Aldo Conterno was and will continue to be a contemporary legend in Barolo.  His passing earlier this month at the age of 81 will leave a void in Piedmont that will be felt throughout the world of wine.  The following Barolo primer and the accompanying Aldo Conterno tasting note, are offered as a toast to his lasting legacy. 


Barolo, without question, is one of the greatest red wines in the world.  What began in the early 19th Century as a sweet wine, quickly evolved into a powerful dry red wine that the Royal House of Savoy came to call “The wine of Kings and the King of wines”.  By the late 19th Century, the cataloging of specific vineyards was underway and by 1980 Barolo was awarded DOCG status by the Italian government and along with Barbaresco and Brunello were among the first Italian wine regions to acheive this designation.


The Barolo zone is located about 6 miles southwest of the town of Alba and includes the five communes of:  Barolo, La Morra, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba and Monforte d’Alba.  It is here where the majority of Barolo is produced.  Barolo is made from 100% Nebbiolo grapes and must have at least two years  of aging in oak and one year aging in bottle prior to being released.  Barolo Riserva, requires five years of total aging before release, at least three of which must be in oak.

The Barolo zone can be loosely divided into two valleys. The Serralunga Valley includes the communes of Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba, and Monforte d’Alba. With soils high in sand, limestone and minerals,  Barolo from Serralunga tend to be austere and powerful and require significant aging  to develop desired tertiary aromas and flavors.  The Central Valley  includes the communes of Barolo and La Morra. With soils higher in clay content than Serralunga, this region tends to produce wines that are more perfumed and velvety in texture. Additionally, Barolo from La Morra are typically less tannic and full bodied than those from Serralunga and will generally be approachable at a much younger age.

Inspired by the prestige of the Grand Cru vineyards in Burgundy, Barolo producers have attempted to define the best vineyards for producing wine.  Although not officially recognized by Italian law, the practice has become common place with many producers noting the vineyard source proiminently on their bottles. This has led to vineyards being designated as “Crus” and wines with these designations are regarded as being the most prestigious and collectible.  The chart below shows some of the most prominent “Crus” along with the Commune in which they are located.  (note: some of the vineyards overlap communes)

            “Cru” Vineyards in Barolo
       Barolo   La Morra       Castiglione Falleto     Serralunga d’Alba  Monforte d’Alba
Brunate Brunate Bricco Rocche Falleto Bussia
Cannubi Cerequio Monprivato Ornato Cicala
Cannubi Boschis Giachini Villero La Serra Colonnello
San Lorenzo Fiasc Rionda Santo Stefano
Sarmassa Ginestra
Aldo Conterno’s story begins in the late 1940’s, when his uncle requested that Aldo join him in San Francisco to help him begin a winery there.  Since Aldo’s older brother was available to help their father in Piedmont, Aldo eagerly accepted.  Life quickly intervened and with the out break of the Korean War, Aldo was drafted by the US Army and sent to Korea.  While away serving, his uncle died, and with him, Aldo’s dream of making wine in the Napa Valley. After his service, he returned home to Italy to join the family business in Piedmont.  When Aldo’s father Giacomo retired in 1961, he left the business to his two sons, Aldo and Giovanni.  However,  a difference in winemaking styles caused a  philospohical rift between the brothers resulting in Aldo founding his own estate.

Giovanni continued making wines under the label of Giacomo Conterno. A staunch traditionalist, the wines of Giacomo Conteno are often brutishly tannic, fully extracted beasts that require decades long aging to be approachable if not enjoyable.  Yet, his two Barolo, Cascina Francia and Monfortino Riserva are some of the most sought after Barolo wines.  

To conversely label Aldo as the Modernist compared to his brother would not be entirely accurate or fair. However, he realized almost immediately that he wanted to better manage Nebbiolo’s harsh tannins and craft Barolos that would be more accessible when young. In an interview that Conterno gave in 2010 he stated: “I always heard my Father’s voice saying that Barolo needed all that tannin to last.  The first year I changed that, in 1978, my hands shook from fear.”  However, Conterno is a self described “moderate traditionalist”, though he admits with undisguised satisfaction that his sons have brought out a progressive streak in his nature. “Today we can make cleaner, fresher wines of great color, richer fruit and softer tannins than before, but without losing the noble stature that is unique to Barolo,” he says.  Aldo’s three sons began managing the daily operations of the estate in the mid to late 90’s and although he withdrew from the operation, Aldo never truly “retired” and was always quick to share advice or opinion.  According to a Wine Spectator interview, when talking about proposals made several years ago to legally allow Barbera or Syrah into Barolo in order to aid color, Conterno scoffed: “Barolo doesn’t need that! We are lucky to have the land that gives this wine, why would we change it? Why make a wine anyone could make anywhere else?”  As Aldo left the room his son Franco laughed.  “He’s a lion. He was born in August you know. He’s a Leo.”

Indeed.  Riposa in pace leone.  Riposa in pace.

Poderi Aldo Conterno is situated in Monforte d’Alba on the prized Bussia Soprana vineyard, in the heart of the Barolo region.  The estate produces four distinct Barolo depending upon vintage conditions.  Conterno identified three separate vineyard Cru’s on his estate called: Cicala, Colonnello, and Romirasco; each with differing characteristics.  Each year Conterno bottles wines from each of these three Crus and if the vintage is superb, a “Granbussia Riserva” which is a blend of the best grapes from all three. Aged for at least 6 years before release, by Conterno’s own choosing, “Granbussia” is among the most sought after wines in the world. 


Additionally, a fourth Barolo,  from the Bussia Vineyard, is the subject of this tasting and the latest contributor to the Tuscan Vines “Cellar Notes” column:

The 1989 Aldo Conterno Barolo Bussia is a benchmark wine.  It’s wine that’s almost impossible to describe with words. I decanted the Barolo about 30 minutes before dinner to remove an enormous coffee grind like sediment from the bottle. Given the wine is 23 years old, I didn’t want it falling apart in the decanter.  As it turned out, all such fears were completely unfounded.  In the decanter, the wine is dark garnet red. It hardly looks it’s age. In the glass, the maturity of the wine is more evident as the rim is broad with brick and slightly orange colors. The nose of the wine is simply magnificent.  Deep, ripe red cherry aromas dominate with all manners of tertiary complexities woven through the core of fruit.  There’s anise, seemingly in both spice and menthol form, smoked meats, abundant rose and lavendar floral tones, turned earth and mushrooms, and slight spice to the fruit.  Complex, seamless.  In the mouth, the fruit dominates, even at 23 years of age! Joining the harmony are mushroom, spice, anise and dried meats. The tannins are still chalky and somewhat chewy, but with duck confit, they melted away to reveal the fruit even more. Everything is in balance. A true hallmark wine and one that will not be easily eclipsed.  99 points.  About $50 upon release. 

1989 Aldo Conterno Barolo Bussia:  Note the color, and even the fine sediment that made it past my funnel filter.  A true masterpiece!

Tutto a posto!

JOIN OUR NEWSLETTER
Looking for even more wine tasting notes, recipes, news, and insider info not found anywhere else? Sign up for the Tuscan Vines newsletter.
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.