Alfonso Cevola on Barolo’s Best Vineyards

Barolo’s Greatest Vineyards Ranked

Barolo experts are in agreement over the superlative quality of Rocche di Castiglione

© Mick Rock/Cephas | Barolo experts are in agreement over the superlative quality of Rocche di Castiglione

Alfonso Cevola charts Barolo experts’ vineyard classifications to find the region’s best sites.

Barolo is one of the hottest wine collectibles today. But Italian laws and classifications can make navigating the landscape a tar pit for the collector who simply wants to get in, find the best of these great Italian wines, and get out. Unlike Burgundy, which has official categorizations for vineyards and the Médoc, which ranks its estates, Italy’s Piedmont region has no official hierarchy of the great Barolo vineyards.

It was Renato Ratti who first put his imprimatur on a map ranking the top “prima” categories in the 1970s. Ratti’s map was inspired by an unofficial Barolo classification written by Francesco Arrigoni and Elio Ghisalberti for Luigi Veronelli’s book “The Wines of Italy”. His became the map everyone hung in their winery or office. And while Ratti was a visionary, winemaking practices, vineyard management and global climate have changed since his day.The local visionary

The passionate mapster

In the 1990s, cartographer Alessandro Masnaghetti began demarcating Piedmontvineyards. With the advent of more sophisticated computer-aided mapping techniques at the beginning of the 21st century, Masnaghetti presented his considerable knowledge of the vineyards of Barolo at a visceral as well as intellectual level. He used sophisticated computer models and mapping to drill down and devise a personal hierarchy of greatness for the region. Masnaghetti’s maps dive deep into the specific zones and are fully compliant with iPad, iPhone and computers.

The tech-savvy Americano

In the new millennium along came Antonio Galloni, who first made a splash with his Piedmont Report and then as a reviewer for Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate. Galloni left Parker to start his own project, Vinous, which harnessed his tech-savvy team and tasked them with elaborating his theory of prominence in the Piedmont empire. The result is an interactive map with vineyard classifications. Galloni recently announced that he will soon by releasing a new interactive Barolo map, “breaking down the Barolo vineyard designations ‘menzioni geografiche’ into Grandi Cru del Barolo, Primi Cru del Barolo and Menzioni del Barolo, an equivalent to Burgundy’s grand crus, premier crus and villages vineyards”. In conjunction with Galloni, the Barolo Consorzio has also released maps, which are based on the geographical definitions they have developed. While the Consorzio doesn’t get into the business of delineating the greatest ones, their maps have given Galloni and his team a jumping-off point.

1+1+1 ≠ 3

It comes as no surprise that these wise men’s visions don’t line up exactly. They offer three personal interpretations of what constitutes the great vineyards of Barolo. They don’t necessarily take critical acclaim for winemaking into account in these great vineyards (or elsewhere). But there’s no question that they agree about Barolo’s best vineyards.

© A. Cevola/Wine-Searcher

Charting the expert opinions

To make this visually clearer, the above chart shows the lay of the land.

Ratti lists 10 “prima” vineyards. Masnaghetti has nine locations that qualify for a five-star rating, four of them additionally qualifying as five-star superiore. And Galloni lists 10 vineyard locations for his top (Exceptional) category. What these three listings have in common are three vineyard sites, Brunate, Cerequio and Rocche di Castiglione. These three hit the prima/Exceptional/five-star superiore trifecta.

They’re followed by two sites – Monprivato and Rocche dell’Annunziata – that have two experts giving their top rating (Ratti and Galloni) and Masnaghetti weighing in with five stars. Vigna Rionda drifts slightly down with two experts giving top ratings (Masnaghetti and Galloni) but doesn’t make it onto Ratti’s top 10 list. Inching down the list is Francia, where Masnaghetti assigns five stars and Galloni bestows his top rating. And finally Villero, cited as one of Ratti’s top 10, with Masnaghetti giving five stars and Galloni abstaining.

These vineyard areas – Brunate, Cerequio, Rocche di Castiglione, Monprivato, Rocche dell’Annunziata, Vigna Rionda, Francia and Villero – are THE places where great picks can be found with the minimum of effort. For collectors who don’t have time to stalk the chat rooms and who want to maximize the knowledge of three top experts, this is the sweet spot for collectable Barolo wines.

