Friday, December 14, 2012

A Rizzi retrospective

Puttin' on the Rizzi.
Recently I had a chance to attend a really well done comparative tasting of Barbaresco from the Rizzi estate in Treiso. I visited Rizzi earlier this year but my experience with the wines had been limited. Rizzi is both the name of a vineyard and the name of an estate. The Dellapiana family owns a large part of the first and all of the second. As their wines do not currently have a national importer, the bottles can be somewhat difficult to track down. This particular evening offered a chance to taste Rizzi Barbaresco 2007, 2006, 2005, and 2004 from both the Pajore ("pie - or - RAY") vineyard and the Boito ("boh - oy - TOE") parcel of the Rizzi cru. It was really helpful to compare the two different bottlings in 2006, for instance, and get a feel for the style of Rizzi, the vintage, and the vineyard differences. I was fortunate to be able to attend.

It is a special occasion indeed that I find myself using a pencil.
The tasting was held at Astor Center, and the staff there did an excellent job of running things smoothly. I know how difficult it can be to pour out tasting flights for 30 different guests, but everything was kept perfectly on track. If you are looking to purchase a wine from Rizzi, Astor is pretty much your go to and only source in New York right now, as they are directly importing the wines.

Tiny bubbles!
The tasting started off with the Rizzi sparkling wine, which is an extra brut blend of 60% Chardonnay, 25% Pinot Noir, and 15% Nebbiolo. This is a non-vintage wine, although what we tried was based primarily on the 2008 vintage. That is the same as the current release, because the sparkling is aged for 36 months in bottle before being sold. In terms of sparkling wine from the Piemonte, this may be my current favorite, besting in my opinion some of the more well known options. It is clean and crisp, but interesting at the same time, and has some layers. Perhaps the quality of this wine is due in part to the age of the Chardonnay vines involved. Ernesto Dellapiana of Rizzi was actually one of the first producers in the Piemonte to plant Chardonnay, in part because his wife prefers to drink white wine.

How do you play a good game of checkers when all the pieces are red? These are the questions I ask myself sometimes.
After the sparkling wine we moved to the Barbaresco flights. The winemaking for the different crus of Barbaresco produced by Rizzi is pretty much the same across the board, so you get a chance to see vintage and vineyard differences when comparing them.

I took this picture at the Rizzi estate during the 2012 harvest there.
What does the winemaking involve? I asked Enrico Dellapiana (Ernesto's son) that question, and he had a lot to tell me. The Nebbiolo is destemmed and then there is a maceration on the skins for 20 to 25 days. The maceration and fermentation occurs in stainless steel vats, with pumping over but no punching down. Natural yeasts are preferred, but not always used. After fermentation the Nebbiolo is racked 2 to 3 times, and then moved to Slavonian oak botte to mature (there is no use of barrique at Rizzi). That move usually occurs about 5 to 6 months after the harvest. Once in wood the Nebbiolo may be racked once or twice, possibly three times. The amount of racking is determined from the indications given when tasting through the unfinished lots. After 12 to 15 months in wood the wine is moved once again, to rest in closed top cement tanks for one year before bottling. The wine is then bottled and sold. The wine from the Boito cru is aged for 1 year longer than the other crus, and is effectively a Riserva, although it is not labelled that way.

The Rizzi cru.
Rizzi owns 35 hectares of vines, and 15 of those hectares are planted to Nebbiolo. In terms of the crus themselves, there are several differences.

Fondetta is a steep plot composed of compressed sandy stones. Vines were planted there in 1972, and then additionally in the mid 1990s, 2001, and 2007. The oldest of the vines is bottled as Fondetta by Rizzi.

In Pajore the vines are older. Those were planted in the 1960s, although there was some additional planting in 2008. The planting in 2008 followed the purchase of a second Pajore parcel by Rizzi in 2007. Again, the older vines are sold as the cru bottling by Rizzi, and that bottling is the Pajore. About 250 cases are made of the Rizzi Pajore each year.

The Rizzi cru is quite big, and basically in two parts. There is the majority of the Rizzi vineyard, which is sandy stones, and then there is the Boito parcel of Rizzi, which is mostly clay. The Boito section is at the top of the vineyard behind the family house. One portion of the Boito vines was planted in 1969, and the other was planted in 1994. Enrico mentioned to me that while in Boito they do a lot of green harvesting, less is necessary in Pajore, probably because of the higher percentage of old vines in the later.

Much of the Nebbiolo from the younger vines is sold off in bulk as wine.

