A friend of mine, who is actually a wine maker in Barbaresco, suggested that Serralunga d’Alba, of all of the Barolo villages, is the most beautiful. You know, I think I have to agree with him. I hadn’t thought about it much before; La Morra is really my favorite village for sentimental reasons. But after pondering it, I realized that Serralunga is magical. You can appreciate its magnificence both from up close and far away. At night and in the daytime, it is always a sight to see.
Or maybe I am just agreeing with him because he said I was more popular than ‘La Bela Rosin.’
“Who is ‘La Bela Rosin’,” I asked him?
(I have to pause here to say that I cannot effectively tell many of my Italy stories without prefacing them by other Italy stories. And this particular story is no exception. So stick with me here as I take us back a few years. You’ll understand the point at the end.)
… So this October, during my first week in Italy, I went to visit my friend, Marco Marengo, one of my very favorite La Morra wine makers. As we were talking about other producers, I mentioned that my friend, Jordana, was coming to visit me in a couple of weeks and I was going to focus on visits in La Morra and Monforte d’Alba to give her a good scope of the wines of Barolo.
“Why not Serralunga? You should definitely go visit my friend, Gianpaolo Pira,” he asserted.
“Well, heck, why not,” I asked? Since Marco makes such great wine, I trusted his opinion. So I let him set up an appointment for me right away.
And just a few days later, there I was right in Serralunga d’Alba at Pira, visiting with friendly Gianpaolo, son of the original founder of the winery, tasting and learning more about the vineyards of Serralunga. I admitted that I felt I didn’t know Serralunga as well as I knew the other villages and then I somehow started to recount (in Italiano—yikes!) my only previous and notable experience in the village …
Back in December of 2009 I spent one ridiculously cold week in Italy on my own. If any of you were in Europe around the 21st of December that year, you will recall the big snow storm that took everyone by surprise. Well that included me, and my little red Panda rental car. Anyway, the point is, that year, since I had very little time, I took just a couple of hours one day to explore the Serralunga village. I remember being really hungry and freezing my bum off as I walked around. I approached what appeared to be the only inhabited place—seemingly a cozy little restaurant/wine bar at the foot of the path to the castle. It seemed my only option so I walked up, opened the door, and peered in.
Inside what turned out to be one tiny room, stacked with wine boxes, bottles, and packed with tables, everyone turned to look at who was standing at the door. And there I was, all by my cold self, probably looking horrified and stunned. I was so surprised that everyone was staring at me that I couldn’t even get one little peep out of my mouth. No “Buongiorno,” or “Parli inglese?” and I certainly wasn’t going to say anything in English. So after what felt to me like an eternity of pondering (but probably was only about two seconds), I promptly backed up, shut the door, turned around, and rushed in the opposite direction. I haven’t given that village a real try ever since.†
Upon hearing the story, Gianpaolo asked me if I wanted to give it another shot. He was sure which place it was. Besides, he had a delivery to take there right after our appointment. He explained that the owner is really nice so why not come with him so he could introduce me.
“Sure,” I said!
He was right, Centro Storico—I discovered its name—is a great little restaurant, which also has an extensive list of wines. And I could see why I was so mortified the first time I walked in. The main room is as tiny as I remember; everyone can see every last person who opens in the door. But I discovered there are also a few tables upstairs, and outside in the warm months. When my friend, Jordana, and her mother came to visit me, I of course returned to Pira with them, and then we had lunch at Centro Storico, upstairs.
About a week later I met up with my friend, Francesco, the Barbaresco wine maker, and he incidentally suggested we go to Centro Storico in Serralunga. So up the path we went, and upon opening the door, who should be sitting at the table next to the door? (Actually all of the tables are “next to the door!”) Marco Marengo and Gianpaolo Pira! And they’re like, “Hey! What the heck are you doing here!?” And I say the same thing and introduce Francesco (all in Italiano, of course) … and then the owner recognizes me, and so do the waitresses … and that’s when Francesco says to me, “Wow! You are more popular than La Bela Rosin!”
So who the heck is this Bela Rosin character?
