Being a small passionate winemaker is a tough gig on many levels: from finding the right plots/vines if you haven’t inherited them, to evolving and mastering your philosophy, to securing the financing.
The temptation to surrender to the “market demands” and focus on appeasing the critics is always present. Those who decide to listen to the nature and terroir instead of fighting them, dedicating their efforts to helping all these elements manifest themselves in wine, deserve respect, admiration and support. They speak for their vineyards, telling their true story to other people, bringing these people closer.
The underdog story is a romantic one and may impair one’s judgment of the wine itself, as, after all, the way we perceive wine depends on many things not the least of which are the circumstances and our mood. I was weary just of that approaching our visit to Eugenio Bocchino, a small producer in La Morra, who was on my “try list” for a while now. With this thought in mind I tried to be as objective and critical as I could. At the end of it all, my take away was that these wines have not only the soul, but the quality to match and if you get a chance – DO try them.
Eugenio and his wife Cinzia run a small organically certified and moderately biodynamic (Cinzia’s forte) operation. Most of their seven vineyards, comprising 5.5 ha. in La Morra, Verduno, Roddi and Alba are rented due to prohibitive costs of the vineyards in Laghe these days.
Although still a small winery, it grew substantially compared to their starting point in 1997. “We had 1.0 ha. of vines and no cellar”, says Eugenio. Their first production was at their parents’ garage, using a refurbished press from Cinzia’s grandfather and four used barrels fetched for the proceeds from selling their only car. Luckily their efforts were not in vain and by 2001 they managed to complete and move into the current house/cantina located at the beginning of La Morra (entering from Alba), slightly lower on the hill from Gianni Gagliardo.
Eugenio and Cinzia embrace the environment they live and work in. Convicts of the importance of allowing the terroir to take center stage, they are still passionate about what they do after years of slowly making their way forward. It is that passion that determines many of their decisions, be it exploratory massal selection in their vineyards, experiments with partial destemming in the cellar or unwavering traditionalist view on keeping their Barolo unmasked and balanced.
According to Eugenio, of the two, Cinzia is the expert on biodynamic practices. She’s been studying and applying it for a number of years, which eventually led to Bocchino’s affiliation with Nicolas Joly’s La Renaissance des Appellations initiative and the ViniVeri Consorzio (originated by Paolo Bea, Stanislao Radikon, Angiolino Maule and Fabrizio Niccolaini in 2004), indicating the predominant values at this winery. Their work in the vineyard is summarized well by their credo, boldly displayed on the front page of their website – “In our vineyards, we cultivate the grass!”
When I wondered if he plans to expand the production further, his response was very conservative. “I can’t have too much land if I want to work it properly. It is not very scalable. So I probably won’t be looking to buy or rent any new vineyards any time soon.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that the current vineyards will remain the sole source of his wines. The big risk of renting the plots is that sometimes you have no control over them. As was the case with a certain Annunziata parcel, which produced grapes for the wonderful Barolo “Lu” for a mere three vintages 2004, 2005 and 2006, before being sold (the parcel) by its owners to a family, which chose to produce industrial-quality grapes to be sold to Cantina Terre di Barolo.
Eugenio was our first port of call in Piemonte during the September 2014 trip. Fortunately, the capricious weather, which followed us from Perugia has shown its good side that morning and we spent only a few minutes looking for the Bocchino winery sign, which drowned in foliage, caused us to miss it on the first run up the road.
After a short introduction and small talk, the conversation moved on to what became one of the central topics of our meetings with producers during that trip – the frustratingly difficult 2014 vintage. Eugenio was opting to wait another 10-12 days for Nebbiolo, hoping for some more time on the vine and sunshine to bring up both sugar and phenolic ripeness. I spoke to him after the harvest and despite his efforts he decided to sell almost 50% of the harvest in bulk as the quality of the grapes were not up to his standards. I feel the pain of Eugenio having to make this call, but it clearly shows where his heart is – quality over profit. The hat is off.
