Thursday, May 31, 2012

Fratelli Alessandria in Verduno

I was too early for my morning appointment at Fratelli Alessandria, so I took a walk over to the Belvedere, the small park nearby the town square. As usual, it was packed to the gills with gawkers and hangers on.

On this morning it was still too hazy to see clearly the buildings of Alba. No matter.

The Belvedere abuts the church of San Michele, which was constructed in 1708. Actually, there is a small ATM and bank in between the church and the Belvedere, but I guess in the end money gets in the way of most things.

Behind the church is this little garden and vineyard, fenced off from view and for the church's own private use. I have a deep desire to try the wine from this vineyard. I would really like to know what it tastes like. I am not sure if it is used as the Communion wine for the congregation or if instead it is all drunk by those who attend to the matters of the service. It would take an awful lot of chutzpah for me to show up at a Mass just to try this wine, but I'm not saying that I won't try and do it next year. I will definitely score the wine with points and publish redolent tasting notes as soon as is possible.

Moments of peace over, I walk over to the winery and find construction in full swing, with workers everywhere hammering away at an addition to the cantina.

The construction represents the latest change for this winery, which has been in operation since 1870. For many people entering Verduno, this is the first winery that they see along the road in.

It's not a bad view.

These are the front doors of the cantina. I arrived eight minutes early for my appointment, which is like being 28 minutes early in Italy, so I hung out here for a bit.

At the appointed hour I met Vittore Alessandria, who is the 5th generation owner of this family concern.

The winery has a production of about 75,000 bottles annually.

The vast majority of the wine here is red wine, while roughly 10% of what is produced is white.

The Barolos, and there are four different Barolo bottlings, are all aged in botti. Perhaps the star of the portfolio is the Barolo from Verduno's Monvigliero vineyard, however Fratelli Alessandria also makes a Barolo from grapes grown in the Gramolere vineyard of Monforte. The Manzone family of Le Gramolere are, it turns out, relatives of Vittore's.

The style across the board is a bit more soft and fruited than one might expect from some of the other notable winery names in Verduno. I know from experience that the wines offer strong relative value back in the New York market, and I was happy to try them in situ.

RIP Aldo Conterno, 1931 - 2012

House on a hill: the Aldo Conterno winery.
Aldo Conterno, who founded the Poderi Aldo Conterno in 1969 and brought forth the idea that Barolo should be drinkable younger, has died.

A friend remarked to me recently that an era has passed in Barolo. When you think of the esteemed names in the area, it is their children who make their wine now. Aldo was himself once young, and it was then that he set new goals unheard of in the area at the time.

Aldo Conterno acheived incredible heights from his perch in Bussia. I expect that he is now in a place of even higher elevation.

Luca's grass

Luca Roagna openly admits to having a lot of grass.

He has a lot of grass in Montefico.

He has a lot of grass in Asili.

And he has a lot of grass in Paje.

"People think we are very lazy," say Luca "because there is so much grass everywhere. But actually we are not lazy. Actually we care very much about the grass that we have."

I'll be honest that I wasn't expecting to see so much that was so high. I mean, the grass is waist high on a man of modest height. You could lose a small child in between the rows. Or two small children. I had visited a year ago the Roagna winery in Barolo, which is still under construction, but I had somehow failed to notice just how green the Pira vineyard was, even in the pictures I took from a distance. When you walk a Roagna vineyard it becomes oh so very clear just how much vegetation is around. I wouldn't recommend wing tips.

Luca goes grass surfing.

The commitment to eschewing chemical weed killers is total at Roagna. And there is a stark contrast between Roagna vineyards and the surrounding vineyards owned by other wineries.

Here is that shot of Montefico again. In the foreground is Roagna's parcel. In the distance is somebody else's parcel.

This is Asili from a distance. The small green part belongs to Roagna.

Looking down Asili. The vines on the left side of the picture belong to Roagna, the vines on the right side do not.

This is Paje from a distance. The large green part belongs to Roagna. The vineyard parcel used for Crichet Paje (also green) is closer to the house.

Maybe I'm going on a bit much about the amount of grass in the Roagna vineyards, but I think it really sums up what they are about when it comes to viticulture. That and the old massale selection vines.

