Some time ago, I got together with a small group of clients to drink classic Barolo from 1971 to 1990.
The overwhelming consensus was that 1978 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Monfortino was the wine of the night. The Monfortino was in very strong company, with the likes of ’71 Bartolo Mascarello, ’90 Cappellano and ’86 Bruno Giacosa Falletto Riserva. But those wines couldn’t match the power of the Monfortino.
That wine—and the 1978 Bartolo Mascarello next to it—supports the idea that 1978 was one of the very great Barolo vintages of our time.
Scarcity Since Birth
Unfortunately, finding the great ’78s today has become very difficult. It was a miniscule crop—the smallest great year of the ’70s—and the wines have been rare from the beginning.
And they’re getting rarer by the day. They now sell for much more than the great 1971s, which is a sharp reversal from a decade ago.
At that time, the ’71s were considered the pinnacle, and few people understood how great the ’78s were. But that's all changed. In the past 11 years, 1978 Monfortino has risen in value over ten-fold: in 2005 we sold it for $330 a bottle; today, it’s over $3400.
But soon after that tasting—with memories of the great ’78s still fresh—I received one of the most extraordinary Barolo offers of my 34 years in the wine business. It was a beautiful and sizeable parcel of 1978 Aldo Conterno Barolo Cicala, never moved since its original purchase.
Made from a particularly choice section of the great Bussia vineyard, 1978 Cicala is not only a great example of the vintage, it’s one that is rarely seen. Previously, I had only seen random bottles of this wine—never quantities like this.
The wine offered to me belonged to Allesandro Nello Francia, the wealthy owner of an Italian pharmaceutical company. (I’ve seen photos of the collection and it’s impressive indeed.) Nello Francia bought more than 40 cases of the wine on release, and it never left his cellar until a few months ago.
His purchase represented more than 12% of the 365 cases produced. At the time, a purchase like that was unusual, but not unheard of. All the top producers had favored Italian clients who were able to buy shockingly large amounts of even the elite cuvées. Such was the state of the market in the early ’80s.
Each bottle in this lot bears a back label that it was “vinified from a friend of Alessandro Nello Francia.” That friend was, of course, Aldo Conterno himself.
In Aldo’s Prime
In 1978, the late Aldo Conterno was very much a traditionalist, aging his Barolo in classic large botti. In the Mystique of Barolo, he was quoted as saying he didn't start shortening his fermentations until the 1980s, and it wasn’t until the 1990s that smaller barrels were introduced.
The 1978 vintage was arguably the high point of Aldo’s career (as it was for many of his contemporaries in Barolo).
Given that the elite 1978 cuvées of every other top traditionalist are now priced above $1000 a bottle—and are virtually impossible to find in any significant quantity—consider the price of this wine, with this provenance, to be a gift.
- Mannie Berk
“Conterno’s 1978 Cicala is fresh, vibrant and full of life. It displays a beautiful nose of roses, spices and licorice, along with flavors of dark macerated cherries and tar on a structured frame. Though still youthful, this superbly well-balanced wine is hard to resist today. One of the finest wines I have tasted from this producer.”
“The 1978 Cicala is outstanding and in full bloom ... soaring from the glass in a mélange of red and black cherries, roasted gamebirds, forest floor, dried roses, and tarry tones. On the palate the wine is full-bodied, focused and exquisitely balanced, with a beautiful core of fruit, melting tannins, well-integrated acidity, and excellent length and grip on the complex finish. This is just a beautiful bottle of Barolo ....”
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