Piedmont Paulee

Piedmont Paulee

Sunday 15th April 2018
by Mark Dearing

We were all in high spirits following our annual tasting of the latest Piedmont vintage in London. This year it was the turn of the 2014s; wines that deliver bright and lively vineyard characters while being fresh, energetic and easy to taste young. 

Buoyed though we were from that tasting, the bar was about to rise. For one night only, Justerini & Brooks had reserved the entire Rex Whistler restaurant, part of the esteemed Tate Britain gallery. A London institution amongst wine lovers, the Rex Whistler is celebrated for its generous and mature list of fine wines, impeccable service, and hearty, enjoyable food. It was the obvious choice for a “Piedmont Paulee”.

For the first time in its history one of the UK’s most lauded art institutions would have a full-blooded, boisterous Italian installation on its lower ground floor. Fifteen of the region’s top producers including Giuseppe Mascarello, Elio Altare, Paolo Scavino, Fratelli Brovia, Castello di Verduno, Marco Marengo, Piero Busso, Azelia, Roberto Voerzio, Davide Carlone, Matteo Correggia, and new kids on the block Luigi Oddero, would be joined by forty five eager Nebbiolo enthusiasts for a bespoke four course meal to be enjoyed with innumerable bottles generously donated from one another’s personal cellars.

Following a Champagne reception with Philipponnat 1522 2008 en magnum, the thrum of noisy and enthusiastic chatter was soon flooding the tranquil gallery in true ‘festa’ style. The set-up was simple; after each course the producers would move tables and introduce to a new table a magnum of mature Nebbiolo straight from the estate. The rest of us would share bottles we had brought and pour with free abandon, through which we’d taste an enormous spread of the region’s most beautiful wines. Fresh from the cellars at Fratelli Brovia Alex Sanchez offered magnums of the special 150th Anniversary release: a Rocche-Villero blend from 2005. Textured, layered and beautifully controlled, with the best traits of two of Castiglione Falleto’s premier vineyards, it stood out in my mind for its marriage of aromatic radiance and tranquil underlying power. Since 2010, DOCG rules insist that a vineyard designation on the label must signify 100% single vineyard production, thus, like the famous 2004 Brunate-Coste from Giuseppe Rinaldi enjoyed later, traditional vineyard blends such as these heed to the history of the Langhe region.

Our longest standing Piedmont producers; Marco Marengo, Paolo Scavino, Elio Altare and Azelia, who originally banded together as the “Barolo Boys” back in the early 1990s, were all in attendance. These days though the “Barolo Boys” have made way for a younger generation who are as dedicated and charming as ever, and with Elisa & Enrica Scavino, and Silvia Altare taking over their respective estates, the “Barolo Ladies” are having their say too! We were delighted to taste Silvia’s 2001 and 2004 Barolo Arborina, each kindly donated by the estate and a private customer. Both are excellent vintages and display a sweetness and generosity of fruit, particularly in the case of the 2001, whose tannins simply melt away with food, while the 2004 is endowed with crisper, more floral, classic “La Morra” scents of violet, plum and white currant. Marco Marengo’s Brunate, to this day an unsung and affordable hero, was a popular little number. Not only is his 2014 one of the standout wines of the vintage, a magnum of 2007 from the estate poured alongside a 1997 in bottle emphasised this noble cru’s ability to age. Mineral and powerful with forest fruit, fresh herbs and bitter raspberry leaf, Marco’s style is regardless always one of approachability, never coarse or drying - bottles that frankly finish themselves with food. Next to Marengo’s Brunate 1997 appeared a 1997 Bric del Fiasc from Paolo Scavino’s legendary home vineyard. From a generally warm and dry year, it had evolved with sweet kirsch-like red cherries and softly cushioned strawberries but with a polish and overall generosity that has become a signature of the house. My 2006 Cannubi Scavino felt young. It had a great core of rich Cannubi fruit and but with more overt, fresh tannins. To get the best of this we’d recommend giving it a few hours to breathe before serving. Azelia’s 1999 San Rocco, our first foray that evening in to Serralunga d’Alba, was ample, rich and smooth, a product of its deeper clay soils. Clearly a wine of breeding.

Firmly on the traditional end of the spectrum, guests were treated to a brace of Monprivato from Giuseppe Mascarello in the form of a 1998 and 2008. Needing time to arrive at their apogee and produced in a delicate, ethereal style, they were perhaps a little overshadowed by the more robust wines at the table but they are nevertheless wines marked by elegance. Similarly, magnums of Bartolo Mascarello Barolo from 2011 and 1998 split the room. In general though the 2011s today are immensely seductive silky, and drinking straight out of the gate. From Monforte d’Alba, traditionalist Paolo Conterno had brought along a 2007 Ginestra; a more mineral wine of iron and salt with sizzling red and blue fruit underlying. Notable natural tannins were of very good quality, with an air of meaty rusticity but finishing on fruit sweetness. No hurry to drink this, it will continue to improve over the next ten years or more. Ginestra is a strikingly beautiful cru perched way out in the boonies of Monforte. Also in Monforte, a 1997 Poderi Colla Dardi le Rose (a specific subzone within the enormous Bussia vineyard area) with its tight blue and blackberries and slightly tarry, liquorice fruit was to my palate beginning to dry a little, albeit with a certain bucolic charm. One of the historic subzones of Bussia, Dardi was highly regarded at least as early as 1880, being picked out as an area of superior quality in Lorenzo Fantini’s famous early monograph of the Langhe vineyards. It tends to yield very classic, long-lived Barolos that can feel quite austere in youth but ultimately come together with impeccable balance. Beppe Colla was its most famous proponent, bottling it up as a separate cru for the first time in the early 1960s at around the same time as Vietti were putting Rocche di Castiglione on the map.

Over to Barbaresco and we were delighted to welcome Piero Busso senior for the first time, whose gorgeous 2007 Albesani-Borgese magnum was one of my favourite wines of the night. Succulent, fruity and open with beautiful perfume and very fine, suave tannins it is a very moreish Barbaresco of considerable quality. From the Nieve commune, Albesani is a south-southwest facing vineyard on sand and clay dominated soils yielding aromatic, sweetly scented and finessed Barbarescos, elevated by long, gentle extractions and extended time in traditional oak “botti”. A magnum of Giacosa Asili 2005 was in a good place, less overtly perfumed and silky, a feature of the vintage perhaps, but of good texture and length. Roagna, one of the Langhe’s current superstars, was represented by an Asili VV. His VV bottling is becoming the new benchmark for this first-class vineyard. From incredibly old vines with a shimmering, bright and layered intensity, Luca Roagna is unquestionably turning out some of the best wines in Piedmont today. Honourable and very grateful thanks go to the countless other wonderful wines opened that evening, all in the spirit of sharing and good old-times fun, including Cappellano Pie Rupestris 2008, Brovia Brea Ca Mia 2004, Roberto Voerzio Sarmassa 2004, Castello di Verduno Massara 2004, Luigi Oddero Rocche Rivera 2007, Matteo Correggia Roche d’Amsej 2006 and many more…

We are immensely grateful for the countless other wonderful wines that were opened that evening all in the spirit of conviviality and good old-times fun. It would not have been possible without the enthusiasm and generosity of all the producers, our customers, and the team at the Rex Whistler restaurant. Here’s to many more!