August 2008 issue

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PAGES (38-41) August 2008

TERROIR Bricco Rocche, Piedmont, Italy Alfonso Cevola, CSW

A loud-shouting, elderly man was the 5:30 a.m. alarm on my first morning at Bricco Rocche this spring.

The window was open, it was barely light, and out of the fog that concealed all but a few distant rooftops came a bark in Italian from the man hollering at his young assistant: “Stop that! Be careful with that soil. Do not dig too close to the vines. Don’t squander the dirt.”

Bricco Rocche is a small hill in Castiglione Falletto, where some of the world’s great Barolos are born. My first visit to the commune was a generation ago. Barolo was just emerging as a world-class wine, and my guide wanted to show me the dirt. “You are from the New World, where soil is not as important as real estate,” he said. “But here, every centimeter, every gram, is measured, because we can never bring more dirt onto the land.” I thought my host was being dramatic, but he meant this literally. By some code of the region, you cannot add to the land, so you are obliged to conserve. And with that duty comes a reverence for what’s under your feet.

It was a ritornello I would hear on many visits to the region over the ensuing years—reverence and economy. Work the land, but don’t stress it. Save some for future generations. Draw it out a little at a time. With not quite 8,500 vines in Bricco Rocche producing about 7,000 bottles per year, there was good reason for the elderly vineyard manager to be curt with his young co-worker. The faucet of this great terroir doesn’t flow like a waterfall; it is a steady, slow drip, intent, concentrated, and precious.

I am the Italian wine director for a large U.S. distributor, and I find it hard to apply the word “terroir” to things Italian. It’s like using “cuisine” to describe Italian cooking. So I have adopted a different word, one that may not be in the dictionary, but one that I heard used by an Italian and that gets at terroir in both Italian and American terms: “territoriality”. It conveys what is physically unique to a locale, as well as the spirit of the place—an energy that permeates even the fog. Bricco Rocche has this sense of territoriality.

When I first went there, I tried picking up some of the soil and rubbing it between my hands. I wanted to smell it, maybe even taste it, like the monks of old. This had worked for me in the Douro and in Pauillac. But here, nothing. Then I walked along a path through a light mist and began to pick up the faint scent of a weathered watering pot and wafts of iron and ink. It was sanguine. The water amplified the soil. “The extra iron in the soil is a great metaphor for the rigidity, which is what makes Bricco Rocche classic, if not the most simple to understand,” says former Ceretto winemaker Seth Box, now the Italian wine director for Moët Hennessy USA. Rigid, classic, complex: three movements of the sonata of Bricco Rocche.

Here, Nebbiolo thrives as in few spots on earth. The hill faces south and slopes from 1,023 to 1,115 feet in elevation. The phosphorus-rich soil is 60% clay, 20% silt, and 20% sand. Nebbiolo loves home; it isn’t a grape that travels widely. In this region of northwest Italy, Piedmont is the Nebbiolo target, and Barolo is the inner ring. If you were to throw a dart at the map, Castiglione Falletto would be right there in the bull’s-eye. “The La Morra side of Barolo may be prettier or more sexy,” says Box, “but the soul of Barolo is in Serralunga and Castiglione Falletto.”

Bricco Rocche is the 4-acre site on the hilltop (bricco in Italian) of the Rocche vineyard. As in Burgundy, most of the prized properties in Piedmont contain a patchwork of many different owners. And while a handful of respected winemakers, including Fratelli Brovia and Vietti, are woven into that Rocche terroir-quilt on the 10 acres adjacent to the bricco, only one family has had the foresight and the means to piece together the vines at the top. The Cerettos saw to it that Bricco Rocche would be their crown on the hill.

Riccardo Ceretto founded the Casa Vinicola Ceretto in Alba in the late 1930s. When his sons, Bruno and Marcello, took over the winery in the 1960s, they embarked on a methodical expansion aimed at freeing themselves from the need to buy grapes. The Cerettos surveyed many vineyards in Barolo, focusing on the distinct personality of the land as a means to determine the best crus.

After consolidating their holdings, the family wanted to create a landmark winery to match their vision. In the late 1970s, they hired the Turin architectural firm of De Abate to build the modern and controversial winery that now sits on Bricco Rocche. One of its most distinctive features is a large glass cube, set off at an angle to create an otherworldly space. At first, many local residents thought the cube was an affront to the landscape, an interloper that didn’t fit into the tradition of Piedmont. But as with many things innovative and different in Italy, it was eventually accepted, if begrudgingly. Travelers such as I now use the cube as a lighthouse to help them find their way home after long nights at the taverna.

Along with a full range of red, white, and sparkling wines made at three other Piedmont wineries, Ceretto now produces four single-vineyard estate Barolos at Bricco Rocche, including a Brunate (from La Morra), Cannubi (Barolo), and Prapò (Serralunga d’Alba). Together, these represent four of the five major communes of the Barolo appellation, but as the Bricco Rocche insignia atop all four labels indicates, Castiglione Falletto still calls the shots.

While the soil may determine the quality of the grapes that grow from it, winemakers can influence the terroir to fit their aspirations. The late Bartolo Mascarello, for example, believed in the supreme sanctity of territoriality. Winemakers such as Brovia are grounded in tradition, but take a realist’s approach to the modern business world. Vietti and Ceretto embrace any technological advance that they think may help a wine from a terroir-intense vineyard reach a higher, polyrhythmic expression. “Grounded in tradition with an eye toward innovation” is nothing more than a marketing mantra. The reality is that winemakers across the spectrum must take what they have and blend their philosophies in with the pulp. When it works, the wine shines.