‘La Bela Rosin’ is the Piemontese nickname for Maria Rosa Teresa Vercellana, the youngest daughter of Giovanni Battista Vercellana, a drum major and guard of King Vittorio Emanuele II. The king fell in love with her when she was very young and she later became his mistress and had two children by him. After the king’s first wife died in 1855, he recognized his two children and gave them the last name Guerrieri. The king and Rosa finally married in 1869. Since Rosa was from such a lower social rank, she could never be the Queen of Italy. So the king named her Countess of Mirafiori and Fontanafredda in Serralunga d’Alba. Knowing that she should have been the Queen of Italy but was never allowed, the people of Serralunga adored Rosa anyway. Even to this day they amicably recount every story about her. Evidently she was an extremely friendly and outgoing lady. So she earned the nickname ‘La Bela Rosin’ because of her charming personality. Later one of the sons of the king and La Bela Rosin, Emanuele Guerrieri, became Count of Fontanafredda, took over the vineyards, and adopted an entrepreneurial and “modern” approach to making wine at this historical property. As I understand it, that was the beginning of Fontanafredda‘s historical success as a winery.
So not only was La Bela Rosin one of the coolest people in the history of Serralunga d’Alba, she was practically the Queen of Italy, everyone loved her, and her son was the original wine maker of Fontanafredda as we know it today. That anyone would equate me with her in any way is a grande compliment and one I very much appreciate.
So yes, I agree. Serralunga is the most beautiful village of Barolo!
I do still need to visit Fontanafredda—I’ve got plenty of friends who can give me the tour so I have no excuse. But this time I focused on Pira and Massolino, two smaller families located in the heart of the village. I decided on Massolino because when I arrived this year and met up with my German Barolo Boys, I discovered they were hooked on the Massolino Barolo 2008. And then … so was I! So I went to discover the other Massolino treasures.
Notes from my visits on 12 and 25 ottobre (combined)
The winery, founded in the 1950’s by the Pira family, Luigi Pira and his wife, Rosa (it’s a common name), in those times did what most wineries of the area did: sold their wine as bulk wine to the large cooperatives of Alba. In the early 1990’s, their young son, Gianpaolo, entered the work of the winery with new energy and fresh ideas. Gianpaolo’s contribution to the winery marked the beginning of the bottling of Pira single vineyard wines. During these years many Barolo producers recognized the quality of their holdings and decided to do the same. Now Gianpaolo manages the winery while his father and brothers manage the vineyards. Currently they produce about 50,000 bottles per year from 12 hectares, including four Barolo wines, three from single vineyard cru.
I found all of the wines to be clear and refined while gorgeously expressive. Tasting at Pira really gave me a sense of Serralunga wines: while strong, concentrated, and with substantial tannins, they’re not as austere as the wines of Monforte d’Alba. Serralunga wines are balanced by a little more femininity: floral or foresty aspects as well as some softer fruit. I suddenly feel like I’ve discovered my new favorite zone: a marriage between Monforte and La Morra!
(The Pira website is a great resource so I will skip doing a comprehensive review of all of the technical details here.)
Dolcetto d’Alba 2012. Dolcetto d’Alba DOC. After a maceration of 10-12 days, this wine rests for about 9 months in stainless steel tanks before bottling. With characteristics of ripe dark fruit, cooking plums, and a touch of pine forest and spice, the wine finishes with very fine tannins. More layered and interesting than most Dolcetti coming from this area. That could also have something to do with that fact that these Serralunga vines are over 30 years old. Wonderful Dolcetto. ★★
Barbera d’Alba 2011. Barbera d’Alba DOC. The vines are located in the commune of Roddino, which is located just to the south of Serralunga. 50% aged in botti (25HL Slavonian oak) and 50% in tonneaux (500L French oak barrels) for one year. A clean and fresh Barbera with black fruit, cooked cherries, black licorice, high acid, good minerality, and a trace of starchy tannins. The wine is fairly complex and could benefit from some time in the bottle. ★★
Langhe Nebbiolo 2011. Langhe Nebbiolo DOC. All grapes are from Serralunga vines planted in 1999. This one is made in the same way as the Barbera: 50% aged in botti (25HL Slavonian oak) and 50% in tonneaux (500L French oak barrels) for one year. Lovely floral and fruity tones. Elegance meets structure in this wine: dark cherry evolves to cooking fruit and bosco (woods) while fine tannins and minerals provide a perfect framework. ★★
