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From Barolo to Barbaresco

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Dec 3, 2007 12:26pm ET

On Wednesday, I visited the Barolo estate of Damilano, and had my first foray into Barbaresco to a winery that needs little introduction: Gaja.

Damilano has been making wine since 1890. Today, four cousins run the estate from a facility on the outskirts of Barolo, built in 1965.

With the help of agronomist Gian Piero Romana and consulting enologist Beppe Caviola, Paolo, Mario, Margherita and Guido Damilano have been improving the quality of the wines at this estate. They currently own 40 acres and lease an additional 17; beginning in 2008 they will lease another 20 acres in Cannubi.

Both upright stainless steel tanks and rotofermentors stand side by side in Damilano’s cellars, with the Barolo crus fermented in the rotofermentors for 10 to 12 days. Aging occurs in barrique, tonneaux (500 liters) and large casks. The Cannubi and Brunate (new since 2005) are in barrique, of which 50 percent are new and 25 percent each first- and second-use barrels.

The other Barolo cru is the Liste, where Damilano owns half of the 10-acre vineyard. It is aged in tonneaux because it has more aggressive tannins from the limestone and clay soils.

The Barolo Lecinquevigne is an introduction to the crus. It is a blend of vineyards from several villages in the region: Castellero (Barolo), Monvigliero (Verduno), Fossati (La Morra), Parussi (Castiglione Falletto) and Bussia (Monforte d’Alba).

Damilano also makes Arneis, Dolcetto, two Barberas (la Blu is aged in barriques like the Cannubi and Brunate, but for 16 months) and a Nebbiolo d’Alba.

The Barolo Lecinquevigne 2004 showed fresh aromas of cherry and licorice on a round profile. The Barolo Cannubi was fragrant and spicy, very graceful, with tannins on the back end. A classy red. The Barolo Liste 2004, though located not far from Cannubi, is a different expression of Nebbiolo. It was more animal in character, with density and power. Tar and mineral notes hold court now and this will need time to shed its austerity.

The Barolo Brunate 2005 from barrel offered a velvety texture and a mix of floral, cherry and licorice flavors.

Over an excellent lunch at Guido in Pollenza, we tasted the Barolo Cannubi 2001. Already showing gorgeous perfume, with typical rose, dried cherry and berry aromas, it delivered elegance, finesse and a long finish.

Guido, which holds a Wine Spectator Grand Award, is located in the University of Gastronomic Sciences. Guido’s menu expands its cuisine beyond the Langhe, offering flavorful dishes such as crudo of marinated fish and a warm salad of shellfish with mashed potatoes, olive oil and herbs.

Afterwards it was off to Gaja in Barbaresco, once I found my way out of Alba. The village of Barbaresco is small, the appellation about one-third the size of Barolo. The zone includes the vineyards in the communes of Barbaresco, Neive, Treiso and San Rocco de Seno d’Elvio, a suburb of Alba.

The Gaja winery is in the center of the village, the cellars extending underneath to the adjacent castle across the street. It was founded in 1859 by Angelo Gaja’s great grandfather, Giovanni Gaja. In 1961, the year Angelo Gaja joined the business, his father decided they would make grapes from estate vineyards only. Thus, they stopped producing Barolo until vineyards were purchased in the Serralunga d’Alba cru of Marenca and Rivette (Sperss) and Cerequio in La Morra (Conteisa) in 1988 and 1995 respectively.

Stainless steel tanks are used for the fermentation of the Nebbiolo, with approximately three weeks of maceration. After one year in barrique, the wines are transferred into large casks for additional aging, one year for the Barbaresco and the Langhe crus, 18 months for the Conteisa and Sperss.

The 2004 vintage reminded Gaja of a classic year from the 1950s or ’60s, not too hot, with good water reserves and a harvest that lasted into mid-November. “Not every vintage is able to show elegance. In 2004, elegance was underlined,” he said.

Gaja’s 2004 Barbaresco, from 14 different parcels in the appellation, was stunning. Incredibly pure and perfumed, yet also transparent, so you smell flowers, cherry and mint, but also the soil. In the mouth, licorice and mineral elements merged. The end result was a wine of great harmony, tension and length.

The 2004 Langhe Sorì San Lorenzo was on another level. With more substance and structure than the Barbaresco, it made more of an impact, yet was even more refined, with pure black cherry and spice notes and a long finsh.

The Langhe Conteisa 1996, from the first vintage after Gaja acquired the property, showed a lovely floral component, along with deep blackberry, cherry and tar flavors. Though more muscular than the Barbaresco-based reds before it, there was finesse, and it had well-integrated tannins.

For comparison, we tried the Langhe Sperss 2001, which impressed me as being rounder and richer, with the appearance of fewer tannins. The flavors were licorice, mineral and spice, with a long, mouthcoating finish.

Carl Benedetti
Los Angeles, CA —  December 3, 2007 3:06pm ET
Sounds like an amazing trip, Bruce. I was planning a trip to Piemonte in the spring and was wondering if you were going to be sharing any of the hotels you stayed in. The restaurant mentions will certainly come in handy. Thanks.
Bruce Sanderson
New York —  December 3, 2007 3:27pm ET
Carl,It was a great trip and if you have not been, I highly recommend it.I stayed the whole time at Corte Gondina Hotel in La Morra (www.cortegondina.it). It's well located and the owner, Bruno Viberti, speaks English and knows the region.
James Suckling
 —  December 3, 2007 4:38pm ET
Bruce. Glad you had a wonderful holiday. And I appreciate your enthusiasm for Nebbiolo. May be we should trade Burgundy for Barolo...but I live Italy. What can we do?
Bruce Sanderson
New York —  December 3, 2007 6:07pm ET
James,It was a great trip and the quality of the Nebbiolo is very high right now. I look forward to buying some Barolo and Barbaresco. But I wouldn't trade. Come up to Burgundy and taste with me sometime.
James Suckling
 —  December 4, 2007 1:05am ET
Will do! Thanks for the invitation!!

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