March 15 2011 issue

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PAGES (56-61) March 15 2011

APPELLATION Serralunga d’Alba, Piedmont, Italy Tom Hyland

These Barolos are built for the long haul.

Site specificity is nowhere more important than in the 11 communes where Nebbiolo vineyards are planted for the production of Barolo. While the wines from La Morra and Verduno are noted for their floral aromatics and round tannins, bottlings from Serralunga d’Alba are generally characterized as powerful and deeply structured, often taking decades to display their finest qualities. “These are probably not the easiest Barolos,” admits Franco Massolino, co-winemaker at his family’s firm. “But if you have the opportunity to try these after 20 or 25 years, you find something particular in the wines. This is the business card of Serralunga.”

During the 1950s and ’60s, when most Barolos were blends of grapes from several communes, producers sought out Serralunga fruit to assure longevity for their wines. Today, with more Barolos emanating from single vineyards, the Serralunga style has become more distinctive, especially in the wines of local estates such as Massolino, Ettore Germano, Fontanafredda, Giovanni Rosso, and Luigi Baudana. This evolution has not gone unnoticed by Piemontese vintners outside the commune—especially Ascheri, Bruno Giacosa, Ceretto, Gaja, Pio Cesare, and Vietti, all of whom produce cru Barolos from Serralunga (note that Angelo Gaja’s Sperss, once labeled as Barolo, is now designated simply as Langhe Nebbiolo).

Serralunga is located on the eastern edge of the Barolo Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG). Like its neighbor to the south, Monforte d’Alba, Serralunga takes its surname from the city of Alba, a few miles north of the Barolo production area. Of the 1,150 acres of vines planted in Serralunga, 80% are Nebbiolo, representing 20% of the total Nebbiolo acreage in the DOCG. The vineyards run primarily west to east along a series of dramatic hills, with elevations ranging from 720 to 1,460 feet above sea level.

The commune’s largest producer of Barolo, Fontanafredda, lies at its northern end. Winemaker Danilo Drocco, who has been largely responsible for this estate’s upswing in quality since he moved over from Prunotto in 1998, describes the zone as being “like a long tongue, with many little valleys inside. Every little valley in Serralunga is a grand cru, a single vineyard with a great potential.”

Most local vintners agree that the long-lived Serralunga style is attributable to its soils. The Barolo DOCG is loosely divided between two soil types: the younger Tortonian, found in La Morra, Barolo, and Verduno, and the much older Helvetian, prevalent in Castiglione Falletto, Monforte, and Serralunga. Because these older soils are quite thin, the roots of the vines must go deep for nourishment, ensuring both low yields and firm tannins, which in turn provide the structure needed for the long haul. Massolino characterizes the soil as “very compact, very chalky. It is a marne —part limestone and sand together with loose clay.” In his view, the middle part of the Serralunga zone, near the town itself, produces the “wine with the greatest potential for aging combined with the greatest elegance.”

Matteo Ascheri, who produces two bottlings of Barolo from his family-owned Sorano vineyard in northern Serralunga, makes a distinction between the commune’s northern and southern sections. “In the southern part, the wines are really hard, with a lot of tannins, suitable for long aging,” he remarks. Vineyards in this area include Falletto (Bruno Giacosa), Ornato (Pio Cesare), and Francia (source of the celebrated Barolo Monfortino of Giacomo Conterno). “In the northern part,” Ascheri continues, “the wines are more elegant and refined, along the lines of Castiglione Falletto.”

By using grapes from Sorano, Ascheri can fulfill his goal of crafting wines that “exhibit balance and natural concentration.” His Barolo normale is aged in grandi botti (large casks) of Slavonian oak, 15% new, while the Coste e Bricco bottling, sourced from the finest southern-facing vines (Coste) and those at the top of the hill (Bricco), is aged in 40%-new botti . Ascheri finds the Barolo to be “more classical,” while the Coste e Bricco is “a bit more modern and can be enjoyed a few years sooner.”

Davide Rosso, winemaker at the Giovanni Rosso estate, produces cru Barolos from Ceretta in the north and La Serra in the south—both with soils he describes as “calcareous, mostly white. With this calcaire soil,” he remarks, “you have the possibility to make a wine that can improve for 30-35 years in the bottle. There is a big mineral character in the wine.” Rosso’s plot in Ceretta sits at the highest point of the vineyard, at about 1,300 feet, where he finds that the soils are browner than at La Serra (not the same La Serra as the vineyard by the same name in La Morra). As Rosso points out, “The wine from Ceretta is softer in style than La Serra—it’s more feminine, with a more floral bouquet. La Serra is stronger, more tannic, and more closed upon release. It takes a long, long time to open—it’s really Serralunga style.”

Serralunga’s most famous Barolo vineyard over the past decade may well be Lazzarito, planted in a striking natural amphitheater on a sheltered hill just north of the town. Several producers, including Ettore Germano, Fontanafredda, and Vietti, make sublime Barolos from their holdings at this site. “I love having this vineyard,” proclaims Sergio Germano, winemaker at the estate named for his father. The southwestern exposure of his block at Lazzarito produces a wine much different from those of Ceretta and Prapò, where the Germano rows face southeast. “The Lazzarito Barolo is more elegant than the other two, especially in the mouth,” he says, “while the finish is quite long with big tannins.”

Vietti winemaker Luca Currado believes Lazzarito to be a “superb cru, one that has been known historically since late medieval time. The soil is very compact and rich, while the exposure is fantastic.” Currado uses some of these grapes for his less-expensive Castiglione Barolo, but the best fruit—much of it from 43-year-old vines—goes into his Lazzarito bottling.

The muscular style of Fontanafredda’s Lazzarito Barolo contrasts with its more feminine and floral La Rosa, due primarily to the elevation: 1,300 feet at Lazzarito, compared to 820 feet at La Rosa. That difference means the grapes at Lazzarito need an extra 10 days on average to reach maturity. “The longer period of maturation gives the grapes a greater concentration of tannin,” Drocco notes. The Lazzarito Barolo has been a critical success for Fontanafredda since the late 1990s, but as of 2006 is a part of the winery’s Mirafiore line—wines aged traditionally in large oak casks rather than barriques.

In a commune where terroir is sacred, this decision is one that truly defines the soul of Serralunga. As styles of Barolo continue to evolve, the unique wines of Serralunga are bound to become even more recognized for the outstanding qualities they have to offer both the sommelier and the consumer.