Old vintages: the Langa mentality

I am taking inspiration from the post by Franco Ziliani on his popular blog vinoalvino to talk about old vintages and the attitude toward them of Italian wine producers as compared to the rest of the world. This is a topic that touches me personally, since I have a lot of old bottles of Barolo dating from 1944 and I think that Rivetto is one of the few Langa wineries to have such fortune. The mentality of wine producers in this area has never been turned toward this kind of investment: in recent history, vine-dressers/farmers were focused on achieving the maximum profit with what they produced from one year to the next, without paying much attention to the far-off future. Those who stockpiled old bottles in order to “set them aside”, so to speak, did so by pure chance or out of stinginess, almost never with an eye to the future. Generally speaking, old bottles were found in the wine cellars of the historical nobility, who had a lot of money available, often stagnant. In Langa, there were never very many nobles and the few who established themselves in the area did so in recent times. There were on the other hand a lot of small merchants dedicated to selling their own products in the immediate future, and I think the local mentality also comes in part from this historical/cultural heritage.

Giulia Vittorina Colbert, Marchesa of Barolo

The Langa terroir was always more advanced than the producers. I think that it is only recently, after the methanol crisis in the 1980s, that producers are proudly coming into alignment with the wonder of the territory.

I think that for those who are less practiced, a Cabernet vertical tasting is much easier to appreciate than a Nebbiolo, for exclusively genetic reasons: Cabernet has a lot of pyrazine, which slows the modification of the wine over time, resulting in old vintages that are rather close to the more frequently tasted young ones. Nebbiolo, on the other hand, has a lot of tannins, which oxidize, so the bouquet and the taste evolve year after year, such that Barolos are very different from the younger Nebbiolo wines on the market. This might be another reason why our old wines have been less attractive than those of the French,  because it is more complicated to follow their evolution.

My esteemed friend, Paolo Repetto of Vinifera, who is one of the only Italian vendors specialized in old Italian and French vintages, spoke about this very subject in an interview with Radio 24 Il sole 24 ore (which you can listen to here, in Italian). It is interesting to hear how the perception of our historical vintages on a global level is still far from that of the French, although the future for Piedmont and Tuscany seems to be on the rise.

The great French chateaux of Burgundy and Bordeaux have 400-500 years of history behind them and their marketing is about historicity. How can one compete with a brand that has been on the market for such a long time? It’s normal that this product can achieve and maintain such prestige, justifying its stellar prices.

In my life as a producer, I don’t deny having looked with suspicion at old estate bottles, a past that I did not accept, a way of thinking far distant from that of the young Enrico just out of oenology school or simply a way of rebelling against choices that were not shared. In the last three or four years, however, I have rediscovered these assets and I have begun uncorking bottles of Rivetto Barolo, doing so with pride and appreciating them to the fullest. These bottles represent my history, they are my roots, and I have the fortune of being able to bring them to life with every moving uncorking. Each bottle invites reflection on a historical moment, on hardship, on sacrifice, on a decision, on a way of expressing oneself. It is a fascinating trip to the past summarized in a sip. Some Barolo vintages are fantastic: 1964, 1970, 1978 and 1985 are truly moving, the Nebbiolo is intact, the tannin extremely mild, the acidity intense, a vital characteristic for tasting assessment.

My intention is to continue setting aside young vintages so that they can be appreciated in a few decades, just like my father and grandfather did.

The year I was born... A great vintage :)

Who knows what I will think about myself and my wines in twenty years when I uncork them, who knows what feelings will wash over me and what memories will spring to mind. At this moment all I know is that I need to move forward, following my convictions and intuitions…there is no lack of projects or challenges!

Speaking of old Barolos, a head’s up that in mid-May, during Nebbiolo Prima, I will be organizing, together with the prestigious La Morra wine company, Cordero di Montezemolo, a Barolo vertical tasting starting from 1958 and ending with 1999. A moving experience is guaranteed!