In terms of style, I was told by Enrico that the Fondetta tends to make the more elegant wines of the three crus, while the Boito turns out the most powerful. Pajore tends towards the middle in terms of weight. This has been my experience as well after sampling the 4 vintages of Boito and Pajore at the tasting, as well as a 2000 Rizzi Fondetta a couple of years ago.

At the tasting I really enjoyed the 2004 vintage from both Pajore and Boito. The 2004 Pajore was my favorite wine of the evening, really showing well, while the 2004 Boito held more sapid power, and perhaps more potential. The Boito wines did tend towards more powerful flavors, and sometimes a little astringency at the edges. They were also darker in color than the Pajore wines. My opinion about the relative merits of the 2004 vintage at Rizzi was shared by Enrico, who called 2004 the best vintage to have occurred at Rizzi since his personal favorite, 1990. He also said of the developed and complex 2004 Pajore that it was "one of the best moments to drink this wine."

That got me to thinking, because I realized that although the Rizzi wines are very accessible, they really need time to show their layered nuances. They are open knit wines in their youth, and I think for that reason perhaps not given their due in the US market. We may be nearly over the "I want a BIG  wine, like a Barolo" era of Italian wine consumers in this country, but I think that many still expect a fine Nebbiolo to display a lot of grip. The Rizzi wines do not. This is perhaps for many different reasons. The cap is not punched down or submerged, would be one reason. That means there is less contact of the juice with the tannin bearing skins. The wines are then fermented in stainless steel, and probably (although I did not ask this) with some degree of temperature control. This also emphasizes the fruit profile. And this is Barbaresco that doesn't see that much wood or that much time in wood. The wood is large and used, and the wine is in and out of the botte in under a year and a half. So not much wood tannins, and also not so much time for oxidation through the staves. The wine is also not racked that much. It might be that a Nebbiolo wine at Rizzi is racked only once after it goes into wood. That isn't so much, relatively speaking. That also contributes, I would imagine, to more pure tasting primary fruit. And finally, it may have something to do with Treiso. Treiso was an area well known for Dolcetto, Enrico tells me, before the rise in the fortunes of Barbaresco and the desire of growers to plant more Nebbiolo. The style of Dolcetto that Treiso is known for, Enrico said, is one that is less strong than what is found in Dogliani or in Alba generally. It may be that that "less strong" characteristic carries through to the Nebbiolo as well.

I bring all this up because I think that Rizzi is overlooked in the US market. As I mentioned, they do not have a US importer, even though they are a sizable estate that owns large parcels in significant crus. And I think that they do not have an importer because the wines do not seem in their youth to be entirely "serious." They are red fruited. Pure. Easy to drink. Open knit. Accessible. And if you didn't like them then you might think that they tasted commercial, even though they are not flashy at all. I would just say that I have had very good experiences with how these wines age, as for example with the 2000 Fondetta that I mentioned earlier, and I think that we may well be witnessing a classic example of a market that is not properly understanding the potential of the wines. They are being dismissed as being simpler than they really are. With a bit of time, they show you what they are about. Buyers in other countries seem to have already gathered this, as for example Rizzi sells decently in France, which is in general surprising for any Italian producer.

The Rizzi wines are easy to drink with food at any age, even giant slabs of cheese as big as these.
Which brings me to a discussion of vintages. Enrico pointed out to me the funny coincidence that, to him, 2006 seems much like 1996, 2007 much like 1997, and 2008 much like 1998. He meant by this that 2006 still seems very young, as the 1996 always has, that the 2007 shows the broad and big fruit that 1997 did, while the tannins of 2008 seem similar to those that were found in the early days of 1998.

In terms of other vintages, 2012 seemed to Enrico to be a very good vintage, avoiding the hail that fell in certain parts of Barolo, and also the dryness of other parts of Italy. 2011 was a very hot year, with rich wines, and powerful Barbera. Enrico prefers 2010 to 2009 for its better blend of classic elegance, acidity, and complexity. He also finds 2005 Barbaresco to be better than 2005 Barolo in most cases, and he attributed that to the earlier picking dates in Barbaresco, which allowed growers there to avoid the rain that started on November 2, in 2005 and continued for four days.

In my own opinion I would say that the 2007 vintage is my least favorite of the recent Rizzi years. It displays at Rizzi the characteristics that I tend to dislike elsewhere: the fruit loops of unbalanced fr00t, the lack of a real underpinning of any kind, and the need to settle down and in. I have some sympathy for a grower who has to find an importer on the back of what 2007 brought. But some folks certainly like 2007 for the same reasons that I don't, so perhaps Enrico will be okay.

Whether or not the wines do find an importer, I plan to follow them in the future.

Enrico Dellapiana says "Respect the Boito."

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