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FLETCHER… BARBARESCO? The name Fletcher doesn’t exactly evoke thoughts of classically styled Barbaresco, nor does it bring to mind anything even remotely Italian. However, if tasted without the label in view, there’s not a chance anyone would guess it was the handiwork of a young Aussie. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch if thought to have been crafted by a seventy-something winegrower in the twilight of her or his career, with an interpretation learned from decades of noise and experimentation, evolving into beauty, balance and a timeless, gentle melody. David Fletcher’s story is something out of cinema, where the decision is made to leave it all behind and follow the dream—to Italy, of course. At twelve years old, Dave was expected to follow in the footsteps of his father’s engineering career. But he was sidetracked when he grew enamored with the mystery and reverence toward the wines on the family dinner table from nearby wine appellations in Australia, as well as those from around the world. Not all roads lead to Rome, or Burgundy… His first love, and for many the holy grail of the wine world, Pinot Noir, became Dave’s vinous guide. After completing a four-year enology degree at Adelaide University, his first stop was Burgundy, the motherland of Pinot Noir, where he found a seasonal job with an obscure producer in the Côte Chalonnaise. He returned Down Under to take an assistant winemaker gig at a winery in the Yarra Valley that specialized in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Then, while attending a master class run by some Italian wine importers an Italian beauty walked into Dave’s life and changed everything. Enter Nebbiolo. Many feel the wine road inevitably leads to Burgundy, and it does, more often than not, but for some, the final stop is the Langhe hills of Piemonte. Led by Nebbiolo, the torchbearer of quality if in the hands of a master with a special terroir can deliver a transcendent experience as high as any to be found in food and wine. During a conversation Dave memorably said, “it wasn’t enough for me to stay in Australia, …and I discovered Nebbiolo.” The calling was too strong and the choice was made. In 2007, Dave left for the Langhe where he landed a harvest gig at Ceretto, one of Barbaresco’s most recognized producers. After a few years of contemplation and time in the region, he was “convinced that this was his place.” Through ideas both progressive and respectful of the region’s wine traditions, coupled with the quality of his work, Dave earned a position as the right hand man of the young, newly-appointed visionary for the family cantina, Alessandro Ceretto. Today, Dave is the principal head of red wine production at Ceretto, while burning the midnight oil to make his own. A prospecting foreigner entering Italy’s Langhe (much less Barbaresco) makes for a tough entrance, especially for a young, sharp, worldly Aussie. It’s a land as deeply Italian as any other, with a wildly successful, hard-earned heritage built from near absolute poverty post World War II by the blood and toil of many of its luminaries who still stand today. With deep respect and reverence for its history, Dave managed to weave himself into the fabric of this land and its people, not only with his wine project, but with his two young girls born on Italian soil. Through a bit of luck, opportunity and vision, Dave and his Australian wife, Eleanor, managed to buy Barbaresco’s abandoned rail station, a wonderful historic building they brought back to life and turned into their cantina and home; and it may be the coolest cantina in all of Piemonte. It’s here that the cinematic feeling of Dave’s Italian dream really springs to life. It sits at the base of the famous Barbaresco vineyards, with Asili and Martinenga visible through the front windows, and surrounded on all sides by other giants of Barbaresco lore. At night the former rail station is dimly illuminated and welcoming, and the approach feels like a walk back in time. Respecting Nebbiolo Dave’s philosophy and practice with Nebbiolo is to simply have as little impact as possible once the grapes are picked and sorted. He’s in search of the full display of the talent in each vineyard by focusing on clarity and grace while building on the unmistakable nuances unique to Piemonte. It seems like common sense that when one has a magnificent site and belief in their vineyard work, there is nothing to do in the cellar but to guide the grapes to best speak their truth. This approach is not a revelation in other areas, but in this part of the world it can be, especially with his practice