I had not seen Aldo Conterno, the legendary Barolo producer, in more than 20 years. I had made an appointment to visit him at the winery outside the town of Monforte d’Alba while on vacation with my wife. We drove up to the hilltop building on a showery Monday morning in April. Aldo’s son Giacamo met us and conveyed his father’s regrets that he could not be there. He was in a hospital recovering from pneumonia.
Late last week, when the sad news reached us that Aldo was dead at 81, I flashed back to a sunny day in the late 1980s when I first visited him at the winery. We sat in the warm courtyard after the obligatory tour of the cellar and a drive through the vineyard, and talked about the revolution that was under way in Piemonte.
Maybe the conversation was so memorable because I could communicate with him easily. He was fluent in English, learned when he lived in the U.S. and even served in the U.S. military in the 1950s. He had gone to California to help an uncle start a winery, but by the time he returned from service in the Army, the uncle had died of cancer. He had seen what was happening in California, however, and returned to insular Piemonte with a wider view of the wine world than many of his contemporaries had.
In the 1980s a new generation of Barolo and Barbaresco producers were going against the region’s traditions, seeking ways to de-emphasize tannins in the Nebbiolo grapes and bring out the ripe fruit that was so evident in the region’s other wines, such as Barbera and Dolcetto. I could feel the emotions seething everywhere I went, as traditionalists hurled epithets at avid young winemakers reducing fermentation times, experimenting with small oak barrels and, most important, working their vineyards to reduce yields and intensify flavor. The new wave, on the other hand, scoffed at the tired, faulty wines so many old-timers were making.
Aldo was a voice of reason on these issues. Squinting in the sun on that day, he described his own path with characteristic dry wit. He attacked neither the new wave nor the traditionalists. Although he freely adopted modern techniques, his Barolos had the taste of tradition in them. They were clean and pure, free of faults. They had freshness, intensity and depth without excess grittiness from tannins. He made Barbera and Dolcetto of remarkable clarity, and wasn’t shy about blending Nebbiolo with Barbera and aging that in small oak barrels to make a stunning wine called Il Favot.
In a way, his serene personality was surprising, because he was among the first to break away, from his own family’s very traditional winery, publicly and not without rancor. Cantine Giacamo Conterno was renowned for its long-aged and long-lived wines. In 1969, unable to convince his older brother Giovanni to go along with his ideas, he bolted to start his own winery. By the time I met him in 1988 Poderi Aldo Conterno had earned a reputation with insiders for consistency and integrity, but it was not yet the star of the region that it would become.
Later that week, trying to put what was happening in some perspective, I sat alone in a caffè and opened my notebook to a blank page. I drew a graph. The vertical axis represented quality, the higher the better. The horizontal axis represented innovation, very traditional on the left, avant-garde on the right. Every winery whose wines I had tasted became a dot on the graph. Way off to the left was Cantine Giacamo Conterno; Sandrone, Scavino and Clerico clustered on the right. Right in the middle, at the very top, was Aldo Conterno.
I told this story to Aldo's son Giacamo as we sat in the winery’s drawing room in April and talked about wine and life. Our conversation reminded me strongly of interviewing his father those many years ago. Giacamo and his brothers have a fierce dedication to upholding the standards and style their father established, while introducing their own sensibilities. In the region, the high emotions of 1988 may have faded, but the divisions still remain. Time has proven that the new wave could indeed make wines that become great Barolo and Barbaresco in the bottle, and many of those who prefer an older tradition have learned how to keep their wines from going faulty, resulting in better wines. The region, and the wine world at large, is richer for the diversity of styles.
But still, right in the middle and at the top, is Aldo Conterno. In my mind he will always be there.
Annemarie Marti — Valparaiso, IN — June 23, 2012 12:26pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — June 23, 2012 12:34pm ET
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