A day in Monforte d’Alba

Something funny happened this year. After nine years of setting out for Piemonte da sola, I finally found someone who was doing the same. Sure I have been there with other friends and family members sporadically, at various times, and there are my German Barolo Boys who I meet every year. But until this year, I had never met another American who is as crazy as I am about Piemonte.

My story requires a little background—as usual!—so first, let me take you back to November of last year (2013). Shortly after returning from my fall trip to Italy, I incidentally received a Facebook message from an American who wrote that when he was just in Piemonte, he kept hearing my name around the Renato Corino tasting room. It was a wonder we hadn’t met yet because we evidently have a bunch of the same friends there and we also both worked the harvest in the fall of 2011 for neighboring wineries: Elio Altare (him) and Renato Corino (me). No way! Who was this person?

Me & the Corino crew, harvest 2011.
Me & the Corino crew, harvest 2011.

A few days later (but totally unrelated at the time) I published Vado da sola, “I go alone” here on enotecaMarcella where I explore my personal challenges and the advantages of traveling in Italy as a “lone ranger.”

But then, throughout this past year, we slowly discovered that we’ve both been up to pretty much the same thing. We have been in Piemonte every fall since 2010 at just about the same times, visiting the same friends at the same wineries, tasting the same wines, learning about the same villages, going to the same restaurants, and even running through the cru of the Langhe. Somehow we had never run into each other. Actually we have both been exploring not only Piemonte, but other parts of Italy for nearly ten years, speaking Italian, learning the wines, and working for importers (figuring out how we might import wine ourselves). As if all of that weren’t already enough, we are also both of the “ginger” variety—with red hair and freckles! What are the odds?

This past August, after realizing we were both headed back to Piemonte in the fall, we decided it was finally time to meet up. He would arrive with two long time friends, Brian and Ann, and I took on the challenge to jump into the group as the new kid—nothing I hadn’t done before! And besides, the chances were high that I’d get a new view on Piemonte with this mix of people! A welcomed change!

Brian McClure, the Wine Director and Sommelier at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, has traveled to many wine regions, but he was a Piemonte first-timer. Ann McClure, who isn’t as into wine as the rest of us, has certainly found many opportunities to develop her palate (living with Brian!). But her real specialty is yarn. She is the Yarn Master Extraordinaire and no doubt created some masterpieces during our never-ending wine discourse, which was also half of the time in Italian.

As for my doppelgänger, Caleb Smith, he might possibly be the most interesting man in the world.

Just kidding.

But he certainly isn’t ordinary. Caleb splits his time between coaching Olympic skeleton teams and developing his wine career. Until the fall of 2011, when he worked harvest at Elio Altare, Caleb competed as an USA National Skeleton Team athlete. After working the harvest for Elio Altare, Caleb moved on to pursue a coaching career for other national skeleton teams (including those from Italy, Australia, and the small nations) while simultaneously pursuing the WSET diploma, working as a sommelier in Lake Placid, and consulting for SMD Selections in New York. After coaching the Australian Olympic Skeleton Team at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Caleb accepted a position as a sommelier at The Greenbrier in West Virginia, working closely with Brian McClure. Somewhere along the way Caleb must have convinced Brian and Ann to come with him to Italy this fall. I’m glad he did!

Mauro Manzone, Caleb, me, Brian, & Ann.
Mauro Manzone, Caleb, me, Brian, & Ann.

Since we both have so much experience there and Brian and Ann hadn’t been, Caleb and I collaborated on the itinerary during the days we’d be in Piemonte together. For one of the days, we planned visits to producers in Monforte d’Alba. On other days we set out for different villages (which will fuel upcoming stories here on enotecaMarcella). On the Monforte day, we visited two of Caleb’s good friends, producers I had been wanting to check out, Mauro Manzone and Roberto Conterno, as well as our great and long-time mutual friend, Fabio Fantino.


The Manzone winery began in 1925 when Giovanni Manzone purchased Ciabot del Preve, the parish residence of the nearby hamlet of Castelletto. Over the years the family bought more vineyards, including portions of the prized Monforte d’Alba Barolo cru: Castelletto and Gramolere. In recent years Giovanni’s son, Mauro, and daughter, Mirella, have joined their father in the management of the winery. Mauro Manzone is a good friend of Caleb’s but I had not yet met him.

Mauro & Caleb.
Mauro & Caleb.

The Manzone family uses only estate-grown grapes to produce about 50,000 bottles of wine per year. Their steep vineyards span 350-500 meters of elevation. They do not use insecticides or fertilizers; all of the wines are unclarified and unfiltered. Manzone produces wines of the traditional Langhe lineup including two Dolcetti, two Barbere, a Langhe Nebbiolo, a few Baroli from their cru vineyards, and a riserva. On their website (link is above on their name) you can find clearly detailed wine making notes for each wine so I won’t go into all of that here—only a few key points.