of organic farming and “infusion” style fermentations, an atypical approach to Nebbiolo where almost no forceful movements of the wine are made throughout the vinification process. Nebbiolo lacks color because it’s skin is naturally low in anthocyanin, and an unadulterated grape must of pure Nebbiolo will never naturally render a wine with a deep, dark color by comparison to the other noble grapes that produce the world’s most notable wines. Dave views this specific varietal characteristic as a strength, not a deficiency in need of compensation to make up for it. The natural (or spontaneous, if you prefer) fermentations are lightly extracted only as much as every other day with a gentle pigeage by hand, and are finally pressed only at the completion of the primary fermentation after all the sugars are fermented dry. All of his Nebbiolo wines—Nebbiolo d’Alba, Barbaresco (a mix of Roncaglie and a parcel of Starderi separate from the one used for his Starderi bottling) and Barbaresco Starderi—are all made exactly the same, save the length of time in the cellar before bottling; the Nebbiolo d’Alba is aged for fourteen to sixteen months, while the Barbarescos stay in barrel for just over two years. Sulfites are used sparingly and are first added after the malolactic fermentation, giving the wines more time to find harmony before the jarring, straightening effect of the first sulfur hit. The preferred size of barrel is 300 liters with an average of ten years. This smaller size by comparison to the more traditionally used Italian botte enables Dave to keep small lots from the same vineyard separate to better understand what adjustments could be beneficial in each spot of the vineyards and through the winemaking processes. The results are fabulously elegant wines, seemingly uncompromised in aging capacity despite their gentle handling. Impeccable balance and lift are the hallmarks of Dave’s finely-etched and subtly-intense Nebbiolo wines. Then there’s the flip side… You can take the Aussie out of Australia, but… After a strict traditional approach (save the extreme gentle handling) with the Nebbiolo, Dave sees the other grapes in the region as fair play for experimentation. His Barbera is a contemporary of modern, natural Beaujolais wine made with more than a third of its whole clusters and with very little extraction during a semi-carbonic fermentation. Its delicious and a thoughtful use of this high acid grape that could use a different face or at least a makeover, on occasion. Chardonnay is part of the range too, grown on limestone (and quite compelling for a Chardonnay from these parts) and, without grabbing the all-too-often comparison, it does in fact easily fall within the Burgundy-esque camp, not just in style, but in x-factor exemplified by the inexplicable touch limestone terroirs impart on their wines. He even has an orange wine (white grapes made like a red wine) that’s superb. It’s delicious and a cleverly balanced blend of grapes—the relatively neutral Arneis fully destemmed and a smidge of the notoriously flamboyant Moscato with all its stems in the mix. -TV
My wife, Andrea, and I live in northern Portugal now, but we spent the previous year in Salerno, an ancient southern Italian port city sandwiched between the Amalfi and Cilento coasts. We just received a few care packages from some good friends over there; you know, the usual provisions, like Amalfi Coast lemons, anchovies and colatura from Acqua Pazza, our favorite restaurant in Cetara, flour from Caputo, a Napoli-based flour mill (Andrea has taken on pizza making), parmigiana and canned San Marzano tomatoes. But maybe the grand prize was the organically grown tomatoes from volcanic soils, peeled and preserved by one of our great winegrowers in the Basilicata, Madonna delle Grazie. Suffice it to say, we’re so grateful for what the Italians have brought to our lives.Personally, I’ve never experienced a wine culture as committed to wine’s place at the table with food than Italy. While they have plenty of cantinas that have explored the merits of a wine independent of how it pairs with a given meal, most of the country remains as true to its diverse culinary heritage, with wine as the secondary concern at the table. Wine is food—a true and lasting Italian perspective. It’s treated more like an ingredient for what is served up for lunch and dinner. Many Italian wines meant for food won’t bring the same level of inspiration as others when tasted or imbibed alone, but with the right combination of food and wine, the experience of both can be irrefutably heightened. Since we know you’re likely exploring your kitchen, trying recipes that you haven’t done