Single vineyard wines: Vigna Rionda and Vigna Santo Stefano

Some times the gods of the diary conspire to produce a memorable pair of events. For months I have been planning an evening of the wines of the great Bruno Giacosa for Saturday 3 November.  Giacosa died after what the English call a good innings early in 2018. Consequently, it was entirely appropriate to taste his famous Vigna Santo Stefano Barbaresco in his honour. Then at the last minute I had the chance to attend a tasting of wines from Vigna Rionda, Serralunga d’Alba, Barolo on Friday 2 November.  Walter Speller, writer on Italian wines for jancisrobinson.com, had persuaded seven out of the ten owners of this great vinyard to show two vintages each in London.  Truly, two days of Nebbiolo nirvana!  And there must be something about this time of year as exactly two years ago I understood the ageing potential of these wines, with Borgogno showing vintages back the 1930s. 

Contained power: Barolo, Vigna Rionda

Walter Speller (left) with the growers

But what is all the fuss about single vinyards?  The Borgogno tasting represents the aproach of the past. In earlier decades the tradition was to create your best wines by blending across vineyards to produce a riserva. These were the wines that were given the longest time in the cask and then many years, even decades, in bottles.  By contrast from the mid 1960s on, Bruno Giacosa, Angelo Gaja and others identified the very best vineyards and began to bottle them separately. This opened up a whole new opportunity for estates and equally for collectors and wine lovers. 

The last piece of the jigsaw was the creation of an official list of MGAs in 2010. The menzioni geografiche aggiuntive, additional geographical designations, are a wonderful piece of Italian bureacratese for the officially recognised names. They define units which are somewhere between a sub-zone and a single vineyard, names which can appear on labels with an approved definition.  Single vineyard names continue to be allowed as well. For the full complexity of the system and its pros and cons, read Andrew Jefford’s Secrets of the Quilt.

What is undeniable is that the better defined single vineyards do have a defined personality of their own. Despite all the very subtle differences between the wines of the seven producers of Vigna Rionda tasted, it is possible to describe them collectively as ‘contained power’, Walter Speller’s phrase.

However, the really marked differences were simply about wine making. Terre di Barolo‘s wine, ArnaldoRivera Vigna Rionda 2015 and 2014 were the product of just 14 days of maceration on the skins and 32 months in French oak barrique for wines with beautifully approachable fruit, even in youth. The new labels of this important cooperative – which just happens to have one owner, Ferreti, with a 0.5 ha plot in Vigna Rionda – reflects the fresh, contemporary style of this wine, intended to be ready to drink from five years on.  By contrast, the grandest wines of the tasting were the long-aged and late-released Oddero Vigna Rionda Riserva di 10 anni wines. The 2006 and 2007 showed savoury power and intensity.  The wines are kept on the skins for 30 days but with soft extraction, the cap always being kept wet. They are aged for 40 months in neutral Austrian oak casks and then the remainder of the ten years in bottle. The result is wines that on release already showing marked tertiary leather and mushroom notes and evident power and balance for further ageing.

Clarity and concentration: the wines of Bruno Giacosa

Bruno Giacosa was born into a family of commerciante, grape brokers, in Neive, Barbaresco.  As a very young man, he gained a reputation for being an outstanding judge of grape quality. But rather than following in his father’s footsteps selling grapes to big companies such as Pio Cesare, he set out to source the best grapes in Barbaresco and Barolo and then make then into wine. He innovated in other ways too, introducing temperature control during fermentation, preferring French oak but in large formats and ageing wines in bottle before release, and sending his wines to an external laboratory  to be be tested. But most importantly he was the first in the Langhe to bottle single vineyard wines. He started with Vigna Santo Stefano in Neive on which he had a fifty-year lease. He made this vineyard famous and kick started the whole single vineyard phenomenon in Piemonte.  

Giacosa died in early 2018, rather movingly the year of release of his very last Vigna Santo Stefano, the 2011 vintage.  The lease had expired, the vineyard was now famous and, not surprisingly, the Stupino family who own it and the Castello di Neive are now making and selling the wine themselves.  

The warm up act for the 2011 vintage was a tasting of Giacosa’s other wines.  He was also, with Vietti, the pioneer who rescued the white Piedmontese variety, Arneis, which in his lifetime became something a minor celebrity.  Giacosa, Roero Arneis 2017 is a fabuously taut and structured wine and this proved to be a theme. The Barbera d’Alba 2016 has a concentration and a purity of red cherry to black plum fruit you will rarely find in an unoaked Barbera. Similarly, Dolcetto d’Alba 2017 and Valmaggiore, Nebbiolo d’Alba 2016 (note the single vineyard, unusual at this level, perhaps the Roero’s most famous Nebbiolo site) are exemplary: clean, perfect examples of their grape variety, a fine balance of power and refreshing acidity.  

Barbaresco Albesani Santa Stefano di Neive, Bruno Giacosa, 2011, has a name long enough to match its majestic structure. To deal with the name first. Albesani is the MGA (see above), Santo Stefano the now historic single vineyard name and, of course, we are in Barbaresco DOCG or, to be precise, in the village of Neive. The wine itself is the classic pale brick red colour heading in the direction of garnet. The nose is surprisingly developed for a wine of only seven years of age – tarry and earthy notes along with red cherry and a hint of violet, perhaps a touch of premox. The structure, however, is really impressive – this is substantial but in an elegant way with racy acidity and majestic tannins. I have a couple of bottles of this squirreled away and so it will be fascinating to see how these develop over the next 10–15 years.  

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