Roberto Voerzio (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
Roberto Voerzio was in Chicago yesterday. That may not seem like a earth-shattering statement, but when you consider that this celebrated Barolo producer was making his first visit to Chicago during only his second-ever trip to the United States, then you realize this was a very special day.
There are several famous wine personalities from Italy that regularly travel to the US and other countries around the world to promote their wines; Piero Antinori has been doing it for decades, whlie Angelo Gaja makes it a point to visit America often (and he has the suntan to prove it!). But Voerzio isn’t someone that does this sort of thing much, so needless to say when I was invited to join a few of Chicago’s top sommeliers for lunch at Spiaggia Ristorante to taste a selection of his Barolos – plus one Barbera – I said yes in a second.
If you know much about Voerzio, you might think that he hardly needs to do much along the lines of promotion for his wines; he was, after all, one of the first producers to receive 100 points from both The Wine Advocate and The Wine Spectator, for his various offerings of Barolo from the late 1990s and early 2000s. You can imagine the clamor for his wines at that point and his wines are just as famous and about as highly regarded today.
I met him once before at his winery in La Morra and the experience was quite remarkable. For someone as famous as he is, he doesn’t act like someone who’s in great demand. He had his vineyard manager give me a tour of his plantings throughout La Morra and then welcomed me back in his cellars with a tasting of his current releases of Barolo – he produces as many as seven different cru bottlings in a single year. He answered all of my questions in great detail and was in a wonderful mood, posing for numerous photos. After trying for years to meet him, I realized that here was an individual who was being pushed in many directions, as journalists from all over the world wanted a piece of his time. Yet here he was, a gracoius host, more than happy to talk with me and get my thoughts on his wines. How nice that Voerzio is such a down to earth person!
That same generosity and humility was on display yesterday at lunch. Voerzio talked about his roots in La Morra, as his ancestors have been grape growers for 200 years in this commune. It was in 1970 that his brother Gianni and he decided to produce Barolo from the grapes they grew and then in 1986, the two brothers went their separate ways, releasing wines under their own labels (Gianni produces a beautiful Barolo from the La Serra cru as well as deeply concentrated examples of Arneis, Barbera and Nebbiolo d’Alba, while Roberto has stayed with Barolo and a small amount of Barbera).
Voerzio spoke about his farming and how he green harvests at least twice during the summer to come in with incredibly small yields, at 50 quintals per hectare, about half of the limit allowed in Barolo. The final cuts in the Nebbiolo vineyards trim half the amount of grapes on the vine at the time, reslulsting in miniscule yields. This of course means less wines produced and of course, higher production costs, but the finished wines show tremendous intensity and weight on the palate.
Yet despite their obvious power, the wines are supremely elegant. Voerzio has been labeled a “modernist” among Barolo producers, yet he scoffs at that characterization and clearly wanted us to know that the modernity of his work has much to do with temperature control in the cellar; this technology has allowed him to make more elegant wines, so in this case, modern is a good thing.
When asked by a sommelier at the lunch about his being a modern producer, he replied that when comparing traditional Barolo versus the modern style, the differences have a great deal to do with the aging vessels. “Traditional Barolos are aged in botti, while modern Barolos are aged in barrique; the truth lies somewhere in between,” was his answer.
He emphasized that while he does produce two examples of Barolo that are aged solely in barrique – namely the Sarmassa and the Capalot e Brunate “Vecchie Vigne” – most of his wines are aged in a combination of large and small oak for a period of two years. After that, the wines are then returned to large stainless steel tanks before bottling, so as not to let the wood notes dominate the fruit characteristics.
Having tasted a very few examples of Robeto Voerzio Barolos previously, I can attest to the fact that his newest releases from 2008 and 2009 display less obvious wood notes than before, while maintaining remarkable concentration. These wines, especially the 2009 Brunate and 2008 Rocche Annunziata/Torriglione Barolo – the latter, a particuarly, sublime, outstanding effort – are elegant wines with very fine tannins and marvelous persistence; they are wines that indeed display superb varietal character as well as a sense of place. These are wines that are rightly celebrated as among the very finest in the entire Barolo landscape and upon tasting them, you don’t think of these as modern wines, but rather ones that captivate you with their excellence and honesty.
In an interview after lunch, Voerzio told me that he is proud to have been born in La Morra and clearly his affection for his commune shines through in his wines. High density planting and a perfectionist attitude in his farming and in the cellar are keys to the success of his wines, but after meeting with Roberto Voerzio and listening to him talk about his land, maybe it’s romance that’s the most important ingredient in his offerings of Barolo. If you believe that’s a bit much, well, see what you think when you taste one of his Barolos –it’s bound to be love at first sip!
My thanks to Marilyn Krieger and Maria Megna of Winebow for their assistance with this event.