All this attention to detail would be to no avail if the wines were not of exceptional quality. This they are, from the simplest Barbera Cascina Francia through the regular Barolo Cascina Francia to the exceptional and rare Barolo Monfortino Riserva.
NO one seriously interested in fine wine would be unfamiliar with the names Giacomo Conterno and Barolo Riserva Montfortino, the legendary and almost mythical Barolo made by Giovanni Conterno and now by his son Roberto Conterno in the little wine village of Montforte d'Alba. It goes without saying that for Barolo enthusiasts, Barolo Riserva Montfortino would carry the same weight and importance as Petrus to Bordeaux-lovers and Romanee-Conti to Burgundy enthusiasts.
When one is studying something totally new, one looks for landmarks and reference points, so as to better evaluate what one is encountering for the first time. Just as Lafite and Latour serve as reasonably authenticated reference points for Bordeaux, so I learnt that Barolo Monfortino Riserva would serve similarly for Barolo.
All this led to my standing on the top of the slope of the hill of Serralunga one ice-cold day in January 1985 (after visiting Bordeaux) with my friend Pio Boffa of the Piedmont family wine company Pio Cesare, looking down at the most famous vineyard in Barolo, Giacomo Conterno's wholly owned Cascina Francia.
Giacomo Conterno goes way back it is believed to the time when Giovanni Conterno's son Giacomo came back after World War I to San Giuseppe near Montforte d'Alba where the older Giovanni had a tavern. He began the production of Barolo, the first one being bottled between 1912 and 1920.
Giacomo broke with tradition by (a) producing a Barolo with vast ageing potential, and (b) by purchasing his own vineyard, Cascina Francia in Serralunga, thus breaking with the traditional practice of using bought-in fruit. To this day Giacomo Conterno continues to use the old traditional method of Barolo production, ageing in large casks (botti) for periods of up to seven or more years.
A visit to Giacomo Conterno's Azienda in Monforte d'Alba has been a standard fixture on the itinerary of my visits to Piedmont - every one or two years.
From our first visit in the late 1980s we were made most welcome by Giovanni Conterno, accompanied as always by his charming wife. It was old-fashioned Italian hospitality with a capital H! I take the opportunity in this column to pay tribute to and to express my admiration of Giovanni Conterno and his wife who always received us with great warmth and generosity all those years before his death in 2004.
His son Roberto continues his father's tradition, warmly welcoming us a few days ago in spite of being heavily involved in extensive renovations to the winery. Instead of leading the way into the reception and tasting room, he excitedly led the way into the winery to show us his latest acquisition.
Those who drink enough fine wine will have experienced the disappointment of a "corked" bottle. The average inevitable incidence of "one corked bottle per case of 12" has left producer and consumer frustrated at being unable to reduce this incidence, leading to the advocacy of screw-caps and other alternative closures. Not any more will Azienda Giacomo Conterno remain helpless - it has taken positive steps to totally eliminate "corked" bottles of its wines.
Conterno does not take the cork suppliers' guarantees of specified quality for granted. In addition to the supplier's certifications, Conterno's staff manually examine every single cork used for their wine-closures regardless of the price or quality of the wine, from the least to the most expensive.
To enable accurate and complete tracking of each and every cork, the winery has additionally put in place a specially designed cork-labelling machine which laser prints specific identifying details on the corks. The coded details imprinted include name of supplier, batch number, and delivery number, thus enabling accurate tracking of each and every cork used. Thus when a bottle is reported as "corked", examination of the cork enables complete tracking of the origin and life-history of that cork!
All this attention to detail would be to no avail if the wines were not of exceptional quality. This they are, from the simplest Barbera Cascina Francia through the regular Barolo Cascina Francia to the exceptional and rare Barolo Monfortino Riserva, produced only in exceptional years.
The production of Barolo Montfortino Riserva is so tiny, the wine itself so precious, that even an incidence of one corked bottle in 12 must be reduced or eliminated. It is worth emphasising again that this treatment is applied to ALL the bottles of wine produced regardless of retail price of bottle. We drank a Giacomo Conterno 2011 Barbera d'Alba Cascina Francia at lunch after the tasting. It cost all of 40 euros (S$68) in the restaurant and its cork had been laser-printed.
Barbera Cascina Francia 2011, Giacomo Conterno
Black red colour, with sweet fruity nose; dense very concentrated, very sweet with very ripe fruit, beautifully balanced, a light touch of ripe tannin on the medium-length finish. Alcohol 15.0 per cent by volume, but so well integrated and so well balanced was the wine that it was totally unnoticeable.
I checked later in a wine store in Alba town and this bottle retails for 28 euros. If only it were available in Singapore at that price!
(More of Giacomo Conterno's wines next week.)