The Evolution of Tradition in Barolo
Barolo’s extraordinary geological and topographical complexity is echoed in the staggering variety of its wines—170 crus singing their paeans to Queen Nebbiolo in 170 unique dialects. As with all great winegrowing regions, however, the story of Barolo is the story of two inextricable histories: the glacial, impassive evolution of the earth itself and the feverish tumult of human endeavor which overlays it. As much as it is a story of valleys, ridges, sand, silt, and marl, then, so is Barolo a story of labor, land acquisition, political upheaval, ego, and fashion. Wine is the seam along which those two threads interweave, but—as the modernist missteps of a few years back illustrated—that seam will pucker under too heavy a human hand. Little is required for Barolo’s forceful origin-stamp to roar its pedigree, and we at Rosenthal Wine Merchant have always prized growers in this zone who understand that implicitly and enact it faithfully.
It is with great enthusiasm, then, that we announce our brand-new partnership with the Figli Luigi Oddero estate in La Morra. The Oddero family, active in the Barolo wine trade since the 1800s, was among the first to commercialize wine from the zone, and through the years they amassed a staggering 70 hectares of land—with Nebbiolo di Barolo comprising over 50 hectares. These acquisitions proved to be remarkably prescient over time, of course, as Barolo’s stature and value have skyrocketed over the past thirty years. Keep in mind, though, that it was not exceptionally long ago that the area was mired in struggle; in the 1950s, a time when the price of a hectare of Dolcetto and a hectare of Nebbiolo here were roughly equivalent, the booming factories of Alba and Torino presented far more attractive job and lifestyle options for local youths than did the toil-intensive hillside vineyards of rural, rustic Barolo. Maintaining an estate of that size in such non-lucrative times required commitment, vision, and a great deal of hard work, and larger-than-life Luigi helmed his family’s operation for many years under these conditions.
As is always the case, however, the human side of the seam is far more subject to fraying. Luigi and his brother Giacomo co-owned the Oddero estate until 2006, when insurmountable tensions drove them apart, and the family holdings were divided roughly equally between the two. Giacomo retained the old cellar, and Luigi set up shop in the former winery of local figurehead Luigi Parà, barely a kilometer away in Santa Maria di La Morra. Luigi Oddero passed away in 2010, leaving behind his wife Lena, and their two children Maria and Giovanni, all of whom are involved with the management of the estate. In 2012, Lena hired a man named Dante Scaglioni—a local who had worked for 25 years as the winemaker for the legendary Bruno Giacosa—and it is through Dante’s guidance that the estate’s wines have reached new heights of expressiveness and complexity, building upon the honest, blood-and-guts traditionalism that had always informed them. Today, Dante is in the process of a gradual torch-pass to his protégé Francesco Versio, who worked alongside him at Giacosa toward the end of his tenure there, and who garnered Italy’s “Young Winemaker of the Year” award in 2015. The future of this enviably landed estate is gleaming, and we are overjoyed to begin our alliance with them this autumn.
Oddero’s complex and extensive holdings encompass vineyards in La Morra, Castiglione Falletto, and Serralunga d’Alba, with smaller plantings in Barolo and Monforte d’Alba, as well as a rented parcel in Treiso in Barbaresco—comprising 31 hectares in total, 21 of which are Barolo. In addition to their classic Barolo “Tradizionale” (a blend of many parcels), they produce several single-cru wines: “Specola” (from the Rive cru in La Morra, just next to the winery); “Rocche Rivera” (from the pure-south-facing upper part of the Scarrone cru in Castiglione Falletto); and “Vigna Rionda”—a legendary Serralunga d’Alba cru widely considered one the greatest sites in all of Barolo.
Vineyard practices had been evolving toward a non-reliance on chemical treatments for some time, but under Dante and Francesco’s stewardship they have become steadfastly organic; 2014 was the last vintage chemicals were used, and in the years before that they were used only sparingly. Nothing that happens in the winery is particularly flashy or sexy: fermentations proceed spontaneously and patiently in cement vats, with maceration periods ranging from around 15 to 25 days based on the character of the vintage; and aging takes place in used oak botti varying in size between the large and the gargantuan. However, for those capable of being awed by great wine’s ability to make the very grain of the earth itself tasteable, Oddero’s cellar offers a potential lifetime’s worth of enthralling elixir.
