Bandol, Barolo, and a Piemontese white revalation: Vigneti Massa

With our odyssey through the Rhone completed, and with Christen and Francesco’s Portofino wedding still a week away, we made a beeline for the coast to enjoy a long weekend before heading to Italia. Lyle from Kermit Lynch raved about the raw natural beauty of Cassis, and once we figured out it was 10 minutes from Bandol, the decision became a no brainer. On the way to Cassis, we had to see our favorite Bandol personality,  Alain Pascal of Gros Nore Winery. Lucky for us, the 2011 Rose is pretty much perfect, and we picked up a few bottles for the beach, as well as magnum to take home. Somehow the Mourvedre is simply magical down in Bandol: mint, plum, annis, black fruits, and fine mocha-malty tannins. For me, thoughts of Cali Cabernet fly right out the window when I get into a glass of luscious, smooth Bandol Rouge. I talked Alain into giving me a naked bottle of the 2010 Cuvee Antoinette as he had yet to label it and it had even more red power and intensity than the regular Rouge bottling.

Hungry for lunch and eager to get to the beach, Jessica pulled me away from playing with Alain’s hunting hounds and a wonderful rose-drenched weekend on the rock beaches and limestone cliffs of Cassis commenced.

Just as I fell into the routine of ice cold swims across the bay, mid morning hikes, and relaxed Riviera afternoons of lounging; it was time to cross the border and pick up my sis and bro-in-law, Jenn and Jason. Weaving along the coastline we zipped through the border and immediately stopped for an Espresso, aha! the whiplash strong nectar that got me through endless punch downs of the 2006 vintage in Chianti, we meet again!

We zoomed into Savona to scoop Jenn and Jason up from the train station. They were coming off of a long travel day all the way from their home in Galway, Ireland; and now they had to put up with my hair-raising driving up through the hills of Piemonte. We finally made it to our awesome hotel Ca’ del Lupo, and grabbed a Negroni on the balcony. While I’d be a fool to compare the wines of France and Italy, I will say that one area Italy has France beat is the art of both Aperitivos (Negroni etc) and Digestivos (Fernet and other assorted Amaros).

We walked to the closest hilltop town for dinner in the only restaurant on the Piazza. Scouring the compact wine list, I skipped over the Arneis section looking for something interesting. My eye landed on Vigneti Massa “Derthona” and our server told me she would have to check if she could give me a bottle, it was “very special”. That bottle started a minor obsession with all four of us, and we looked for more Massi white wines wherever we dined. The wine was straw colored and awesomely mouth-filling and long lasting, totally different than any white I had ever had from Northern Italy. Dinner and the two bottles of 2004 Barolo were excellent, but as we walked back to the hotel for a nightcap of Fernet and to howl at the Lupos (wolves), we all couldn’t stop talking about our surprise white wine discovery.

Despite the late night revelry, (after-all, I only get to see Jason & Jenn once or twice a year) we got up in time for all important Espresso and breakfast. I knew a solid basecoat would be needed if we were going to try young Barolos out of barrel by 10am.

We skirted along ridgelines through hilltop towns until we made it Guido Porro, a Barolo producer I had never heard of, but who Lyle of Kermit Lynch had assured us was a hidden gem. We met Guido, a lean and friendly 5th generation winemaker with a firm handshake in the driveway of his hillside winery. He had a friend translate for us as we headed down into his cellar. We jumped into trying his Dolcetto and Barbera and then moved straight into his two different Barolo vineyards that are aged for 3 years in old, oak Botte. The 2008 Guido Porro Barolo Santa Catarina showed subtle peppermint and signature Barolo dried rose petal. The 2008 Guido Porro Barolo Vigna Lazzairasco showed dewy, early-morning rose garden aromas.

As we relaxed in the mid-morning light streaming through a large open window, I asked Guido which vineyards we were looking at and he pointed out Santa Catarina and Lazzairasco adjacent. When I asked what the extravagant building across the canyon was, Guido shrugged “one of Gaia’s tool sheds!”

