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Looking Without to Change Within

Pio Boffa sought advice from Bordeaux consultant Denis Dubourdieu to make changes at Barolo star Pio Cesare in the Langhe
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jan 7, 2013 2:30pm ET

This past November, I attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts 14th Annual Bacchanal Wine Gala and Auction, which raises money for art student scholarships. Each year, PAFA honors members of the wine industry. Last year, one of the honorees was Pio Boffa, the affable owner of Pio Cesare in Italy's Piedmont region. I sat down with Boffa to discuss some changes he made in the vineyards and cellar at the company his great grandfather founded in Alba in 1881.

Boffa began working with Bordeaux consultant Denis Dubourdieu after the two were introduced by Pio Cesare importer Maison, Marques & Domaines in 2010. Boffa's goal was to maintain the house style with some minor changes, "like matching a blue tie with a jacket to make the color stand out," he said.

Boffa explained that after many years of tasting together with his technical team—winemaker Paolo Fenocchio, agronomist Claudio Pirra and cellar master Beppe Natta—combined with advances in viticulture and enology over the years and increased competition from wines around the world, he wanted to discuss the Pio Cesare methods "with a person outside our team, to verify a few aspects of what we were doing."

He chose to work with Dubourdieu because the acclaimed consultant knew nothing about the Piedmontese grapes and wines grown and made at Pio Cesare, confiding to Boffa after an evening of discussing winemaking and wine appreciation, "How could I be helpful?"

"His honesty and true approach, together with his deep knowledge, made me absolutely convinced that he was the perfect person to help me and our team to test our methods," said Boffa.

In the vineyard, Dubourdieu advocated leaving more leaves to shade the fruit against the sun, a strategy many growers are adopting in recent, warmer vintages. The team is also paying very close attention to picking times to ensure the proper relationship between acidity and pH, in order to preserve freshness in the whites.

The team is also aware of the balance of potassium and calcium in the soils. Calcium is necessary for the growth of grapevines, yet too much can cause nutrient deficiencies. Potassium is another important nutrient for the health of the vine and wine quality, yet in the correct amounts because too much potassium results in high pH levels, creating an imbalance in the wine.

In the cellar, Dubourdieu is a big proponent of lees aging, so the whites are matured with a higher volume of lees for a long period, provided that they are clean and healthy. There is no more press wine included in the final blend.

The red wines at Pio Cesare are harvested separately by vineyard parcel, then cofermented. However, there is more punching down than pumping over now, using pneumatic pistons, a result of Dubourdieu's observation that Nebbiolo bears similarities to Pinot Noir. The result is softer tannins without losing intensity in the extraction. "This was the method used in traditional Piedmont vinification many years ago, so our idea was not innovative, but going back to tradition," said Boffa.

In addition, Dubourdieu fine-tuned the use of wood for aging. He changed coopers, sourcing more barrels from Burgundy for starters. There is less toasting of the barrels, less new oak and the wines spend less time in barrique and longer in large casks. The racking from barrel to barrel is gentler and carefully monitored to limit oxidation.

The wines are also bottled earlier than in past vintages. For example, the 2009 Barbaresco and Barolo were bottled after the 2012 harvest rather than in March 2013. The 2010s will be bottled even earlier, in June or July 2013.

The overriding goal of these adjustments is to enhance the purity of fruit. Dubourdieu's influence was more evident in the three whites I tasted than the two Barberas. The Cortese di Gavi 2011 showed fine aromas of peach and apple, richness and balance with lively acidity and a hint of spice and mineral on the finish. The Arneis Langhe 2011 revealed a subtle nose, exhibiting pear, straw and grapefruit notes.

I suspect over time and with successive vintages, we will see these changes manifest in the reds also, though it may take several years to assess the results in the Barbarescos and Barolos. I applaud Pio Boffa for looking "outside the box" to examine his vineyard and cellar practices with the goal of improving wine quality.

Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  January 7, 2013 7:55pm ET
This is exciting stuff. I am a fan of the wines of the Langhe, which have very distinctive characteristics, unlike almost anywhere else. But they can be challenging to drink. I hope the results at Pio Cesare are revelatory, and I look forward to assessing the wines for myself.
Steve Gulsvig
Orange County, CA —  January 11, 2013 12:08am ET
I have several Pio Cesare wines in my cellar. It will be great fun to use these as benchmarks for tasting comparisons in a few years to see how the styles might change. Thanks for the very informational post. I wonder if this approach falls in line with Matt Kramer's take on wines that may not need to age as long as they used to but will become more approachable/enjoyable/drinkable within 5-10 years instead of 15-20 years, especially wines like Barolos from the Piedmont.

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