Arriving at Elio Grasso was pretty spectacular. The road down from Monforte d'Alba overlooked a good part of the eastern end of the Barolo region. We also drove past a great cliff face that really showed what the soil of this area is like. Mostly, it is composed of a chalky clay material that maintains a good amount of water. Which is good, since they get little rainfall during the summer months.
We met up with Roberto who is the winery's general manager to take our tour. Gianluca Grasso, the current winemaker was planning on joining us during the tasting part. The first room we walked through was the aging room for their single vineyard Casa Maté and Chiniera Barolos. These two wines are aged solely in large casks, the more traditional aging method. Since Elio Grasso is a small producer, roughly 7,500 cases total, this room was quite small with only ten or so casks. We moved into a small barrel room that is part of the original winery. The other wines that Grasso makes, dolcetto, barbera, Langhe nebbiolo, and Chardonnay, do see some oak in small oak barrique. The next room was quite impressive. Grasso finished an addition to their winery in 2007 that is a long semi-circular tunnel that is entirely underground. This keeps a constant cool and humid temperature great for aging. It is split into two parts, one for barrel aging and one for bottle aging.
The final part of the tour was outside in the vineyard. It was our first time really getting a chance to see the vines and soil up close since many producers don't own the vineyards surrounding their winery. The grapes were just on the verge of veraison but the most striking thing was the soil and how dry it was. In fact, I thought the ground we were standing on was limestone but Roberto corrected me saying that it was in fact clay. It was so white and crumbly, it was hard to tell the difference.
We ended by tasting through five different wines with Gianluca Grasso who was clear about his philosophy: wine is made in the vineyard. Even the decision to make their riserva, Runcot, is made while the grapes are still growing. What's more, Gianluca told us that he even worked with another local grower to buy a section of forest nearby in order to keep it from being developed so that he could preserve the local ecosystem. To me, that’s real commitment. Tasting notes below.
2011 Educato Chardonnay
I've had this wine before and it is one of my favorite Italian whites. It is fresh and lively with no malolactic fermentation. Round and well-balanced.
Great everyday wine. Clearly meant for drinking young with bright red fruit and cinnamon qualities.
I was impressed with how well-balanced this wine was with extremely well-integrated tannins. It had some really nice hints of vanilla and baking spice in addition to cherry ,raspberry and plum which I found quite unique.
This was a bit young with some harsh tannins. However, I learned something really interesting about this wine. Since they only make their riserva Runcot in exceptional years, they declassify it in most years to make this wine.
This wine was obviously young and a bit closed, but surprisingly the fruit did show itself. There were notes of baked fruit, vanilla, and cinnamon. But this wine will definitely continue to age and evolve and I think another five to seven years will make this wine magnificent. I'm excited to taste it again then.
This was one winery I was particularly looking forward to visit, mainly because I hadn't yet had the experience of trying their wines, but had heard much about them. Conterno is a producer that makes very little wine, and as such is very hard to find, very expensive, but that much more worth it when you do get the chance. We met up with Stephanie Flou, an international account manager for the winery who had just recently started working there. She was very knowledgeable and helpful, especially since Roberto Conterno, who was our true host, does not speak much English, and I unfortunately do not speak Italian. Stephanie acted as our translator.
The winery really has only two rooms, fermentation and aging. Conterno is an extremely traditional producer. That means that all of his aging occurs in very large oak casks made from Slavonian or Austrian oak. In this case, his casks were between 45 and 55 hectoliters, or 1 200 to 1 500 gallons. This also means that there is very little oak flavor added to the wine during the aging process. All of his wine is aged for at least two years and, as is the case of his Riserva Monfortino, it can be as many as eight years.
Roberto was extremely down to earth. In fact, when we arrived he was still on his way in from the vineyard. He said he had to check on a few things since there had just been a big storm. When I asked later what his favorite part of the winemaking process was, he responded by saying that he most enjoys pruning. I pressed further. “Pruning?” I said. “Really?” He said he finds it cathartic and rewarding. It's a task that allows you to see the results of your work immediately.
The vineyard where he came from, Francia, is something that makes Conterno very unique in Piedmont. Most vineyards in Piedmont are used by many different producers. Francia, on the other hand, is a monopole. That means that Conterno owns the entire 45 acre vineyard and makes all of his wine from there (except for the seven acres he bought in a different vineyard 6 years earlier).
Everything we tasted with Roberto was straight out of the cask. None of it was ready to be bottled. We tasted three wines, one barbera and two nebbiolo. Those are the only types of wine that Conterno makes. He used to produce dolcetto, but recently ripped up the vines and replaced them with barbera. Tasting notes below.
This was fresh and fruit forward. As Roberto was quick to point out, this wine is meant to be drunk young, less than five years in his opinion. It has high acidity and much less tannin than wines made from nebbiolo. Very enjoyable.
Roberto mentioned that this was still young and had the firm tannins and structure to prove it. I think that this would definitely mellow with some age. But this wine had power. Roberto mentioned that this is the point when he is deciding whether he will make a riserva Monfortino or not. Since he only makes the Monfortino in exceptional years, it will be interesting to see what he decides. Based on what I tasted, I wouldn't be surprised if this became Monfortino.
This was a real treat. Smooth, silky tannins with brilliant acidity, cherry, cassis, licorice, tanned leather and nice aromatics. And based on the structure I tasted, this wine is still a baby. It needs several more years to fully develop, but when it does, it'll be quite a pleasure to drink. I'll be impatiently waiting for this to be bottled.