Elio Grasso has 16 hectares in the Barolo area with spectacular views of Serralunga d’Alba. Mind you, you almost give the ghost before you arrive because, although it is just outside of Monforte d’Alba, to get to the estate you have to go three quarters the way around a hill to be facing nearly back from whence you came. We had just about given up thinking we were lost (ho sbagliato strada is a very useful phrase) when the sign Elio Grasso told us we were in the right place.
Outside the winery there a horticultural curiosity: a 120 year old ivy ‘tree’, grown up around and now completely encompassing its metal frame. It turns out to an appropriate introduction to the amazing feat of engineering you will see within the winery. Overall, the property is so beautiful that it is featured on the cover of the wine atlas of area, against formidable competition. However, you do need a helicopter to photograph it because of the steepness of the hillside! This steepness led to the typical Piemontese style of training wines along the contour line of the ridges (giro appoggio) – kinder to the human beings who work the vines, but more dangerous for tractors.
Once inside the building, the winery simply sits behind the tasting room, most of it completely hidden from view. As we were to meet elsewhere, there are two cellars, one which can be heated so that the malolactic fermentation can take place. Grasso is very emphatic that in his wines the malo will take place in inert stainless steel containers, to avoid any extraction from wood vessels. The new cellar is a vast U-shaped tunnel which goes deep into the hillside, at one point 48 metres underground. Needless to say, this is a steady temperature, perfect for maturing wines in wood or in bottles. Although our hosts were emphatic that they could only care properly for the amount of vineyard they already have, one couldn’t help noticing that there was a great potential for expansion, perhaps in another generation.
We tasted the four wines ready to be released, including their three great Barolo, but not the Chardonnay which wasn’t ready. The Grasso are great hosts. I casually admired the new edition of the atlas of the Langhe area (Slow Food Editore 2000, 2008) and could only just prevent Marina giving me both the Italian and the English versions.
Barbera d’Alba Vigna Martino, 2007: 15 months in barriques; dense fruit, great ‘salty’ attack (decided that sapidity is not really a word), excellent. Said to age for 10-15 years. Barbera is rapidly coming up on the shoulder of Nebbiolo as a great wine, often at 1/3rd of the price.
Barolo Gavanini Chiniera 2006: the Nebbiolo grapes from which this choice wine is made are grown on chalky, sandy, soil from which the aim is to make wines with finesse. It spends two years in large Slavonian oak barrels (botti). In other words, it’s a traditional Barolo. The nose is all spices and nutmeg, already a balanced wine with persistent if quite refined tannins and acidity. There is a marked contrast with its stable mate also from the same year:
Barolo Ginestra Vigna Casa Matè 2006: the soil here is a mix of chalk and clay, leading to more muscular wines. Matured in botti as above. It already has fine aromas of red fruits and some flowers but is much tauter, more structure in the mouth. Needs time.
Barolo Rüncot riserva 2004: made in only the best years, this riserva is a more modern creature, being matured in the smaller French barriques, again after the malolactic fermentation is completed. It also spends up to two years in bottles before release. The nose is more prominent, spicy again, cloves in particular, good fruit, very rounded and supple in the mouth. Despite its six years, it’s still very young. It’s very instructive to taste the two different styles (and three different vineyards) side by side.