2015 Barolo “Tradizionale”
The estate’s Barolo “Tradizionale” is a complex assemblage of various holdings (outlined below), the proportions of which change slightly from vintage to vintage; parcels are vinified and aged separately, with the final blend determined through tasting trials. As with all their Barolo, fermentation occurs in cement without the addition of yeasts, and aging takes place in huge oak botti of 65 to 85 hectoliters capacity. This 2015 is a gorgeous, elegant Barolo of arresting purity, offering high-toned spices, deep red fruits, a background note of mouthwatering salinity, and a long, graceful finish buttressed by tannins that hug warmly rather than squeeze forcefully. It is undeniably traditional, yet rendered with great sensitivity, and the vintage’s natural power takes a backseat to an overarching impression of harmony and freshness.
- Rive (La Morra): the family owns a sizable seven-hectare swath of this cru, which comprises a large amphitheater crested by a ridge running northeastward from Santa Maria to Muratori, with altitudes ranging from 210 to 270 meters. The pure-south-facing, centrally situated part of the cru is bottled separately as “Specola” (see below), with other smaller holdings often making their way into the “Tradizionale.” Soils here are known as the Sant’Agata Fossili Marls, and their alternating strata of silt and clay are typical of La Morra, contributing powerful fruit and notable concentration.
- Scarrone (Castiglione Falletto): the estate owns four hectares of this cru in Castiglione Falletto, situated immediately northeast of—and adjacent to—the famous Rocche di Castiglione, at altitudes between 220 and 340 meters. They bottle the highest-altitude, pure-south-facing crown separately, as “Rocche Rivera” (see below), while the middle part and the upper (less-perfectly-exposed) sides here are a significant portion of the “Tradizionale.” The cru’s fine, sandy soils yield a wine of elegance and minerality.
- Collaretto (Serralunga d’Alba): Oddero owns a hectare of this cru, which stretches from 265 to 340 meters in altitude, comprising a ridge that runs parallel to that of the fabled Vignarionda (see below). Soils here are rich in limestone—part of the Lequio Formation that characterizes Serralunga d’Alba in general—and give a wine of vigor and power.
- Baudana (Serralunga d’Alba): the family owns a half-hectare within the highly regarded “Belvedere” section of this cru, which faces south to southwest at altitudes between 230 and 370 meters, and renders a wine of structure and complexity.
2009 Barolo “Tradizionale”
What a pleasure it is to be able to offer a library vintage of “Tradizionale” at the commencement of our partnership, and the fact that it’s from Luigi’s final vintage makes it particularly poignant. This 2009, like the “Specola” below, exemplifies the estate’s deft handling of a scorching-hot vintage which had the potential for clumsiness. Luigi kept the maceration relatively brief, at 15 days, to avoid extracting coarse or green tannins, and the results are wonderful: a classic, iron-infused nose with ample spice and an undercurrent of smoke; and a palate that, if not exactly refined or elegant, is phenomenally balanced and irresistible in its old-school charm.
2009 Barolo “Specola”
When Luigi and his brother Giacomo split in 2006, Luigi acquired the former Parà estate in Santa Maria di La Morra—less than a kilometer away. An important figure in the development of viticulture in the zone through the second part of the 20th century, Parà constructed an observatory tower (a “specola”) in the center of the Rive cru, atop which he would monitor his team working the vineyards below, bellowing instructions through a primitive megaphone. Luigi Oddero made this tower the symbol of his new winery, including its likeness on all of his labels, and christening his bottling of Rive—a cru of which he owns a sizable seven hectares—“Specola.” Rive possesses soils typical of this section of La Morra: layers of silt and clay marl, rich with fossilized mollusks and seashells. Oddero’s “Specola” comprises only the center part of the cru, a pure-south-facing, well-vented amphitheater which tends to yield wines of intense fruit concentration and structural elegance. As the estate prefers to release their crus later than their “Tradizionale,” we begin our relationship with the 2009 vintage of “Specola,” a delightful Barolo that defies the sometimes-blocky nature of the ’09 vintage with extraordinary acidity and freshness. Though still slightly boisterous, the tannins at this point are well-integrated, and its beautifully textured flavors veer from lightly macerated strawberries to warm stones to iodine—making for a complex yet highly approachable wine.
2011 Barolo “Rocche Rivera”
“Rocche Rivera” is a cru within a cru, so to speak: a south-facing vineyard situated at 300 meters altitude within the Castiglione Falletto cru of Scarrone, and immediately adjacent to the fabled Rocche di Castiglione. Though Oddero owns a notable four hectares in Scarrone—in a contiguous plot stretching from the bottom to the top of the hill—“Rocche Rivera” comprises only the upper portion with the most favorable exposition; the middle part and the less-favorably-oriented upper sides are blended into the Barolo “Tradizionale,” and the lower-lying section is bottled as Langhe Nebbiolo. This high-altitude, well-drained vineyard of sand and limestone produces wines of sizzling mineral-driven tension and notable refinement, and this 2011 possesses those qualities in spades. Although ‘11 was an exceptionally warm growing season in Barolo, the vintage’s best wines show neither overripeness nor excessive structure, and Oddero’s tend to be downright elegant, as this “Rocche Rivera” exemplifies. Its flavors of ripe, dark mentholated cherries and herbal spice are delicious and rife with energy, but the wine is somewhat youthfully reticent—a tense-muscled sprinter still coiled over the starting block.
