Travel Day: Sunday-Monday
This year’s VinConnect Customer Trip began for me in Washington, DC on Sunday afternoon, November 16th. Once I arrived at Dulles, I decided to indulge myself at the VinoVolo (website) outpost there to help set the mood while awaiting departure. I really enjoy those VinoVolo locations that seem to be popping up more and more — they have interesting, well-chosen, high-quality wines; pretty good finger food; and not-outrageous prices. In this case, a couple of glasses of interesting Italian whites provided a perfect way to start the trip.
After a couple of flights I landed in Milan, where we all met up, jumped in a car and headed straight to Alba. Making better time than expected we arrived just before noon, enabling me to wedge in a couple of business meetings in Alba before our first tasting. I did the meetings at a new wine bar in Alba called Voglia di Vino (website). Very cozy and casual, it was the perfect spot for a couple of brief business conversations and my first-ever glass of Nascetta, a long lost white grape indigenous to the region that is being resurrected by a few producers. Nascetta is believed to be related to Vermentino, and has a similar light, floral profile that’s ideal for afternoon sipping or a summer on the patio.
In the afternoon we headed to our first tasting, at the venerable Borgogno (profile, website). Located in the center of the town of Barolo, the historic estate’s wine production dates all the way back to 1761. We had a lovely tour of their very old cellars, with the relics of old historical equipment in contrast to the modern-looking tasting room. Known for huge library of older wines, we were lucky to taste several in addition to all their new releases including their Riservas from 2007, 2006, 2004, 1997 and 1982. All were great, but 1997 in particular was striking. Following the lovely initiation, we popped over to a local trattoria in Alba for a humble dinner of traditional Piemontese fare and were soon off to bed early.
Tuesday began with a visit to Paolo Scavino (website) and a tour with Riccardo Sgarra. I had recently tasted some of their 2010s that showed as fiercely tannic, so I was thrilled that we were able to taste several wonderful older wines, including the Cannubi 2005, Bric del Fiasc 2005 and Carobric 2001, which all showed the beautiful combination of power and elegance that good aged Barolo can develop.
Then we moved on to old friend at E. Pira – Chiara Boschis (profile, website). Chiara was entertaining other guests when we arrived, but we jumped into their tasting and were fortunate to enjoy a couple of special treats beyond the new releases — a gorgeous Cannubi 2005, and a preview of the Via Nuova 2011 that was incredibly tasty and silky.
Our next stop was a much-anticipated visit to Luciano Sandrone (website), where we had a tour of their cellar and a tasting of their highly-acclaimed 2010s — the 100-point Le Vigne 2010 and the 98-point Cannubi Boschis 2010. Both were huge, powerful, primal wines with just so much going on. In contrast, we also tasted the Nebbiolo Valmaggiore 2012, a lighter yet distinctive wine made from grapes grown north across the Tanaro River in one of the craziest vineyards I’ve seen in the region.
Tuesday’s dinner was also a relatively casual affair, at the Osteria dell’ Arco (website) in downtown Alba. Certainly a step up in quality for our prior evening’s choice, this is a lively yet reasonable option for those staying in town.
Wednesday began in La Morra at Roberto Voerzio (profile, website) for a tour/tasting with son Davide. These are probably my favorite wines in all of Barolos — while some do not appreciate their style of huge fruit and concentration, I find them absolutely delicious. Their approach in the vineyard is very different from the traditionalists due to their densely-planted vines and hyper-aggressive green harvesting, but their vinification is pretty traditional and the result are wines that are wonderfully hedonistic and pleasurable to drink. All the wines here were so fantastic it’s hard to single any out as a favorite, but I did note that the 2011 Barolos we tasted (Rocche dell’Annunziata and La Serra) were both showing terrifically.
