Sunday, July 26, 2020

Following Monprivato Through the Ages

by Eric Guido (Originally published at The Cellar Table Blog)

It all started with the 2009 vintage.  As an avid reader of Antonio Galloni, I remember it well.  What was originally a 93-95 point wine in a difficult vintage had suddenly been downgraded to a “?” in January 2014, with reports that the addition of declassified juice from Mascarello’s top wine, Cà d’Morissio, had done nothing to boost the quality of Monprivato--in fact, it hurt it.  However, with a downgrade like this, we were left to read between the lines.  Then there was 2010, a great vintage, and an 89-point score.  Other critics continued to dole out scores in the mid-nineties, while Antonio held his ground.

Frankly, I’m glad that he did, because it has become apparent to me that something has changed about Giuseppe Mascarello Monprivato Barolo, and I know I’m not alone.  Granted, only time will tell if this change is for the better or worse, yet if there’s one thing that tasting this wine multiple times in vertical tastings has shown me, it’s that the Monprivato of today is absolutely a different wine than the Monprivato that most Barolo lovers have come to know over the last forty years.

The Monprivato of yesterday and today

I’ve formed a sincere love for many vintages of Monprivato, yet I’m the first one to admit that it’s a wine that’s incredibly hard to judge in its youth.  However, I’ve learned through experience that the youthful expressions of Monprivato of the past are very different from what we find today.  For me, Monprivato has always been a wine that showed severe austerity in its youth, crystalline tannin against incredibly delicate fruit, making it difficult to imagine the wine ever coming into balance.  Not only that, Monprivato always seemed to take at least two decades before it would even begin to open up.  I can’t recount how many tastings showed younger vintages to be completely shut down.  Yet, once the wines reached maturity, there was really nothing quite like it.

After a recent vertical tasting, led and hosted by Elena Mascarello, I had the chance to taste some of my favorite vintages of the past, along with new releases and recent vintages.  This is where the questions began to arise.  Tasting the 2013, 2012, 2011 and 2010, one can’t help but notice that those hard crystalline tannins that used to define this wine in its youth are quite different today.  Yes, the wines are tannic and youthful, but today’s tannins are finer and softer than they were previously.  I know I’m not alone in this opinion either, as fellow tasters began asking questions.

Questions about Monprivato and… Answers?

One of the first questions from the audience that day was asking Elena if the tannin management was being handled differently at any point in the process.  Her answer was a resolute “No.” 

Another taster asked about changes to the pressing of grapes.  Again, a firm “No.” 

Turning our attention to the fruit, today’s Monprivato is more forward, which is not to say riper, just more present with a bright red berry persona, instead of the delicate, almost floral fruit I was accustomed to (this is a vineyard that has often been compared to Rocche). During the question and answer, I asked about replanting, as I had heard that a good amount of replanting had been done recently.  Elena confirmed this, stating that it has been more widespread than in the past, yet also confirmed that those plants are not currently being used for Monprivato.  Struck out again.

As we all continued to try to bend our brains around the apparent differences between older and newer vintages without a satisfactory reason for the differences, another participant asked about yeasts, citing Kerin O’keefe’s book, Barolo and Barbaresco: The King and Queen of Italian Wine, where she explained that Giuseppe Mascarello is using  “...a strain of selected Barolo yeasts, BRL 97, created by the University of Turin.” (p.118).  Elena confirmed that in 1997, the family did decide to switch from naturally-occurring yeasts to selected yeasts, because they discovered that the fermentations went smoother and were more uniform.  This did raise a few eyebrows in the crowd, but the fact is that the majority of wineries around the world use selected yeasts.  That said, yeast could be part of the equation, but not the answer.

As the tasting let out, I found myself leaving without any of the answers I’d hoped for.  Don’t get me wrong, the new vintages are good wines, especially the 2010 which has continued to get better over the last few years.  But that’s just it; with over a decade of tasting Monprivato, I can’t help but feel that a vintage like 2010 should be an iron vault at this time--impossible to read.

This all got me thinking, reading (and re-reading), digging and searching for answers, and through it all, I can’t help but come to one conclusion: the Mascarello family has been experimenting in their vineyards and altering their processes for decades.  Is it possible that they have simply experimented and refined their way into a completely different style of wine?

