Giacomo Conterno Vertical Tasting

In May of this year I attended two very special tastings at Cru in New York.  Winemakers Roberto Conterno and Mauro Mascarello were in town to present extensive verticals of their Barolos.  The first tasting took place in the afternoon and featured current releases as well as a few older vintages.  Although I generally avoid trade events because they don’t allow enough time to accurately assess each wine, this sit-down tasting, which was hosted by importer Doug Polaner, was extremely well organized.  Cru Wine Director Robert Bohr and his staff did an outstanding job in coordinating the service of the wines, which was no small feat.  Between the afternoon tasting and the dinner that followed, I don’t think I have ever tasted so many profound and emotionally moving wines in a single day!  The wines were double decanted a few hours prior to serving.

Roberto Conterno kicked off the tasting by talking about his estate and its winemaking philosophy.   Giacomo Conterno is without question one of the most historically significant domaines in Piedmont, and all of Italy for that matter.  The winery is named after Roberto’s grandfather, Giacomo, who was a pioneer in producing, bottling, and exporting high quality wines decades before such practices became common in the region.  It was also Giacomo who bottled the first Barolo Riserva in 1920.

Giacomo’s son Giovanni took over the estate in the early 1960s.  Despite his untimely passing last year, Giovanni Conterno remains a towering figure in the Piedmontese landscape.  Even today he is spoken about in the most respectful and reverential terms as a great man.  “My grandfather’s wines were good, but it was my father who really took quality to the next level,” explains Giovanni’s son Roberto, who has worked in the winery since 1988.  As happens with any generational change, Roberto Conterno receives many questions about the direction he is taking the estate.  “A family friend said to me recently ‘your father was a traditionalist, but you are worse!’” recounts Conterno, assuring the audience that nothing will change in this winery’s approach now that he is in charge.

Conterno makes two Barolos both from the Cascina Francia vineyard, one of the great monopole sites in Piedmont.   The vineyard was purchased by Giovanni Conterno in 1974 and measures six hectares.  Cascina Francia is made in a traditional style, with natural yeasts and temperature-controlled fermentation and maceration lasting 3-4 weeks.  The wines are aged in large Slavonian oak casks and are bottled in the summer of the fourth year following the harvest.  In great vintages a special selection of the best fruit is made in the vineyard and that fruit becomes the Barolo Riserva Monfortino, perhaps the single most iconic wine in all of Piedmont.  Monfortino is also made with natural yeasts, although fermentation/maceration time is longer, lasting 4-5 weeks, and is carried out without the aid of temperature control.  Current vintages are aged seven years in cask, but past vintages have seen as much as 10 years of cask aging before being released.  Monfortino is legendary for its extraordinary longevity, which is usually measured in decades.

Barolo Cascina Francia 1989 – 2000

Flight #1

This first flight explored the four most recent vintages of Cascina Francia, which offer something for every palate.  The 1997 and 2000 are very immediate, pleasing Barolos, while the 1999 is the most classic and layered wine.  The 1998 has always been atypically closed for the vintage, although it reveals much character and beauty with decanting.

2000 Barolo Cascina Francia – Lively medium red.  A soft and elegant Cascina Francia that shows very clean, focused notes of sweet red cherry fruit, licorice, cocoa and mint, with good length and overall balance.  Although it lacks the complexity of the greatest vintages, the precocious 2000 is accessible and immensely rewarding today.  92 points/drink after 2007, tasted 05/05

1999 Barolo Cascina Francia – Dark lively red.  The exceptional and outrageously decadent 1999 exemplifies the very best qualities of traditional Barolo.  A wine of great length and persistence, it offers a multidimensional nose of sweet fruit, minerals and tar and a dense, layered personality bursting with flavors of dark ripe fruit, tar, roses and mint.  Of these first four wines, the 1999 is clearly in a league of its own.  94 points/drink after 2009, tasted 05/05

