Meet the Winemaker:
C&C Wines’ Portfolio Ambassador Peter McCombie MW in discussion with Marchesi di Barolo’s winemaker
PM: The estate has quite a history, notably being the first to label its wine Barolo. Clearly history & tradition are important to you as a winemaker, but is there a down side, can tradition hinder progress?
MdB: I don’t think that tradition and progress are two aspects in contrast to each other. Winemaking is a human practice, so the first man who crushed grapes and let the juice to ferment made something extremely innovative. What I mean is that tradition is something that, the first time it was tried, was an innovation which improved the quality of your wine and was, therefore, repeated from that time on, and became tradition. In a nutshell: innovation, if it’s good, will become, tradition. Tradition is a dynamic concept.
PM: Your Barolos have been described as “somewhat modern in their approach,” can you say what that means in terms of winemaking?
MdB: In the past ageing in wood was a very empirical practice and so was the choice of the barrel used for ageing a wine. The choice was, often, quite conservative, and this could result in tannins that ripened more slowly and required a few additional years of bottle ageing in order to reach a full elegance. Today we are more supported by scientific evidence and are able to better match each wine and its proper barrel, which allows us to get ripe, soft tannins, earlier. This makes wines more appealing earlier than in past, without affecting their ability to withstand time.
PM: You have renovated and are using botti that were used by the estate’s founders in the 19th century. What are the advantages of such old vats?
MdB: The old barrels have a lighter impact on the wine, both in terms of oxygen exchange and the release of tannins from the wood. If a wine, especially in the second year of ageing in wood, requires a more delicate approach, these old large barrels allow it to adequately complete its evolution.
PM: The concepts of terroir and cru have never been more important in the Langhe, yet some producers argue that an estate blend is a more authentic expression of Barolo. You are known for single vineyard bottlings, can you explain why these are important?
MdB: The Nebbiolo grapes, from which Barolo wine is produced in a very small area, are able to adapt to minimal changes in soil, exposure, steepness, microclimate, to give us different wines. You may decide that your brand’s distinctiveness is a blend of multiple vineyards or prefer to preserve what makes a single vineyard, and its wine, so unique. We give voice to all different philosophies: we bottle a Barolo wine which is a blend from different municipalities, a Barolo that comes only from estate-owned vineyards in the municipality of Barolo but, when it comes to historical vineyards like Cannubi, Sarmassa or Coste di Rose, we keep them alone, to preserve all the intrinsic quality that made them so renowned over the years.
PM: Is climate change having an effect on your viticultural practices and the style of wines?
MdB: We adopt production techniques with special precautions for environmental sustainability. A dedicated management regulation is applied, which draws inspiration from the best methods known about viticulture, be they agronomic practices deriving from biological or conventional techniques. Manual labour is the driving force in the vineyard, where we use natural defence techniques – such as sexual confusion and antagonist fungi. The vineyards are run in order to limit not only the damage from rain and humidity, typical of the 80s, but also the damage from heat stress, which occurred in the recent years. Grassing is used in order to avoid soil erosion as well. By starting from healthy and well-ripened grapes, it is much easier to extract their noble components and cellar techniques may be very delicate, to produce highly elegant and pleasurable wines.
PM: Barolo was historically known for its longevity, but today we often drink it relatively young. You sometimes release older vintages. Why?
MdB: As I mention above, nowadays a more focused management of the ageing in wood makes this wine more appealing even after three, four years of ageing. Nevertheless, wine continues to evolve over the years: flavour changes from notes of fruit jam to flowery scents reminiscent of wild violet and rose, just to turn to spicy notes of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. And that’s not all: a long ageing allows truffle, tar and tobacco to appear. You may wait some ten, twenty, thirty years for all these changes to take place or… let us offer you a “brand old” bottle.