Our next stop was over to the other side of the region to visit Franco Massolino (profile, website) in Serralunga, where we had a great tour and tasting of current releases. Everything we tasted was consistently excellent, but the Barolo Vigna Rionda Riserva 2008 was simply astonishing — its soaring aeromatics and dark, rich palate made it one of the top wines of the trip for sure. After the tasting we had lunch with Franco at the Vinoteca Centro Storico (website) in Serralunga that was outstanding — they have a great champagne list there that we always fawn over, and the bottle of Gimonnet Special Club 2002 we shared was a brilliant departure from the rest of our trip’s consumption.
Our day’s final visit was to Vajra to tour and taste with Isidore. As usual we tasted a great lineup of 10 or more wines, which were all showing well the transparent, fresh flavors Vajra is known for. The Barolo Albe 2010 was once again a stand-out, and remains one of the single most consistent “values” one can find anywhere in Barolo.
Dinner that evening was at the Ristorante Castello di Grinzane (website) in the castle at Grinzane Cavour. This has a well-deserved one Michelin star, and was probably the best meal we had on the entire trip as the food, service and setting were simply outstanding and the prices quite reasonable. It’s incredibly unfortunate then, that the restaurant will be closing at the end of 2014 — apparently with the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation that Piemonte recently received, the castle owners have dramatically increased the rent and are driving out top chef Alessandro Boglione. I highly suggest you follow him to see what he ends up opening next — I know I will.
The day began with a visit to Cavallotto (website) for a tour and tasting with Giuseppe. Cavallotto is renowned for being staunchly in the “traditional” camp of Barolo vinification, and we we able to glean some good insights into their unique perspective. We also spent a long time outside in their vineyards, talking about expositions, soils, microclimate and other factors that contribute to their unique setting. The highlight of the tasting of current-release wines here was their Riserva Bricco Boschis Vigna San Giuseppe 2008, whose soaring aeromatics impressed but whose classically-flavored palate was a bit reticent given that the wine was just recently bottled. With a little more time in bottle, this will be an absolute stunner.
Our next stop was at Ceretto (website) where we tasted with the venerable Federico Ceretto. We sampled some particularly impressive Barolos from 2009 and 2010, made in a markedly different (less-oaked) style than I had recalled from my last visit years ago. When I commented on the perceived difference, Federico explained that in 2008 and 2009 they went away from barriques and back to using large casks to vinify their Cru Barolos, a change that I wholeheartedly commend given the results. In addition, the 2011 Barbarescos we tasted were stunning in their purity of fruit and varietal expression — be on the lookout for those to arrive in the market some time soon.
Elio Grasso (website) in Monforte was our final tour and tasting for the day. In addition to the fantastic wines that are getting more and more attention, the setting here is amazing. Located on the side of a valley wall, views for 180 degrees are stunning. In fact, they look right across the valley to the village of Serralunga, where if you squint you can see the cellars and patio of Franco Massolino way off in the distance. The highlight of the tasting of new releases here was the Barolo Runcot Riserva 2008 — massively endowed with tremendous structure, this should show beautifully with some time to mature.
Dinner that evening was an insider recommendation from one of our winemaker friends that became one of our great finds from the trip — La Rosa dei Vini (website) in Serralunga. A modest trattoria, they have a fantastic wine list with extremely reasonably-priced bottles back to the mid-90s from dozens and dozens of producers. We went with a still-powerful, dark and rich Pelissero Barbaresco Vanotu 1998 in preparation for our first visit the following day.
Friday we headed to Barbaresco to visit Pelissero (profile, website) for a tour and tasting with Giulia. During our amazing tasting, in addition to several new releases we were able to sample their top 3 Barbarescos (Nubiola, Tulin and Vanotu) across each of three separate vintages (2009, 2010. 2011). The results of the horizontal/vertical assemblage of the nine wines were striking — the wines of 2010’s very hot vintage stuck out with their savage, brambly flavors, and the purity of flavors and silky exuberance of the 2011 vintage were on full display.
