Monday, April 11, 2016

The New Formula for Barolo: (Traditional+Modern)/Balance = Progressive

Plus a producer who's already ahead of the game

Since the beginning, I have always counted myself as a fan of traditionally-styled Barolo. As I began this journey to better understand the region, its vineyards, and its producers, it has always been the wines that saw long macerations and aging in large botti which would please me tasting after tasting.

I dug through every book I could find to read and study the histories of producer after producer to better understand what I truly loved about the “king of wines and the wine of kings”.

Bartolo Mascarello, Giuseppe Rinaldi, Teobaldo Cappellano, and Giacomo Conterno became my mantra when dwelling upon that recipe that made Barolo great.

However, over time, something began to happen. It didn’t just happen to me. I noticed it throughout the entire community of Barolo collectors, enthusiasts, and even the most admired critics. Barolo was changing, and the word “traditional” was beginning to lose its meaning.

What truly made a Barolo traditional? As Aldo Conterno would tell stories of his father placing barrels of aging Barolo on the roof to age, soften—oxidize? As we look to the genesis of the “Modernist Movement,” what made these forward-thinking individuals change everything they could about the old ways? Suddenly dirty cellars were cleaned, and old botti (which were rotting after half a centuries use) were being replaced. Vines were tended to with individual care, and technology was introduced that would allow a winery to perform tasks safer, cleaner and better.

Hear me out, and erase any thoughts that this lover of traditional Barolo has had a change of heart. That’s not what this is about. Not at all. Today’s blog is about positive change and what is being called “progressive winemaking” in Piedmont.

The fact is that the modernists weren’t necessarily wrong. In fact, in some cases, they had the right idea. The problem was that they wanted change fast, and nothing about changing a historic winemaking region can happen fast. Instead we look at Barolo today, 25 years after the modernist movement was in full swing, and we see an easy marriage between modern and traditional winemaking.

We see a balanced green harvest.
We see a movement toward organic practices.
We witness producers seeking physiological ripeness.
We see spotless cellars and new, yet neutral, large barrels.
And we see a new Barolo, which is quite different from the wines of 30 years ago, which impresses the lovers of both the traditional and modern styles.

It’s a very exciting time to be a Barolo lover.

Let’s talk about a producer who, unlike most, seemed to have an insight into where Barolo was going, long before the rest: Azelia.

Having flown comfortably under the radar for decades, Azelia is now one of the top estates in the region. The reason for this was a misunderstanding from the wine buying public; in thinking that this was a “modern” Barolo producer. Those who loved the over-extracted and oaked versions of Barolo found Azelia to be too lifted and finessed for their tastes. Meanwhile, fans of the traditional school picked up on the hints of oak in their youth, and they immediately disregarded the wines, without giving them the time and platform to properly express themselves.

And so, vintage after vintage passed, and Azelia continued by selling their production to a subset of fans that understood and truly loved the wines. In that time, they also built something that is very rare in Piedmont today; they built an incredible library of back vintages.

Years ago, Antonio Galloni of Vinous began to look back at vintages of Barolo for ten- and fifteen-year retrospectives, and one producer that was suddenly scoring at the top of the pyramid was Azelia. This wasn’t a change of tastes as much as it was an opening of minds. In fact, I witnessed it myself two years ago at a blind tasting of 1996 Barolo. A group of die-hard lovers of traditional Barolo were all blown away when the unveiling showed a ’96 Azelia Bricco Fiasco as the group’s third-place wine out of twelve.

So what is so different about Azelia? For one thing, when speaking with Luigi Scavino, you realize that this man has changed very little about the way he makes Barolo over the last thirty years. Since the beginning, the Azelia style has been about balance, both in the vineyards and the cellar. Luigi, having taken the winery over as a fourth-generation winemaker, found himself with a substantial holding in the Fiasco vineyard. Planted by his father Lorenzo in the 1940s, the Azelia Fiasco parcel sits at a higher elevation than that of Paolo Scavino. And yes, these two families are both closely related.

Luigi took to the modern movement with a skeptical approach, realizing that green harvesting was a useful practice but also quickly shunning the use of chemical fertilizers, preferring instead to only use periodic applications of manure (every four years). He also saw the potential of other vineyards within the region, especially in Serralunga, where the family now produces single-vineyard wines from Margheria, San Rocco and Voghera.