A Deep Dive on Giuseppe Mascarello and Monprivato

The Mascarello family has a winemaking history that goes back to the mid-1800s.  Originally located in Monforte, and working the vineyards of wealthy landowners of the region, the family aspired to own their own vineyards, and by the early 1900s, moved the winery to Castiglione Falletto.  The key to their success was acquiring Monprivato, a vineyard located in Castiglione Falletto, with vines that enjoy a southwest exposure, planted in white and grey marl soils rich in limestone.  Sourcing fruit from Monprivato as well as purchasing from other sources (Villero and Bussia Soprana among them), Giuseppe Mascarello began to build a reputation as one of the region’s top producers.  I can attest to the outstanding quality of the amazing wines from that time, as they rank among the best Barolo I’ve ever tasted.

Today, the cantina resides in Monchiero, and it still incorporates the large Slavonian oak barrels that were purchased by the current owner’s grandfather, Maurizio, in the 1950s.  Mauro, the head of toady’s Mascarello family, is the fourth-generation winemaker of the estate, having taken the reins from his father Giuseppe and his grandfather Maurizio in 1967.  Any source will tell you that he is a traditionalist, like the generations before him, yet I believe that a better way to describe Mauro is as a progressive.  The winery does employ long macerations (by today's standards, 25-30 days) and aging in large Slavonian oak, calling cards of a traditional estate.  However, Mauro was bent on refining the winemaking and experimenting in the vineyards to create the absolutely perfect representation of Monprivato terroir, and to be more specific, how that terroir could be communicated using the Michét Nebbiolo clone.

It all started with the 1970 vintage, the first single-vineyard example of Monprivato, which was created from a small parcel of old vines in the heart of vineyard.  Mauro had been instructed by his father that these vines, all of the Michét clone variety, were the best that the family had.  Michét is a late-ripening clone of Nebbiolo that is known to give lower yields. In 1920,  Mauro’s grandfather, Morissio, had identified the best Michét vines within the vineyard and planted this section using massal selection.  The 1970 Monprivato was an unprecedented success and remains one of the iconic examples of the region.  With the success of this wine, Mauro decided to use Monprivato to make only one Barolo, a blend of Michét, Lampia, and Rosé Nebbiolo clones from throughout the entire vineyard.

Yet Mauro had an idea which began with the 1970 vintage.  He believed that the vines planted by his grandfather had so perfectly adjusted to the distinct terroir of Monprivato, that they would create a far superior wine if planted throughout the vineyard using massal selection from the estate’s best performing vines.  His father before him had a similar idea, having done some replanting in 1963 using the same logic.

This began the Cà d’Morissio project, which started in 1983 and continued on through the late nineties.  Mauro started by dedicating two acres of Monprivato, where he removed the Rosé vines that were planted, installed drains to help prevent erosion (which had plagued Monprivato in the past), and replanted these locations through massal selection using Michét at high density.  Mauro worked block by block, and by 1993 had decided that it was time to put his theory to the test; the Cà d’Morissio Riserva was born.  Sourced from the blocks Mauro had experimented on and aged an extra year in smaller Slavonian oak barrels (25-27 hectoliter), Cà d’Morissio continues to only be released when the wine itself is unique enough to stand out from the Barolo Monprivato, if not, it’s blended in.  Mauro was so happy with the results of the 1993 and 1995 vintages that he immediately started work on another block of the vineyard in 1996, following the same processes as before.

The Theory, or maybe just a fool’s ponderings

As stated on the Giuseppe Mascarello website, prior to 1992, the clonal makeup of Monprivato was Michét 30%, Lampia 45%, and Rosé 25%.  I could find no reference of the exact current percentages, but since that time, Mauro has ripped up multiple acres of Rosé clones to replant Michét for the production of Cà d’Morissio.  While doing this, he changed the plant density of the vineyard to 5680 plants per acre and added “drainage.”  The only reference that I could find relating to the clones planted in Monprivato today comes again from Kerin O’keefe’s book, Barolo and Barbaresco: The King and Queen of Italian Wine, where she explains that beyond the planting of Michét, that “...the rest of Monprivato is cultivated with Lampia clones… planted in the 1960s” (p.117), making no mention of Rosé.  What’s more, during the tasting event, Elena Mascarello confirmed that even today, when replanting needs to be done in the vineyard, it is completed using massal selection from the best Michét of the estate.

Other than the fact that the winery changed from naturally-occurring yeasts to selected yeasts in 1997, we’ve been told that nothing else has changed.  The fruit is always destemmed, macerated for about thirty days, fermented in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks (since the early nineties, which is quite common in the region today), employing a soft vinification with gentle pumping over, and then aging in large neutral Botti for three years until bottling.

