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Barolo's New Generation

Young winemakers are showing impressive maturity in Piedmont's most important wine region

Jo Cooke
Posted: December 5, 2002

 
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It's a Friday evening in the small town of Barolo, the center of one of Italy's best regions for red wine and rich food, and four 30-something wine producers and their wives have gathered for dinner at a local restaurant, Locanda del Borgo Antico.

"Not a month passes without us getting together to taste wines and to talk about our wines and the wine world in general," says Ferruccio Grimaldi, 38, as he passes a bottle around the table. "It's an essential part of the learning process for us and helps us to improve the quality of our wines."

Grimaldi, who took over his family's 20-acre property in Barolo in 1996, is one of a new generation of Barolo producers emerging in Piedmont. All tell much the same story. Their fathers owned vineyard plots in the area, the grapes from which traditionally fed the winemaking machines of local négociant-style producers, such as Giacomo Borgogno & Figli and Giuseppe Mascarello & Figlio. While a few made some wine for home consumption, in general they weren't making wine on what would today be termed a commercial basis. But that has all changed recently.

These young producers include Grimaldi, Mario Marengo, brothers Renato and Giuliano Corino, and brothers Lorenzo and Carlo Revello. Though relatively inexperienced, they have already produced outstanding Barolos. They have been blessed with a string of excellent vintages, from 1996 to 2001, in which nature played a large part in the making of great wine, and they have some of the best vineyard sites in Barolo.

But they have also kept up an exchange of vineyard and winery experiences, meeting frequently to taste each other's wines and tackle technical problems together. They hope this collaboration will also help them through years when nature is less kind to the vineyards; the difficult 2002 vintage could prove to be the test.

The spirit of interdependence that nourishes this group is reminiscent of the early days of modern Barolo. Twenty years ago, pioneers such as Elio Altare, Domenico Clerico, Luciano Sandrone and Enrico Scavino got together to grapple with the problems of bettering the quality of their Barolos. The forerunners readily voice their support of the new generation.

"These young producers are the future of our territory," says Elio Altare, "and the continuation of the work that has been going on here for the last 20 years. We have put all our experience at their disposal, but trial and error was an essential part of our growth, and it will be for them, too."

So far, some are doing very well. Take, for example, the Corino brothers -- Renato, 39, and Giuliano, 34 -- who began their winemaking careers in 1985 in the family business in Annunziata. Their father started the company 50 years ago, but didn't ferment his own grapes until the 1970s, and even after the sons joined the winery, it was another 10 years until they were bottling their entire crop. But now they produce five Barolos, totaling about 2,000 cases. And there are some super wines among them. For example, four of their 1997 Barolos each scored 90 or more points, including the Barolo Vigneto Arborina 1997, which rated 95 points, or classic. In 1998, they made three outstanding Barolos, the best being the Barolo Vecchie Vigne and the Barolo Vigneto Arborina, 94 points each.

Renato Corino has been making wine longer than the other members of the group and is able to pass on to them the benefit of his experience. "Fifteen years ago," he says "we were all too traditionalist, whereas in the last five years, we may have been too innovative, spending a lot of money on things that in the end we could have done without. What we have learned is that Nebbiolo can support a lot of the small insufficiencies in the winery and still come through."

Just a few hundred yards along the road is the winery of the Revello brothers -- Lorenzo, 35, and Carlo, 33 -- who, in the early '90s, abandoned their professions (the elder was a mechanic, the younger a chef) to take on the business their father and uncle handed them. At that stage, the main activity on the property was renting apartments to vacationing tourists, with a bit of winemaking on the side. But their passion for wine won the day and, by 1997, they were vinifying and bottling the entire crop of grapes from the family's 27 acres of vineyards, producing about 4,500 cases of wine, with four Barolos accounting for about a quarter of that. James Suckling judged their three single-vineyard Barolos -- Rocche dell'Annunziata, Barolo Vigna Giachini and Vigna Conca -- outstanding in both the 1997 and 1998 vintages.

Despite being the "babes" of the group in terms of winemaking experience, both Mario Marengo, 38, and Grimaldi are making outstanding Barolos. Marengo makes two Barolo crus, Brunate and Barolo Bricco Viole (91 and 92 points, respectively, for the 1998 vintage) in the garagelike, family winery on the main street of La Morra. Marengo has been alone at the helm only since 2001; Grimaldi made his first vintage of his single Barolo, Le Coste, in 1996. He admits, "That year, we just took what nature gave us, but in 1997, with Renato Corino's help, we started to sort out what was what. It's a great advantage to have friends who are willing to help." The 1997 Barolo Le Coste scored 93 points, while the 1998 scored 91 points.

The progress of these young Piedmontese winemakers is sure to be monitored closely in the coming years, not only by discerning wine consumers, but by their fellow producers in Barolo. Luciano Sandrone, one of the most respected producers in Piedmont, says, "It's great that the boys are coming back to the countryside. More so, because they are bringing with them the same determination that we had years ago -- attention not only to the finer aspects of winemaking but also to the global aspects of the territory of Piedmont."

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