before—probably involving the occasional pasta, pizza, braised meats or full-flavored vegetable dishes inspired by Italian cuisine—we’ve assembled a short list of six wines that will enhance your meal. They are all reds from Piemonte, that place in the northwest we like to think of as our second home in Italy for food, but the first for wine. We start with the most elegant wine in the bunch, Luigi Spertino's Grignolino d'Asti. Mauro, Luigi’s son, is in control of the family operation now, and I like to refer to him as The Alchemist of Asti. He is one of the most artistic and technical craftspeople in our entire collection of growers, and the diversity and skill demonstrated throughout his range forecast the inevitability of his future place among other Italian luminaries. His rendition of this typically easy quaffing wine that pairs magically with more elegant food is nothing short of spectacular. The aromas are almost theatrical in their exuberant display of personality; they’re mercurial, hypnotic and beguile with scents of Aperol, Persian mulberry, lemon zest, orange peel and exotic spices. The palate is fine, fresh, light and taut with a cool, nectary finish that binds everything into perfect harmony. There are few wines as lovely to drink as this and while it seems like a wine from another dimension, it maintains an unmistakable Piemontese taste. It’s one of my absolute favorite wines in our collection. (Please note that Mauro says that this wine is not meant for the long haul in the cellar, so don't wait too long once it's in your hands.) Though Alto Piemonte is quite different from the Langhe—home to the famous Barbaresco and Barolo—Nebbiolo is also king; in fact, this northern territory, where Ioppa's Nebbiolocomes from, is one Nebbiolo's historical starting points. Despite sharing the same noble grape, there are many differences between these two Nebbiolo-focused areas that render quite different wines. In the Alto Piemonte, located at the foot of the famous alpine mountain, Monte Rosa, precipitation is significantly higher; it’s colder, and the growing season longer. The soils are nearly the complete opposite too. The Langhe is white limestone soil and soft bedrock, which leads to more power, and the Alto Piemonte is more elegant and perhaps more minerally (and metallic in a refreshingly delicious way) and is mostly igneous-derived soils, like porphyry, volcanic sands, and in the case of this wine, glacial moraines, alluvial sands and cobbles derived from what appears to be granite. These differences bring much more elegance to the Nebbiolos from the north. This organic wine from the Ioppas is supremely elegant and its time spent exclusively in stainless steel accentuates its natural and bright personality. Continuing on with the Alto Piemonte, we have Fabio Zambolin's Costa della Sesia "Feldo." Named after Fabio’s mild-mannered grandfather, Feldo is a blend of ancient Piemontese red grapes and is the ultimate party wine for an Italian feast. It has gobs of festive aromas and flavors (at least compared to other wines in an area known for often producing more solemn, strict wines in their youth), with not a single dash of pretension—it’s well-made Northern Italian glou glou. Its rustic, playful flavors evoke those of an ancient Italian culture and are perfect for full-flavored food, like cured ham, braised meat, pasta and pizza. There’s a lot of seriousness tucked in there too—no surprise considering the perfectionism with which these guys organically farm their vineyards and work in the cellar. It’s a blend of 70-year-old vines on a single acre plot mixed with 50% Nebbiolo (the serious and noble side), 25% Croatina (the rustic and jovial barbarian) and 25% Vespolina (one of Nebbiolo’s rough around the edges parents that brings even more expanse and aroma to the wine). As I’m now entering my twenty-fifth year of obsession with wine, I am much more open to blended grapes than I used to be. Perhaps it’s just a phase, but when considering the effects of a terroir (the bedrock, soil, climate, etc.) the grapes just don’t seem as important to me as they used to be. Ancient terroirs and intuitive caretakers chose the grapes that best express their regional characteristic traits, not the other way around. Feldo is a beautiful expression of this unique terroir of volcanic sands that were beachfront property a few million years ago. I just can’t help putting two of Mauro Spertino’s wines in this lineup because they are just so darn compelling. The Luigi Spertino Barbera d'Asti once again demonstrates his alchemistic touch and the unique signature on his wines. I never imagined that a Barbera could taste and evoke