There are those moments when I realize I am being a bit of a spoiled, judgmental brat.
Just the other night, I stuck my nose in a glass of Travaglini’s 2006 Gattinara Riserva and made a snap-judgement. I thought to myself, “Too much oak. What the heck are they thinking?”
However, as the wine opened up (and especially once the local food from Alta Piemonte hit the table), I felt guilty about my initial accusations. This wine was perfect. It was definitely oakier than I remember, but that could be for any number of reasons.
For example, Travaglini uses barrels of many sizes to make this wine. The barrels provide both color stabilization and an indispensable exchange of oxygen during the refinement period after fermentation. These barrels need to be changed out periodically as they become brittle and crystallized over the years. Maybe the 2006 vintage of Travaglini’s Riserva came from a newer set of barrels? Either way, once the wine had a chance to breathe, the house style still rang clear and true- high acid, lean, perfumey wine, steeped in terroir.
Another barrel snob moment- while walking through the pristine cellars of Valter Fissore at Elvio Cogno, I noticed that in addition to his traditional large botti, he uses and the spectacular stainless steel tanks, he had a few rows of small barrique lined up in one of the rooms. I warily asked him if he was experimenting with small barrels and he was confused by my question. He responded by saying, “I need somewhere to put the wine that doesn’t fit in the botti.” I felt like an idiot- of course Walter’s vineyards don’t give him exactly enough must to fill his big barrels every year- so he uses the occasional small barrel to hold the leftover juice. This gets blended in with the rest of the wine before bottling. When you’re a smaller producer, I am sure you must make every ounce of wine count.
And then again just recently I was at a beautiful little winery in the Val d’Ossola called Cantine Garrone, where the owner Mario Garrone explained that they began by vinifying their flagship wine in barrique. Not because of any specific wine-making goals, but because large barrels are expensive, and because in their original winery he could only fit 4 barrique barrels in the space. Not to mention the fact that he was working with a fractured series of small vineyards totaling less than 2 hectares of vines! Can I penalize him for his use of oak- his choice of barrel size? Absolutely not.
These people at the wineries literally break their backs every day in the name of elevating agriculture into Art. Who am I to judge them? My lessons in self-improvement have been humbling recently. I am working on tasting as much as I can, remaining objective, asking a lot of questions, and really forcing myself to keep and open mind- as well as an open palate.
Now I need another glass of that Gattinara, please.