Time is money

Undoubtedly, there’s a hardcore Italian wine geek out there reading this, asking questions like: “But what about Barolo from a great vineyard like Ravera? Or Monvigliero?” To that I say: Barolo is a rabbit hole. If that’s where you get your groove on, by all means jump in. But for the collector who wants to find the dependable jewels quickly and easily (and with minimum investment risk), the trifecta is a good solid place to start. Gems from the three top consensus rated vineyards – Brunate, Cerequio and Rocche di Castiglione – can be found readily and, in most cases, for a lot less than the 100-point cult wines. Brunate offers superb wines from Elio Altare, Marcarini and Vietti. Cerequio has solid producers in Batasiolo, Michele Chiarlo and Roberto Voerzio. Worth finding from Rocche di Castiglione are wines by Giovanni Sordo, Oddero and Rocche Viberti.

Drill down into the next levels – Monprivato, Rocche dell’Annunziata and Vigna Rionda – to unearth more jewels from Giuseppe Mascarello, Luigi Pira and Renato Ratti (the guy who started this whole discussion). The point is, finding great wines from a complex landscape of vineyards and hierarchies, official or not, doesn’t have to be an exercise in bewilderment. One can find great, satisfying collector values without succumbing to the 95-100-point wines every trophy hunter is after.

Barolo's Greatest Vineyards Ranked

© Oddero; Marcarini; Robert VerzioTake it to the bank

Here’s the key insider hint – these three experts, independently and in consensus, have made finding the great growths easier, while the Barolo Consorzio members are still endlessly debating the great growths. Ratti, Masnaghetti and Galloni have pinpointed the sites where great wine has been made for generations. Information like this, say in Burgundy, would have one looking at bottles costing multiple hundreds of dollars. Many of these Italian wines, from collectable vintages, can be had for less than $100. But not for long; savvy collectors, who have turned away from Bordeaux and Burgundy, are aiming their sights towards Barolo.

Frankly, this is my strategy going forward when looking for great wines to cellar from Barolo, and those that will produce a better-than-average return on my investment in value and in pleasure. And that’s just Barolo; we haven’t even talked about Barbaresco. That’s a rabbit hole for another day.

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7 responses to “Alfonso Cevola on Barolo’s Best Vineyards

  1. Tom Maresca

    Charles:

    I have lots of problems with articles like this. First of all, the emphasis on collecting — especially as an investment — is anathema to me: Wine is for enjoyment, not for profit (unless you’re a winemaker or retailer, of course). Second, the emphasis on crus ignores the great Piedmont tradition of making Barolo by blending Nebbiolo from several sites, a tradition that is very much alive and produces exemplary wines from great winemakers like Bartolo Mascarello, just as one instance. Third, the cru names are very much in play in Piedmont, with more than one prestigious site having its borders expanded to allow other less gifted vineyards to shelter under its name. Fourth, all of this ignores the role of vineyard care and winemaking skills: Some lesser sites produce great, great wines because of who tends them and how, and some much-honored crus can yield tannic monsters. American wine lovers need fewer lists and more experience: they need to taste more for themselves and then buy the wines they love. If they can’t be bothered to taste for themselves, then what possible difference can it make to them what they buy?

    Sorry for the long screed, but this sort of thing bugs me: It’s among the most baneful effects of the Parkers and Gallonis of the world.

    Tom

  2. Reblogged this on Sassi Italy Tours and commented:
    A bit like rating the prettiest Ferraris…kinda hard to go wrong. But interesting nonetheless. Barolo is getting more and more discovered, and frankly it’s already out of the price tolerance for most fans of Italian wine already.

    The only answer is to go to Italy and drink it at the source.

  3. Ed McCarthy

    The one factor Alfonso is not giving enough credit to is the producer. Vigna Rionda reaches its greatest heights with Bruno Giacosa; Monprivato with Giuseppe Mascarello; Cascina Francia with Giacomo Conterno.

  4. Charles: I agree with Tom and Ed regarding their points on this article. A great vineyard means little if there is not a great producer overseeing production. Also, as Tom points out, there are several “lesser sites” that produce great wines. A first-rate example of that is Bricco Ambrogio – especially the version from Paolo Scavino.

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