such emotion like Mauro’s. He’s somehow managed to create duality between bright light and deep darkness in the same wine. It’s aged for half a year in old 5000-liter botte and expresses aromas of a thick, dank and fresh wet green forest, with taut but mature wild black berries, black currant and a potpourri of underbrush. The palate is powerful, supple and refined, like the final polish on a marble sculpture. The naturally bright acidity inherent to Barbera keeps this brooding wine in perfect harmony. Like all of Mauro’s wines, this is singular unto itself and must be experienced, just like the next Barbera in our lineup from Dave. Between Mauro Spertino and Dave Fletcher (an Aussie transplant with a serious affinity for Nebbiolo and other grapes from the Langhe), they’ve given Barbera a fun and welcome new face. While I spoke of easy to drink and classic Italian wines, Fletcher Barbera d'Alba took a soft left turn, Mauro’s took a slight right, and most everyone else kept on straight. While Dave’s Nebbiolo wines (including a smoking, small production Barbaresco stable, check them out here) are made with little deviation from tradition, he wanted to bring to Barbera a little more crunchy fruit characteristics, making for a wine that delivers instantly to the drinker instead of the slower evolution needed from a more traditionally-styled Barbera, or what Mauro's wine would bring. The grapes are hand harvested and fermented with a third of their whole clusters—a method of production that makes this wine atypical for these parts. The result is something wonderful. It’s lively on its own and still perfect with food (just as Barbera always is) but has a little more in the afterburner once the food is gone. I love this wine, and Dave has done a service for this grape’s image by showing its diversity and creating something discreet that brings the aroma up just a touch to match the innate explosive freshness Barbera ceaselessly brings to the palate. By far, our most big-time Italian grower is Poderi Colla. And while the Colla family has wines from some of the world’s greatest appellations, Barolo and Barbaresco, their small wines are as equally attended to and impressive. Dolcetto (the main grape in Poderi Colla's Bricco del Drago) is hardwired for soft acidity, delicious richness, full flavor and impressive versatility at the table. It also happens to be the most commonly drunk wine at a family lunch or dinner in this part of Piedmont, home to the famous Nebbiolo wines, Barbaresco and Barolo. Dolcetto is one of the world’s most undervalued wines and from any decent estate—and Colla is much more than just decent—it represents the absolute best value on average in all of the Langhe for the price. Just across the road from Barbaresco territory is Cascina Drago, home to this legendary Dolcetto wine blended with 15% Nebbiolo, the historic mix for this wine since 1969. Over a special dinner, Tino, Pietro and Bruna Colla demonstrated to us Bricco del Drago's nearly indestructible age-worthiness and breed. It was a bottle of 1970 that still appeared youthful and bright that toppled some juggernaut wines made by the late Bepe Colla next to it that were absolutely fabulous too—see the picture below. This is truly a mythical wine for the Collas and for the Langhe, and anyone with the privilege of tasting (but preferably drinking!) an old one knows this to be true.
It is only a matter of time before the world comes to fully embrace the magnitude and relevance of the Colla family in the cultural and historical fabric of the Langhe, as they’ve truly helped set the stage for today’s more lifted and elegant expression of Barolo and Barbaresco. It’s difficult to write about Poderi Colla, only in that I fear that I might no do their story justice. The Colla family is one of the most important wine growing families in our entire roster of more than one hundred growers that we are privileged to represent. Not enough wine drinkers in the world, let alone in Italy, really know the Colla’s wines and their deep-rooted family history as tastemakers in the Langhe’s famous Barolo and Barbaresco wine regions. The Family One very dry 2017 November morning, I asked Tino Colla a difficult question. I was on a full day-long tour with company in tow through the Colla family’s three estates that they bought in the early 1990s and operate under the single umbrella, Poderi Colla: Dardi le Rose in Monforte d’Alba’s Bussia cru, Tenuta Roncaglia of Barbaresco, and Cascina Drago, an excellent piece of land just across the road from Barbaresco vines. Tino is the younger brother of a man almost twenty years his senior who is considered a local wine legend. Beppe