In addition to the reds, Manzone produces a unique white wine called Rosserto, made from a grape called Rossese bianco, which they grow in the Castelletto cru vineyard. For Rosserto, they destem and press the Rossese bianco grapes and ferment in stainless steel tanks for a few days before transferring to tonneaux (500L) where they let the wine rest on its lees and undergo full malolactic fermentation (MLF) over the course of 10-12 months. We were able to try three vintages! Overall I give the wine for any vintage two stars (★★), especially given its ageing potential.

Rosserto 2014. Langhe Bianco DOC. Rossese bianco 100%. Tank sample; pre-malolactic fermentation. Gorgeously perfumed, showing apple and melon characteristics. On the palate, quite tart with lemon and lime. I think the tank sample of Rossese bianco would be awesome mixed with a little agave syrup and a nice tequila! But after MLF, the wine, of course, needs to be appreciated on its own!

Rosserto 2013. Langhe Bianco DOC. Rossese bianco 100%. Exotic floral aromas with toasted marshmallow and tropical fruit. The wine has an intense acidity but a smooth texture and would benefit from a few years in the bottle. In fact, we were able to try an older one!

Rosserto 1997. Langhe Bianco DOC. Rossese bianco 100%. Slightly sweet and nutty reminiscent of cooking banana, caramel, and liqueur, but really fresh on the palate.

Large barrels in the Manzone cellar.
Large barrels in the Manzone cellar.

Le Ciliegie 2012. Dolcetto d’Alba DOC. Dark, brooding spice with cocoa, fresh perfume and plum aromas, and a velveteen texture. This Dolcetto is a year older than most I tried during this trip. In my opinion, even the simplest Dolcetti need a year or two in bottle to reach their potential. ★

Le Ciliegie 2012. Barbera d’Alba DOC. A beautiful, simple Barbera with spice, red licorice, black plum, and caramel aromas. Lovely on the palate with an impressive equilibrium. ★★★

La Marchesa 2011. Barbera d’Alba Superiore DOC. Aged 16 months in French 700L oak barrels and bottled 24 months after the vintage. This special Barbera is made only in the best years. It was previously called La Serra but the name had to be changed because of potential confusion with La Serra in La Morra, a Barolo cru vineyard. These grapes come from Monforte d’Alba. Consistent and well-integrated all the way from the bouquet to the finish. Fresh red berries, rhubarb, espresso, vanilla, and baking cherry pie with a touch of herbs. ★★★

Il Crutin 2011. Langhe Nebbiolo DOC. A crutin is the Piemontese name for a deep cellar underground or cave where they used to (and still do) store old wines and preserved foods. This Nebbiolo struck me as very different but also enjoyable. Strawberry, root vegetables, and nutmeg. A balance of soft tannins and key lime brightness. ★

Manzone Baroli!
Manzone Baroli!

Le Gramolere 2009. Barolo DOCG. Monforte d’Alba. The Gramolere cru has more sand and stones than Castelletto and produces wines with silkier tannins compared to its counterpart. Wild cherry, vanilla, and herbs evolve to give off more earthy, “animale” aromas. Fresh and lush on the palate and finish. ★★☆

Bricat 2009. Barolo DOCG. Monforte d’Alba. This Barolo is made from a special portion of Gramolere. Persistent and elegant, this wine comes forward with aromas of coffee, hazelnuts, red cherry, and fresh herbs; consistent through the palate, it ends bright, indicating many years of potential. ★★

Le Gramolere 2008. Barolo DOCG. Monforte d’Alba. Compared to 2009 Le Gramolere, this vintage shows more feminine characteristics and elegance throughout: fresh rose petal, potpourri, sour cherry. ★★☆

Le Gramolere Riserva 2007. Barolo DOCG. Monforte d’Alba. The 2007 Baroli consistently show such pretty aromas. This one bursts with orange citrus, wild strawberry, and roses. There is an underlying mellow earthy tone like the smell of pottery; in my notes I wrote “terra-cotta.” Sweet, ripe tannins. Dazzling wine. ★★★

Le Gramolere Riserva 1998. Barolo DOCG. Monforte d’Alba. Lots of tertiary flavors developing in this one but it still has a lot life: tobacco smoke, soy, dried and sour cherry, dried flowers, and with what Caleb would describe as the smell of decaying leaves on the ground in the fall in upstate New York. 🙂 Big chalky structure. ★★☆

Giacomo Conterno

The history of the Conterno family as Barolo producers reaches back farther than most, dating back to the 18th century. Beginning in the 1920’s, the Conternos were one of the very first to bottle their own Barolo. (Until the 1960’s most grape growers in the Langhe sold their grapes and bulk wines to coops.) In 1959 Giacomo’s son, Giovanni, took over winemaking and in 1988 Roberto, Giovanni’s son, began to work alongside his father. Today Roberto Conterno is the current winemaker.