The care in the vineyards is the foundation, which Azelia is built on, an approach that has taken longer than you’d imagine to catch on in Barolo. In the winery is where the lines between modern and traditional are blurred even further, as Luigi chooses to vinify each Barolo differently depending on vineyard characteristics. So while the use of roto-fermenters are still used for gentle extraction, the aging of the wines can take place in small Barrique (only 25% new) or large Slavonian and Austrian botti. All fermentations take place with wild yeasts, and the wines are never filtered or clarified, and each flow process is carried out through the use of gravity.

Imagine if you will, today, as Luigi, along with his son Lorenzo, tends their 65 – 85 year-old vines through organic practices and then employs some of the most forward-thinking (yet respectful to nature) approaches in the winery, to create wines of impeccable balance. Does this not sound like a Barolo that we’d all love? It does to me.

If you don’t believe me, then grab a mature bottle and see for yourself. In my opinion, Azelia is one of the next superstars of the Barolo region. They are still under the radar for the most part, but I doubt that can last much longer.

If their 25% new oak aged Bricco Fiasco or San Rocco still scares you, then try the Barolo normale, Margheria or Riserva Bricco Voghera, which all complete their aging in large casks. Either way, you owe it to yourself to check out Azelia, one of the leaders of progressive winemaking in Piedmont today.

Below are some of my most recent tasting notes of Azelia Barolo. Enjoy.

1996 Azelia Barolo Bricco Fiasco – This showed a gorgeous bouquet with earth and forest floor up front, followed by red berries, minerals and dried spice. On the palate, it displayed silky textures with dark red fruit, spice, herbal tea and inner floral notes. Long and dark on the finish with perfectly resolved tannins in an expression which can only be described as classic. On this night, the Azelia Bricco Fiasc stole the show. (94 points)

1999 Azelia Barolo San Rocco – Without taking any official tasting note, this was a dark beauty of a wine that is firmly in its drinking window. The nose was full of dark fruits, minerals, florals and earth. On the palate, it was remarkably vibrant with a pulse of acidity pumping mineral-laden dark fruits across the senses. It finished long with a slight sweet tannin, yet there's really no reason to wait when considering this wine. That said, I'm sure it will drink well for many years to come. (94 points)

2001 Azelia Barolo Bricco Fiasco – This was wonderfully expressive and showed beautifully for its youth. In fact, this may be one of the most opened, balanced and expressive 2001 Barolo that I’ve had in recent memory. The nose was vibrant, yet haunting all at once, showing dark soil, balsamic, mushroom, savory herbs and dried cherry. On the palate, it displayed rich textures which were quickly firmed up by youthful tannin, with flavors of dried strawberry and cherry, inner floral tones, tobacco and spice. It finished with a youthful tug of tannin yet remained fresh and vibrant in its fruits. Hints of rose and tobacco lingered long. (95 points)

2004 Azelai Barolo – The 2004 Azelia makes the case of blending for balance. The nose was dark with rich black cherry, earthy floral tones and savory spice. On the palate, I found silky textures contrasted by grippy tannin, crushed tart cherry, minerals and earth. Youthful tannin coated the palate throughout the finish with lingering minerality. (91 points)

2011 Azelia Barolo Margheria – The bouquet on the 2011 Margheria is dark and almost animal in nature, as notes of black fruit and brown spices were contrasted by sweet floral tones, smoke, and crushed stone minerality. On the palate, it was feminine and pure with notes of dried cherry, saline-minerals and earth, which were firmed up by sweet tannin. Minerals and dried fruits coated the palate throughout the finish, leaving an impression of a youthful and classic Barolo. (93 points)

2011 Azelia Barolo Bricco Fiasco – The wonderfully aromatic nose displayed dark red fruits and floral tones with sweet spice and lifting minerality. On the palate, I found silky textures contrasted by sweet tannin with notes of black cherry, plum, sweet herbs and inner floral tones. It finished on a note of dried cherry and lingering fine tannins. (94 points)

2011 Azelia Barolo San Rocco – The San Rocco was intense and dark on the nose with rich black cherry, savory spices, sweet-dark floral tones and leather. On the palate, this was all about balanced intensity, as a mix of silky textures were contrasted by sweet tannin and brisk acidity; yet a core of concentrated fruit prevailed with strawberry, cherry and plum. Sweet tannin lingered on the finish. (95 points)

Article and Tasting Notes by: Eric Guido


  1. Thank you, Eric... excellent review. I've had good experiences as well with older Azelia cru's. It would be interesting to taste the '11 vintage as it is likely quite approachable now (?)
    Have you tasted the '04 San Rocco yet? I have some in my stash.
    Steve Adams

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