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September 16, 2008
The full flowering of Piedmont’s Old School spanned just two generations, lasting from the first vintage of Monfortino in the 1920s until 1990, by which time many younger winemakers had embraced a more international style of winemaking. This 65-year epoch left us many of the greatest Barolos and Barbarescos we will ever know.
The Old School produced dynasties—the Conternos, Cappellanos and Mascarellos—and iconic individuals like Bruno Giacosa, who may have crafted more profound wines in his lifetime than any other contemporary winemaker in the world. And for every Conterno, Mascarello or Giacosa who became famous, there were a half dozen or more fine winemakers who are now largely forgotten, such as Filippo Sobrero, Cesare Borgogno, Armando Cordero, Luigi Pira, Andrea Franco, Paolo Cordero di Montezemolo and Giovannini Moresco.
In the latter half of the twentieth century, all of these men created wines, based on a traditional model, that are among the most profound and revered ever made. Yet, despite their lofty achievements, younger winemakers came to question the validity of their methods, setting in motion a struggle for the very soul of the Langhe. On one side of this struggle was the younger generation who, beginning in the late 1980s, looked past the acknowledged genius of Conterno, Giacosa and Mascarello to conclude that this “old school”—with their cappello sommerso fermentations and long-aging in ancient oak and chestnut botti—produced flawed wines. This “new school” looked abroad for ideas—ways of ridding Barolo and Barbaresco of volatile acidity and “dirty” aromas, while improving their color, softening their tannins, and showing more fruit. Finding their answers in France, California and Australia, they reduced yields in the vineyards, used “roto-fermenters” to shorten their fermentations, and replaced their fathers’ old botti with new French barriques. A struggle of epic proportions took hold as two very distinctive styles of Barolo and Barbaresco emerged. Then a string of epic vintages at the end of the twentieth century coupled with soaring demand for the top-scoring wines, and disagreement over the region’s direction reached a fevered pitch, with many critics and consumers choosing sides.
Ultimately, it is the wines themselves that have given the world its answers. As the modernist juggernaut has slowed, relative quiet has again settled over the hills of the Langhe. Winemakers once strongly critical of the traditionalists have softened their views, and many have quietly adopted some of the classic ideas. And in the traditionalists’ cellars, barriques may still be scarce, but macerations are now a little shorter and the wines a bit softer and silkier. But perhaps the best indication of a return to shared values is that the icons of traditionalism—bearing names like Conterno and Mascarello—are again revered by the young winemakers who represent the Langhe’s future.
For nearly thirty years, we have drunk and collected the best of the Langhe’s Old School, and for the more than two decades we’ve been in business, their wines have occupied a hallowed place in our work. Today, we are the Giuseppe Mascarello importer for most of the United States, and we are the official representatives for Giacomo Conterno, Cappellano, and G.B. Burlotto for the state of California. But we’ve also probably sold more old Barolo and Barbaresco than any other merchant in America. As of December 2011, The Rare Wine Co. owned more than 840 different Barolos and Barbarescos, of which 628 were from before 2000, and 399 were before 1990. This rich library has made possible the steady stream of “Langhe Old School” offerings that have populated our newsletters and emails in recent years. It has also made possible the extraordinary tastings we’ve held on both coasts. By focusing on individual producers—some well-known, others all but forgotten—as well as epic vintages, we have allowed Langhe traditionalism to speak for itself.
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