Roberto Conterno.
Roberto Conterno.

People say that it’s a small world but I always point out that the world of wine is even smaller. Imagine how tiny the world of skeleton athletes must be! If ever the wine world and skeleton sport were to collide, I guarantee Caleb would be at the head. And in fact, it has. About seven years ago, when Caleb was still competing as a skeleton athlete, he visited Giacomo Conterno for the first time. After introductions, Roberto informed Caleb that his nephew, Nicola Drocco, was one of the members of the Italian Skeleton team. They were competitors! Imagine the surprise! Needless to say, they’ve been friends ever since.

Giacomo Conterno has been on my list for a while so they were a must-see for us on our Monforte day and Caleb set up the appointment.

The family owns 17 hectares of land, produces 60,000 bottles per year (Barbera and Barolo only), and is still considered one of the very best producers in the entire region. Although Conterno‘s Barolo style is considered “traditional” (long fermentation and maceration (3-4 weeks) in tini, or large wooden vessels, and ageing in large barrels), that doesn’t stop them from using some “modern” techniques like dedicated green harvesting (dropping about 50% of the grapes) and destemming with the most modern machines on the market today. Nevertheless their classic style shines and anyone who tastes them will immediately understand the potential of Barolo—how perfect, pure, and magnificent Nebbiolo can be. The Giacomo Conterno wines are some of the very best I have ever experienced.

Cascina Francia 2012. Barbera d’Alba DOC. These 40 year-old vines come from the Francia vineyard in Serralunga d’Alba. The vineyard is predominantly limestone, faces west, and is at a 400-meter elevation. On the nose this complex wine is full of spice, leather, and stewed black fruits. While full on the palate, acidity heightens the finish; it needs time in the bottle and will reach its peak in about 10 years. (I wasn’t a fan of this one but coincidentally have had older vintages since that day and have enjoyed them immensely!)

Cascina Francia Barbera d'Alba 2010, a wine I enjoyed very much in Berkeley, CA in December.
The 2010 I enjoyed very much in Berkeley, California, December 2014.

Barolo Francia 2010. Barolo DOCG. Giovanni Conterno purchased the Francia cru vineyard in Serralunga d’Alba in 1974. This is one of those Baroli with a bouquet that keeps changing, especially since it is in its youth. Ripe red cherry comes out first, followed by aromas of cappuccino, minerals, and smoke. The perfectly ripe fruit element mingles with spices, revealing an amazing texture. A pure and focused wine. ★★☆

Barolo Cerretta 2010. Barolo DOCG. Roberto purchased a 3 hectare portion of Cerretta, also in Serrlaunga, in 2008. This is their first classified Barolo from Cerretta. Bolder than the previous Barolo: plum gallette, cologne, and mature roses, opening to reveal an intense nexus of caramel, cappuccino, and candied plum. Forward, with big, clay-structured tannins, lifted with a hint of lime zest. Stunning. ★★★

Conterno Baroli!
Conterno Baroli!

Monfortino 2008. Barolo DOCG. Made from a selection of the finest grapes of Francia in the best years, with a further selection of the best barrels, this Barolo spends six years in botti (large barrel) before bottling. The 2008 is not even released yet. The Monfortino 2008 is a complex but direct wine. Rose, fireplace, cedar, espresso, black cherry, vanilla bean, and balsamic are framed by a plush, mouth-coating structure. Gorgeously layered and radiant. ★★★

Conterno Fantino

Conterno Fantino is among one of the very first wineries I ever visited during my initiating days in Barolo, back in 2005. I didn’t meet Fabio then, however. Instead we first met at La Salita in Monforte when I was there with Elisa Scavino (of Paolo Scavino) in 2006. I’ve been visiting Conterno Fantino and Fabio ever since. Caleb and Fabio have been friends for many years as well. So the discussion to add Conterno Fantino to the day’s itinerary took no time at all.

Fabio, me, & Caleb in the Conterno Fantino tasting room.
Fabio, me, & Caleb in the Conterno Fantino tasting room.

Bricco Bastia 2013. Dolcetto d’Alba DOC. The wine rests in stainless steel over the winter; it is bottled the first week of April. Even though Dolcetto is a wine that is typically meant to be drunk young, some, like this one, have stamina (big fruit and tannins) requiring it to sit for a while. I think it needs a couple of years; Fabio agreed and said he prefers it after 3-4 years. Super spicy; concentrated fruit; baked plums.