For lunch we popped back into Alba to have lunch at La Piola (website) with owner Federico Ceretto and his wife and daughter. The original plan was to eat at the chef’s table upstairs in Alba’s first Michelin three-star Piazza Duomo (website), but it was booked with dignitaries on that day. So we “settled” for the more casual La Piola, where Piazza Duomo’s chef Enrico Crippa sent down his signature egg/truffle dish and a lovely dessert to complement our traditional pasta courses. Not surprisingly the place was packed with business people, tourists and locals alike, and we even ran into Roberto Voerzio dining with his family as well.
Afterward it was back to Barbaresco to stop by Produttori del Barbaresco (website), where we tasted several wines and talked at length about the operations of the consorzio and the various vineyards and crus that comprise the wines. These are my favorite consortium-made wines from anywhere in the world, and they showed clearly why they have a reputation for high quality and great value on this day. Among the 2008, 2009 and 2010s we tasted, the 2009 normale and the Asili and Rio Sordo crus for me were the most impressive.
Figuring we would end the week’s tasting with a “bang,” we then went over to the Barolo + Brunello (website) tasting event in the cellar of the Barolo Castle. A sponsored trade and consumer event running through the weekend, it featured roughly 15 producers from each region, allowing participants to compare and contrast the wines from both renowned areas. The perfect way to cap the week was meeting and tasting with Giuseppe Rinaldi, who was pouring his Barolo Le Coste from 2004 and 2001. While the 2001 to me tasted some 10-20 years older (still beautiful, but very advanced), the 2004 was simply splendid and another strong candidate for wine of the trip.
Friday night’s dinner was at the acclaimed La Ciau del Tournavento (website), consistently regarded as one of the best in the region and also a Michelin one-star. The food and service were very good, but it’s kind of a large, commercial place that didn’t have the intimacy of Grinzane Cavour for example. That said, it does have one of the top wine collecitons in the world with more than 60,000 bottles, and the newly-designed cellar housing the restaurant’s inventory as well as the private cellar of the chef was open for tours and a thing to behold.
Saturday we went to Milan and toured around all day. Dinner at another Michelin one-star Restaurant Alice (website), in the newly-revamped Eataly outspost in Milan. They primarly serve fresh seafood, made with great technique and flawlessly executed. I would absolutely recommend a meal there for those like us seeking a seafood fix after a week of Piemontese meat, risotto and fresh pasta.
– Wine touring in Piemonte is simply fantastic — we enjoyed great wines, met wonderful people, saw and learned so much, ate great food, and got around the region easily since nothing is more than 30 minutes away and you can stay in a single hotel while visiting both regions.
– Be on the look out for the 2011 vintage wines from Barolo and Barbaresco. I’m not sure how much visibility they will get with all the hype over the 2010 vintage, but they are fantastic wines in their own right. The 2011s may not be quite as classically structured or powerful as the 2010s, but they’re showing tremendous fruit, purity, and elegance, and will be ready to drink younger as well. The vintage was especially awesome in Barbaresco, where their wines are notably better than the 2010s.
– Regarding other recent vintages, the early returns are very good for 2012 and 2013, stretching Piemonte’s amazing streak to 10 straight good to outstanding vintages.
– On the other hand, 2014 was pretty much a disaster. It was worst in Barolo, where poor weather and three separate hail storms devastated vineyards and ruined grapes, resulting in yields being cut by 20-70%. Barbaresco in 2014 was not as bad as its neighbor as it missed the worst of the precipitation, and Gaia Gaja even had a cautiously optimistic view of the vintage for them when we ran into her on the street in Barbaresco on Thursday.
– Finally, if you’re a VinConnect customer, you really ought to consider coming along on one of my trips. While they are working trips for me, I’ve enjoyed inviting a few of my top customers along for the ride, and they have been a big hit. We are a small group (no more than four), have great intimate tours, tastings and meals with some of the top winemakers in the world, and learn a lot in the process from them and the others in our group. It’s a wonderful time and I handle all the arrangements — all you need to do is show up and enjoy! Hopefully I’ll have a chance to welcome most customers on another trip some time soon…