If you can’t beat them, join them, and so it was that I found myself having lunch with Davide Rosso, owner and winemaker of Azienda Agricola Giovanni Rosso. Based in Piedmont in northwest Italy, the winery makes only red wines and is known for its long lived Barolos. Piedmont is somewhat of an anomaly in Italy. The pyramidical Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) system introduced in 1963, meant to denote quality, failed abjectly as producers rejected its rigid rules and chose their own path to quality. An example of this is the emergence of the Super Tuscan category, which used grape varieties that fell outside the system and thus the wines, when first released, were relegated to the common level of Vino da Tavola.
In Piedmont however, there has been a concerted effort to implement a cru system similar to the vineyards of Burgundy. Davide, who worked with Domaine Jean Grivot and Domaine Denis Mortet in Burgundy, is supportive of this system, saying that it works here because Piedmont has a history of crus unlike other parts of Italy. It is significant that Piedmont has never needed to implement the IGT system because its reputation for quality meant that a substantial proportion of its wine was labelled DOC or DOCG. In the village of Serralunga d’Alba where Giovanni Rosso is located, Davide bottles two single-vineyard wines from Ceretta and La Serra. In 2011, when Davide’s uncle Tommaso Canale passed away, part of the Vigna Rionda vineyard was inherited by Davide. This celebrated vineyard, composed of calcareous marlstone, was made famous by Bruno Giacosa’s Collina Rionda, produced until 1993. In his book Grandi Vini: An Opinionated Tour of Italy's 89 Finest Wines, Masterchef judge Joseph Bastianich writes that “when you have the good fortune of owning a cru like Vigna Riona, or even the fortune to be based in Serralunga, the way you view the world changes.”
The grape that reigns above all others in Piedmont is Nebbiolo, which along with Sangiovese is probably the best known and highest quality of the indigenous varieties of Italy. The name is thought to be derived from nebbia, the Italian word for fog that occurs frequently in Piedmont during the harvest period. Deceptively aromatic and floral, nothing can prepare you for the savage kick of tannins that the wine delivers. Like riding a wild stallion, the grape requires a steady hand to tame its ferocity and draw out its thoroughbred character. Davide likes long, slow fermentations for his Barolos, stating that “Long fermentations keep the bouquet and perfume of the wine, one fast fermentation for Nebbiolo doesn’t go well.” As much as possible is handled by nature – no fining or filtering, the use of indigenous yeast, spontaneous fermentations. Instead of installing temperature controlled tanks, he opens the cellar doors and lets in cooling breezes whenever the fermentation gets a little too warm.
Historically, most Barolos were aged in large Slovenian casks called botti, but Davide has decided to utilise French oak from the forests of Fontainebleau instead. “It is important to use the size and type of oak in synergy with the terroir,” explained Davide. “You must see the soil, the type of tannin and the type of grape. Slovenian oak has big and strong tannins that clash with Nebbiolo, which also has strong tannins. The use of Fontainbleau oak introduces oxygen that helps polymerise the tannins, making the wine more sweet and balanced.”
The challenge with Barolo is that in the past its harsh tannins and austerity demanded prolonged ageing, often more than a decade before the wine could be approached. Producers are now shifting towards making their wines more accessible in their youth, without compromising the ability of the wine to age and develop. The revolution is on-going. Davide says, “Our direction is to continue improving the quality every year – it is a task that can never be finished”.
Giovanni Rosso Barolo DOCG Cerretta 2009 – More subtle on the nose than the 08, but palate displays broader definition and fruit, with red cherry and mandarin orange showing through. Delightful drinking now, but shows freshness and structure indicative of prolonged ageability.
Giovanni Rosso Barolo DOCG La Serra 2009 – La Serra is located at an elevation of 378m above sea level, where the soil is most calcareous. A pronounced nose, floral with intense notes of violets, cotton blossom, and red plums. Impressively fresh and pure, with chewy tannins and light vanilla spice on the palate.ÂÂ Finishes clean and long.
Giovanni Rosso Barolo DOCG Vigna Rionda “Ester Canale” Rosso 2012 – A barrel sample of a production that runs only to 150 cases a year (less than DRC, jokes Davide). 2012 was described as a vintage of balance between acidity, fruit and colour. Intensely floral and perfumed on the nose, but brooding and closed on the palate, shielded behind a thick wall of tannins. Still very early in its development, showing lots of dark fruit and a savoury, umami character. Prepare to wait at least a decade for this flower to blossom.
Note: Berry Bros & Rudd are the worldwide distributors for Giovanni Rosso.