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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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9 different wines with 117 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.

 Monica Larner, Wine Writer (United States)  tasted  8 wines  from  Giacomo Conterno . In a tasting of  8 wines 

Giacomo Conterno Barolo Riserva Monfortino 2014 (100p) – This vintage is the most tannic Monfortino made in 30 years, but you'd hardly know it thanks to the smooth integration displayed here. The wine's bouquet is nuanced and fine with redcurrant, mint, blood orange, toasted aniseed, baked clay and tarry smoke. Initially, you get a savory touch of succulent grilled meat that adds to the "chewy" quality of the wine that Roberto Conterno often attributes to his favorite vintages of Monfortino. 

16d 9h ago

 Thomas Girgensohn, Wine Blogger (Australia)  tasted  1 wines  from  Giacomo Conterno . In a tasting of  16 wines 

The top Elderton wine has always been the Command Shiraz. I could compare the 2016 and 2017 editions. The 2016 from the low yielding home block (1t per acre) is matured mostly in new oak lightly toasted puncheons, 2/3 American. Attractive blue fruit dominates the palate. The wine has good energy, and the acidity is well balanced (94 points). By comparison, the 2017 is lighter and fresher, but has enough fruit weight and attractive chocolate notes (94 points).

10m 22d ago

 Christer Byklum , Wine Writer (Norway)  tasted  1 wines  from  Giacomo Conterno . In a tasting of  22 wines 

1964 Chateau Latour;Dark ruby, brick rim. B/C level fill, soaked cork. Liquorice, sweet tobacco, hay, some blackcurrants, gorgeous nose, some ripe tannins still, fresh acidity, quite intence, extremelly complex, almost at such a degree, that you can't decipher it all, perfect structure, truly impressive, and exceptionaly long finish. 96

1y 14d ago

 Jeannie Cho Lee MW, Wine Writer (South Korea)  tasted  1 wines  from  Giacomo Conterno . In a tasting of  47 wines 

Domaine Etienne Sauzet Montrachet Grand Cru 2017
Incredible intensity and depth in this Montrachet in 2017. Focused, complex with layers of toasted nuts, white flowers and lots of minerals. Wonderful example of this grand cru vineyard. The wine stands out as clearly the most complex and intense from Sauzet. From 50-60 year old vines; only 4 barrels made.


99 points

1y 2m ago

 John Kapon / CEO / Ackerr Merrall & Condit, Pro (United States)  tasted  1 wines  from  Giacomo Conterno . In a tasting of  23 wines 

The 2011 Comtes Lafon Montrachet showed some banana on the nose and palate, with a tropical sweetness and a touch of glue. It was initially a bit awkward on the finish, but Alberto noticed it got better and drier with food, becoming his favorite. I agreed that it got better, and so Pitts, channeling his inner Tony the Tiger and proclaiming, ‘it’s great!’ (95p).

1y 3m ago

 Pekka Nuikki / Founder of the Fine Wine Magazines, Pro (Finland)  tasted  2 wines  from  Giacomo Conterno . In a tasting of  23 wines 

Yesterday a fine tasting with friends including wines from 1908-2019. Best ones were Harlan 2011, Cristal 1962, Cheval Blanc 1947, Monfortino 2009 etc.

1y 6m ago

 Jeannie Cho Lee MW, Wine Writer (South Korea)  tasted  1 wines  from  Giacomo Conterno . In a tasting of  28 wines 

Vega Sicilia Unico 1942 / Lovely silky texture on this 72-year-old wine under its original cork. Dried autumn leaves accented with sweet oak and vanilla. Incredibly fresh and lively; impressive. Drink 2014-2023 97 points

2y 23d ago

 Pekka Nuikki / Founder of the Fine Wine Magazines, Pro (Finland)  tasted  1 wines  from  Giacomo Conterno . In a tasting of  17 wines 

Best Red Wines of the World -tasting with Petrus, Lafleur, Screaming Eagle, Monfortino, Grange, Cheval Blanc, Bryant Family...

2y 8m ago

 Mika Junnila, Pro (Finland)  tasted  1 wines  from  Giacomo Conterno . In a tasting of  24 wines 

The 1980's tasting with Grange, Latour, Margaux, Insignia, Dominus, Cheval Blanc, Krug, Yquem etc.

2y 11m ago

 John Kapon / CEO / Ackerr Merrall & Condit, Pro (United States)  tasted  1 wines  from  Giacomo Conterno . In a tasting of  15 wines 

Some people like to have “Game Nights.”  I prefer “Wine Nights.”  It is always exciting to me when a new group of friends get together and open up a series of great bottles, and thanks to the generous hospitality of 12 Gauge, our Shotgun Crew was getting together for a second time.  Unfortunately, I lost the notes for the first evening, but thankfully I did not for night two, which was a Jayer night of sorts, as we included wines from his nephew Rouget and once protégé Meo-Camuzet.  

3y 1m ago

 Achim Becker / Wineterminator.com, Wine Writer (Germany)  tasted  1 wines  from  Giacomo Conterno . In a tasting of  25 wines 

Drinking History-tasting with wines from vintages 1878 to 1978.

3y 1m ago

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