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At 16 years old, Clerico's Barolo Ciabot Mentin Ginestra 2001, was at its peak, not a heavyweight but more a medium, flexing its muscles.

Barolo beyond expectations

The King of Italian wines is big, powerful, and legend has it, takes two decades in bottle to mature.
Aug 26, 2016 5:50 AM

AT dinner two days ago, I drank a Barolo, Clerico's Barolo Ciabot Mentin Ginestra 2001, and to my delight it performed beyond expectations. A dark brownish-red liquid with a lovely fresh-tasting entry on the palate, an attractive, fresh aroma of ripe blackberries, good concentration, density and weight, and a lovely, clean, lingering finish. Very agreeable drink, a very good wine. At 16 years old, it was at its peak, not a heavyweight but more a medium, flexing its muscles.

What was most impressive, immediately noted on entry, was its freshness. This single attribute is the key to the wine's condition and qualities. It is the very first thing I look for in a wine and soon as I taste that it is there, I know the wine is worth drinking. That it would be worth noting and quantifying its other attributes - ripeness, quantity and quality of its tannins, its density and balance.

Freshness is what we have been conditioned to look for in our food and drink. Exactly the same applies to wine. Once the presence of freshness is confirmed, we know the wine is worth drinking and quantifying. It is the brightness of the taste, it lights up your palate, and stimulates your interest. Which leads you to examine all its other attributes. What is behind this freshness? Basically, freshness is the sign of good acidity, the quality and quantity of which are major influences on the wine's taste, and its life span.

Acidity accounts for the tart taste on the tongue, the first taste that hits your sensory cortex on entry of the wine. And one of the most important. One of wine's primary components and one of its most important, it has influences on the colour and the taste flavours of the wine. Very importantly, it also suppresses the growth of bacteria and harmful yeasts such as brettanomyces. The most important organic acids in wine are tartaric and to a lesser extent malic acid (the principle acid in apples). There is very little citric acid in wine. Wine's acidity helps to preserve the colour of red wines (through its effect on the anthocyanins). A lower acidity helps maintain the red colour.

It is the first and most important taste flavour to look for on the very first entry of the wine on the palate.

As soon as good acidity is tasted, it indicates that the wine has been properly stored, is still in good condition, and one can then proceed to look at the other attributes and qualities of the wine. The absence or insufficient concentration of acidity causes the wine to taste flat - no tartness or sharpness. Thereafter, it is downhill going. A sign of either poor storage or the wine is past its prime.

And the wine also reminded me that I have been recently rather neglecting Barolo, the King of Italian wines. (In case you wonder, Brunello di Montalcino is the Queen.) The grape in Barolo is the Nebbiolo, named, it is claimed, after the nimbus clouds which dominate Piedmont's skies.

What is it about Barolo that makes it the king? It is a big powerful wine, the Château Latour of Italian wines. Legend has it that it takes two decades in bottle to mature. This one that I drank was 15 years old, three-quarters of the way, almost there. Which was why it was such an appealing wine in the glass.

There are many big names in Barolo - Angelo Gaja may be perhaps the best known because he made it a point to travel at a time two decades ago when few if any of the Barolo producers did. But the groundbreaking thing that Angelo did was to bottle single-vineyard Barolos. Completely against Barolo tradition of blending wines from different vineyard sites.

The other groundbreaking thing he did was to plant Cabernet Sauvignon in his vineyard in Barbaresco. Heresy indeed! He named his Cabernet Sauvignon Darmagi, which I am told means "stupid" in the Piedmont language.

Angelo is somewhat iconoclastically inclined. He is individualistic, thinks ahead of his time, hence the planting of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. To cap it all, starting with the 1996 vintage, he deliberately declassified his Barbarescos, to the lower DOC class of "Langhe Rosso". He did it because it then allowed him to blend his Barbarescos and Barolos with international grapes. He succeeded in drawing the attention of the wine world to Piedmont, to the fact that it is possible to produce wines worthy of standing on centre stage with Bordeaux and Burgundy. Angelo Gaja is individualistic, but also a great wine-man, ahead of his time.

Domenico Clerico, a lovely gentleman and a most highly regarded winemaker, is one of the founder-members of the "Barolo Boys", (named after their football team), who visited Burgundy to take a good look at their winemaking because, like Barolo, Burgundy is also a single-varietal wine. His winery is in Montforte d'Alba, one of the premium locations for Barolo. A modest man, he began his winery in 1979, hence a relative newcomer in that region. A forward-looking man, he was one of the group nicknamed "Barolo Boys" who, after visiting Burgundy, which they likened to Barolo because it was also a single-varietal (Pinot Noir) wine, he also broke with tradition, like Angelo Gaja, by blending foreign varietals into his Barolos, and by making single-vineyard Barolos, hence Barolo Ciabot Mentin Ginestra, named after the vineyard. It was always a joy to visit him at Montforte and after the visit to lunch with him at the café in the square of Montforte!

Elio Altare, said to be the leader of the Barolo Boys, a forward-thinking vigneron, is another of my favourite Barolo producers, a charming and always very welcoming vigneron to visit. The courtyard of his winery/home stretches out over the hillside on which it sits, providing a lovely view of the vineyards in the distance. Always hospitable, always interesting to converse and exchange views with, a great wine-man and a good friend.

These two "Barolo Boys" are characteristic of all Piedmont vignerons.