Having said that and circling back to where this all started…

Is it possible that the Giuseppe Mascarello winery has forever changed the profile of Monprivato over the course of thirty years by removing clonal and biodiversity from their vineyards, using their best plots for Cà d’Morissio in all but the worst vintages and planting at a higher density in their vineyard?

This is just a theory, but it’s a theory based on over a decade of experience tasting these wines, and countless (I repeat, countless) hours obsessing over every source and printed piece of material (including the Mascarello website) that I could find.  Until a firm answer is found, what I can assure you is that the recent vintages of Giuseppe Mascarello are quite enjoyable, but they are not the same Barolo Monprivato that I have grown to love over the decades.  How will they age?  It’s anyone's guess.   For now, all we can do is love them for what they are.

On To the Tasting Notes

Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo Monprivato 2013
- Here I found intense floral perfumes with dusty dried roses up front, followed by notes of ripe strawberry, bright cherry and hints of undergrowth.  On the palate, I found a lifted expression, showing feminine textures with pure ripe strawberry, a light dusting of sweet spices and inner floral tones, remaining remarkably fresh and pure throughout, with hints of acid and tannin.  The finish was shorter than expected with light strawberry and light, fine grain tannin. (91 points)

Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo Monprivato 2012 - The nose was reserved with mineral-infused dried strawberry, tart raspberry, stone dust, dried flowers and dusty earth.  On the palate, I found wonderfully soft textures with tart raspberry, inner spices and floral perfumes.  The finish was medium in length with lingering spice and floral tones. This showed very little in the way of structure, save for a coating of dry inner florals.  As much as I enjoyed this, it’s a lighter style of Barolo that depends on grace over staying power. (92 points)

Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo Monprivato 2011 - The nose showed crushed cherry with an herbal tinge, marine-minerality, and hints of spice that emerged over time. The warmth of the vintage showed only in its sweet cherry fruit, being a bit overripe, yet kept in check through earth tones.  On the palate, I found soft, medium-weight textures with pretty notes of strawberry, minerals and light spice.  The finish was long, showing crushed cherry and spices, which coated the senses. This is not one for the ages, yet I found it quite enjoyable today. (91 points)

Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo Monprivato 2010
- The nose showed dusty dry earth and notes of raspberry, with sweet and sour brown sauce, then lifted by notes of lavender, hints of licorice and cinnamon.  On the palate, I found silky textures with sweet-and-sour cherry, masses of inner floral tones, licorice and spice, yet lacking dimension on the mid-palate.  It finished with medium-length and hints of young tannin, yet remained lifted throughout. (94 points)

Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo Monprivato 2009 - The nose was darker than the surrounding vintages, with marine-influenced minerals giving way to dark moist undergrowth, hints of animal musk, black cherry, raspberry and herbs.  On the palate, I found silky, pliant textures with notes of bitter cherry, blackberry, lavender and hints of spice.  The finish was medium-long and balanced, showing ripe strawberry and inner florals over hints of grippy tannin. (92 points)

Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo Monprivato 2008 - The '08 Monprivato showed a pretty bouquet of dusty, mineral-encased bright cherry, crushed stone, dried roses, soil tones and hints of undergrowth. On the palate, I found zesty, feminine textures, accentuated by brisk acidity with bright cherry and strawberry, sweet herbal tea, saturating mineral tones and the slightest hint of fine tannin. It finished medium-long, fresh and savory, with lingering inner florals, minerals and spice. This is showing beautifully tonight, but it's very hard to gauge how well it will age. (93 points)

Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo Monprivato 2006
- The nose was dark and brooding with hints of animal musk up front, then opening to reveal exotic florals, dusty spice, earth, and mineral-infused black cherry.  It seemed to seamlessly glide across the palate, where I found silky textures offset by an intense mix of black cherry and tart raspberry, with mineral and savory spice tones emerging along saline-minerals.  The finish was long, with a coating of complex tannin offset by brisk acidity and dark red fruit. (96 points)

Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo Monprivato 2004 -  The nose was intense yet also quite pretty with marine-influenced minerality, dried flowers, undergrowth, hints of rosemary and animal musk.  On the palate, I found silky textures with an energizing mix of brisk acids and saline-minerality, as notes of tart cherry and inner floral tones emerged. The finish was medium-long with saturating cherry tones, minerals, hints of spice and lingering tannin. This was highly enjoyable and worth every point, yet it fell short of the 2006, as I craved more persistence on the palate. (94 points)

Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo Monprivato 2003 - The nose was dark with earth and minerals up front, followed by crushed blackberry, cherry and spicy florals.  On the palate, I found silky textures with ripe cherry, violets, brisk acidity and hints of grippy tannin in an unexpectedly balanced and highly enjoyable performance.  The finish was medium-long with lingering dark fruits and hints of gruff tannin. This was a beautifully balanced wine for the vintage. (92 points)

Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo Monprivato 1998
- The ‘98 showed a mature color in the glass. The nose was dark and earthy with hints of undergrowth, moist fall leaves, sous bois, crushed ripe cherry, and hints of spice.  On the palate, I found silky textures with a wave of balancing acidity, notes of tart cherry, spice and balsamic tones with impeccable balance.  The finish was long and spicy with saturating dark fruits, moist earth and inner floral tones. Wow. (94 points)

Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo Monprivato 1996 - The nose showed mineral-infused black cherry and crushed stone, as hints of wild herbs, moist soil and animal musk evolved.  On the palate, I found soft textures, which were firmed up by a mix of tart red fruits, minerals and fine tannin, yet the fruit persisted throughout, picking up perfumed florals and spice.  It was remarkably balanced yet still very young, with a long and structured finish that showcased intense tart red fruit that saturated the senses. (96 points)

Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo Monprivato 1988 - The nose was gorgeous, showing dried cherry and undergrowth up front, opening more with time in the glass as the fruit gained richness, changing more to crushed strawberry, dried orange, smoked meats, wild herbs, dusty earth and hints of animal musk.  On the palate, I found soft textures with sweet cherry offset by savory minerals with saline spray, spice and zesty acidity.  The finish was remarkably long and fresh with lingering dried cherry and inner florals.  What a performance from the ‘88, showing perfect balance and maturity. (96 points)

Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo Monprivato 1985
- The nose was dark and earthy with iron-borne minerality up front, giving way to dried roses, tomato leaf, dusty earth and hints of dried strawberry.  On the palate, I found soft yet zesty textures with tart raspberry, dried citrus and hints of lingering tannin.  It finished long and a bit spicy, still full of so much life with lingering hints of red berry and rosey florals. This was wonderfully youthful on the palate and finish, promising years of further development. (93 points)

Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo Monprivato 1979 - The nose showed dark red fruits with dried florals, dusty earth and hints of animal musk.  On the palate, I found soft, perfectly resolved, fresh textures with minerals, hints of earth and dried red fruits.  It finished with medium-length, showing earthy minerals and inner floral tones. It was very pretty with beautiful energy, yet the fruit has dropped out to show more earth and minerals than anything else. (88 points)

Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo Ca’ d’Morissio 1995 - Here I found a gorgeous, dark and brooding bouquet with animal musk up front, giving way to mineral-infused crushed black cherry, licorice, dried orange, stone dust and dusty roses.  On the palate, I found silky textures with saline-mineral thrust, before giving way to tart black cherry, inner rosey florals and youthful fine tannin. The finish was long with lasting fine tannins and mineral-soaked red berry fruit. (94  points)

Is Monprivato a Monopole

At one time, Mauro Mascarello was thought to have controlled the entire slope of Monprivato, making the vineyard a monopoly for nearly two decades, as no other producer bottled its fruit as a single vineyard. You would need to look all the way back to 1990 for the last Monprivato made by another producer, and that was Brovia.  Today it is thought that Giuseppe Mascarello controls over 93% of the vineyard, with only one other producer that I know of who has begun to bottle a Barolo Monprivato: Giovanni Sordo.  However, having tasted this wine, it is still far off from the quality, of even the lesser vintages from Mascarello.

What is Massal Selection or Selection Massale

Massal selection is a process of replanting vineyards using cuttings from vines which are identified as superior or better suited to the terroir of a specific location.  These cuttings can be obtained through nurseries or from vines within the vineyard that have demonstrated superior performance or health.  It’s important not to mistake this for clonal selection, a process carried out in nurseries to propagate the same genetic clone of a vine for planting.  In the case of Giuseppe Mascarello, he has been identifying Michet vines (Michet being a clone of Nebbiolo) within Monprivato, and then using massal selection to propagate these vines throughout the rest of the vineyard.