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Two Interpretations of Nebbiolo

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 30, 2007 3:07am ET

Tuesday I visited two wineries with very different interpretations of Nebbiolo. These might be considered the two extremes in style. Both make delicious Barolos.

The wines of Conterno Fantino are fermented in stainless steel rotofermentors and aged in 100 percent new French oak barriques. They 2004s are clean, fruity and powerful, expressing the characteristics of each of the three crus.

Claudio Conterno and Guido Fantino founded Conterno Fantino in 1982. Conterno looks after the vines and Fantino, with his son Fabio, the vinification. Currently, 62 acres are farmed.

The range of wines consists of two Chardonnays, a Dolcetto, Barbera and Nebbiolo Langhe, along with the flagship wines, Langhe Rosso Monprà, Barolo Mosconi (since 2004), Barolo Vigna del Gris and Barolo Sorì Ginestra.

The Monprà is a blend of 45 percent Nebbiolo, 45 percent Barbera and 10 percent Cabernet Sauvignon (since 1994). It, too, is aged in new oak, but for 18 months rather than two years for the Barolos. The aromas showed dark berries and spice. Despite the elegance, this is very tannic and needs time to soften.

Conterno Fantino rents vineyards in the Mosconi cru and 2004 is the first vintage they have bottled. There are two parcels, one with 40-year old vines, the other 10-year old vines. It was a meaty wine, with tar, licorice, black cherry and spice flavors. Round and concentrated, it still bears some oak on the finish.

The Vigna del Gris, from 10- and 30-year old vines, sits contiguous to Sorì Ginestra at the eastern end, but has more sand in its soil than its neighbor. Consequently, it is more open aromatically, with green and black olive notes and wild herbs. Slightly animal on the palate, the assertive tannins shut it down, yet it’s long.

The Sorì Ginestra, made from 25- to 35-year old vines, is the high point. Closed and still showing new oak, its fruit is submerged. It’s meaty, but had the most finesse of the three, with ripeness, density and balance. This will make a fine bottle in 7-10 years.

I say that because to accompany the truffle menu during lunch at Trattoria Della Posta, we enjoyed a supple, perfumed Sorì Ginestra 1996. Still firm, yet boasting complex aromas and flavors of truffle (or was it the aroma in the air), autumn woods, dried cherry and licorice, it was delicious. This was the first vintage to use 100 percent new oak, but there was no trace of it in the wine.

By contrast, the Giacomo Conterno winery is a temple of wood. It has a deserved reputation for some of the greatest wines produced in the appellation. Nothing fancy here, where Roberto Conterno continues the work of his father Giovanni.

The 35-acre vineyard is one contiguous plot in the southern portion of the Serralunga d'Alba township. Fermentation takes place in truncated open wooden vats, except for the Barbera, which is made in both stainless steel and oak. The wines are aged in large old oak casks, 2 years for the Barbera, 4 years for the Barolo Cascina Francia and 7 years for the Barolo Monfortino Riserva. Finesse and purity are the hallmarks of the wines, with understated power and longevity.

“Barriques can have many positive things, but for us they have one negative,” explained Conterno. “They add tannins that don’t come from the grapes and the territory. I like to use only tannins from the territory to give more importance to the character of the grapes and the wines themselves.”

The Barbera d’Alba 2005 had very pure aromas of sour cherry and wild herbs, backed by bright acidity, all wrapped in an elegant profile. The vines were planted in 1974, when the vineyard was purchased.

The Barolo Cascina Francia 2003 showed the heat of the vintage on the nose, but on the palate this was fresh, vibrant and concentrated, with a silky texture and fine balance. The flavors evoked mint, cherry and red berries. The Cascina Francia 1999 revealed more floral aromas and flavors, along with a beam of cherry and licorice underneath. This was focused and long, with a mineral aftertaste.

The Barolo Monfortino Riserva 2000, bottled in July 2007, displayed lovely aromas of cinnamon and rose. More complex, elegant and extremely silky in texture, it was balanced and long.

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