Poderi Aldo Conterno, Monforte d’Alba (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
Assembling my list of the Top 100 wine producers in Italy has been a fun as well as challenging assignment. There are going to be a few producers that don’t make the final cut, but that’s the nature of these lists. But imagine trying to put together a Top 10 list – who makes the grade? While this would be an extremely difficult task, there’s no question in my mind that Poderi Aldo Conterno would be included in this grouping.
I say that as this producer located in Monforte d’Alba at the southern end of the Barolo zone has proven over the course of four decades that they produce as complete and as complex a Barolo as you will find. Established in 1969, the firm has remained in the Conterno family, with Stefano serving as winemaker, Giacomo taking care of tastings at the winery and Franco working with sales to the trade.
What makes Aldo Conterno such a superb winery is their collection of Barolos. They source fruit from three estate vineyards, all located next to each other in the Bussia sottozona of Monforte. The three vineyards are named Colonello, Cicala and Romairasco and all have the advantage of vine age in their favor, as the first two average 40-45 years of vine age, with the vines at Romairasco being 50-55 years old. This means small yields, which is beneficial to wines of structure and longevity.
The wines are aged solely in large casks (grandi botti), which is the traditional style of aging Barolo. I prefer this approach, as it means that wood notes in the wines are quite subtle, as the flavors of the Nebbiolo grape – cherry, currant, orange, tar and others – can emerge as the dominant notes in the wines. But while other producers also age their wines in this way, what makes Aldo Conterno different is the fact that the family has a much stricter selection method when deciding whether or not to even produce these cru offerings. As hail is a problem here, as in much of the Barolo zone, the family will not bottle a wine if any particular vineyard has been affected by hail. Thus for 2007, there is no bottling of Colonello or Romirasco; only Cicala has been produced as a cru, while there is a Barolo normale, blended from several sites in Bussia.
The cru bottlings of Barolo from Aldo Conterno are quite remarkable; I tasted the 2006 Romirasco and awarded the wine a 5-star (outstanding) rating; with excellent concentration, fine tannins and outstanding complexity, the wine should be at its peak in 25-30 years. I also rated the 2007 Cicala as outstanding, and while this wine is a bit lighter than the 2006 Romairasco, it should still be in fine shape in 20-25 years.
But the wine that truly makes Aldo Conterno such an amazing producer of Barolo is their Gran Bussia. This wine, a blend of their three crus, is produced only in the very finest years and even then, it must be a blend of all three sites. Thus even in a stellar year such as 2004, there will not be a bottling of Gran Bussia, as Cicala was heavily affected by hail that year. Giacomo Conterno told me that they could certainly make a great wine from the other two sites, “but then it wouldn’t be Gran Bussia.”
The most recent bottling of Gran Bussia is the 2001; this is the 14th bottling of this wine, which was first produced from the 1970 vintage (other bottlings include 1974, 1979, 1985, 1990, 1996, 1998 and 1999.) This is singular Barolo and as I look over my notes, I recall what a wonderful experience it was for me to taste this wine. Aromas include dried cherry, fig, cedar, hazelnut, leather and licorice – what a wonderful aromatic profile!. Full-bodied with a huge mid-palate and outstanding persistence, the tannins are rich, but quite sleek, the acidity is lively and the overall balance is impeccable. Naturally, the wine has unbelievable complexity with an extremely long finish. I wrote that this will will be at its peak in 40-50 years.
After writing that estimate of aging potential for the 2001 Gran Bussia, I realized two things: first, I had never written that length of time for optimum drinking for any wine, Barolo or other. Secondly, I realized that at 55 years of age myself, chances are I won’t be around to try this wine when it’s at its best. So I’ll have to settle for being able to taste this wine at this stage of its life and hopefully, I’ll secure another bottle soon to enjoy it again. (note: the supply is quite limited and the suggested retail price in America is $240 a bottle. Given the rarity and quality of this wine, I’d say the price is actually quite fair).
One final note: If you can’t find or afford the Gran Bussia, try the Barolo normale (2006 and/or 2007 are currently available). I rated the 2007 as excellent (4-stars) and was impressed by the excellent persistence, lovely varietal character and beautiful balance of this wine. You should be able to find this wine for about $125 a bottle. Again, for a Barolo from one of the greatest of all Barolo producers, the price is just.