I recently spent a weekend in Barolo, which is simply one of the most fascinating Italian wine areas. High hills, patchworks of vineyards, breathtaking views – and then, of course, famed Barolo wines. As one may expect, I came there for the wine.
Gianluca and Claudio Viberti of Giovanni Viberti winery staged a nice little event, offering us to taste some aged Barolos from the 1990s and then continuing with a dinner where we had more wine with superb Piemontese food.
Giovanni Viberti is a small winery – just 16 hectares of vineyards, half of which are used for Barolo, and an average production of 100,000 bottles per year. Vineyards are located in one of the highest areas of Barolo called Vergine, at an altitude of 400-500m above sea level (most vineyards in Barolo grow at 280-360m). The soils are predominantly clay, with a good water retention capacity that helps to get good grapes in hot vintages such as 2003. Freshness and good acidity are key features of the wines from this area.
The Vibertis firmly stay in the traditional winemaking camp, believing that wine should have a sense of place rather than be manipulated to suit certain tastes. The winery was founded in the 1920s, and is currently led by the third generation of the same family. Gianluca Viberti has been in charge of making wine since 1989, while his younger brother Claudio joined the family business 3 years ago.
Main production is focused on classical red wines of the area, with Barolo Buon Padre being the flagship. It is a classic Barolo in a sense that it is made by blending different vineyard sites – this is the historic practice, rather than a current fashion of making of single vineyard wines that was introduced in the area only recently. As Barolo winemakers can use only one grape (Nebbiolo), blending different vineyards helps them produce more complex wines. Grapes for Barolo Buon Padre come as a selection from 3 sites. They are vinified in temperature controlled horizontal stainless steel fermenters and then aged for 4 years in 5,000 litre wooden vats and in bottles.
When Barolo is good, it beautifully develops throughout decades. Few of us have patience to wait that long, so the Vibertis came up with a convenient idea. They decided to put aside 500 bottles of each vintage of Barolo Buon Padre to age in their cellars, and then to sell mature wine as 6-bottle vertical collections. The current vertical is Barolo Buon Padre 1993-1998, of which 400 individually numbered cases are offered. The price remains reasonable, taking into account limited production and rarity of old vintages. A 6-bottle vertical collection case is sold to private customers for 600 euros.
Having tasted this vertical in full, my greatest impression is that of the consistency of the general style and the captivating differences offered by each vintage. Gianluca Viberti jokingly calls Barolo Buon Padre “a little Mussolini”, implying that the wine possesses an individual character that dictates the winemaker how to handle it. Buon Padre is not a flashy, meaty wine that grabs instant attention. It is the Barolo that stays more on the austere, fresh, elegant, minerally side, an honest interlocutor of its land. It requires listening and understanding. Because of its natural acidic backbone, the wine needs food, but then again, thanks to acidity, it can age beautifully.
Buon Padre 1993 now provides the greatest satisfaction – a captivating, nuanced bouquet of a mature Barolo with hallmark notes of tar, as well balsamic and mineral elements, refined tannins and a staying finish. Vintages 1994 and 1996 are also showing beautifully. Buon Padre 1994, despite a difficult harvest, comes across very well thanks to its ripe tannic structure and good persistency of flavours, especially those of sweet dried fruit, earthiness and minerality. By the way, Gianluca Viberti notes that earthiness is a common denominator in his wines. A few years ago the feature was commonly viewed as negative, but is now well approved by wine drinkers. Buon Padre 1996 has a lifted, restrained nose of tar and balsamic, sweet dried prunes on the palate, velvety tannins and attractive spice in a lengthy finish. The 1995 vintage saw a devastating hail in August, the harvest was damaged, and the production was halved. The tannins in this wine are more rustic, though it has enough complexity. Warm weather conditions in 1997 are clearly sensed in the wine – it has an intense, dark garnet colour, a warm, open nose of strawberries and light tar, and a savoury, rich palate. By contrast, 1998 comes across as quite austere – with strongly pronounced acidity and dryness, yet it is not devoid of fruit, especially strawberries and prunes, and has nice silkiness.
Giovanni Viberti winery also makes 3 single vineyard Barolos in the Riserva category. We had a brief introduction to Bricco delle Viole – this site is very important for the company. The soil is rich in clay with 50-80% of calcium, the vineyard has southern and south-eastern exposition, and the age of vines is 20 and 50 years old, with one part replanted last year. Two vintages of Barolo Riserva “Bricco delle Viole” were offered to taste – 2003 and 1999. Like everywhere in Europe, 2003 was an exceptionally hot vintage, and many Barolos are tainted with cooked fruit, aggressive tannins and generally unbalanced character. Contrary to those, Bricco delle Viole 2003 makes an appealing proposition thanks to a high altitude vineyard and clay soils. It is still a youthful, vibrant wine, with a nice limpid ruby colour; pure, lifted, expressive aromas of violets (true to its name!) and fresh, well structured palate that still has primary flavours of freshly pressed grapes, as well as floral and mineral nuances. Definitely a success for 2003. Bricco delle Viole 1999, meanwhile, is monumental, truly reflecting the greatness of the 1999 vintage. It is profound, structured, complex, nuanced, lasting – everything that you are looking for in a top class Barolo. Superb now and has evident potential for a long life.
Tastings are important, but in real life wines are more often than not experienced at the table, with food. Along with making wine, the Viberti family runs a small, highly regarded restaurant called Buon Padre in Vergine. It serves traditional home made Piemontese food that is prepared by Maria, the mother of Gianluca and Claudio, while their father Giovanni runs the service. The restaurant’s cellar used to be the place for making wine, but now it is converted to a proper wine cellar where the Vibertis also have some oddly shaped bottles from their grandfather’s time.
Our 5-course dinner provided many pleasures and showcased some of local specialties, such as Piemontese vitello (veal from a local breed) and tajarin (thinly cut long threads of egg-based pasta). The latter is the point of the restaurant’s special pride – pasta is cut with a knife, not by machine, so all threads are slightly different. Tajarin with minced meat ragout and Giovanni Viberti Barbera d’Alba Superiore “Bricco Airoli” 2005 were perhaps the most exciting match, showcasing some of the most symbolic aromas and flavours of Piedmont. I also enjoyed carre di vitello brasato (braised veal with greens and sauerkraut). It was paired with Barolo Buon Padre 2004, the current release of this wine. The young wine is full of ripe fruit and has freshness and an attractive tannic structure thanks to the excellent quality of the vintage. Its freshness and acidity were echoed in the flavours of sauerkraut, while the richness of the wine went well with the braised meat.