2010 Barolo “Rocche Rivera”
The 2010 “Rocche Rivera” displays pedigree, combining balletic poise with an inner sense of solidity and power. Despite being from a vintage of which structure is often firmer and more rigorous, this 2010 is significantly more open-knit right now than its 2011 counterpart despite being a mere year older. Its nose, savory and explosive, is full of traditional-Barolo swagger, and the palate is remarkably precise—deeply layered with taut red fruits and brazenly mineral.
2012 Barolo “Vigna Rionda”
The fabled cru of Vignarionda in Serralunga d’Alba is one of the most singular in all of Barolo. In his epic reference tome Barolo MGA Vol. 1, Alessandro Masnaghetti writes: “…the Barolo which is produced here can be termed—even more than a Barolo of Serralunga d’Alba—a Barolo of Vignarionda, such is the imprint of the cru.” The Luigi Oddero estate owns a hectare of south-facing vines in these old, limestone-rich soils, situated at 350 meters altitude, and the Barolo they produce here is always released several years later than their “Tradizionale”—befitting its powerfully structured, tightly concentrated personality. A wine created from truly profound terroir often proves extra-resistant to description, possessed of a certain “x-factor” that sets it apart from its brethren—something akin to charisma in humans, but suffused with the mysteries of the earth. Oddero’s 2012 “Vigna Rionda” has that in spades; its nose, full of wild animal, evokes forest depths, prompting a physiological response: widening eyes, a sharp intake of breath, a sense that this here is truly special. There’s something provocative about a wine such as this, which all but forces the taster to reckon with its very existence, threatening to rearrange one’s very notion of what the category can be. The palate similarly elicits wonder—a dynamic and potent unfurling of lip-smacking minerality, ultra-fine-grained tannins, and dense, small-berried fruit. Few vineyards in Barolo are capable of this level of profundity, and if the zone were to ever develop a “Grand Cru” classification, Vignarionda would undoubtedly sit near the very top.
2016 Barbaresco “Rombone”
The family rents a two-and-a-half-hectare parcel of 30-year-old Nebbiolo in the renowned Barbaresco cru of Rombone in Treiso—coincidentally, just adjacent to the holdings there of our other new partner in the Langhe, Ada Nada, near the summit of the slope at around 300 meters altitude. Their version of this cru spends 18 months in a single enormous 85-hectoliter oak cask, plus an additional year resting in bottle, before its release. The 2016 is gorgeous, showing the exceptionally refined touch that Dante and Francesco have brought to the Oddero operation—one which expresses the estate’s traditional sensibility through an exceptionally and instinctively sensitive lens. The ‘16’s pure, luscious strawberry fruit possesses a sense of coolness, and the palate reflects the vintage’s tannic nature in a true but well-judged manner—appropriately firmly structured, but without being hard or mean.
2016 Langhe Nebbiolo
Oddero’s Langhe Nebbiolo has some illustrious neighbors. Sourced partly from the lower-altitude slopes of the estate’s large holding in the Rive cru in La Morra, and partly from the bottom part of their four-hectare parcel of Scarrone in Castiglione Falletto, it is effectively a Barolo—at least in terms of its zip code. While these more clay-dominated parts of the crus yield fruit of less mineral-inflected complexity than those destined for the Barolo bottlings, one still senses the elegance and lurking power of which these environs are capable. The Langhe Nebbiolo undergoes a briefer maceration than the Barolo in order to emphasize its freshness and perfume, and aging takes place in massive 85-hectoliter oak botti for 18 months. This 2016 displays fine-grained tannins and impressive length, with attractive and effusive aromas of roses, herbal spice, and perfectly ripened strawberries.
2017 Barbera d’Alba
The Luigi Oddero estate’s exceptional Barbera d’Alba comes entirely from vineyards within close proximity to the old Parà facility in the Santa Maria sector of La Morra, primarily with a western exposition and averaging 25 years of age. Vinified in cement and aged in 70-hectoliter casks for one year, this 2017 demonstrates the same combination of traditionalism and precision as the Barolo. Proud, fresh acidity serves as a balance beam upon which savory red fruits leap and strut, and the wine displays a marked sense of liveliness. It’s a Barbera that deftly renders La Morra’s inherent elegance through its own varietal lens.