Jenn, Jason, and Jessica all exchanged a look that said “we’d rather be here, hanging out with Guido around the winery table than tasting $500 bottles perched above an elaborately fancy tractor barn”.

We went down into the cellar to try the 2009 and 2010 Barolo lots out of Botte and then I got up to nerve to ask how much the 2008’s would cost if by chance, any were available for purchase. The widest smile of morning appeared on all of our faces, these first-class Barolos only cost $30 to $40 even in the US. Needless to say, we stocked up before getting a lunch recommendation.

After lunch we headed 45 minutes Northeast from Barolo into Barberesco to experience the ultimate juxtaposition: going from Guido the traditionalist, who uses no new oak, only old giant Botte, to the Rivetti family of La Spinetta, the ultimate Modernists, who are the proud owners of Roto-Fermentors and hundreds of New French Puncheons.

We met the petite (tiny), wonderfully friendly Manuela Rivetti and she toured us around the recently expanded and glorious barrel room and winery. The rows of new Vicard Botte, Barique, and Puncheon were impressive. 80-90% of the Barbarescos are aged in new oak, so La Spinetta boasts a whole lot of pretty new barrels!

I asked Manuela where the Armored Rhino on La Spinetta labels came from and she reported that the painting was done in 1515 by a German Painter who had never actually seen a live Rhino. La Spinetta has recently been approached by charitable organizations who are fighting to protect Rhinos from the poachers that supply Asian markets with the “natural Viagra” of the horns.

We walked back to the big conference table to try the whole lineup of wines. We started with whites: first, the massive, woodsy 2011 Vermentino and then the 2009 Langhe Bianco 2009 Sauvignon Blanc which actually reminded me of Araujo Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc. Because of the modernist winemaking across the board, the similarities to New World, Napa Valley style would stretch across all of the Spinetta wines.

We launched into the 2008 Gallina Barbera d’Alba from 50 year old vines that showed ripe and huge with hints of coconut. Attractive dried cranberries shot out from the 2008 Bionzo Barbera di Asti, picked from 80 year old vines. I asked Manuela how she would describe the nature of Barbera versus Nebbiolo, and she stated the Barbera was a “muscular, rustic grape with softer tannin than Nebbiolo”. These wines were certainly muscular and fruit forward! Over to Nebbiolo, La Spinetta’s Barolos have a Lion depicted on the label instead of the Barbaresco Rhino, and we tried both the 2008 Garretti and the 2005 Campe, of which I preferred the younger 2008 because of its varietally correct dried rose petal.

Play time over, it was time to jump into the big boys, La Spinetta Barbarescos. In our two years working for Henry Wine Group, Jessica and I only got to try Starderi one time, after an all-day meeting tasting California producers. The Spinetta Starderi Barbaresco had been a potent Grand Finale, and it’s concentrated deep, brooding fruit left a lasting impression on me. Coming from the lighter, traditionalist Guido Porro, I was curious to see how my palate would react today. The 2007 Starderi overwhelmed my mouth with cherry candies, and my observation segued into Manuela telling us of her plan to propose to her boyfriend with a ring-pop in front of his mother. I actually preferred the next Barbaresco, Vigneto Valeirano 2009, which, from a slightly cooler vintage, had less candied fruit that was better checked by the firm young up-front structure.

We said goodbye to Manuela and exchanged notes about the tasting once in the car. We all preferred the younger wines, which was no surprise, as Spinetta’s modern winemaking produces wines that are powerful yet approachable when young, full throttle out of the gate like a 100 yard sprinter.

After a quick siesta back at the hotel, we headed off to La Cocinella for dinner. Jessica and I were thrilled to see a fresh Sicilian seafood tasting menu, as we had been missing fish since leaving France. Dinner, paired with 1990s Barolo and Barbaresco was absolutely divine and I commented that the only thing that could possibly make the feast any better was to have some of that brilliant Vigneti Massa white wine to go with our elaborate seafood courses. Instead of Massa, we were to receive a different kind of wine treat in the form of a bottle of 1961 Gaja Barbaresco, given to us ¾ full by Roberto Conterno, who had dined next to us. The wine showed brown sugar, molasses, barnyard, and baking spices and had certainly softened. The wine was still alive, though, and it gave off a last hit of pepper on the finish to prove it. I certainly logged away the 1961 Gaja Barbaresco in my sensory memory as far as notable wine benchmarks!.