Serralunga 2009. Barolo DOCG. The vines were planted between 1959 and 1995. The wine ages in botti (2.5HL Slavonian oak) for 2 years. A mouth full of dark plums and velvety tannins balance out the intense bouquet of smoke, cologne, and black fruits. This wine was a standout for being a particularly balanced 2009 Barolo.‡ ★★☆
Margheria 2009. Barolo DOCG. These vines are overall the oldest, planted in 1959; the soils are mostly limestone and sand. Aged in botti (2.5HL Slavonian oak) for 2 years. This one is the most feminine of all of the Pira Barolo with lots of flowers, strawberry, and citrus aromas. Sometimes in young wines I get a banana peel characteristic, which I get in this one. It’s not a bad thing; it just signifies a clean and refined wine with fruit and tannins that need time to ripen. The finish is bright and herbal with signs of mint, red berries, and chalky tannins. ★★★
Marenca 2009. Barolo DOCG. This vineyard was replanted in 1990. Aged in botti (2.5HL Slavonian oak) and tonneaux (500L French oak barrels) for 2 years. Definite signs of tobacco and smoke on this one with dark red fruit in the mid palate, and more structure and harsher tannins than the previous. ★★
Vigna Rionda 2009. Barolo DOCG. This vineyard was replanted in 1994; the soils are composed of limestone and clay. Aged in botti (2.5HL Slavonian oak) and barrique (~250L French oak barrels) for 2 years. Particularly complex in the nose: perfume, cherries, tobacco, and spices like those from Fernet Branca. (I happen to love Fernet.) Very structured—good minerality and tannin balance with ripe, full fruit. Lots of potential. ★★★
One interesting note here, which is a good example of some of the more “modern” producers returning to their roots, is that from 1990 to 2004 the Marenca aged only in tonneaux and the Vigna Rionda only in barrique. But since the 2004 vintage, Gianpaolo has adopted the regime I outline above, mixing those methods with the aging in botti.
Notes from 28 ottobre and a couple of other restaurant experiences (noted)
Giovanni Massolino founded the estate in 1896. His son, Giuseppe, was the first to build a wine cellar. Throughout the early years, Giuseppe and his sister, Angela, began to acquire Serralunga vineyards with the best soils and later three of Giuseppe’s six children followed him by improving the winery and purchasing the cru, Margheria, Parafada, and Vigna Rionda. Since the 1990’s, sons of the younger generation, Franco and Roberto, run the estate.
(Also please check out the Massolino website as it a great source of more information.)
Langhe Chardonnay 2012. Langhe Chardonnay DOC. The wine ferments on its lees for about 6-9 months. Half remains in stainless steel and the other 50% in barrique (~250L French oak barrels). The wine then remains in bottle for 6-9 months before being released. Quite rich but still balanced. The vineyard actually takes up the lower western part of the Barolo cru vineyard, Vigna Rionda. ★
Barbera d’Alba 2012. Barbera d’Alba DOC. Spicy with a flavor profile almost like Dolcetto. Pure and lush in the mouth. The delicate fruity and floral characteristics of Barbera are apparent in this wine because it sees no oak. The wine ferments in stainless steel or cement before being bottled. ★★☆
Gisep 2011. Barbera d’Alba DOC. On the other hand, this fine Barbera ages for 18 months in barrique new and one year old, and then 6 months in the bottle. Made only in the best years. Dark plum, vanilla, bosco (woods), moss, and fresh acidity all supported by a velveteen texture. ★★☆
Langhe Nebbiolo 2011. Langhe Nebbiolo DOC. This Nebbiolo is produced from younger vines within the Massolino‘s vineyards in Serralunga. It ages for a year in large barrel and 6 months in the bottle before release. A balanced and approachable Nebbi with a beautiful fragrance, tons of strawberry flavors, and a well-built finish. ★
Barolo 2009. Barolo DOCG. All grapes used for this wine come from Serralunga vineyards. Aged for 30 months in large 10HL barrels and one year in bottle. A balance of ripe plums with rum spices and pine aromas but still bright in the mouth and also quite balanced like the Pira classic Barolo. ★★
As noted above, I had the occasion to try the Massolino Barolo 2008 at a few different meals in various locations and the takeaway is that it is amazing and perfect right now! Go find some! ★★★
The three single vineyard Baroli below spend 30 months in oak of various sizes and another year in bottle before release. Most of the vines are between 35-55 years old.
