I don’t ‘do’ scores and I don’t usually like to post about a single bottle I’ve drunk, as it seems to lack enough reader interest and smacks of rather too much ego (look at what I have tasted, and enjoy my learned opinion). No, a wine needs to create emotion and carry a story, and then it’s worth picking up the pen (well, keyboard). And this bottle has a few chapters to tell, so why not let it speak?
Bruno Giacosa passed away three years ago aged 88, the undisputed King of Neive. Giovanni Conterno, Bartolo Mascarello, Bepe Rinaldi were all gone and so he was one of the last of the great men who really put Barolo and Barbaresco on the map, stubborn souls who started their winery work back during the Second World War. Only Lorenzo Accomasso remains active in La Morra (& long may he continue).
It is difficult now to understand just how different the world was back then. On the geopolitical side, Italy was a total mess. The Allies landed in Sicily and were fighting their way up the country. Mussolini had been captured and locked up by the partisans and then released by the Nazis. You had the Germans fighting the Allies, the partisans fighting the fascists, the royalists arguing with the communists. In an agrarian economy that was collapsing, mass emigration over the century was at record levels (look at New York, and why do all winemakers in Mendoza, Argentina seem to have Italian surnames?). People left the fields for the cities in search of work and the rolling vineyards were increasingly deserted and hopeless.
The now famous Langhe hills were a peasant (in true sense of the word) backwater. No wine bars, no boutique hotels, no traffic jams in truffle season of Swiss, German, Belgian and French number plates. In the couple of restaurants that did exist, the wine was mainly from the south of Italy (Accomasso and fellow winemakers used to sneak in their own bottles to have something local and good to drink) and in the streets it was Italian or the local Piemontese dialect, not English that you heard. Today, if you go truffle hunting with a real trifolau hunter you may still here them encourage the dog in the local patois – somewhere between French and Italian as Piemonte has changed hands over the years (don’t forget Nice was Italian at one stage, the border was fluid). There were no hoardes of genuflecting wine critics and prices must have been blissfully low (though I suspect that, in the main, so was quality). Wine was largely made in bulk, and there was little money for the niceties of new wood or scrupulous hygiene.
Bizarrely, I have in front of me a yellowed tasting sheet from the International Wine & Food Society’s ‘Barolo – King of Wines’ tasting in London, 1988. Do not ask me how or why I still have it, but for the wines from the 60, 70’s & 80’s two scribbled phrases predominate – ‘very tannic’ and ‘needs food’. And that was a young man being polite. Only the wines from the 50’s were enjoyable, and I remember for years thinking that Barolo needed to be 30 years old for the tannins to soften to a level that made the wine pleasant. There were no vineyard names, just ‘barolo’. Guess that night took a lot of tooth brushing.
The young Bruno fought with his father when instead of selling wine in bulk or just buying grapes to sell to wineries, he decided to keep the best grapes for himself and found a winery, (considered a conflict of interest with the family clients and presumptuous economic suicide) and in 1961 his first Barbaresco Riserva was born. He had no vineyards, so the grapes were bought in, probably from the Santo Stefano subsection of the famed Albesani plot in Neive, Barbaresco. He was renowned for his ability to taste wine, but also to smell the must and judge the quality (I suspect rather like Madame Bize-Leroy, another old school superstar of the negociant business in Burgundy – how can they produce such reliable and spectacular wines from someone else’s grapes?).
But the Santo Stefano vineyard, which he rendered so famous, belonged to Italo Stupino, who took back full control in 2012, so 2011 is the last label under Giacosa (the white Casa Vinicola is the negociant, grape purchase label; the Azienda Agricola Falletto di Bruno Giacosa is the later, owned vineyard one, and the red labels are the much sought after riserva wines from the top vintages). It sits above and close to the Tanaro River at 280 metres, steep calcerous soils facing south-southwest, a perfect terroir. According to Stupino and Kerin O’Keefe, it also includes the Barolo rose grape variety, an oddity as of the 3 varieties he grows, this is the one Accomasso liked least and is generally not considered the real thing nowadays. Whether this went into Giacosa’s wines I do not know.
But if 2011 was the last vintage, there was sadder history preceding it. In 2006 the great man suffered a debilitating stroke, and there were no wines produced. In 2008 he and his long-term and by all accounts super talented cellar master Dante Scaglione parted ways, though he did return as consultant winemaker in 2011. There were no 2010s, an epic vintage. So you could say that this bottle of 2005 is the last of the greats, the last true Giacosa bottling of Sant Stefano, all be it only a plebian white label. This is where it all started, and here is, to some intents and purposes, the finish.
It is also the only bottle I possess, though I think I have one 2011 somewhere down in the cellar. Interestingly I have drunk the Castello di Neive 2011 Santo Stefano Albesani riserva bottling which was elegant and good, though too young when I had it and not something that particularly stood out. I also tasted the 2010 barbera and dolcetto from Giacosa, (at much more friendly prices of course), which when aged 10 were in fine form, and though you’d expect that for the barbera I was impressed by the dolcetto, usually considered a lighter wine for lunchtime rather than one which strides through a decade with ease. It was densely opaque, aromatic with a strong flavour of menthol and licorice, broodily dark. Accomasso commented in a fascinating interview with New York sommelier Levi Dalton (on his podcast I’ll Drink to That) that the wines that actually drank were his dolcettos, and also that they were the vines that gave him the most headaches in vinification.
Giacosa is held up as a hands-off traditionalist and magical taster and winemaker, but he also championed the idea of cru vineyards (ie single vineyards in the Burgundian style as opposed to the blended Barolo of traditional stars such as Bartolo Mascarello). He aged his wines in large, untoasted French casks not classic Slavonian oak botti. He didn’t go in for very long ageing in barrel, preferring it in bottle, and brought in temperature-controlled fermentation and laboratory analysis, so he did not just go with the flow. Traditionalist yes, slavish no.
Anyway, time for the 2005 Santo Stefano, my only bottle from the full Giacosa team, and alas a wine that no longer exists. Well, that is not totally true, but it is now made by Castello di Neive and I was amused, if somewhat disappointed, to see wine merchants in the UK touting the virtues of the massively hyped 2016 promoting the old adage that ‘wine is made in the vineyard’ suggesting that this therefore conferred some of the Giacosa magic upon a bottle made by a different winery two years after his death. Pure marketing, but perhaps they should have the decency to leave the reputation where it is due. The grapes are indeed grown in the vineyard, but the wine is made in the cellar. Even with peerless grapes, I am not sure that if I made the wine it would be selling with such plaudits…
The trouble with these expensive and sought after bottles, even if this is not the riserva, is that you don’t know when to drink them, a concern greatly exacerbated if you only own one. Will it be closed, tight and too young? Or if I leave it too long will the fruit fade and the wine tumble into gentle senescence?
I decanted it for a couple of hours to hedge my bets. 2005 is not known as a big vintage, but these wines can age for decades. As it was late afternoon and I had a mug of tea in hand, not a wine glass, I didn’t taste it, but, unusually for me, I did sniff the cork.
You know that horrible tight feeling in your stomach, the dread realisation that however much you try to kid yourself something is not, you know in your heart of hearts it is? It bloody well is… You could still get some wonderful aromatics, but other than that the wine was corked, undrinkable, ruined.
So much excitement, so much anticipation, all ruined by a small chunk of wood bark…