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.
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