Ercole “Lino” Scavino.  Barrel Snob?

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.

Walter's Tanks @Elvio Cogno

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.

Val D'Ossola

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.Mario @Carrone

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.

About The Author

I love all things Italian: the beautiful country of Italia, the Italians themselves, the language, the food… and above all, I love Italian wine. The people I meet in my charmed life are fascinating, the wines are extraordinary. I needed a special place like this to write about them, and to remember them.

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4 Responses

  1. James Wang

    Totally agree Joanie. I used to be very snobbish about the use of barrique, but a Vietti 2003 Lazzarito changed that. That wine showed me how judicious use of oak is actually compatible with terroir.

    Also, other than Domenico Clerico, the use of new oak is very limited in the Langhe. Even Altare uses only 20% new.

    It makes sense that many producers age excess wine that don’t fit in botte in barrique, but what about the super traditional producers? What do the likes of Conterno, Mascarello, and Rinaldi do with their juice that runs over one botte?

    • Joanie Karapetian, Italian Wine Geek

      Thanks James- I appreciate the fact that you’re willing to admit this about yourself. I hate being a snob about wine, but I see it in my snap judgements sometimes and it’s a humbling experience! Oak isn’t the enemy! Humans have used oak to make wine for hundreds (thousands?) of years because it is a logical, aromatically interesting thing to use- a tool in their toolkit. It’s all about the pursuit of balance, right? 🙂

      I don’t know the answer to your questions about the “Super Traditionalists” but I am still in Italy and I will try to find some answers while I am here. I already feel like I need to plan another trip because I know I can’t learn enough in the next few days! Let’s go!

  2. Diana Zahuranec

    I like not just how you became aware of your own judgments (something we should all try to do!), but the description of these wineries hits the nail on the head. That is, so many small, Piemontese family wineries work with exactly what they have, and they do it so well. Think of how the diversity in wine styles would be affected if every single producer had exactly everything he or she wanted anytime at all. Taking advantage of what each place gives you, for better or for worse, is where real diversity (and perhaps terroir?) comes out.
    Nice post!

    • Joanie Karapetian, Italian Wine Geek

      Thanks Diana! Learning about wine really is a lifetime process. It’s such a subjective art- we bring our own judgments to it and we try to taste objectively but sometimes it’s difficult to get wrapped up in pre-conceived “philosophies” without really understanding the realities of farming, vinification, and other realities that make up the constraints placed on the winemaker.

      I totally agree with you- this is totally part of terroir!


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