The Cold War Ends in Piedmont
By Per-Henrik Mansson, senior editor
What reporter doesn't like a good dogfight? That's why I'll miss the good ol' days in Piedmont when the growers went for each others' throats. Divided into two camps, the Barolo and Barbaresco producers feuded with a meanness that only true passion can generate. They did so for years, and it made for great copy. It was like covering a political campaign, with each faction firing off cheap shots at their adversary. The way they fought, you'd think they were wrestling over something tangible like land and money, or even just prestige. In fact, their battle centered around a much loftier purpose: What should great Barolo and Barbaresco taste like?
Centuries of vine growing in this insular part of northwestern Italy had come to this: a deep identity crisis. It was touched off by the creeping doubts of some winemakers who felt their tannic, tough, rustic wines could become outdated in the global market. Unless they took action, they feared, Barolo and Barbaresco might go the way of the dinosaurs and typewriters.
On the one side, you had the modernists; on the other, the traditionalists. Each side became deeply attached to its respective doctrine, and didn't hide its dislike of the wines made by the other camp.
The modernists wanted to make modern wines, with novel methods, to please international consumers used to drinking the globe's finest wines. The modernists shortened the fermentations to reduce the bitter tannins in the wine. And they began to use new, small (225-liter) French oak barrels to soften the tannins of their Nebbiolo-based Barolos and Barbarescos, which can be harshly tannic when young. New oak for Barolo? This really ticked off some of their neighbors.
The traditionalists liked the old ways. They felt that the soil of Piedmont, its terroir, found its best expression without a dominant taste of new wood. They made big wines by vinifying their Nebbiolo grape juice for weeks -- not days, as did some modernists. The traditionalists aged their Barolos and Barbarescos in old Slovenian oak vats (sometimes half a century old) that were 10, 15, 20 times or more larger than the French barriques.
The traditionalists were proud of their macho Barolos and Barbarescos. They stuck to long fermentations and macerations to extract massive tannins, which they saw as necessary to make their wines age. These Barolos tasted so tough and unyielding in their youth, they gave "acquired taste" an entirely new meaning. Ever tried to serve 5-year-old Beluga caviar, smoked eel or snails in garlic sauce? Well, you get the point. With the traditional Barolos and Barbarescos you had to work hard to appreciate them. But the traditionalists had their admirers, including many Swiss and German aficionados, who had learned the art of laying down these robust reds in their cool cellars for decades before drinking them.
It made sense, I suppose, to label as "modernist" the group seeking to make different, new-wave Barolos and Barbarescos But semantics-wise, I always felt the modernists got the better deal. I mean, would you rather root for a winemaker billed as modern, open-minded, future-looking, novelty-seeking, research-oriented? Or would you cheer for someone perceived as backward-looking, don't-change-anything, old-is-better? Tough choice, eh? But then, of course, the modernists had their own spin doctors, winemakers with a natural flair for getting their story across: Angelo Gaja, Enrico Scavino, Domenico Clerico, Elio Altare and so on. The traditionalists had the taciturn Bruno Giacosa. ("You like my wine? Fine. Don't like it? No big deal. Now, let's eat.")
The gulf between the two groups made for the sort of raw, take-no-prisoner fights rarely witnessed publicly in the wine world. Except, of course, in some French families. (See the battles for chateaus Ausone and Yquem in Bordeaux, or the family divisions at Domaine de la Romanee-Conti and elsewhere in Burgundy). But a whole wine region getting into a brawl?
Oh boy, this was one fun story to cover. As a reporter of many political controversies and life-wrenching stories before I joined Wine Spectator 10 years ago, I felt right at home when I began covering Piedmont. You'd go to a couple of modernist Barolisti and get an earful about what lousy wines the traditionalists were making. Then you'd head over for lunch with some top traditionalist, who swore his way was the only way. The bad-mouthing was deafening.
Exchanges occurred that linger like an open sore in the minds of some growers. "People told lies, so the traditionalists had to defend themselves," recalls Maria-Teresa Mascarello of the ultratraditionalist Bartolo Mascarello winery in Barolo. "They said our wines were dirty and smelled funky. That's not true. We're just against making Barolo in an international style; we don't want to make Coca-Cola."
