Low-Hype Barolo

Cavallotto may be the best wine estate you don’t know
Nov 10, 2014

"No photo!" Giuseppe Cavallotto waved me off as I aimed my iPhone in his direction. 

He stood atop of one of Barolo's most gorgeous vineyards, his family's monopole Bricco Boschis, a steep, sunny, concave hillside that stretches below the family home and winery in Castiglione Falletto.

Giuseppe, the middle of three siblings who run Tenuta Cavallotto, said posing for photographs was for his younger brother, Alfio. Then I asked Giuseppe his age. "That doesn't matter," he responded, and after an awkward silence added, "I'm more-or-less 46—it's no secret."

The low-key, sometimes shy, nature of the Cavallottos partly explains why they aren't better known. Among traditional Barolo producers, Cavallotto has never achieved the cult status of firebrands Bartolo Mascarello or Giuseppe Rinaldi. Nor have they had public, internecine feuds like other local families that split up over winemaking principles. Yet Cavallotto deserves attention on several counts, not the least of which is a solid line of wines that has hit its stride in the past two decades. 

Since 2000, the estate has released 15 wines rated 90+ points by Wine Spectator. The list is topped by its three Barolos, all long-aged in large Slovenian oak casks: Barolo Bricco Boschis (aged three years) and two single-parcel riservas, Bricco Boschis Vigna San Giuseppe and Vignolo (up to five years).

These wines are not for the impatient. The 2008 riservas released in late 2014, said Giuseppe, "still need six to seven years" before drinking.

Cavallotto began in 1928 with one of the sharpest land acquisitions in Barolo, when the current generation's great-grandfather bought the entire Bricco Boschis cru with its unusual mix of soils balancing clay and sand. Twenty-five years ago, the family bought an adjacent vineyard in the Vignolo cru, completing something rare in Barolo—a contiguous 50-acre family estate.

In the 1948 vintage, the Cavallottos were among the first growers to bottle and label their own wines, and in the 1970s, the current generation's father, Olivio, and uncle Gildo led the organic wave and promoted ground cover between vine rows to fight erosion.

Though their winemaking, particularly the unhurried cask aging, is traditional, the Cavallottos have quietly tinkered with their approach over decades—switching from wood fermentation casks to concrete in the 1960s and to temperature-controlled stainless steel in the '80s.

In the early 1990s—frustrated by tough vintages that produced harsh tannins—they improved grape quality by thinning their harvest and sought gentler methods in the winery. To that end, they abandoned pump-overs during fermentation and bought steel horizontal roto-fermentors, which they custom-adapted to submerge must solids at snail-like speeds.

At the time, the "Barolo Wars" were raging, pitting traditionalists against modernists who advocated aging in smaller French barriques to make the wines approachable sooner. Alfio, then fresh out of enology school, wanted to try barriques. The family indulged him and discreetly ran tests in the cellar.

"There are two barriques in our story," explained bearded, affable Alfio, alluding to the two Bordeaux barrels the family purchased. "I was a little more modern, but my father, uncle and brother convinced me to stay classic."

You can't drink Barolo every day, and one of the best things about Cavallotto is its range of other wines. Reds include robust Barbera along with easier-drinking Dolcetto, Freisa and Grignolino. There are also whites: Chardonnay from vineyards that came with the 1989 purchase and a rare Pinot Nero (Noir) vinified as a white.

In other words, this is a fairly complex operation for a mom-and-pop organization of 100,000 bottles.

"We have no enologist, we have no agronomist," explained Giuseppe, leading me through Cavallotto's vaulted brick cellar. "We do everything in the family."

Responsibilities among the forty-something siblings go something like this: Giuseppe is the winery guy. Alfio helps in the winery but is focused more in the vineyard and on sales. Their older sister, Laura, runs the office. And at times, everybody does everything.

Their father stopped working about five years ago. But this generation didn't completely take charge of the estate until uncle Gildo, who worked at the estate from the age of 18, passed away in 2013 at 83.

"He died," said Alfio, and then with an admiring laugh added, "so he had to stop working."

Italy Piedmont

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