Colla was an influencer, in the original sense of the word; a man who quietly helped to bring global notoriety to his home and sculpt the dialect of today’s finely-tuned and traditional Barbaresco and Barolo. To the locals, he was a mythical man, a towering, oracle-like authority whose few words carried gravitas and distilled truth, and when he spoke ‘everyone of intelligence would listen,’ Tino recounts. Beppe owned the now famous Prunotto estate, starting in 1956 up until the early 1990s when it was sold to Antinori. In 1961, he was the first in Barolo to commercially bottle and sell with the name of the Barolo cru on the label: the 1961 Barolo Bussia. But it didn’t stop there. He was the first with everything in naming crus of Alba, not only Barolo: 1961 Barbaresco Montestefano, 1961 Nebbiolo Valmaggiore di Vezza, 1961 Dolcetto Cagnassi di Rodello, 1961 Barbares Pian Romualdo di Monforte d’Alba, 1961 Freisa Ciabot del Prete d’Alba. Beppe forever revolutionized the game. And he did it in one year. Beppe and Tino’s father, Pietro (which Tino named his firstborn son), was born in 1894, and was also influential in his time, notably for his work on sparkling wines. Before Pietro, there were two centuries of influence in the region from the Colla family. After Beppe’s passing in January 2019, Tino is now the family’s eldest, and he knows how big the shoes he’s stepping into are—and he will fill them; in fact, he’s already been in them longer than he would probably admit. He’s quick to deflect any praise thrown his way for things he’s accomplished and redirects it toward the work of his family who came before him, and none more than Beppe. Beppe was Tino’s teacher, his guru, lifelong father figure, mentor, his hero, his best friend. So, “what is it that makes the Colla wines so different from others?” I asked. After a moment of pondering the question, Tino replied, “We cannot say we are better than others. But we have more than three centuries of knowledge passed down through our family. That makes us different.” Most of the famous names in Barolo and Barbaresco are somewhat new, with almost no one else having been around as long, making different sorts of wines: sweet, still, sparkling and vermouth, all before jumping into the “modern fashion” in the early to mid-1900s. The majority of the population is first to maybe third generation who at some point opened a new winemaking chapter in their family businesses of growing grapes. The area has gone through tremendous change in the last few generations with the introduction of new wealth and geographical notoriety. While the identity of the wines here has evolved in the last hundred years, most of the people haven’t lost sight of their heritage as farmers, as grape growers. Traditional Barolo and Barbaresco? “We’ve been making wines more or less the same as Beppe did in the 1960s,” Tino explained during one of my many day-long visits that started when I first met them in the early part of June 2014. Poderi Colla considers itself a traditional style Barolo and Barbaresco producer. They macerate their wines for a couple of weeks during fermentation, followed by aging in large old botti (many of which are over thirty years old): the Barolo for twenty-four months and the Barbaresco for fourteen. Some may consider these shorter times of maceration and aging “less traditional,” but it was an idea that Beppe began to experiment with and incorporate at Bonardi and then Prunotto in the late 1950s, long before the voice of “traditional” Barolo and Barbaresco (which is a relatively new concept altogether) was definitive. During those early years Beppe’s gravitation toward less is more regarding extraction and cellar aging was a consequence of realizing that many growers, back when this was one of the poorest growing areas, couldn’t afford to pay for laborers during the picking period, and with so few hands on deck it took much longer collect the grapes. This made for a wide range of phenolic development with Nebbiolo, a grape with tremendous acidity, but unforgiving tannins if not grown properly and picked at the right time. They had to start early so they could pick the last ones before the sun roasted them, or rain diluted them or led to rot. The earliest picked Nebbiolo were the most tannic, least developed with the seeds that brought more green, hard tannins. The middle of the harvest grapes were in the sweet spot, the collection of the most balanced fruit; and the last would be the most developed, darker and without the same kind of hard, green seed tannin as the earlier fruit. It wasn’t just the prohibitive costs of personnel that led to difficulties. Perhaps an even