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A visit to Roberto Voerzio

by Joel Hopwood, 2002

Most writers on Barolo like to see the wine as a battleground between two irretrievably opposed camps. On the one hand there are the traditionalists, who make wines of implacable power and austerity, which often need years in the bottle before they can be drunk with any kind of pleasure. And then there are the modernisers, the rebels, inspired by the enormous qualitative and commercial success of giants like Angelo Gaja and Aldo Conterno. They practise a craft that is considered strange to many older winemakers here; they buy small French oak barriques instead of huge old thousand-litre foudres, they green harvest and prune back their vines with fanatical intensity, and, perhaps most unforgiveably of all, they have been known to uproot the sacred Nebbiolo vines and plant Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot instead. Not for nothing is Angelo Gaja's Cabernet Sauvignon wine named 'Darmagi' - it's the Piedmontese dialect for "shame", a word which his father muttered constantly as Gaja struggled to break free of decades of tradition.

The good news for wine drinkers is that there are more fine wines than ever before being made here in these holy hills. Roberto Voerzio is making more than his fair share. His vineyards are mostly located in the village of La Morra, which is renowned for producing the most approachable, supple Barolos. Robert Parker has called La Morra "the Pomerol of Piedmont", and tasting some of the superb, unctuous wines produced here in the unparalleled run of vintages from 1995, you can see exactly what he means.

Roberto and Gianni Voerzio inherited their holdings from their father Gianni, who bottled wines under his own name until the early 1980s. Now they make wines separately, although only a few hundred yards separate their houses along the main road through the village.

 

Roberto used, in the 1980s, to be regarded as something of a curiosity, with his fanatical insistence on vineyard selection and very low yields. Now he is regarded by many as a master. He has three separate plots of Barolo vines in La Morra, in the vineyards of Brunate, La Serra and Cerequio. He also has some Dolcetto (a lip-smacking, sour-cherry flavoured everyday wine), and minute plantings of very ancient Barbera (another workhorse grape of the region). Recently he has acquired some new vineyards in Rocche and Sarmassa.


  We tasted through wines destined to hit the shelves in 2002: the 1998 Barolos. 1998 was a very good vintage all over Piedmont, following the classic, structured 1996 and the very ripe, fruit-forward and atypically luscious 1997. Yields were slightly higher in 1998 than in 1996, but all three years made great wines, and given the success that the region enjoyed in 1999 and 2000, the current Barolo market is an embarrassment of riches. Speaking of riches, you'd better start saving, because ever-increasing demand and tiny production levels means only one thing: very high prices.

Roberto's elevage is a middle-way between the old and the new. The main focus is on the vineyard, where each vine is nurtured individually, and yields are kept very low (under 20 hectolitres per hectare in the Pozzo dell'Anunnziata vineyard).

Each perfectly manicured vine bears just 4 bunches of grapes, resulting in very high concentration. Fermentation can last from anywhere from 15 to 30 days, depending on the raw materials the vineyard provides. Ageing (two years) is done in 225 litre Alliers French oak barriques, with one third being new oak, and the other two being second and third year respectively. The Dolcetto is unoaked and the Vignaserra, an early-drinking blend of Nebbiolo, Barbera and a bit of Cabernet, sees second hand barriques from the Barolo. As the wine ages, rock classics from the likes of Hendrix, Zeppelin and the Stones reverberate around the cellar from a state of the art hi-fi system. I tried to ask Roberto if this contributed to the wines' power but my Italian wasn't up to it.

The wines

Dolcetto D'Alba 'Priavino' 1999
A very good vintage for Dolcetto. With an opaque purple colour, this wine seems to seethe with fruit. Big, sour-cherry fruit with a liquorice edge, and balanced by plenty of lip-smacking acidity. This would go wonderfully with a rich, creamy risotto and is a fine example of the grape. **

Langhe Rosso 'Vignaserra' 1999
This is a modern blended wine which gives a different take on Piedmontese grape varieties. Flashy nose, almost like boot-polish. Meaty, oaky Nebbiolo with a velvet texture and a lovely strawberry mid-palate. 90% Nebbiolo and 10% Barbera. The wine is long, and vibrant, with a structure that should see it drink well for 10 years. This is the first vintage to be classified as Langhe DOC. **(*)

