Saturday, May 18, 2013

Mastroberardino Taurasi 1968, some explication

Piero Mastroberardino

It was one of those splashy BYOB events where small fortunes in liquid assets disappear overnight. Table tops were festooned with blue chips. Expensive labels everywhere, except where the wines were so old that they had no labels. Bobby swept through the room with a bottle in both hands, and poured me a taste: WOWZER, dusty black spearmint tendrils clutched around a pulsing heart, what was this?? "Mastro '68" was the reply, as the source slipped away and across the hall.

After that I paid more attention when in the vicinity of Mastroberardino 1968 Taurasi bottles, but as is usually the reward of attentions, I'd only fixed on more questions. Why were some of the vintage labels black, and others a tan cream color? Was it all Aglianico? And how much of it was out there? A reference to "the classic 1968 Riserva of Mastroberardino, a wine of amazing elegance, intensity and length" by Nicolas Belfrage (in Brunello to Zibibbo) seemed to imply one wine, but Sheldon & Pauline Wasserman's Italy's Noble Red Wines made reference to not only the Riserva (which they had tasted 16 times!) but also a "Riserva Montemarano" and a "Riserva Piano d'Angelo". Where those single vineyard bottlings? I was certainly curious to know, especially as the Wassermans wrote that the Piano d'Angelo was the best Taurasi they'd tasted, but they didn't give many more specifics. And I didn't come across much more information about the 1968 wines after that, despite searching.

So I was happy to speak with Piero Mastroberardino at length about the subject recently, while he was in town. Piero runs the family firm today, and he has a sharp mind for details (indeed, he is also a professor of economics at the State University). Piero has an especially strong knowledge of the older releases of the winery. His family still has several thousand bottles of older vintages in the cellar, even in the aftermath of the loss caused by an earthquake in 1980, which destroyed 45,000 bottles as well as the family home. Despite that damage, there are still today bottles in the cellar at Mastroberardino dating back to the 1920s.

Piero was happy to share with me details of the older releases. He set the stage by outlining a brief timeline:

1930s: the fascists in power in Italy prohibit exports of wine to America
1935: phylloxera hits southern Italy
1944 & 1945: no grapes were picked for Mastroberardino during these war years
1963: the term Riserva is codified into law; although a tradition of labeling wines as Riserva had existed previous to that, in the 1950s
1970: the DOC regulations are set for Taurasi
1986: the first vintage for the Mastroberardino "Radici" Taurasi (with the black label)
1990s: Mastroberardino replaces its 100 hectolitre barrels, some of which were made of the traditional chestnut and some of which were 100 years old at the time, with 50 hectolitre barrels made of Slavonian oak
1992: Taurasi becomes a DOCG
1994: the first vintage for the Mastroberardino "Radici Riserva" Taurasi (with the cream label)
1998: Mastroberadino begins extending the skin maceration time for the Radici Taurasi, which had been around 10 days in 1997, to around 15 days in 1998 and 1999. This was further extended in 2000 to the around 20-25 days that is currently employed for the Radici Taurasi today

Piero explained that in the 1960s there was generally a basic Aglianico released each year by Mastroberardino, a Taurasi that was aged 6-7 years before release, and a Riserva Taurasi that was aged 8-9 years before release. Complementing these offerings, additional Riservas were released in 1968, as well as in 1971 (the Riserva Fondatore), and 1977 (with an artist label that references a painting owned by the Mastroberardino family).

For the 1968 vintage, there was the basic Aglianico, a Taurasi, a Riserva Taurasi, and then three specially designated Riserva Taurasi bottlings: the Montemarano, the Castelfranci, and the Piano d'Angelo. These designates refer to areas, not to specific crus. They could be understood as similar to Champagne villages. The Montemarano is perhaps especially interesting, because Mastroberardino sources their Radici Taurasi from there today. It is the highest area of elevation of the three areas named in 1968, with vineyards at 550 to 660 meters above sea level. The vineyards there are also steeper than in Castelfranci and Piano d'Angelo, which have more rounded hills at lower elevations and correspondingly warmer temperatures. Several specific vineyards were included in each of the designated bottlings. Also, not all of those vineyards were owned by Mastroberardino. Today, Mastroberardino supplements its own vineyards with purchases from small growers for other bottlings, but the Radici Taurasi and Radici Riserva Taurasi are both solely sourced from owned vineyards (my thanks to Piero for clarifying this point in a followup email).

Back in 1968, the training of the vines would have been to a local method called starseta taurasina that is rare to find in the vineyards of the Campania today, said Piero. And the 1968 grape harvest would have stretched to mid-December, whereas today the pickers typically finish in mid-November. Yes, it would have been mostly Aglianico in 1968, Piero said, but there also would have been about 10% Piedirosso used at that time. Piedirosso brought gentleness and soft tannins to the blend. The skin maceration time would have been 8-10 days in the winery, explained Piero, but he also pointed out that those numbers are deceiving, because the roads in the area were terrible back then, and the grape carts were pulled by horses. In reality, some grape skins would have broken in transit, and some maceration would have begun on the way to the winery. The wines would have been aged in the old 100 hectolitre chestnut casks, and then bottled at about 12.5% alcohol. That would be quite different than the alcohol percentages from before the war, when 15% was common, and also from those you see today, which are closer to 13.5%.

Piero also reassured me not to worry over the various colors I had seen for the vintage labels on those old bottles. He said his family used to change the vintage labels they used every 8 or 9 months, when they needed to reorder. The main label did not change, but the little one with the vintage did. All the wine in the bottles would have been basically the same anyway, despite the color of the vintage tag. And although it wouldn't have all been bottled on the same day, the bottling of the wines would have been done in relatively short order, and the wines would have received the same time ageing in bottle.

And with that, Piero answered a great deal of what I had wondered about for several years. I can't thank him enough for sharing his time and insight, and I can't thank his family enough for that 1968 I once tried.


Ken V said...

Great post, Levi. I've been working on a Mastroberardino page for a while now looking in part to address some of these questions. I have been fortunate to drink each of the 4 1968 Riservas on different occasions including last Friday lunch. Great great wine.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Levi, your description is extremely accurate. Very helpful to inform about the great tradition of the wines from Irpinia and from my family vineyards and winery.
Piero Mastroberardino

Do Bianchi said...

Super post, man. A great resource. Hi Ken! That wine was delicious.