greater challenge, depending on the vintage, was the lack of reliable weather forecasting at the time. Today, they know what’s coming well before it arrives. If the grapes are ready—even slightly less than optimal—they can begin to pull grapes off at the eleventh hour before catastrophe hits. There were (are), of course, many exposures and different altitudes in which to find optimal picking times to achieve the greater symmetry of overall phenolic balance with more inside the targeted sweet spot. However, the first batches that came would naturally dictate the entire vinification duration to manage these stern tannins while not losing Nebbiolo’s aromatic profile; so, the large botti were naturally the right choice. In these huge barrels big tannins could slowly polymerize—bind to form larger molecular structure and precipitate out in the form of solid, thus making the overall tannins gentler than before. This would allow the wine’s freshness to remain without the mark of too much wood. It is well known to many in the wine industry, but I am compelled to state that the greater the size of the barrel, the less the influence of “woody” characteristics (even in younger barrels compared to smaller sizes) and a naturally slower micro-oxygenation—therefore, a slower evolution to develop more intricate and complex characteristics. Today, there is a range of botti at Poderi Colla from twenty-five hectoliter to ninety (approximately 3,300 bottles to 12,000 bottles, respectively) that are used for the Nebbiolo wines and only old smaller barrels than that used to top the bigger vats. Despite this widespread practice, bred of necessity, Beppe asked, “Well, what if we can pick everything in the sweet spot?” “If we spend the money to bring on more labor during the short window for optimal ripeness you don’t need to belabor the wines with excessive times in the cellar to manage greener tannins because they aren’t there.” They wouldn’t need lengthy macerations and fermentations to polymerize the tannins because none of the grapes would be hard and green. So who is to say what is the true traditional way when those traditions were so recent, as they were largely defined between the 1950s and 80s? In truth, traditional Nebbiolo red wines made in these areas prior to this period were sparkling and sweet. But are there self-proclaimed true traditionalists in a rush to return to bottle sweet, frothy Nebbiolo? I think not. It’s guys like Beppe who helped better define the voice of the terroirs and the new heights at which Nebbiolo Secco Secco (the term Beppe first coined for dry Nebbiolo) could achieve. Their approach was indeed rooted in progressive methods for the time, compared to other staunch traditionalists who do it the way they do because that’s the way we always did it. Beppe simply asked, “Why?” and made some changes in the ‘50s and ‘60s that seem so obvious to us now (and possibly less romantic as a result) that made a huge difference in the quality of the wines. So, is Poderi Colla really traditional? I think so, absolutely. How could anyone say anything different? Colla Wines from Vintage-to-Vintage Many in today’s climate are layups for everyone with any grasp on what they are doing, which makes it especially good for those who really know what to do with this kind of fruit that seems to have made itself perfectly. Have you ever gone to a high-quality restaurant on a slow night and got food that was surprisingly off, like the chef checked out and went home because there was nothing on the books? As the old saying goes, when the cat’s away, the mice will play. People were slacking off. This always catches you off-guard because you expected things to be better than ever, especially if you’ve been there when the restaurant was slammed and got nearly perfect service and an inspiring meal. The same thing happens in winemaking. Sometimes the detail work in the great and easy years can be missed because those who are crafting the wines really don’t know much more than how to grow good grapes, manage their logistics and hygiene well and execute the cellar processes with astute technical precision, but don’t have an inspired taste or true vision for their wine. They’re perplexed on how to improve what appears to be perfect already and can’t find an angle to bring more of its hidden potential to the forefront—to make it sublime, to transcend even the greatness of the vintage itself. The Collas do. And their three hundred years of family knowledge will assure that that’s what you can look forward to in their wines every year. Forget the vintage, friend. Buy the producer; buy the producer; buy the producer; buy the producer (…) -TV