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Conterno’s death a milestone in Barolo history

By Debra Meiburg MW

If you know any fans of fine Barolo, you may have noticed they’ve seemed off-colour in recent months. Indeed, for those who worship this finest of Piedmont wines, the passing of Aldo Conterno, 81, one of Barolo’s greatest lights, marks the end of an era.

However, for those of us less familiar with the brothers Conterno and the modernist vs traditionalist debate they symbolise, let us start with the basics: Barolo (like its sister village, Barbaresco) is nestled in the patchwork of rolling hills in northwestern Italy’s Piedmont, a landlocked region whose name means “foot of the mountain.” Barolo was one of Italy’s first DOCG, a designation reserved for the country’s greatest wines.

Barolo wine is made from Nebbiolo, a notoriously fickle, annoyingly late-ripening grape as famous for the full-throttle tannins of its youth as the dizzying complexity its wines gain with age. And age they do, with better bottles improving for decades. However, despite its intensity and taut structure, Barolo is not a dark wine; the thin skins of Nebbiolo, though tannin-heavy, are fairly low on pigment and yield wines of a luminous ruby hue. Even the most avid modernist would agree that a black Barolo should be viewed with suspicion. In many ways, Nebbiolo could be likened to Pinot Noir with a motorcycle jacket of tannin.

It is Nebbiolo’s qualities that make Barolo so good with age, but often so unfriendly when young. Making Traditional Barolo, a name coined only once there was an alternative, involves soaking the crushed grapes in their juice for an uncommonly long period before and during fermentation. The wine then sits for two or more years in botti – barrels so vast that Hong Kong apartment-dwellers would feel right at home in one – followed by a year in the bottle. A long time, but rarely long enough for Traditional Barolo, which stays a sullen child until at least its 10th birthday.

Modern Barolo was originally a creature of the 1970s and ’80s, when some producers began vigorous experiments in the vineyard and cellars. Vineyard yields were driven down to a minimum, with “extra” bunches being discarded. Crushed grapes were allowed to soak for far shorter periods, but were churned about in rotofermenters (dubbed “cement mixers” by their detractors) designed to suction out every molecule of their soft, rounded, velvety tannins.

The botti (admittedly often steeped in malevolent microbes) were replaced with far smaller oak barriques. Barolo blended from several plots was gradually shunned in favour of Burgundy-style single-cru bottlings.

Traditionalists looked on in horror, modernists pooh-poohed what they considered Luddism, and overall tensions ran high, as they so often do in this corner of the world.

Aldo Conterno, while not a staunch modernist, made a statement by leaving the traditionalist fold of his father’s winery, Giacomo Conterno, to start Aldo Conterno in 1969. He had spent time abroad with the US Army, and it had broadened his world view. His older brother, Giovanni, stayed on at G. Conterno.

Conterno’s passing, after his brother’s in 2004, comes at a time when the modernist/traditionalist line has become blurred. Their wineries’ two prestige wines, Granbussia and Monfortino, are today arguably the two pillars of Barolo but are not polar opposites.

In a recent conversation with Marinella Maiorano of Fontanafredda, one of Barolo’s largest estates, it was clear that even producers from traditionally long-ageing Serralunga d’Alba now aim for “friendlier” wines. Fontanafredda is arguably somewhat traditional, with blended Barolo representing 90 per cent of its production, but it calls itself “a modern classic with royal heritage” (a contemporary fusion) and attempts wines that can, in Maiorano’s words, “be bought from a shop and enjoyed with dinner that night” – magic words in Hong Kong, where cellar space is limited.

Many would say the modernist-traditionalist divide was played up by journalists, but even if so, it has undeniably changed Barolo for the better. Today’s “traditional” Barolo is fresher, and “modern” Barolo more restrained. The Accademia del Barolo, a new education-focused band of 14 prestigious Barolo makers, try to promote it jointly, something nearly unheard of in highly individualistic Italy. Their diversity reflects the state of today’s Barolo, with producers merely shrugging off the question of “modern or traditional” since they have all gleaned from both. Perhaps it was Giacomo Conterno, father of the formerly divided Conterno brothers, who said it best: “A wine will be acknowledged and respected when everyone makes it well.”

(As published in the South China Morning Post)

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