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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.

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History

The family-led “Conterno Giacomo” wine company has been working in the ambit of wine-making for ages, since 1770, as shown by a delivery bill, which traces back to that year. It is a passion which has always been passed on from fathers to sons. Nowadays, all the grapes used for wine-making come from "Cascina Francia" vineyard, a small estate on a single plot located in Serralunga d'Alba countryside. At present, their production focuses exclusively on two grapes typologies: Nebbiolo-da-Barolo and Barbera.

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Vineyards

All of their wines are made in full respect of the traditional method. Only for very good vintages, the selection of the best Nebbiolo-da-Barolo grapes are kept apart to produce "Barolo Riserva Monfortino". This wine variety undergoes a different fermentation (not temperature controlled and the maceration is longer) and a longer aging in classic Slavonian large oak barrels. After wine-making, the wines so produced are decanted into oak large barrels, where they rest before bottling. The aging for Monfortino is minimum 7 years. Monfortino is the very first Barolo made in what has come to be known as the classic style. Earlier Barolos were generally sold in either cask or demijohn, and meant for early drinking. Giacomo decided to create a Barolo with great aging potential. His first wine wine was a 120 Barolo Riserva, and he soon adopted the name Monfortino in honor of his home village Montorte d'Alba.

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Winemaking

In 1959 Giovanni Conterno began making the wine at his family domaine, taking over from his father Giacomo. The legendary Barolos he made in 1964, 1971, 1978, 1985 and 1990 have left their mark in Italian wine history. Today Giovanni's son Roberto continues the traditions of his father and grandfather. The company takes the greatest care of both the winery and “Cascina Francia” vineyard, because without this lovely accuracy it isn’t possible to get good wines at all! 

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Inside information

The Conterno crown jewel, Monfortino, is not only arguably the greatest Barolo; it was also the very first Barolo made in what has come to be known as the classic style. At the time that Roberto Conterno's grandfather Giacomo served in World War I, Barolo was generally sold in either cask or demijohn, meant for early drinking. But in 1920, when Giacomo returned from the war, he decided to create a Barolo with immense aging potential. That wine became known as Monfortino.

Over the next 54 years, Giacomo - and then his son Giovanni - made not only Monfortino, but also Barolo and Barolo Riserva. Each wine was made in much the same way, from purchased grapes, the main distinction being fermentation technique and time in cask.

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7 different wines with 86 vintages

People

  • Antonio Galloni

    Baroli Cascina Francia and Monfortino ... rightly considered by most observers as among the most profound wines in the world.

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Wine Moments

Here you can see wine moments from tastingbook users.    or    to see wine moments from your world.

 Omar Khan, Wine Writer (United States)  tasted  1 wines  from  Giacomo Conterno . In a tasting of  11 wines 

Romanee Conti 1978 / Simply staggering, unlike anything else on the palate you could conceive of. The amalgam of deep fruit, suave and sensual poise, coupled with such entrancing balance and structure is extraordinary. Licorice, cherries, spicy red fruit on the nose. Sheer velvet at the mid palate, and then just penetrating beauty, blackberries and plums, a mouth perfume of violets -- an anthem to primary and tertiary beauty encased in haunting Vosne spice. You have ravishing majesty here. 100 Points

1d 12h ago

 John Kapon / CEO / Ackerr Merrall & Condit, Pro (United States)  tasted  2 wines  from  Giacomo Conterno . In a tasting of  29 wines 

The last of our Bacchanalian extravaganza found us at Per Se, for lunch. Noon is about the minimum recovery time after an evening full of many (many) wines, and thankfully we had a lot of experience at the table. Everybody was ready to go, although I must confess that first glass of welcome Champagne was not easy going down.

16d 16h ago

 Christer Byklum / Leading Scandinavian wine blogger, Wine Writer (Norway)  tasted  1 wines  from  Giacomo Conterno . In a tasting of  25 wines 

Rinaldi Barolo 2007 / Served blind. Bright ruby with sediments. Scented, tar and roses, rich nose, tea, anise, leather and cherries nose. Fresh and high acidity, high of ripe tannins, fruity and lively, intense, cherries and red berries, little bit high alcohol making it a bit sweet, long. 90p

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 Pekka Nuikki / Founder of the Fine Wine Magazines, Pro (Finland)  tasted  1 wines  from  Giacomo Conterno . In a tasting of  23 wines 

Last evening was a real " Voyage autour du monde" along with the top 24 wines that wine countries can offer, and there was only four of us enjoying them...Unfortunately, quite a lot of bottles remained half empty, but not the Petrus 2003, Cheval Blanc 1947, Screaming Eagle 1999, Pingus 1995, Haut-Brion Blanc 1995, Lafleur 1996 etc.

4m 28d ago

 Mark Beaven , Pro (United States)  tasted  1 wines  from  Giacomo Conterno . In a tasting of  17 wines 

Sunday dinner with Krug 1973, Lafite and Latour 1959, La Tache 1969 etc

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 Jyri Merivirta, Pro (Finland)  tasted  5 wines  from  Giacomo Conterno . In a tasting of  5 wines 

A curious morning with Roberto Conterno at his Estate in Barolo.

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 Mark Beaven , Pro (United States)  tasted  6 wines  from  Giacomo Conterno . In a tasting of  38 wines 

Antonio Galloni's Fabulous BYOB Dinner with many wonderful Italian Winemaker guests

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 Omar Khan, Wine Writer (United States)  tasted  1 wines  from  Giacomo Conterno . In a tasting of  10 wines 

MY TOP 10 WINES OF THE 2016 / La Tache 1959 / A wine of spellbinding appeal, plums, orange, game, roses, smokiness, all swirl enchantingly on the glorious bouquet. Depth, power and complexity envelop the palate on the opening, caramel and earth serenade the mid palate, segueing into pure velvet and silk. Spice, soil and fruit emerge, adding still more texture and appeal to the vinous tapestry here. Cardamom and cedar, the La Tache Oriental spice confection, and there is just a brilliant depth, length and purity to the combination of trumpet blast and violin concerto on the finish, that as those cosseting tannins and mouth perfume haunt your memory thereafter, you know you are in the presence of a masterpiece. 98-99 Points

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