It was fitting that I started my visits in La Morra, where I am staying. The morning dawned with rain, but by the time I finished breakfast, the clouds were breaking and I could see the Alps from my room for the first time since I arrived. I'm visiting 20 or so Piedmont producers while I'm here, casting the net a little wider than the Barolo and Barbaresco DOCGs, to Gavi, Roero, Dogliani and Asti. Today's appointments were with Renato Ratti, Oddero and Pio Cesare.
I drove down the hill to the historic hamlet of Annunziata, where the Renato Ratti winery is located. Pietro Ratti finished the 2004 harvest there, but 2005 was really the first complete vintage in the new facility.
"Now it's more precise," he noted. "I can treat all the grapes in the same way and it's much more efficient."
Ratti controls 100 acres of vineyards, through ownership or leases. Though there are many Ratti wines, we focused on the three top Barolos from the La Morra commune: Marcenasco, Conca and Rocche.
The Marcenasco is a blend of three sites, Serra, Torriglione and young vines from Rocche, what Ratti called "a typical Barolo from La Morra." It is aromatic, elegant, supple and beautifully balanced. The Rocche continues this thread, yet offers more intensity, complexity and length, a result of the old vines planted in 1955, 1958 and 1961. There is some sand in the soil in Rocche, lending elegance to the wine.
Conca is a different beast. It's a bowl-shaped sun trap just below the winery, its soils composed of blue marl. From most vintages we tasted, Conca shows aromas of mint, menthol, eucalyptus and licorice. It's a chunky wine, square and solid, with aggressive tannins. "It's less like La Morra, more monolithic," said Ratti.
We started with the 2009 vintage. The Marcenasco is aging in barrique (30 percent) and cask (70 percent). The sample, taken from one cask, was already perfumed and floral, with cherry, rich supple and long. The Conca, coming from barrique, was more marked by the oak, with pure black cherry fruit underneath. It ended with firm, dense tannins. The Rocche didn't show much on the nose, but revealed deep, sweet fruit, licorice and tar flavors, very expansive and long.
"For me, the odd numbers, '05, '07, '09 are the warmer vintages, with more sugar, more ripeness," explained Ratti. "They are also more ready in terms of the evolution of the wines."
That was borne out by our next flight from 2008. The wines, now in tank, were more austere, tight and mineral. All showed beautiful fruit and fine length, if more assertive tannins. They will take longer to come around. In fact, the 2009s were more ready at this stage.
Renato Ratti owner Pietro Ratti
"This  was a vintage where the Nebbiolo benefited from the late harvest and the long, slow ripening," explained Ratti.
The 2007s have mostly been bottled since August. There's an extra dimension of ripeness, with more supple tannins, except the Conca, whose tannins were dense and drier. It was the most minerally of the three.
Only the 2004s seemed to show more of the vintage character than terroir, exhibiting ripe, jammy fruit backed by firm, vibrant structures. Ratti called 2004 a "dream vintage," for its large crop of high-quality grapes.
Of the older vintages, the Rocche 1996 was very perfumed, with flowers, pure cherry and truffle aromas. The fruit had pretty much disappeared in the Conca 1989, giving way to truffle, mint, licorice and tar notes. This came from old vines, before the replanting in 1990.
The Rocche 1985 featured a bouquet of rose, truffle and dried berries, very sweet and spicy. Its tannins had completely melted away, revealing great harmony, elegance and finesse.
My next stop was Oddero, on the other side of La Morra in the hamlet of Santa Maria. Family owned, its origins are not certain because the grapes were sold until 1878, when the first Oddero label appeared. The estate is currently run by Mariacristina Oddero and her daughter Isabella, the sixth and seventh generations, respectively.
Sixth generation owner Mariacristina Oddero
The family owns 86 acres, about half of which are devoted to Nebbiolo for Barolo. Its vineyards are spread throughout the major Barolo communes, each site contributing to a classic blended Barolo until 1982, when the first crus from Vigna Rionda (Serralunga d'Alba), Rocche (Castiglione Falletto) and Bussia Soprana Vigna Mondoca (Monforte d'Alba) appeared.
