It’s not often that we talk about art in the wine world unless it be the art of the winemaker, or the various domaines that hire an artist every year for their label, headed by Mouton-Rothschild. Willi’s Wine Bar in Paris is probably the high church of bottle art. But in Barolo?
There are few more picturesque places than the valleys of Barolo on a blue skied, sunny autumn afternoon, with the slanting rays setting over the first Alpine snows and illuminating the jewel-like scarlet and gold of the last barbera, dolcetto and nebbiolo leaves. It can look like a Fauvist landscape. A few dark, shrivelled unpicked grapes hang on the vines and men with sticks and dogs head furtively off into the hazel and holm oak copses in search of truffles. It is the final exuberant outburst of Nature before winter.
In La Morra, perched atop its hill, we were actually in search of the delicious hazelnut biscuits of Cogno, and packs of nuts (yes, Ferrero Rocher and all those Nutella type spreads come from Piemonte, though these days most of the actual nuts are from Africa). But as we clambered up the hill from the famed Brunate vineyard we saw a psychedelic chapel. Built in 1914 as a shelter for vineyard workers it was bought by Ceretto and restored and transformed by artists Sol LeWitt and David Tremlett in 1999. To say it is colourful would be an understatement.
Out of breath up atop the hill, we saw posters for an art exhibition, and before we knew it, we were having one of those frustrating conversations in a mix of Italian, English and French, trying to find words we could all understand. The artist, Pierflavio Gallina, is local (but exhibited with Mondavi in Napa) and before you knew it, he was out with Barolo and hazelnuts and I was struggling to choose which of his prints to bring home (we only have a limited wall space…). As we left, the sun backlit MonViso in burnt orange, a sunset worthy of one of his paintings.
A couple of years later and I was asking Mihran (at the Enoteca du Midi, a wonderful Aladdin’s cave of real Italian wines on the Rue du Cherche-Midi in Paris) about the 2016 barolo. The hype was endless from the US critics, with ridiculous 100 point scores screaming out of the press, and the buying frenzy was pushing already scarce and ever more expensive wines into the Burgundy stratosphere. It is sadly ironic that as much Burgundy disappeared out of the realms of most wine lovers’ interest, they searched for similar aromatic, elegant and terroir-driven wines and moved to Piedmont, but now Barolo and Barbaresco were following suit. What was new, traditionally made, and good, without excess attention and scores from the critics? Something that I would not have to lie about to my wife or the bank manager.
He pointed out a couple of very pretty labels up on the shelf. A newish estate (first wine in 2011), from La Morra, with expertise from working at Renato Ratti and a love of burgundy. Indeed, they apparently saw the village of La Morra as the Chambolle-Musigny of Barolo, not an immodest epithet, but a pretty serious aspiration.
Trediberri. A basic Barolo blend that was not expensive and then the star vineyard Roche d’Annunziata that by modern standards was not either. But those labels… When I got them home and unpacked them I looked at the signature. There it was, up on my wall above my head. Gallina… Wine and art from La Morra, blended. The paintings are lovely, and I am sure the wine will prove to be too, once given a respectful decade to slumber.
But the most famous artist is, alas, a departed hero. A man whose faith and stubborness kept true, traditional Barolo alive; whose paintbrush spawned individualistic, fun and very pretty labels; whose wit and defiance produced surely the funniest and greatest political wine label of all, and whose art in the cellar gave birth to some of the finest wines in Italy. Bartolo Mascarello. Along with Bepe Rinaldi and Teobaldo Capellano they kept the old flame alive, sticking to huge old botti not barriques, long macerations and no intervention not rotary fermenters and all forms of extraction. Wines of elegance and perfume with pale hues, not the chocolate, coffee and vanilla flavours of the so-called modernists.
I was not really sufficiently aware of the ‘Barolo Wars’ when they raged up and down the valley, and I never met the great man. During the war he’d helped save American soldiers when they crossed the Tanaro river and were at grave risk of drowning. His trenchant wit was legendary, as of course were his wines. But we did meet Bartolo’s daughter Maria-Teresa, a lady who could speak to us in Italian, English and French as we wished, and who seems to carry the flame as high as ever. Of course, these days fame and reputation soon catch up, and there was not a drop to buy of any grape variety and she bemoaned the fact that the wine she sold was being flogged at 5 times the price a couple of hundred yards up the road in town. Indeed, I bought the top grade 2010 for around 70 euros retail whereas the 2016 would now be ‘cheap’ at 250… Another great wine lost into orbit and a traditional blend of vineyards in Barolo and La Morra across the valley.
All anyone can afford now (as regards Nebbiolo) is the Langhe, though it’s not cheap anymore but is a pretty wine with floral cherry hints and a certain earthiness, a simpler, lighter and earlier drinking version of the main event.
But the world has its coincidences and its wonders. If you talk about the seventh art in France (cinema) and its most famous artist (bon viveur and now Russian citizen), one larger than life character towers before you. Gerard Depardieu. Now you might ask what France’s best known international actor is doing in a wine blog. Well, he certainly drinks enough of it, and had his own vineyard. But he also toured the world with a restauranter friend in a charming tv series (A pleines dents) in which they ate their way through famous local foods. One episode was in Piemonte and featured a trifolau. Called Ezio.
A trifolau is the chap in the Gallina picture with his stick and dog in the moonlight. We had just been out with one, and when we returned to his guesthouse restaurant (Tra Arte e Querce in Monchiero) we asked if we could possibly eat the truffles he’d just found. (He and the dog, not we, but he did show us how he trained his future truffle hunting puppy. Fascinating).
We’d actually being tasting at the other famous Mascarello (Giuseppe) and the daughter Elena had put us onto a real truffle hunter (there are too many tourist traps) just up the road. In Monchiero. Just beyond the cemetery. Named Ezio.
So there you have it. If you want great wine, the single vineyard of G. Mascarello – Monprivato – is one of the most renowned in all of Barolo. And if you want a real trifolau, and pictures of Depardieu on the wall, call Ezio and Clelia… Ah yes, we got to the door and Ezio ran me inside to see a bottle. Barolo Monfortino – the top wine of G. Conterno and reputedly the greatest wine in Italy. They had recently drunk one, would I like to smell the dregs? I guess that is probably as close as I will get…
The place was empty, and we said we should leave them in peace, but no, we must have dinner. Served by the grandchildren. They were so polite and delightful. The food was simple, but real local (egg egg egg) tajarin pasta with butter and a liberal lashing of white truffle is the most sensually delicious of all food. As for wine. Ezio had one special bottle left. At a traditional price. With the original label and, I think, his last vintage. Bartolo the artist.
When I joked about Il Buffone the bunga bunga embarrassment of Italy, he rushed off and came back cradling the 2001 with its satirical label… No barriques and no Berlusconi. If you don’t like the face, you just pull down the flap. It was made from Berlusconi campaign flyers. Love it.
And the 2004? A bed of roses and red fruit. What did I scribble down at the time to try to fix its beauty in my tasting memory?
‘Lovely red fruit and floral nose like Chambolle-Musigny…’