So imagine my surprise when I found a mellower Piedmont this summer, with less discord. A few years ago, it was easy to pick out in blind tastings the wines made by traditionalists (more rustic and hard, lighter in color, often with a chestnut character but also a pure mineral note) from those of the modernists (international and new-oakish in style, with spice and chocolate notes mingling with fresh berry flavors). But this summer, when I blind-tasted hundreds of Barolos from 1993, 1995 and 1996, the two styles seemed to blend. Had the two schools influenced each other?
I popped the question in meetings with some 40 winemakers in July and August. "The Cold War is no longer," said Giacolino Gillardi, enologist for Ceretto winery. "There's been a lot of experimentation, and the whole region now tries to go for elegant wines."
A rapprochement may have occurred, but don't expect the old adversaries to break bread together. One night I had dinner with a dozen leading modernists; the next day it was lunch with two dozen traditionalists. No mixed company, thank you. Except for Aldo Conterno, Barolo's grand old man (66 years old last month). He came for dessert with the modernists; then showed up with a bottle of wine with the traditionalists.
Conterno is a symbol of the modern-traditional blend now taking place in Piedmont. Just check out the assemblage he's concocted. He's against barriques for his Barolos, but his sons use them to make a Nebbiolo called Il Favot. He's sticking to the traditional big Slovenian vats for his Barolos, but he's distanced himself from the traditionalists by shortening the vinification.
A few years ago, the sexagenarian began to research, with some modernist leaders (Scavino, Altare), the use of horizontal fermenters that reduce the fermentation period and tough tannins, and help turn out silky, deeply colored and -flavored Barolo. "The only way to have more pleasant Barolos is to shorten the fermentation time, to avoid the bitter tannins. That's why there are fewer hard Barolos around now," says Conterno. With six such rotating fermenters in his cellar since the '95 vintage, Conterno has now shortened fermentation to just seven days, down from 60 days in the 1960s.
"The modernists are no longer as modern, and the traditionalists are no longer as traditional," says Teobaldo Cappellano, a Barolo producer in Serralunga. He laughs at his self-applied "traditional" label. "Four years ago I had no barriques. Now my cellar contains 70."
It's the same story of experimentation at Cordero di Montezemolo, a Barolo winery in Monfalletto. "Radical" is how Louisella Cordero di Montezemolo describes the flip-flop done by the winery in just a few years. Fermentation is down to 48 hours, which must be a near-record in Piedmont. The first, timid attempt with French small barrels came in 1992, with Barbera. Today the winery's cellar boosts 300 such barriques, most of them for Barolo. The final Barolo is a blend of wine aged in traditional vats and the barriques. "Our Barolo shows more color and aromas than before. The consumers wanted changes, and we seek to meet their demands," says Louisella.
Another so-called traditionalist, Tenute Cisa Asinari dei Marchesi di Gresy in Barbaresco, used no French barriques for its Martinenga Barbaresco until 1990; now it's up to 40 percent and growing. "Every year we had more small barrels. In traditional wines I see too much tannins. And they don't go with food," says owner Marchesi Alberto di Gresy.
Even some modernists are pulling back. Starting with the '91 vintage, Angelo Gaja has moderated the taste of new oak and oak tannins in his Barbarescos. And he's telling any modernists who want to listen not to push the envelope too far. "If they call me and ask me, I warn them that wines like Barbaresco and Barolo -- and it's the same for Sangiovese -- are traditional varieties, and it's important to bring out the soil and terroir they grow in," says Gaja.
Piedmont is no longer the black-and-white, modern-vs.-traditional area you may have read about over the past years. "Grazie dio, thank God, the war is finished," says Cappellano. "We still hold different views and we can satisfy two types of clients without speaking poorly of each other."
Too bad for the juicy stories about warmongering Piedmontese growers. But better wine, not sexy headlines, is what counts. And the Langhe producers seem to have overcome their identity crisis and found a new raison d'etre: producing increasingly elegant wines that shine with the soul of this unique region's vineyard sites. "Our Barolos and Barbarescos are increasingly international because quality is up. But they're still from Italy, they just aren't from Dante's Italy," says Jacomo Oddero, a leading Barolo traditionalist from La Morra.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, will feature the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a roster of Wine Spectator editors. This week we hear from senior editor Per-Henrik Mansson . To read past Unfined, Unfiltered columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.