These are uncompromising Barolos, built to age, with solid tannic structures. The fermentation takes place in stainless steel, with macerations in the range of 22 to 28 days, according to each vintage and cru. The extraction occurs by punching down, pumping over and délestage.
The aging takes place in large casks ranging from 65-hectoliter Slavonian oak (the oldest is 30 years), 42hl and 30hl Austrian casks and 20hl casks from Taransaud in France.
"Our wines are not immediate wines, they need one to two years in the bottle to open, because of the maceration," said Isabella. "Their strength is their aging potential."
There is a range of wines, including a wild, leather and meaty Barbera d'Asti, but it's the Barolos that steal the spotlight.
The Barolo 2006, a blend of Bricco Chiesa, Bricco Fiasco and Capalot, offered fresh cherry, licorice and spice flavors on a linear frame, ending in a sinewy, minerally finish.
The Rocche di Castiglione 2006, 20 percent of which was aged in one-year barriques, was fragrant, but tight, firm and austere. The Villero 2005 had ripe plum, licorice, menthol and tobacco notes. It was firm, despite a round, fleshy profile.
The Brunate 2004 displayed fragrant aromas of honey, menthol and fresh herbs, layering sweet fruit against its taut structure. The Bussia Soprana Vigna Mondoca 2004 delivered aromas that were woodsy, with wild herbs, cherry and tobacco, introducing a masculine, robust young Barolo.
The Vigna Rionda 2004, a riserva in all but name, having been aged five years, sported a full, powerful profile, wrapping its serious tannins around cherry, tobacco and mineral flavors.
I ended the day in Alba, at the historic house of Pio Cesare, where the gregarious patron, Pio Boffa, and his nephew Cesare Benvenuto arranged a fascinating tasting of some young wines and the current releases.
We started with three whites from 2009: the peach- and melon-flavored Gavi and the two Chardonnays. One called L'Altro (The Other), made in stainless steel, was fresh and crisp. Piodilei, a barrel-fermented style with lees stirring, offered toast, butterscotch apple and spice notes. Boffa explained that the Chardonnay fills a gap between Gavi, the traditional white wine of the region, and the area's top reds, Barbaresco and Barolo.
Pio Cesare's Pio Boffa
We tried a number of 2010s, just fermented reds, to get an idea of the fruit, like the Dolcetto, which comes from vineyards near Serralunga d'Alba and Treiso. It showed plenty of fruit, while the 2009, the current release, burst with cherry and raspberry, very juicy, yet firm.
Pio Cesare makes two Barberas, its Barbera d'Alba and a version called Fides from a single vineyard that Boffa and his father planted with a low-yielding clone with small clusters.
The Barbera d'Alba 2008, which gets some structure from aging in 20 percent barriques, was rich and full of blackberry and cassis. The Fides 2008, ready to be bottled next week, was spicier, concentrated and intense. The Fides 2007 was powerful and long, with a hint of licorice.
We finished the tasting with the Nebbiolos. To demonstrate the difference between vintages, Boffa showed me the Barbaresco from two vintages. The Barbaresco 2007, from a warm year, was rich and concentrated, even a bit monolithic, but long and full of cherry, licorice and spice notes.
The Barbaresco 2006 exhibited more mineral character, a picture of elegance, with fleeting floral and cherry flavors and lively acidity. The Barbaresco Il Bricco 2006 had energy, layering its racy frame with licorice, spice and mineral notes.
After sampling the Barolo from 2010, 2009 and 2007 (still in barrel), we moved on to the current release, 2006, which delivered a mix of floral, cherry and red berry aromas and flavors, balancing the sweet fruit with firm tannins. Give it two to three years.
About 60 percent of the classic Barolo comes from Pio Cesare's Ornato vineyard in Serralunga d'Alba. The best selection of grapes is bottled as Ornato, the house's jewel in the crown. The 2006 Ornato showed fine intensity and freshness, laced with eucalyptus, tobacco, savory and mineral notes, its sweetness and tannins riding out on the finish.
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