The next afternoon’s appointment proved to be mind-blowing as well. Jessica and I spent the morning hiking through the local orchards while Jenn and Jason caught up on sleep (rookies). We then departed for the famous Giuseppe Mascarello e Figlio di Mauro Mascarello winery for an appointment even Sashi said he was jealous of!


After taking a quick look at the Botte, we jumped right into tasting a long line of bottles. The 2010 Dolcetto d’Alba 2010 showed fruit, leather, meat and simple grapes countered by young earthiness. The 2007 Barbera d’Alba wafted fresh, young perfume; chocolate, spice and coffee with balancing woodsy tannin. A varietal I had never tried before, Freisa, was presented as a cousin to Nebbiolo. How had I never learned of this grape? Oh yeah, because there are over 300 recognized varietals in Italy! My interest was piqued and sure enough, the light, delicate, and pretty rose petal flavors were certainly reminiscent of Barolo. The last wine we tried before jumping into Barolo was the 2010 Langhe Nebbiolo which was very light in color and had elements of cinnamon with a minute-maid fruit punch flavor complete with succulent texture. I even noted to buy a jug when I got back home, maybe just a touch homesick, I also sub-consciously doodled a picture of Baron laying with his front paws crossed.

On to the world-famous Giuseppe Mascarello Barolos, we started with the feminine, light, tart cherry 2006 Barolo Villero. The masculine Barolo Santo Stefano di Perno 2006 juiced it up a notch but still offered delicate rose petals on top of the deeper tobacco, annis, and black pepper. Next up, the crem de la crem Monprivato Barolo 2006 was a great combination of the Feminine and Masculine we had tried separately in the two prior Barolo vineyards. The 2007 Monprivato showed darker, concentrated violet with sharp red edges from the warmer vintage. We finished the extraordinary tasting with the Ca’ di Morissio 2003; picked from the best one hectar portion of the Monprivato vineyard. The hot 2003 vintage made this wine ridiculously ripe and sensuously attractive after a few years in bottle.

After emptying our checking accounts at the local ATM so we could buy a bunch of bottles, we departed Mascarello for the city of Alba. The city center is closed to traffic and a great place to spend the afternoon walking and drinking aperitivos. Negronis weren’t the only thing on our agenda though, as the owner of Cocinella restaurant had advised us that there might be one wine shop in Alba that carried Vigneti Massa. We arrived to find that the shop was sold out of the Derthona we had tried our very first night in Piemonte, but they did have a couple bottles of the higher end white wines, Sterpi and Costa del Vento. After buying every bottle (thank God they accepted credit cards, we were definitely getting to the end of the trip and wine buying binge, thank god), we walked across town to Enoclub restaurant where both of these wines were on the list, so we could try what we had just purchased. The 2007 Sterpi weighed in at 15% alcohol (warmer vintage) and boasted butterscotch, coconut husk, perfectly ripe fresh pear, and an over-all opulence to rival Roussanne. As we drank through the bottle I also picked up on some Nectarine preserve. The 2008 Costa del Vento showed more herbs, oak, and even slate. Lighter in color than the Sterpi, it opened up with beautiful mandarin orange, peach, and more richness.

The next morning we bailed out soon after breakfast to stop by the beach before dropping Jenn and Jason back at the Savona Station. Piemonte had been a whirlwind of awesome food, Barolo, and an exciting new white wine discovery I plan on collecting for the rest of my life. It was time for Jess and I to go to the most beautiful wedding imaginable on the cliffs of Portofino, spend a day yachting off the shore of Cinque Terra, and then poor us, fly back home in the nose of the 747 on United Global First. Tough Life!