Tuesday, November 15, 2011

the Amari file: Chinato as it was

We know the situation of Chinato today: there are about 30 commercial examples of Barolo Chinato produced in the Piemonte, with several of those produced on a contract basis by distillers that have been given a recipe by a winery. There are in addition to these the assorted Chinati made for personal use by those wineries who do not want to file the extra (apparently extensive) paperwork required by the Italian beverage and taxation laws and who want to make the Chinato themselves, without employing a separate distiller. It is not premitted in Italy to run a winery and a distillery on the same premises, nor is it allowed to make Chinato in a winery (if you are thinking that this means that the Bartolo Mascarello Barolo Chinato is not made at the Bartolo Mascarello Cantina, you are right, that is what it means). There are Chinati produced in areas outside the Barolo zone, even as far away as Toscana, but the market today mostly follows the Barolo Chinati.

But what was the situation before today? What was the Chinato scene like 100 or so years ago, when more or less it was just getting started at a commercial level?

Looking for answers to an entirely different question, I stumbled on this Agricultural Journal. The article dealing with Chinato, which is a small piece of the larger Journal, is dated 1919. It concerns the analytical testing of the available commercial Chinati of the time.

There are a few generalities to be gleaned from the article (which can be downloaded as a large .pdf file or converted to plain text for translation).

Chinati were not exported in any significant quantities until 1907, although we know that Zabaldano Chinato received a commendation at a fair held in Nice back in 1899.

Part of the interest of the article is the articulation of the broad range, stylistically, that was involved across the available examples of Chinati. Most of the Chinati being produced at the time were not Barolo Chinati. The dominant area of production inside the Piemonte was centered around the Province of Torino, which was also home to the vermouth industry. There was white Chinato. There was Passito Chinato. There was extra old Chinato. There was Barbaresco Chinato (which does not officially exist today). The alcohol by volume of a Chinato might be just over 10%, or it might be as high as 20%. Sugar levels could vary even more radically, although something like 14 to 16% was the norm.

So what Chinati from the province of Cuneo (home to Barolo Chinato) might have been available for purchase in 1919? It just so happens, the report tells us.

Abbona e Figli (Barolo) 10.09% abv.
C. Barale Fratelli (Barolo) 17.54% abv.
Bianchi e C. (Bra) 16.08% abv.
L. Calissano e Figli (Alba) 14.01% abv.
Fratelli Camerano (La Morra) 16.64% abv.
Cantina Sociale (Alba) 12.97% abv.
G.D. Capellano (Alba) 16.74% abv.
Fratelli Faramia (Savigliano) 14.39% abv.
Fratelli Gancia (Canelli) 15.46% abv.
Raimondo e Ravinale (Grinzane d'Alba) 15.65% abv.
C. Rinaldi e Figli (Barolo) 18.64% abv.
Enrico Serafino (Casale) 15.75% Barbaresco Chinato & 16.63% Barolo Chinato
S. Zabaldano (Castigliole Falletti) 16.14% abv.

Zabaldano "China" and "Chinato," side by side

So, what to make of this? Well, the Barolo Chinato market seems to have expanded considerably in the last 100 years, despite the difficulty that you or I might encounter in sourcing a particular bottle. If in 1919 there were less than 15 major producers of Barolo Chinato, and today there are 30 or so, well, there are a lot more today. This assumes that there were indeed less than 15 to choose from in 1919, and that the report doesn't just skip over others that might have been out there.

There would also appear to be little link today with the bottlings of the past. From the list above, I have only ever encountered bottles of Barolo Chinato from a few of those cited, including the co-founders of Barolo Chinato itself, Cappellano and Zabaldano (although Cappellano might be spelled with two p's, it is listed as "Capellano" in the Agricultural Journal). It would also seem likely that a Cappellano Barolo Chinato from 1919 would have been made from grapes sourced from vineyards other than would be the case with a modern day example from Cappellano. In the case of Zabaldano, although bottles may still be found, the Barolo Chinato is no longer produced. The last member of the family to make some, Victor Zabaldano, died in 1989 and left no heirs. It is thought that he took the recipe for the family Chinato with him to his grave, roughly 100 years after it was conceived. So we seem to have in what is available today very little chance to experience what might have been on offer a century ago.

Unless you have a bottle lying around, that is. In which case you should call me.

Other Pages in the Amari File (so far):
A Link of Interest
An Amari Cocktail for the Holidays
S. Maria al Monte

And Mr. Asimov's article, which is seasonally appropriate once again


Pascaline Lepeltier said...

Levi, what is the difference between china and chinato
and once again, nice post!

leviopenswine said...

Hi, Pascaline!

I don't know for sure the answer to your question, and it wouldn't be easy to answer with certainty even after a lot of research, but what I surmise is this:

"Barolo Chinato" from Zabaldano was Barolo Chinato as we might generally understand it, Nebbiolo grapes from the Barolo zone distilled and infused.

"American China" from Zabaldano was probably not made from Nebbiolo, or at least not from Nebbiolo grown in the Barolo zone. My guess is that it was not from Nebbiolo. This is just my guess. I am thinking about, for example, Mauro Vergano's "Americano" which is a Chinato made from Grignolino. There is also the "Americano" cocktail, which has in its recipe sweet vermouth.

It is my guess, and this is just a guess, that the Zabaldano Barolo Chinato was bigger in taste and drier in finish than the Zabaldano American China, which I suppose was lighter and sweeter. But this is just a guess. I could easily be wrong.

If I do find out the answer for sure at some point, I will followup. Or perhaps another reader does know the answer already and will chime in.

Anyway, it is an interesting question, made difficult to answer by the fact that neither Zabaldano product has been made for awhile.

leviopenswine said...

Those interested in Zabaldano "Vino Chinato," and a tasting note of a sample dated 1972, might want to follow this link: