I have been fortunate to play host to Mauro Mascarello during his last several visits to New York, and he has more than reciprocated each time I have had the fortune to visit him in Piemonte. As one of the world's finest producers of Barolo I think I have generally gotten the better of this deal. As a tip of the hat to the Mascarellos I planned something a little special for this visit, an in-depth tasting of Monprivato including the first vintage, 1970.
Barolo has, historically, been a blended wine. Growers would have varied plots and augment their own production by purchasing grapes from other growers. The theory grew from the idea that a blended wine would inure one from the vagaries of each season's weather. In due time each region, and to a certain extent each vineyard, began to be recognized as offering a certain attribute that could make a blend more than the sum of it's parts. A valid conclusion when one sees the power from one vineyard married to the finesse of another.
There were of course exceptions to this practice, vineyards that needed no help and, whose innate excellence was in fact diluted by blending. Monprivato is one of these vineyards, a Grand Cru of Piedmont. Draped over a long ridge directly under the village of Castiglione and anchored by the easily identifiable Ca d'Morissio, the house of Maurizio in Piedmontese dialect, Monprivato luxuriates in its Southern exposition.
With the rays of the sun warming the vineyard all day and the ideal soil; an amalgam of sand, limestone and clay, retaining precious water resources, it is not surprising that Monprivato is recognized as a crowning jewel of not only the Mascarello's formidable vineyard holdings but of all of Castiglione Falletto.
One of the goals of this evening's tasting was to see how well this theory is proven in fact. It is all too easy to enjoy a series of great vintages from a specific producer or vineyard. What is more challenging, for both the consumer and producer, is to secure consistency from a vineyard in light of the specific limitations that each vintage places on its wine. To a certain extent this has become an artifact of days gone by. Since 1995, and with the exception of only 2002, Piedmont has been blessed by an unprecedented series of exceptional vintages. To a certain extent all vineyards can be Grand Crus, or at least Great Crus, when the weather is fabulous. What sets the true Grand Cru sites apart, one would hope, is their ability to overcome the limitation imposed by a season's weather and producer great wine when other vineyards fall behind and struggle to produce acceptable wine. That was a premise worth trying and thus the rather unusual line-up to be enjoyed this Sunday evening
So our wine card this evening consisted of:
1982 Monprivato –From a grand vintage.
1981 Monprivato – From a tough, structured, cool, unremarkable vintage.
1980 Monprivato –From a variable vintage generally lacking in depth.
1979 Monprivato – Another wine from a cool vintage but one that ripened well while retaining unusually high acidity which has helped keep the wines fresh as they have aged.
1979 Rionda – The vineyard made famous by Bruno Giacosa and obtained by Mauro Mascarello in this vintage only.
1978 Monprivato – One of the greatest vintages of all time. A tiny crop due to rain during flowering, that almost didn't ripen during the cool growing season but was saved by warm weather from September on that allowed the meager crop of tiny berries to achieve incredible levels of concentration.
1971 Monprivato – Another great vintage.
1970 Monprivato – Another great vintage though less acclaimed than 1971 yet, much like 1979, has retained a freshness that has propelled many of the wines beyond the heights achieved by their 1971 brethren. The inaugural vintage of the single vineyard Monprivato bottling.
1964 Barolo – A grand vintage though one built on finesse more than power.
1961 Barolo – Another grand vintage though built more on power.
Ok so while we started out testing a theory. I did want to end up drinking well. As the line up shows, both goals were achieved. In addition we had a slightly corked bottle of 1971 Barolo which was without a doubt drinkable but for obvious reasons paled in comparison with these giants.
And without further ado a look at some great wines.
1982 Monprivato – Young and tarry on the nose. Mauro had asked me when I decanted the wines. When I replied that it had been about 2 hours. He told me next time I should consider 5 to 8 hours and in his experience 12-18 hours in a cool cellar is really the ideal time to allow these wines to fully open up! This opened slowly but most likely would have benefited from an additional several hours though the intense aromas of dried rose faded in the glass leaving notes of coffee bean and wet cigar butt over dark, iron and black spice tinged fruit with big notes of sweet mint wafting in and out of the glass. In the mouth this was elegant with big, bright acids and wonderfully integrated tannins. This had a finesse that most of the other wines lacked yet while it was smooth and dark, it never really revealed its fruit in a clear and obvious way. A wine with a very good future and still very youthful. 2009-2030 93pts
1981 Monprivato – The dark and youthful appearance was gratifying to see as Mauro explained that this vintage produced wines with deep colors but the weather was such that the tannins never fully ripened. The grapes achieved ripeness very late in the season, due more to the sun light as opposed to the heat of the sun that would have also ripened the tannins. The nose here starts out funkily evolved with a dusty, earthy character and lovely notes of bottle sweetness that recalled veal stock. There are soft layered notes of dried rose here as well but more dirt, anise, and sautéed fennel to the make-up, giving this a decidedly rustic tone. With air notes of camphor and tea emerge giving this a rather complex if evolved aromatic profile. In the mouth this enters with a suave feel, still rich in glycerin but balanced by bright acidity, the super fine tannins begin to assert themselves on the backend giving the cranberry finish an earthy, spicy tone and a bit of an austere feel. With air this did freshen up in the glass but with food this transformed itself from good to something special. The tannins melted away and the fruit became more assertive and fresher. A really solid showing from a mediocre vintage! 2009-2017 91pts
1980 Monprivato – Decidedly paler, again a trait of the vintage, with a sweet raspberry tone on the nose and initial notes of licorice and dried onion powder segueing into cocoa and espresso foam before finally exploding in the glass with the most profound note of celery! Lithe and balanced in the mouth with resolved tannins that offer just a hint of dusty resistance on the palate. There is a nice, simple and gentle core of sweet raspberry fruit here but this is a lightweight in the pantheon of Monprivato. Still fresh and enjoyable but without much depth or complexity. 2009-2014 89pts
1979 Monprivato – This is remarkably fresh on the nose with a huge note of freshly picked strawberries, dirt, leaves and all. There is a slightly coffee, prosciutto fat edge here and nice notes of poppy seed with a touch of mint and camphor adding complexity. In the mouth this retain superb balance and freshness in a bright vein with subtly sweet cherry fruit and minor tannins that are none the less a bit aggressive, but in a good way. The cherry tones really gain depth and intensity on the palate and lead to a long zesty finish. This is more remarkable for it's freshness and sumptuous core of fruit than it's complexity but if it is simple, it's simply delicious. 2009- 2019 92pts
1979 Rionda – There is quite a story behind this wine. Bruno Giacosa had been in the habit of buying this wine but in 1979, most likely to make up for the tiny harvest the year before, Aldo Canale significantly raised his asking price. Bruno Giacosa balked at paying more for a lesser vintage and passed on the lot. Mauro found out and quickly agreed to the tariff, much to the chagrin of Bruno who had a change of heart shortly thereafter. Mauro had the option of continuing his relationship with Aldo in 1980 but was not satisfied with the appearance of his 1979 so he passed. Unfortunately Mauro wasn't familiar with the tendency of the Rionda wine to appear pale early on only to gain color after several years and by the time he figured it our Bruno had learned from his mistakes.
This bottle had a wonderful nose of sandy soil tones, celery seed, rosehips and intense perfumes of sweet cherry with notes of rust and iron adding depth. In the mouth this was velvety and earthy with spicy, dark masculine flavors of medicinally tinged wild cherry. This lacks a bit of elegance on the midpalate but offers excellent length with lingering notes of black licorice and strawberry seed astringency. 2009-2016 90pts
1971 Monprivato – Mute on the nose with subtle notes of dried raspberry, sheepskin, dusty, stony soil notes and beefy, saddle leather tones. This gained slowly but surely throughout the evening and was improved by the end of the night but was sadly finished. On the palate it was elegant and velvety with lovely balance that lent the mouthfeel a broad, yet shallow feel. There is a touch of cherry cough medicine floating across the midpalate and leading to the finish which is a touch short. Again this showed solid improvement through the evening and actually looks to have additional positive development in bottle. 2009-2017 91pts
1978 Monprivato – This was superbly fresh on the nose with a touch of dried chocolate frosting adding sweetness to the dried strawberry fruit. There are layers of forest floor, seashell, tobacco, spice and herb notes here with flourishes of salad greens, dried asphalt, maduro tobacco and fresh porcini mushroom. On the palate this is bright and deep with a huge core of sour cherry fruit and brisk menthol top notes. Amazingly fresh and youthful with the dark fruit edged in a subtly sweet apricot glaze tone with hints of espresso bean, green herbs, spices, sandalwood and a huge rose nose all coming to a crescendo on the deep, long, exciting finish. A monumental wine that required coaxing and patience to allow it to reveal all it has. Still amazingly youthful. 2009-2035 95pts.
1970 Monprivato – The inaugural vintage of Monprivato and as Mauro recounts, the inaugural vintage of the newly created Ca d'Morissio Riserva! How is that you ask? Well this was a trial of sorts using the best vines from Monprivato in an effort to produce something special, something that would transcend the vintage. The vines Mauro selected for this bottling were 100% Michet clone. In subsequent vintages, and through 1985 both the Rose and Lampia clones made up part of Monprivato and in fact the Rose clone was the predominant clone. In the late 80's Mauro began a long process that saw its first results only with the 1993 Ca d'Morissio Riserva, a 100% Michet bottling from the finest vine stocks. In other words, the 1970 Monprivato. As Mauro relays the story it was in fact Maninie Berk of the Rare Wine Company who discovered this odd twist.
So how was the wine? On the nose this was also brilliantly fresh with a touch of fleshiness and a deep core of smoky, earthy, dark fruits that had an edge of the sweet/sour tones one gets from a candied apple. As it evolves the nose gained a slightly feral gamy/mineral tone that just added to it's appeal On the palate this was absolutely seductive with a resolved, integrated feel that lent this a plushness that was cut but the brilliant acidity. This too has a slight medicinal edge that offers contrast to the sweet ripe fruits. A lovely bottle that will gain from a few years in the cellar. 2009-2019 94pts
1964 Barolo – Here we moved on from the great Monprivato Cru to a wine that had grapes from vineyards such as Bussia Soprana, Dardi and Villero added to the mix. This wine caused me a bit of concern with its incredibly pale color when first decanted. I was put off a bit by what I saw but knowing how old Barolo tends to darken a bit in the glass I still looked forward to trying this. At dinner Mauro noted that this pale color is simply a characteristic of the vintage and not something to be overly concerned with. Even after 4 hours of being open the wine retained a very pale, yet very healthy rose tinged color. The nose opened slowly with a slight roasted edge and notes of fresh bandage, rosehips, creamy lingonberry tones, then growing notes of talcum powder and seductive rose perfumes that grew in intensity and gained the complexity of exotic womes perfume on moist skin. For the rest of the evening the aromas evolved adding touches of treebark here and violets there, then crushed juniper alternating with rosewater and angelica root in a subtle symphony of aromas that was simply amazing to smell. On the palate there was remarkable richness to be found, this pale wine was in fact packed with slippery glycerin giving the wine a rich, absolutely silken mouthfeel. What tannins there were were totally enmeshed in this silk and were subsumed by the explosion of strawberry, wild raspberry and soft plum fruits all edged in a gentle tobacco tone that revealed themselves with clarity and impressive length. This was simply brilliant wine. I wish I could go home tonight and repeat this experience. Profound wine. Nothing to gain from keeping this but keep it will. 97pts
1961 Barolo - From the subtlety of the 1964 we moved on to the wild power of 1961 with a feral nose rich in tobacco, moss, leather and blue slate tones, this was deep and grabbed your attention but lacked the layered complexity and clarity of the 1961. In the mouth this was still tannic and youthful to a degree but the soft acidity give this a more aged feel. There is plenty of dark, plummy, roasted fruit here in a very big, very powerful, very ripe style that had nutty notes of oxidation creeping in around the edges. The fruit is spicy and shockingly bold but lacks the finesse and balance of the best wines of the evening. It's an excellent wine, and on it's own might be swoon-worthy but in this esteemed company it comes off as a bit blocky, clumsy and soft. 2009-2019 91pts
And that was it. We did have a perfectly decent yet subtly corked bottle of 1971 Barolo that we drank anyway but beyond noting it's gentle bottle sweetness and balsamic, forest floor character I took no notice of it in such august company.
There is no doubt that Monprivato is one of the Grandest Grand Cru Vineyards in Italy. By any yardstick these wines are performing at the absolutely pinnacle of each vintage and evolve into complex masterpieces that only a tiny handful of producers can match. There is no doubt in my mind that this type of dinner can be repeated for decades to come with the exceptional wines that Mauro and Giuseppe have produced since that 1982, purchased so long, starting me down the very path that lead to my seat on thta most satisfying Sunday night.
Gregory Dal Piaz