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A Barolo Iconoclast

Marco Parusso’s experiments push the envelope of Piedmont winemaking
Photo by: Robert Camuto
Marco Parusso with a photograph of his family from 1930. The young child standing is Marco’s father and winery namesake Armando Parusso.

Posted: Oct 23, 2017 12:00pm ET

Marco Parusso is never quite content.

In the three decades since he took over his family's small, obscure estate in Monforte d'Alba, Parusso has built it into a noteworthy producer whose laurels include 66 wines that have scored 90 points or higher in Wine Spectator blind tastings. 

Yet what really distinguishes Parusso are his unusual approach to winemaking, his restless curiosity and his daring experiments. He is constantly tweaking his methods to coax more from his Nebbiolo.

"Marco is a person who is never quiet. He is like a volcano," says Giacomo Conterno, the young winemaker at Aldo Conterno, Parusso's neighbor in Monforte. "We always need people who are hungry, and Marco is hungry. He always wants more from his wine."

"There is not one way I make wine," explains Parusso, now 52 and built like a bear. "Just one objective: to make wine that is fine and elegant with fruit and soft tannins."

From more than 60 acres of vines, Parusso now produces about 10,000 cases below the old family home, in the modern cellars he runs with his sister, Tiziana. His dry wines regularly include four Barolos, two Barberas, one Langhe Nebbiolo, a Dolcetto, two Sauvignon Blanc-based whites and a Nebbiolo-based rosé and classic-method sparkler.

His unusual methods began in earnest in the mid-1990s, when he experimented with further ripening harvested grapes by leaving them in a ventilated room at ambient temperature for days prior to fermentation.

"It was a technique used by the Romans to let the grapes relax," says Parusso, who found that the practice softens tannins. Today he uses it on most wines, including all his Barolos.

Then in 2000, after battling personal depression, Parusso turned his life around, changing everything from his friends to his diet and his winemaking. 

Today, the grapes destined for his Barolos "relax" for up to four days so that the stems turn brown and sweet; then Parusso ferments whole bunches (a technique common in Burgundy for Pinot Noir, but rare in Barolo) with wild yeasts.

After a long maceration of up to 50 days, the Barolos are pressed and put into new oak barriques, in which Parusso adds a generous helping of a mud of sedimentary lees back to the wine. For two years, the lees are stirred but not racked off; this sort of lees aging is more common for high-end whites than reds.

Parusso explains it helps control oxygen exposure. Put simply, the small wood barrels have an oxidizing effect. But the lees, which Parusso refers to as "Mama," serve as an antioxidant, protecting the wine.

After a year, the barrels are switched for new ones. Yet, remarkably, in spite of the use of "200 percent new wood," the wines don't taste oaky.

It would take volumes to describe all of Parusso's practices, ranging from traditional to New Age. But among Barolo producers, he is admired as the kind of bold seeker who might influence how wines are made in the future.

"Marco's techniques are very unusual but smart," says Conterno. "In this moment, many Barolo producers are saying that the tannic structure and aromas of Nebbiolo could be more complex. And people are looking more and more to the experiments of people like Marco."

Parusso's success was unimaginable to him when he was studying enology in the 1980s. His father, Armando Parusso, for whom the winery is named, wanted more for Marco than working the family's 5 acres, even with their plots in the prestigious Bussia and Mariondino crus.

"There was no economy here at the time," Parusso says.

Though a renaissance of quality had begun in Piedmont and elsewhere in Italy, few small producers made a decent living. In 1986, the year Parusso graduated, Italian wine was turned upside down by the scandal over poisoning deaths from methanol-laced cheap bulk wines. "The consumer began to understand the importance of the direct producer," Parusso says.

Encouraged by Barolo pioneers Domenico Clerico, Alfredo Roagna and Aldo Conterno, Parusso decided to make wine on the family estate, which had produced bulk wine.

He eliminated the chemicals typical of conventional farming at the time and scaled back his production in search of quality. Like other "modernists" of the time, he updated his family cellars, fermenting wines in stainless-steel tanks and aging them in new French oak barrels.

Yet today, Parusso isn't easily labeled.

"I make wine," he says, "my way."

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