The ultimate and purest expression of Barolo can be found in bottles bearing the Giacomo Conterno name. In fact, they represent the ideal of traditional Barolo: rich, powerful, massively structured, and capable of long aging in bottle.
These majestic wines descend from a colossal legacy, spanning three generations of Conternos: Giacomo, Giovanni, and Roberto - in each case, the torch passing from father to son. Both Giovanni, who forged a reputation as the greatest of all Barolo producers, and now his gifted son, Roberto, have continued the important work of patriarch Giacomo.
But as much as, to quote Roberto Conterno, the wines belong to the generations that came before, Giacomo Conterno’s most exciting era may very well be its modern one. After all, Roberto benefits from the wisdom of not only his grandfather, but his legendary father, Giovanni, by whose side he worked in the cantina for 15 years. And Roberto has shown that he not only shares his father’s genius, but also his ardent devotion to tradition and history.
The Conterno crown jewel, Monfortino, is not only arguably the greatest Barolo; it was also the very first Barolo made in what has come to be known as the classic style. At the time that Roberto Conterno’s grandfather Giacomo served in World War I, Barolo was generally sold in either cask or demijohn, meant for early drinking. But when Giacomo returned from the war, he decided to create a Barolo with immense aging potential. His first wine was a 1920 Barolo Riserva, and he soon adopted the name Monfortino in honor of his home village Monforte d’Alba. For the next 54 years, Giacomo - and then his son Giovanni - made Barolo in much the same way. Two Barolos were made, always from purchased grapes, the main distinction being fermentation technique and time in cask.
During the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, year after year, the Conternos were able to source the best grapes for their Barolos. Farmers outnumbered producers, and many growers were farming old, low yielding vines which produced high quality fruit. But as more and more growers began to vinify their own wine, Giovanni recognized the need to secure a prime fruit source. So in 1974, the Conternos acquired the Cascina Francia cru in Serralunga. With its fabulous exposure, and predominately calcareous soil, the site was perfect for the powerful Conterno style, and Giovanni soon stopped buying grapes, relying on approximately five hectares of Nebbiolo to produce his two Barolos, Cascina Francia and Monfortino.
Both the iconic Monfortino and the glorious Cascina Francia are born of the same philosophy and, since 1978, have been sourced exclusively from the same vineyard (Cascina Francia). But there are several key differences, beginning in the vineyard, where, in years of outstanding quality, certain grapes are selected and reserved to become Monfortino. Subsequently, Monfortino undergoes an uncontrolled fermentation, at higher temperatures, for a slightly longer period, after which it sees more time in large oak casks (botti), approximately seven years compared with four for Cascina Francia. Monfortino’s extra aging in cask, says Roberto, is a consequence of the extraordinary structure, power and concentration of the wine.
Giovanni Conterno left the world with many great vintages of Barolo - including 1964, 1971, 1978, 1985, 1996, 1999, and 2001. But his last Barolo—2002 Monfortino—could prove to be his ultimate achievement. In fact, more than any other recent Conterno Barolo, the 2002 descends directly from the family’s great Barolos of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
As Antonio Galloni has written, the 2002 Monfortino was the product of a cool summer capped by a spectacular autumn. The year’s weather was, he noted, not dissimilar to the kind of weather that produced the great Conterno Barolos of the 1960s and 1970s. But it took an old school winemaker like Giovanni Conterno to understand this. And while younger winemakers were selling off their 2002 fruit, Giovanni and Roberto were preparing to make one of the greatest Monfortinos ever.
In fact, 2002 Monfortino stands apart from all others: it was the only vintage in which the Conternos chose to produce only a Monfortino (and no Cascina Francia). And it was one of the few Monfortinos to have been aged more than the standard seven years in cask. According to Roberto, just after the juice was vinified, he recognized that the wine would need extra time in barrel, noting its extraordinary power. And so the 2002 Monfortino spent eight years in botti, surely an indication of this wine’s monumental stature.
2008 marked a milestone for Giacomo Conterno: Roberto Conterno purchased land in Serralunga’s prized Cerretta vineyard. This is only the second time in the cantina’s history that the Conternos have purchased land. When the time came, Roberto chose to increase his holdings in the commune he knows best—Serralunga d’Alba—home, of course, not only to his iconic Cascina Francia vineyard, but also to the legendary Rionda, Gabutti and Arione crus.
In the Ceretta cru, whose owners include Bruno Giacosa, Roberto purchased two hectares of Nebbiolo and one of Barbera. For 2008, Roberto will be releasing a Nebbiolo and a Barbera "Cerretta," and subsequently, he plans to release a 2009 Barolo and Barbera from this cru. These undoubtedly top the short list of Barolo’s most highly anticipated new releases ever.
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