Old vines in Montefico.

Old vine in Montefico.

Old vines in Asili.

Old vine in Asili.

Old vines in Paje's Crichet Paje parcel.

Old vines in the same parcel. The one on the left is Nebbiolo, the one on the right is not.

And that's the story of Roagna, really, at least before the grapes reach the winery. Old vines that are a tremendous example of the how the viticulture we know is really a gift from the past, and a family that has refused to play by the chemical rules for three generations. The roots really have run deep.

Inside the winery there is plenty to taste.

There is a family rule: Luca cannot open bottles of wine older than he is himself.

Luckily for us, Luca has his own rule: he will open bottles as close to his own age as possible, and several of them. And Luca isn't so young.

This was the trip where I finally understood a wine that had long puzzled me: the Roagna Crichet Paje. This is the selection that sees over 80 days of maceration with the submerged cap of skins and the wine that sees 8 years of ageing in cask before bottling. After several examples with significant bottle age tasted at the winery I realized that this wine just needs a patient amount of time to release its grip and show you the breadth of its palm. The Roagna family has given the vines the long amount of time that they need. Would that we would do the same for the bottles.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

My favorite place

I was speaking with a friend just back from Paris. It had been her first trip to the Luxembourg Gardens and we both agreed that the Medici Fountain is a special place on this slowly spinning globe. Something especially unique. It isn't so much the immensity of the place, because it really isn't that big, or any supposed grandeur. There is the quiet there, though. And the well-chosen beauty. And a feeling that once you enter that you are also a part of the weave. There is a pulse to that spot, and my heart rate matches it each time I sit there.

I feel the same inside the cantina where Bartolo Mascarello once drew out labels by hand. Time had been friendly to lead me back there. My first visit was last year and I immediately had wanted to come back. It took almost a year, but there I was, thanks be. And lucky for it.

 Maria Teresa was there.

And there.

And there.

 And it was the room I remembered.

With the decorations I recalled.

And maybe one or two changes.

The vine still grew long and thick on the terrace.

The Panda still sat in the driveway.

The sign outside is still illegible, even if you are right nearby it.

And Franca is still a tough cookie. Here she can be seen striding away, fully aware and perhaps disappointed that today there would be no fisticuffs. She had been ready to put up dukes with some German tourists who strode in demanding attentions while having neglected to make the all-important appointment. Things had gotten a bit tense and Franca had been right at the door ready to go all pronto on their asses. Probably she could be a bouncer at a nightclub in Alba if she really wanted to be. She's tough, man.

Franca and Bartolo. You can tell they were happy together.

And thick as thieves.

Outside the cantina there are today two walking lanterns, to illuminate the late nights. I imagine one of these was Bartolo's and the other Franca's. Or maybe they shared the same together.

We taste a bit of wine and each of us sees what can we can see there.

Here's what we had: Dolcetto 2010, Barbera 2009, Freisa 2009, and Barolo 2007 and 2008. There was no Nebbiolo della Langhe for us on this visit because the last batch had been late in going through malo and so is not bottled yet.

The fate of the Nebbiolo della Langhe awaits: future bottles at the ready.

There is plenty of 2008 Barolo in bottle.

But the one you want to be checking out is the 2007 Barolo from Bartolo, at least while you wait for your 2008s to come around. I cannot imagine someone doing better with the raw materials of 2007. I mean showing all of the 2007 fruit loopiness in the very best light. Here, in this cellar, 2007's Toucan Sam is a Swan. Really beautiful, noble, and pristine. I really, really liked that 2007.

We revisit the cellar.

Who else uses full cork stoppers for their demijohns? Not so many people, let me tell you.

Two old casks have been removed, and their old blocks await the replacements. Those botti were judged to be too old. Maria Teresa has one remaining cask dating from Bartolo's day.

It wasn't, after all, that long ago. The picture is of Bartolo and Mr. Oddero sharing some words and a laugh.

While in another picture a very much younger Bartolo looks out to find the viewer.

Other young children, these in the family of Mascarello's Japanese importer, do the same.

I'm glad I could see them all again.