Vignota 2013. Barbera d’Alba DOC. The Barbera grapes come from the following vineyards: Ginestra, Pajana, Mosconi, Bussia, Sottana, and Ornati; it spends 10 months in second passage barrique. The wine is characterized by notes of bright, ripe blackberry, forest undertones, and a vivacious acidity. ★☆

Ginestrino 2013. Langhe Nebbiolo DOC. The Nebbiolo grapes come from young vines in their cru: Bussia, Castelletto, Ginestra, Mosconi, Vigna del Gris. They don’t make a base Barolo so this could almost be considered a baby Barolo. Fresh, juicy strawberries, a hint of mint. Young, grippy tannins. Nice now but with some time, the texture will soften. ★★

Ginestrino, Vignota, & Bricco Bastia.
Ginestrino, Vignota, & Bricco Bastia.

Mon Pra 2012. Langhe Rosso DOC. Nebbiolo 50% (Bussia), Barbera 50% (Ginestra). Each part ages for 18 months in new barrique; one month before bottling the parts are blended. It ages for 6 additional months before release. 1985 marks the first vintage of Mon Pra. Typically I am not a fan of blending in untraditional ways but I’m always a fan of a Nebbiolo-Barbera done well. Theirs always is. The floral elements, structure, and pretty strawberry fruit of the Nebbiolo complements the big cherry flavors that Barbera offers on the mid palate. ★★☆

Just as most acclaimed Barolo producers were by this fall, Conterno Fantino had also completely sold out of their high-scoring 2010 vintage Baroli. So we tasted a preview of the 2011s, which will be released next spring. I forgot to write down my ratings but they will surely all be within my two to three star (★★-★★★) range. All of the Baroli undergo rotomaceration and fermentation for 12-14 days, complete MLF in barrel, and are aged for a total of 2 years in barrique and another year in bottle.

Vigna del Gris, Ginestra, & Mosconi 2011.
Vigna del Gris, Ginestra, & Mosconi 2011.

Vigna del Gris 2011. Barolo DOCG. This location is the lowest in elevation of their cru. It is in the most southern parts of Ginestra and contains a vein of sand throughout the soil. Citrus, rose, and wafts of cologne dominate the bouquet while opulent flavors of red cherry and cocoa create a luscious, concentrated Barolo.

Ginestra 2011. Barolo DOCG. As far as elevation, this location is in between the other two. Bam! This is a big, bold wine with a long future. An immense composition of flavors: cappuccino, black cherry, smoke, baking spices, and cinnamon.

Mosconi 2011. Barolo DOCG. The vines in Mosconi sit at the highest elevation of the Conterno Fantino cru at 400 meters. Dark, smoky, and pine foresty. Forward with youthful and firm tannins. A richly and fruity but boldly austere Monforte d’Alba Barolo!

Now if you didn’t know this already, I will tell you now. Barolo makers—i.e. Baroliste, as they are called in Piemontese—have a deep infatuation with Burgundy. And while that is another story in and of itself (I will skip it for now!), it is not uncommon to find yourself sipping on juice from their French neighbor after, or before, tasting their specialties. In this case, Fabio has an affinity for white Burgundy. (I knew there was a reason why I always liked him! I love white Burgundy!) And it’s no surprise given that Conterno Fantino has two impressive Chardonnays, the unoaked one called Prinsipi and another, more cellar-worthy, called Bastia.

Bastia 2012. Chardonnay 100%. The grapes come from Ginestra and Bastia (the vineyard surrounding the winery, which is at 500 meters). The wine is barrel-fermented on its lees and aged in 70% new Allier barrique for 12-16 months. (Until 2010 they used 100% new barrique.) Lovely, sweet aromas of caramel, apple, banana, and nutmeg. The flavors are clean and crisp, though, balanced by a smooth texture. Think lemon curd. We tried the 2013 as well, which isn’t yet released. It was fresher with star fruit, minerals, and a pineapple essence. A remarkable wine, capable of ageing and rivaling many white Burgundies that might be put on the table! ★★

It's a rough life ...
It’s a rough life …

I’ve visited Conterno Fantino nearly every year since 2005 and while I haven’t given them enough attention on my blog, I can assure you that they are among my favorites consistently and deliver some of most outstanding wines of the Langhe, hands down.

While setting out alone always has its virtues, and I usually don’t end up spending too much time by myself anyway (I have lots of friends stashed around various corners of Europe), having like-minded folk with whom to share any experience, is always my preferred way of exploring. Until my next “novella,” I leave you with one of my favorite quotes, by Mark Twain, who certainly was no stranger to travel.

“Grief can take care if itself, but to get the full value of a joy

you must have somebody to divide it with.”

-Mark Twain

Grab a glass! But don't break it! #denkart
Grab a glass! But don’t break it! #denkart

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