Last Tuesday I hosted a Giacomo Conterno dinner at my favourite (and brilliant value) restaurant Zucca ( Lots of people will have been but if you haven’t then go. Great wine list, value and range, as long as you like Italian wines! I had arranged this dinner for a few reasons; I love the place, I love the Conterno wines (and wanted to show why), I wanted to see a few customers all at once and ask them to bring a friend (for which read potential customer) and lastly I see myself as a bit of an evangelist for Piedmont and Barolo in particular.

There are 7 producers in Piedmont that I aim to buy every year and these are (in rough priority order): Giacomo Conterno, Bartolo Mascarello, G.Rinaldi, F.Rinaldi, Brovia (esp. Villero), Marcarini (esp Brunate) and from Barbaresco, Produttori del Barbaresco (great list of these at Zucca). These are all traditional in their approach, which reflects my preference for this style of Barolo (and wine in general) and the preferred style of my Barolo “Mentor”.

Right, so on to the evening in question. All the wines had been double decanted out of the bottle and back in at about 1pm that day. After a couple of bottles of Prosecco and with everyone calmly assembled we embarked on the food. A three part starter of Tuna “crudo”, San Daniele & Mozzarella Trapanese (this is brilliant, Mozzarella with almonds, tomatoes etc). I will admit here that I am no guru on food and wine matching, I follow a few rules but basically wines I like seem to work with food I like. The two wines we had were Roberto’s (Conterno, Giacomo’s grandson, the headman and winemaker at Cantina Giacomo Conterno) Barbera: Barbera d’Alba Cascina Francia 2008 (from magnum, I love magnums!) and Barbera d’Alba Cerreta 2008. Brief background here. The Cascina Francia vineyard was bought in 1974 and from 1978 to 2008 (when Roberto bought Cerreta halfway through the vintage) was responsible for all the estates production (Barbera, Barolo Cascina Francia and Barolo Monfortino) before 1974 the estate used to buy in grapes. So the wines, as I expected the Cascina Francia showed a more savoury serious edge and a greater depth, this is a wine that will age in my opinion in a similar time frame to southern Rhone reds, it is great now but will attain more complexity over the next 3-7 years and beyond. The Cerreta over which Roberto had little experience in the vineyard was softer, more ready (the bottle vs magnum will have exaggerated this too), more feminine and with redder fruits. In general the Cerreta was preferred now but ultimately for me the Cascina Francia will eclipse the Cerreta in 2-3 years. Both great but different which after all is what it is about?

Next up was Ravioli of asparagus & ricotta with in some ways the most interesting wine of the night, Langhe Nebbiolo Cerreta 2008, this wine from the same vineyard as the second Barbera could easily have been released as a Barolo but with Roberto, being the perfectionist he is, it was never going to be released as such so in the same way as a Burgundian might release any wine as Bourgogne Rouge this was released as Langhe Nebbiolo. In time I am sure it will be Barolo but when is not yet clear (I hope to find out in 2 weeks when I visit). As it was released as a Langhe it was bottled and therefore released after just 2 years (like the Barbera) rather after 4-5 years as for a Barolo. The colour was pale, Nebbiolo is big on structure but a thin skinned variety more like Pinot Noir than most, and the nose was so pretty and red fruited with a really fragrant, refined edge to it. A real crowd pleaser but in a non-frivolous way. If this ends up being the only time it is a non Barolo then it’ll be a collectors piece, either way it is a wonderful wine. The Ravoli was superbly fresh and lifted.

I suppose you could say things got serious now, food wise I was very impressed with the Lamb breast, cannellini, spinach & salsa verde which was fresh but with a good amount of fat (I am a firm “fat is flavour” believer) and a great sounding board for the wines. These were two vintages – 2005 & 2006 – of Barolo Cascina Francia. This is essentially the main wine of the estate. The Barolo Monfortino is sometimes made from the top selection of this vineyard in some years. From 2000 onwards it was made in 2000, 2001, 2002 (controversially but wonderfully), 2004, 2005(?), 2006(?), not 2007, after that not yet known. Roberto firmly believes Monfortino does not “work” in the vintages with heat spikes like 2003 or 2007.

The Cascina Francia is a wonderful vineyard of 14 hectares with 9 planted with Nebbiolo. There is arguably no stronger link between a producer and a vineyard in Piedmont, think monopole like La Tache for Domaine de la Romanee Conti for example. These two wines were very different, purely because the vintages are so different. The 2005 was comfortably the more open wine showing well all ready, I think over time this will be proved as one of those wines that is good young and old and doesn’t go into its shell too much in between. A really good wine to decant on a friday morning and sample over a weekend to get the idea of Barolo. The 2006 is a classical, dense wine with refined but big structure and the long-haul. This is for the classists out there (if I am sounding biased I have bought a lot, in my terms, of 2006 Baroli). The comparison was fascinating and the wines opened up more and more in glass. I was delighted with how they showed.

I think some of the misconceptions of Barolo (and this spreads to the other wines of Piedmont as happens with human nature wanting to simplify things) is that the wines are massive, dense and “need” time. In many cases the Baroli and Barbaresci do reward patience and take time to be at their optimal but they are wonderful in youth, the comparison with Burgundy and Pinot Noir is far more accurate than anything else. I would suggest people experiment there are many wonderful producers and all sorts of levels.

I haven’t really mentioned much about the conversation but it roared like a rampant fire to make it a memorable evening, before we knew it 7pm had become 11pm. A wonderful evening. If you are interested in something similar? Let me know.