1998 Barolo Cascina Francia – Rich translucent ruby.  Despite its medium bodied frame, the 1998 is deceptively powerful and massive, remaining very compact, although the classic flavors of roses, tar and mint slowly begin to emerge as the wine sits in the glass.  Of the wines in this flight the 1998 gives the impression of needing the most time, which confirms my previous experience with this wine. Austere, but built to last, the 1998 is a wine to forget you own for at least another five years, but probably more.  93 points/drink after 2010, tasted 05/05

1997 Barolo Cascina Francia – Dark ruby.  Incredibly beautiful nose of dried flowers and sweet fruit.  The 1997 is dense and lush on the palate, showing very ripe dark cherry fruit, with notable extract and glycerin.  Another wine that is just singing today, the alluring and irresistible 1997 offers superb drinking now.  92+ points/drink now-?, tasted 05/05

Flight #2

1996 Barolo Cascina Francia – Medium ruby.  Although the nose offers attractive aromas of spices, flowers and tar, the very classic, structured 1996 continues to convey an impression of youth in its austere personality, revealing sensations of rich red fruit and mineral notes and what is certainly only the barest hint of its true potential.  93 points/drink after 2011, tasted 05/05

1990 Barolo Cascina Francia – Saturated evolved ruby.  A terrific effort showing plenty of deep, rich dark fruit, prune, and earthy flavors, with excellent sustain and persistence on the palate.  Although mature, the 1990 shows no signs of being tired and likely has at least another ten years of prime drinking ahead of it.  94 points/drink now-?, tasted 05/0 

1989 Barolo Cascina Francia – Livelier medium ruby with some bricking.  The brilliant 1989 shows a superb, fresh nose, and flavors of dense dark fruit, with tremendous follow-through on the palate and a finish that lasts forever.  This is at the very beginning of what promises to be a long drinking window.  95 points/drink now-?, tasted 05/05

The room was pretty evenly divided in terms of preference between the historic 1989 and 1990 vintages, but for me the greater freshness and complexity of the 1989 make it a superior wine.  In 1989 the Cascina Francia vineyard was battered by hail and the crop was dramatically reduced.  Giovanni Conterno decided to bottle his small production as Cascina Francia, and thus paradoxically there was no Monfortino produced in one of the most classic Piedmont vintages on record…

Barolo Riserva Monfortino 1988 – 1997

Flight #3

We concluded the Conterno portion of the tasting with four vintages of Monfortino, which again offered something for everyone.  The 1997 is irresistible today, as is the 1990, but it is perhaps the 1988 that offers the most complete Monfortino experience today.

1997 Barolo Riserva Monfortino – Rich ruby.  Unbelievable, seductive nose of roses, sweet fruit and minerals that recalls the legendary 1982.  The 1997 is massive and dense on the palate, yet penetrating, with waves of sweet dark fruit and cocoa that coat the palate seamlessly, with great structure and length underneath.  A spectacular, riveting effort that is impossible to resist today.  95 points/now-?, tasted 05/05

1993 Barolo Riserva Monfortino – Dense ruby with some bricking.  The youthful 1993 presents a delicate yet captivating nose along with flavors of slightly evolved red fruits with good length and balance although the wine’s significant tannins render it less than totally expressive today. This will require additional bottle age to integrate better.  91+? points/drink after 2008, tasted 05/05

1990 Barolo Riserva Monfortino – Dark ruby.  The 1990 is another irresistible Monfortino that is drinking beautifully right now.  It shows gorgeous aromas of sweet fruit, roses, tar, minerals, and leather, and terrific persistence on the palate, with luxurious amount of sweet dark fruit, great depth and an ethereal finish.  An accessible Monfortino that can be enjoyed now, but that is sure to age gracefully for decades.  94 points/drink after 2008, tasted 05/05

1988 Barolo Riserva Monfortino – Burnished dense ruby.  The 1988 offers classic evolved aromas of spices, chocolate, animal, and beef broth.  Structured and complex on the palate, with sensations of dark fruits, stewed prunes and a balsamic character which suggest this wine is at or close to maturity.  Finishes with great length and class.  94 points/drink now-?, tasted 05/05

—Antonio Galloni