27T17:32:13+02:00November 11th, 2010|Food & Wine Archive|
Beppe Rinadl's loud-and-clear message. Photos by Eleanor Shannon.

o Barrique. No Berlusconi, reads the label on a bottle of Barolo placed strategically over Beppe Rinaldi‘s desk in a back corner of his cantina. His chair, made from oak barrel staves, has a small but significant note taped to the top. Translated, the reminder reads: “Best use for a barrique.” Rinaldi and fellow Barolo maker, Bartolo Mascarello, fervently opposed the introduction of French oak barrels in the 1980s to soften the naturally tannic taste of Barolo wine, made entirely with nebbiolo grapes. In their view, manipulating “the truth” is no good in either winemaking or politics.

When I entered Rinaldi’s cantina on a foggy October morning, his grown daughter, Marta, was balanced on a plank of wood stretched across the first of four gigantic wooden fermentation tanks. She plunged what looked like an oversized garden hoe deep into the macerating grape must, only to haul it up again. The action keeps the grape skins from collecting and hardening to form a capello at the top of the tank.

“Papa,” she called to a man I could hardly see in the shadows at the far end of the cantina. “Come and talk to the Signora!” Her voice was almost drowned out by the churning of a pump that sucked wine from the bottom of the tank and dumped it out through a wide-mouthed hose into the open top where Marta was perched.

Rinaldi walked briskly toward me from the other part of the cantina, but with a distinct limp. His wiry frame was full of energy and seemed to want to move faster than his left leg would allow. He looked down at the floor concentrating, a toscano cigar clenched in his teeth. He stopped in front of me and took the cigar from his mouth.

“Fell from a botte grande last spring and broke my leg.” He grumbled then looked at me with piercing eyes as if to say, “And what are you doing here?” My explanation was brief. He went back to work with his two assistants, attaching another hose to the second fermentation tank and barking orders at Marta.

He gestured for me to follow him back to the botti grandi or large Slovenian barrels where his Barolo from 2008 and 2009 was aging. Nebbiolo grapes are notoriously fragile and difficult to grow and vinify (similar in this way to pinot noir). The 2008 and 2009 that Rinaldi poured me from the barrel were clear and lively ruby red, nearly transparent, with predominantly fruity aromas. In a few years, the color of the wine will fade to more of a brick color. As Barolo ages, it becomes increasingly complex with distinct smells of tobacco, leather, truffles, and, in some mysterious way, the soft, foggy hills of the Langhe, a fertile northwest quadrant of Piemonte.

In addition to Rinaldi and Mascarello, a number of other winemakers produce Barolo in a very traditional way. When I met Francesca Camerano last year, she said, “We could take all the grapes we grow, sell them and make more money than we do now. But we make the wine because it has meaning. It is our way of honoring the land and the grapes and our family tradition.” She and her brother Vittorio are the Camerano family’s fifth generation of winemakers. They grow nebbiolo grapes on the famed Cannubi Hill and in their Terlo vineyard that faces southwest, overlooking the town of Barolo.

Vittorio offered me a tasting late one afternoon in the family office on Via Roma in the center of the tiny town of Barolo. Afterwards, we walked downstairs to the cantina, which is directly under the office and house. “It takes three years to make Barolo.” said Vittorio, “But once the grapes are brought in, we do as little as possible: no barriques, no chemicals, no clarification, no filtration. Il vino fa tutto da solo. The wine makes itself.”

In La Morra, a frazione, or hamlet, of the town of Barolo, Aldo Vajra of G.D.Vajra, has a similar philosophy. Vajra originally trained as a researcher and professor of viniculture at the University of Turin but eventually overrode the wishes of his parents and moved to La Morra to work his grandparents’ small parcel of land. Losing his entire first vintage to a 15-minute hailstorm in 1986 didn’t deter him or his wife, Milena. On the contrary, Aldo seized the opportunity to buy top-quality vineyards from demoralized neighbors at bargain rates.

“Aldo has a simple philosophy,” Milena told me, “to allow each piece of land, with its soil type, its microclimate, its exposure, its altitude to dare il meglio di se, give the best of itself.” Each fazoletto di terreno, literally “handkerchief of land,” in the hills of the Langhe has its own “personality.” Like Aldo Vajra, many winemakers make “crus” with grapes from only one vineyard to express these personalities, and differences. They also make the most traditional form of Barolo: cuvees, or batches, that come from various vineyards.

Nothing about making Barolo is simple or easy or fast. It is a complex wine that needs time to age before drinking, a decade at least for the most austere varieties. It is the perfect complement for “hearty feasting” in fall and winter. When cold starts creeping in, it’s time to light a fire and open a Barolo to go with “fatty” dishes like aged cheeses, red meat, or game.

Here are some of my favorites for current vintages (2005 and 2006). I list them loosely, from the most traditional to the slightly more modern (all with “no barrique”). The price range is in euro:

  • Giuseppe Rinaldi “Brunate-Le Coste” (€55-65)
  • Giuseppe Rinaldi “Cannubi San Lorenzo-Ravera” (55-65)
  • Bartolo Mascarello (60-65)
  • Camerano “Cannubi San Lorenzo” (45-50)
  • Camerano Barolo Riserva (45-50)
  • Luigi Baudana (30-35)
  • G.D. Vajra “Bricco Delle Viole” (50-60)
  • Cavallotto Riserva Bricco Boschis Vigna San Giuseppe (30-35)
  • Marcarini “La Serra” (35-40)
  • Marcarini “Brunate” (35-40)
  • Fratelli Barale “Castellero” 2006 (30-35)
  • Fratelli Barale “Cannubi” 2006 (65-75)
  • Luciano Sandrone “Cannubi Boschis” (80-95)

About the Author:

Eleanor Shannon's "Tasting Notes" wine column appeared from 2010 t0 2014.