Rarest of the Rare

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.

Unfortunately, finding the great ’78s today has become very difficult. It was a minuscule 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.

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 priced above $1000 a bottle—and are virtually impossible to find in any significant quantity—consider this wine, with this provenance, to be a gift.

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