Traditional or Modern

Paul Blow

I fell in love with wine in a movie theater, during a screening of Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria. I had snuck a bottle of 1990 Bruno Giacosa Barolo Falletto Riserva in with me; it so filled the near-empty theater with irresistible aromas of ripe cherries and blooming roses that I thought I would be found out. After the film, I was compelled to immediately learn everything I could about Barolo (not to mention buy the remaining bottles in town at $90 apiece—the most I’d ever spent on a wine).

Nebbiolo-based wines such as Barolo and its neighbor Barbaresco fall into two styles of production: traditional and modern. The traditional style is characterized by natural fermentation in a tank and then long aging in giant old Slavonian oak casks known as botti. These casks allow for the oxidation of wine to happen very, very slowly, if at all. The finished wine is a tight and often tannic product that you shouldn’t even think about touching until it has spent at least 10 years in bottle.

In an attempt to bring Nebbiolo in line with more contemporary wines, impatient modernists adopted radical techniques such as shorter macerations and rotary fermentation (in which the fermenters roll like a clothes dryer), practices geared toward extracting color as well as softening the wines. They also used small French oak barriques, the kind of oak barrel that you see all over the world, which, besides imbuing the wines with the taste of oak, allow them to oxidize more quickly and thus be fruitier and ready to drink at an earlier age.

The attitude of a younger man like Luca Currado, winemaker and scion of the Vietti estate, is refreshing. “I don’t have a style,” he says emphatically over lunch. “I hate classification in everything: neither modern nor traditional.” Currado says that he looks at each Nebbiolo vineyard differently and decides based on the grapes what sort of fermentation and aging regime the juice will have. “All the crus are different with a different personality,” he rants, pleasantly. “How can you be so arrogant to impose your style of vinification and aging on a vineyard that has been there for 1,000 years, as some of ours have? Our life on this vineyard is like a small fart compared to the life of the vineyard.”

I have always loved Vietti wines for this very reason: They champion vineyard over house style. I prefer traditional wines, because I detest the obvious aroma of new oak. The genius of Currado’s approach, though, is aging the juice in both new and old oak to yield wines that don’t take generations to be drinkable, but also don’t sacrifice delicate, primary aromatics and the fine texture the traditional style can offer. A couple to recommend:

2004 Vietti Nebbiolo “Perbacco.” Though he designates the wine with the rather broad classification “Nebbiolo,” Currado assures that all the grapes come from the certified Barolo region and that the wine could be called Barolo if he wanted it to be. But then it could fetch a much higher price. As it is, this delicious, ready-to-drink wine is the best deal on Nebbiolo in the world, particularly in a stellar vintage like 2004. Classic tart cherry, dark chocolate, and minerals, all carried along on a sleek and smooth, medium-bodied palate. Retails for around $20.

2004 Vietti Barolo “Brunate.” According to Currado, the 2004 vintage is as epic as the 2001 (which I adore), but a little more forward and fruity. This single-vineyard Barolo, which will be released in the next couple of weeks, displays that character. Though the wine is very young, its aromatics are explosive with the perfume of cherry, spice, and rose petals. It’s lithe on the tongue, but structured with fine and fluid tannins. Currado says that he likes to drink these wines either young, on release, or to wait 10 years until they’re solidly mature. By that logic, this wine will drink gorgeously for the next year or so, so don’t be afraid to open it up. Will likely retail for about $110.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.