A Rare Tasting of Conterno Barolos
By ERIC ASIMOV
THE Barolos of Giacomo Conterno are among the most beautiful wines in the world: gorgeously pure and packed with flavors that feel almost three-dimensional. Despite the intensity, the texture is sheer, almost delicate, like silken threads that can suspend bridges.
And yet, with wines like this, the flavors and aromas are really only the start.
Great wines pack history into a glass. Mostly, it’s a natural tale — of calamitous weather or blue skies and sunshine. But the human element pours forth, too — weddings, births and deaths, war, prosperity and depression. Even that is only the beginning, especially if you are Roberto Conterno, the proprietor of Giacomo Conterno.
Mr. Conterno was in New York last month for a dinner at Eleven Madison Park to raise money for rebuilding Haiti. He brought with him seven vintages of both his Cascina Francia Barolo, the normal bottling, and the magnificent Monfortino riserva, plus one older Barolo, from 1937.
For Barolo lovers, this was a rare opportunity to compare the two Conternos in multiple vintages. For Mr. Conterno, this was an occasion to commune with his past, to hear once again the unmistakable voices of his father, Giovanni, and his grandfather, Giacomo, through the medium of the wine.
Roberto Conterno is carrying on the work at Giacomo Conterno, named after his grandfather.CreditBarry Herbst
The voices tell not only the story of the Conterno estate but of the evolution of Barolo from a little-known wine sold largely in barrels and demi-johns in the early 20th century to one of the most prized wines in the world today. Giacomo Conterno, Roberto’s grandfather, was one of the first small Barolo producers to bottle his own wine, beginning in the 1920s. His sons, Giovanni and Aldo, took over the estate in 1961.
Giovanni, who was Roberto’s father, adhered closely to the traditional methods of his father. The just-fermented wine was kept with the skins for a prolonged maceration, imparting structure and texture. The wine then was aged in large, old oak casks — four years for the Cascina Francia and at least seven years for the Monfortino. The estate has never deviated from these methods, even as others turned to small French oak barrels, or barriques, to soften the wines.
Aldo, the younger brother, wanted to establish his own business. In 1969, he established Poderi Aldo Conterno, where he and his family continue to make superb Barolos. Giovanni remained, making wines on his own until Roberto, who was born in 1968, began to make the wine in 1988. Father and son worked side by side until Giovanni died in 2004.
“Whenever I enter the cellar, I feel my father and my grandfather with me,” Roberto Conterno said before the dinner started. “We have them to thank for the wines we drink tonight.”
And what wines. The youngest pair were from the fine 1999 vintage, 11 years old now but, in traditional Barolo terms, still too young to drink. The tight structure of the Cascina Francia restrained the aromas from bursting forth, while the Monfortino was lusher and richer — still better to wait another five years.
I was particularly interested in the next pair, from the superb 1996 vintage. Like other ’96 Barolos I’ve had, it wasn’t ready to drink. But the Monfortino was absolutely delicious, with classic Barolo flavors of tar and roses, plush yet graceful and elegant. It’s still a baby, and will last a long, long time.
All of the Conterno grapes come from the Cascina Francia vineyard, in Serralunga d’Alba, an area of the Barolo region known for its powerful, structured wines. In exceptional vintages, a selection of the best grapes is used to make Monfortino. These grapes are fermented separately, with no effort to control the temperature of the fermentation, no matter how high it gets, and are macerated longer. While the Monfortino’s extended aging results in an even more structured wine than the Cascina Francia, when compared directly, the Monfortinos seem lusher and more generous.
The pair from 1990, another great Barolo vintage, were beautiful in very different ways. The Cascina Francia was the first wine of the evening to show the secondary aromas that come from aging, in this case an earthy, truffly quality. It was also the first wine to show the high-toned flavors of a mature Conterno, which I always experience as skyrockets and colors. The Monfortino seemed younger, and yet was so invitingly graceful I couldn’t put it down.
Now we were moving on to older vintages. For each vintage, Mr. Conterno had brought two bottles of each wine. But for the 1985 vintage, Conterno produced three Barolos: Cascina Francia, a rare Cascina Francia riserva and the Monfortino. Mr. Conterno, who had not intended to bring the riserva, was momentarily perplexed to discover after the wines had been decanted that one of the Cascina Francias was a riserva. Trouble was, he didn’t know which decanter it was in.
So we tasted three wines of this vintage, though we would not know which of the Cascina Francias was the riserva. All three wines had the truffly aroma, while the Monfortino seemed characteristically richer. One of the Cascina Francias seemed a little more structured. Was it the riserva? We’ll never know.
The Conterno wines did not always come from the Cascina Francia vineyard. Before Barolo became well known in the 1970s, the family purchased grapes each year to make their wines. Mr. Conterno said that it was easy for his father to buy the best possible Serralunga grapes until the demand began to rise.
“My father understood how things were changing in the 1970s, and he bought Cascina Francia in 1974,” Mr. Conterno said. The first vintage made from the vineyard was 1978.
Whatever the source of the grapes, the 1971 vintage was a highlight. The Cascina Francia was lovely and subtle. The Monfortino, by contrast, was complex and elegant, powerful and long-lasting, yet still lively and agile, everything a great Barolo, a great Monfortino, could be.
For many of the tasters, the 1971 Monfortino was their favorite wine of the night. Yet the next pair, from 1961, was breathtaking.
The Cascina Francia was unbelievably fresh and graceful, elegant and complete. This is what Barolo strives for, I thought. But somehow, the Monfortino outdid it, absolutely gorgeous, harmonious, long-lasting and complex. This was my wine of the night, while Mr. Conterno said the freshness of the ’61 Cascina Francia made it his favorite.
That was a lot for him to concede, because next up were a pair from 1958, which Mr. Conterno had cited as one of his favorite vintages of all time.
“Some people ask me, ‘Why don’t you use barriques?’ ” Mr. Conterno said. “I say, I drank 1958, the best wine of my life. Why use barriques?”
This night, however, the 1958s seemed a little past their prime and disjointed. A last Barolo, a 1937, seemed a bit caramelized, yet identifiable as a Barolo. Lovely, considering.
One last voice was to be heard. “I like to remember another person behind the scenes, a sort of shadow, and that is my mother,” Mr. Conterno said.
He told the story of how his father bought Cascina Francia, and of how, the morning the sale was to go through, he had felt doubts.
“He said to my mother, ‘They are going to raise the price at the last minute, what should I do?’ ” Mr. Conterno recalled. “My mother said, ‘Just go, and come back with the land.’ ”
“They did raise the price, but he came back with the land.”
Fertile ground for future memories in a glass.