Barolo 'La Serra' 1998
The spiciest of the three Barolos. Very young, with huge depth of fruit and massive tannins. However, this particular vineyard just seems to lack the harmony and finesse of the Brunate and Cerequio. This is fine stuff nonetheless, but give it 5 years to begin to integrate, and I would think a 15 to 20 year life beyond that. (400 cases produced) **(**)

Barolo 'Cerequio' 1998
The nose is just amazing; it seems to combine the black fruits of perfectly ripened grapes with a beautiful liquorice note, as well as new sawn wood from it's recent oak aging. Again, the wine is structured, concentrated, and packed with a massive depth of flavour into a long finish. The liquorice note seems to be a feature of this particular vineyard, and it's one I like very much indeed. Outstanding wine. (420 cases produced) ***(**)

Barolo 'Brunate' 1998
The Brunate is always the most backward of the Barolos, and this 1998 is no exception. This wine is just huge, and seems to have an extra viscosity and weight in the mouth than the others. This is a very serious Barolo that needs 10 years, but I say will be the longest lived. Already you can tell it has fantastic balance. (350 cases produced) *(****)

Barolo 'Brunate' 1997
Drunk with lunch. Deep, blood red Nebbiolo colour. Tar, young leather, and some floral notes on the nose. I must admit, a touch hot at this baby stage in its life. Hints of spices, muscovado sugar. In the mouth, thick, a massive chassis of thick, unctuous tannin, and filled solid, almost impenetrable fruit. The flavour of the wine lasts for minutes. Stunning: the ripeness makes it deceptively approachable, but this is unquestionably a wine that will develop over decades. (340 cases produced) ****(*)

Barolo 'Sarmassa' 1998
The most open, lush and forward of the Barolos we tasted. There is a lovely strawberry note to the fruit. Almost seems ready to drink! Some liquorice notes (this comes from a vineyard just below Cerequio), and overall a very beautiful texture and aroma. Good length, with resolved tannins on the finish. ***

Barolo Riserva 'Capalot e Brunate' 1998
Another deep, dark, blood red Nebbiolo. The nose is quite clearly - unbelievably - a step up from the previous wines. One of those rare wines with the ability to stop you dead. It combines stunningly ripe black fruits with charcoal and a hint of woodsmoke. The weight and concentration of fruit is almost unbelievable, and matched by gargantuan tannins that are ripe and unctuous. Needs cellaring, will be incredible. (Bottled only in magnums, 1000 magnums produced) 2015 - ? (*****)+

Barbera D'Alba Riserva 'Pozzo dell'Anunnziata' 1998
Impenetrable black colour with bright and clear rim. Sweet, complex black fruits and smoky oak. Huge wine, with a 1 minute finish, featuring grippy acidity. First growth quality, and a convincing demonstration of why terroir is more important than grape variety -- this is from one of the finest vineyard sites in La Morra, yet is made from Barbera, a supposedly 'lesser' grape variety. The secret is the 100 year old vines. (Bottled only in magnums, 800 magnums produced) (****)+

Conclusion

With a style of winemaking like this, the main question is: are the wines balanced? The answer in this case is unquestionably yes. Voerzio marries what is quite clearly superb fruit - I doubt any other producer brings in Nebbiolo of finer quality - with careful and understated winemaking. I have also tasted Voerzio Barolos from very weak vintages such as 1992 and 1994 (years when many growers failed to make Barolo at all) and the 1994 Brunate in particular was a spectacular wine: rich, smooth and with notable finesse. On this evidence, Roberto Voerzio is very much in the top rank of Piedmontese producers.

Are they worth it? Well, as Montague Withnail might have said, they're cheap to those that can afford them; very expensive to those who can't. But they are magnificent wines.

A list of stockists is available from the UK agents, Enotria Winecellars, on 0208 961 4411. Retail prices should range from around 10 for the Dolcetto, to around 20 for the Vignaserra. The Barolos are around 60, and the magnums 150.



  Joel has spent several years in the wine business, most recently as wine buyer for the Chandos Deli chain of fine food and wine stores in the southwest of England, where he established the company as a leading retailer of Italian and southern French wines.

Though Joel has a wide-ranging passion for wine, his obsession with the wines of Italy has manifested itself most recently in his own fledgling appreciation site, Bibliovino.


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