Margheria 2009. Barolo DOCG. Direct aromas of flowers and pine in the nose with soft tannins and bright strawberry, citrus, and chocolate characteristics. The soils are, just like in the Pira Margheria, limestone and sand, giving structure and aromatics, respectively, to this wine. ★★★
Parafada 2009. Barolo DOCG. With marl, limestone, and sand, the soils of the Parafada vineyard offer more strength in the way of tannins, while, because of the sand, the wine maintains a fragrant quality. Smoke and cocoa powder frame ripe fruit—plums and strawberry jam—and a twist of citrus rind keeps things interesting. ★★★
Parussi 2009. Barolo DOCG. The Massolino family recently acquired this Castiglione Falletto property and made their first vintage of Parussi Barolo in 2007. It is their only property outside of Serralunga. The soils are mixed of limestone, clay, and sand giving the wines extreme depth and minerality. More austere than the others from Serrlaunga, cave floor, smoke, plums, black cherry, and blackberry dominate the bouquet. On the palate rough, sand-papery tannins signify a long aging life. ★★★
Vigna Rionda 2007. Barolo DOCG. The soils of Vigna Rionda, made of marl and limestone, are known to contribute a lot of structure to a Barolo. Given the potential power of the wine, it follows a 6-year aging regime before leaving the winery. It spends 3.5 years in botti (large Slavonian oak) and 2.5 years in bottle; the 2007 is the current release. With a well-defined bouquet of dried rose petals, fresh-cut rose stems, bright cranberry, and pomegranate, there is no mistaking that this Vigna Rionda comes from an easier, gentler year. The mouth is full of herbs and elegant tannins. While I enjoyed the wine, I was expecting a little more punch. ★☆
I had experienced the Massolino 2006 Vigna Rionda a few weeks prior at Osteria dei Càtari on my first night in Barolo this fall. I found it to be amazingly complex but still way too young to be appropriately enjoyed. I would definitely try it again, though, in a couple of years. ★★☆
Given these two differing experiences, I would guess that, regardless of the year, the Massolino Vigna Rionda, will always be a lovely expression of time and place.
I first learned of Vigna Rionda from a visit I made to Giovanni Rosso back in 2011. Because of their spot at the crest of the hill of Vigna Rionda (thus subject to wind, all manner of inclement weather, and dry soils) and because their old vines had never been trellised, the vines appeared to be crawling along the ground. This made an impression on me. It helped that I also liked the wine. A year later when the Vigna Rionda from Oddero blew me away, that sealed the deal: this was one of my new favorite vineyards. And this year, neither Pira nor Massolino changed my mind to the contrary.
After telling Gianpaolo about how I didn’t feel like I knew the Serralunga producers and cru vineyards like I know some of the other villages’, he explained that Seralunga actually doesn’t have that many producers within its borders. Many outside producers own vineyards in Serralunga, something that makes Serralunga a little different than the others.
For example, Bruno Giacosa‘s Le Rocche del Falletto Barolo comes from the top locations of the Falletto cru in Serralunga. I was able to pay a visit to this cellar this year and I learned of this through the 2009 Le Rocche del Falletto. The qualities I found in this wine—smokey forest, espresso, dried cherry, roasting meat, red plum, big structure—were congruent with my other Serralunga Barolo experiences.
Other producers I know who have holdings in Serralunga d’Alba include Vajra (Baudana), Enzo Boglietti (Arione), Elio Altare (Cerretta, Broglio), Gaja (Margheria, Marenca), Pio Cesare (Briccolina, Ornato), and Azelia (Cerretta, Bricco Voghera), among many others!
Next time I visit, I certainly will return to Serralunga d’Alba to do some more exploring. It would be a crime not to.
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PS – In Serralunga I also got to learn a little bit about the work of a grande tartufaio (exceptional truffle hunter). Evidently there are white truffles around those parts! And I can be a good luck charm for finding them!
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† Admittedly since 2009 I have visited Germano Ettore and Giovanni Rosso, and hiked some trails through the cru vineyards. But hadn’t gone into the main village in four years.
‡ Overall to me the Baroli of 2009 seem to have a dense, black plum, dark fruit component and are heavy on the tannins. The Pira Serralunga Barolo 2009 was the first I tried that seemed to strike an effective balance between these two characteristics already.