Interview: Silvia Altare at 61 St James's

Interview: Silvia Altare at 61 St James's

Tuesday 15th December 2015
by Justerini & Brooks

We were lucky enough to speak with Silvia Altare in the cellar last week. Her passion and enthusiasm for the wines Elio, her father, has spent 50 years curating is contagious. In her words, “Elio started the revolution; I am part of the evolution.”

Indeed, Altare has been part of Justerinis’ portfolio for an impressive 30 years. Silvia herself, has been at the winery for 15 years now, but tells us that Elio is still very much in charge.  The Altare team is a small one, “there are six of us running the whole show. We work really hard, from January to December, undertaking everything from pruning to sales.” Silvia has no plans to change this set up, “we are very happy with the current situation, but as a woman, in Italy, in the countryside, in winemaking and Elio being so much a part of the history of Barolo – the pressure is very much on. But the brand is in good hands and everyone is very loyal.”

Firmly upheld as some of the best wines of the region, Silvia recounts, “The real story begins with my Dad in 70s, with a cellar full of wine that was not selling.” Elio took himself off to Burgundy, where “he was shocked at the quality of the wines and the greatness of the wineries. He suddenly realised why his father’s wines had not been selling.” For years Elio’s father had been making wine in a stable with cows and chickens, a far cry from the slick cellars of Burgundy. It was this vinous voyage and the influence of Angelo Gaja, which inspired Elio’s wine making techniques, as well as many other Barolo producers.  

“Elio introduced water in the ‘50s, made the winery fully organic in the ‘70s and bought his first tractor in ’79.” Silvia continues, “These were big changes; Elio was experimenting, trying to make wines that tasted better. Using modern techniques, short maceration times, and French oak barriques; wines began to be brighter and fruiter, with wonderful ageing potential.”

But, it was not until the late 80s that Elio began to receive recognition for his wines, the positive feedback, especially from a certain Mr Parker, resurrected the region. Suddenly Barolo was experiencing a revolution lead by the ‘Barolo boys.’ “Now, the ‘Barolo boys’ are well into their 60s and it is the new generation of mostly ‘Barolo girls,’ that lead the evolution of these wines.” Silvia enthuses.

“What is exciting is every generation brings something new.” For example, Altare has recently leased a new vineyard; Cannubi. “This is the hotspot of Barolo, the ‘cool’ place to be, everyone wants to have a vineyard here, it makes the best wines, because conditions are perfect; temperature, altitude - all perfect. The Cannubi vineyard has been talked about for more than 300 years – this is the best of the best, the Grand Cru, if you like.” The first release from Cannubi will be the 2011 vintage, “we have tried the wines twice, and it is incredibly elegant and smooth. We made only 5 barrels, around 1,500 bottles, so allocations are small, but the quality is there. The wine will do the talking.”

We were lucky enough to taste a selection of bottles, including: Dolcetto d’Alba, Barbera d’Alba, Larigi, Arborina and Barolo Classico ‘08, ‘06 and ‘11.

Silvia talked us through the wines on show:

Dolcetto: “undergoes 48 hours maceration in rotary fermenters. Some ageing in old oak and some new oak, it has good acidity and is less tannic. This is our entry level wine, but it’s beautiful and drinkable even after ten years.”

Barbera: “This is Barbera given Barolo treatment,” commented Buying Director, Giles Burke-Gaffney. Silvia notes, “It’s very rare to have South facing Barbera, it is more juicy and thick.”

Larigi: From the Langhe appellation, “there are no restrictions here - these are old vines that my grandfather planted in 1948. Langhe is the experimental region; we use new oak, which creates a more modern version of Nebbiolo.”

Aborina: From Langhe appellation again, this is a great example of “how the same vineyard can produce very different wines, using different techniques - again creating a more modern style. The La Morra vineyard on the Northern side is much more in keeping with the Burgundy style. We love to compare ourselves to Burgundy!”

Barolo Classico: A blend of vineyards are selected, Silvia tell us “the concept of a Grand Cru or single vineyard is very new to us.” The Classico uses three plots, allowing for different aspects of the vineyards to come though. The most southern part of the appellation allows for leathery, powerful and spicy notes in the wines.  The latest release, the Barolo Classico 2011, has a new vineyard added, which includes three rows from Le Liste. Silvia believes this “adds more floral and fruity notes. No oak has been used and short maceration - 4-5 days in rotary fermenter - makes this very approachable, softer - a lot more fruit, the ‘11s are charming. This is a good starter Barolo.”

Giles commented, “These are ‘modern’ wines that do age…very fruity and lots of life.” The Altare winery continues to use only copper sulphate, and manure from their cows in the mountains, there is no filtering, fining or clarifying; manipulating the wines as little as possible. Silvia added, “There are now over 500 families making wines in the region, when my father began I could count the families on my hands.” Quite a testament to the work that Elio and his family have put in.

We finished by asking Silvia a few quick fire questions:

What’s drinking well now?  “‘01, ’04 and ‘07s – they are all warm and approachable. The ‘96s and ‘98s are wonderful, with great acidity. ’06 needs more time than the ’08, but open it in 30 years and it will still look young. In fact, ’96 and ’06 were very similar vintages.

How is the 2015 Vintage looking? “It has been a brilliant vintage – completely in contrast to last year, which was so difficult. It’s not a year for quantity, but the quality is exceptional - certainly comparable to ‘89 and ‘90 vintages. The combination of elements – temperature, humidity, ripening season, no diseases and also luck, really allowed for perfect conditions.”

Tell us something we don’t know? “I have a map in the office where I put pins of locations we have sent wines. Most recently, we sent wines to Bolivia, which surprised my father! We are gradually spreading out, little by little.”

What are you favourite Altare wine and food parings? “Dolcetto for pizza, Barolo for steak”

What do you drink at home? “I wish I could drink fancy Burgundy every day! I’m very into Grower Champagne and Austrian whites. Elio is a big Burgundy freak – he is so inspired by Burgundy – but French wines are still the majority of what we drink.”

What will you drink this Christmas? “To start with, always Champagne, followed by some nice Burgundy and some Barolo - we are very open-minded, but it will mostly be French and Italian wines.”

What is your desert island Altare wine? “Some old Barolo – fresh and good acidity – 1996, was one of the greatest vintages, as well as ‘89 and ‘90.”

Finally, like any good wine estate, do you have a dog? “We have two dogs! Meatball and Lion, Lion is tiny and meatball is huge. They are not the fancy Tuscan dogs. They are well fed and eat pasta parmigiana.”  

Thank you so much to Silvia for being such a wonderful guest. You can find out more about the Altare wines here.