While Eugenio was describing how painful the 2014 vintage was, his wife, Cinzia ran in quickly before dashing off to La Morra. Not for the business matters, as I suspected, but “for the bloody bureaucracy”, as she put it with a smile of hopeless acceptance on her face. Touche. If sometimes you slip into thinking that winemaking is all about the grapes – think again. Filing papers is an important, and hugely annoying, part of the job.
As we strolled through the cantina, quite spacious (a benefit of building a new cantina- you don’t have to cram in an elephant into a tea cup) and neat (very much like Eugenio himself), we get to dig a little deeper into Eguenio & Cinzia’s modus operandi.
The grapes come from 7 plots located in La Serra and Fossati crus in La Morra, Rodi, Verduno and Alba. They are all vinified separately.
Moderate green harvest is employed to avoid excessive concentration and high alcohol. However, Eugenio is very careful not to overdo it. Definitely no shearing of the bunch bottoms as he feels that some ripeness variability is necessary to provide the acidity.
Indigenous yeasts are used and spontaneous fermentation are non-negotiable. Although Eugenio admits to having experimented with selected yeasts early on, he abolished the practice quickly as it jarred with the underlying philosophy.
Vinification takes place in 35 hl. steel (sometimes cement). No temperature control. He feels that in small INOX the temperature risk is not very high, especially with wild yeast (selected ones tend to be more aggressive and can elevate the temperature too much). No rotofermentors. Not only they clash with Eugenio’s old-school approach to vinification, but “even if I wanted to use rotofermentors, I wouldn’t – I just can’t afford them” he chuckles.
Maceration is around 15 days for Barbera and 25-30 days for Nebbiolo. Remontage is short, just to keep the cap wet and reduce oxidation. No punch downs. The exact length is determined by the frequent examination of the skins. He isn’t hard-wired to run an excessively long maceration. If the grape has given all it can the wine is racked into the botti. On an occasional instance of fermentation halting as the temperature drops in the winter, Eugenio still moves the wine into the botti and allows for the fermentation to run out there when it restarts again in the spring.
The ageing is done primarily in the botti, but sometimes cement tanks come into play as well if the wine needs more time, but not the wood or if there is a space constraint with the new harvest looming. No need to be alarmed at the sight of a few old barriques which you see in the cantina. Their main purpose is to handle the excess wine, a rather common sight in small-scale operations.
After the cantina we settle in the adjacent the kitchen/office/tasting room for a pop-and-pour tasting. Eugenio is a generous enough to bring out the entire lineup. A gesture greatly appreciated by us, especially considering that being a small producer he doesn’t get the foot traffic of the large and well known wineries, meaning that those open bottles are less likely to be fully used up as tasting/marketing material and this means additional costs for the producer. As I said before, it’s not easy to be a small winemaker.
Barbera d’Alba Tom
1,000 btls. Vinification in steel. Ageing in large oak only. Verduno vineyard. Soil: Argillaceous (clay) limestone.
2012: Half de-stemmed. Restrained and not very fruit forward. Youthfulness distracts form what appears a rather solid and not an unsophisticated character.
Stems give complexity, but also greenness.
Eugenio was debating whether he bottled it too early, saying that he felt it was a little bit “not clean” and needs a lot of air in a decanter.
2004: This was the first year Eugenio used stems in his Barbera. Also some new barriques were in play here. It feels a bit more sweet, but also savory (ripe strawberries mixed with sundried tomatoes) and tangy/smokey (liquorice). The sweetness in the back of the mouth is probably a hint of the new oak rather than riper fruit. Good tannins, good acidity, maybe even more obvious than in the 2012.
Langhe Nebbiolo Roccabella
~6,000 btls. Plots in Roddi, Verduno and La Morra. South and South-East exposure (50/50), 200-250 msl. Steep slopes. Soil: clay and sand. Vines planted in 2000. Density: 5,500 vines/ha. Yield: 1.5kg/vine. Maceration: 20 days. Ageing: 12 months in large oak, 6-8 months in bottle.
2012: Very elegant, strawberry and roses, quite a good whif of animal. Clean nose. Grippy, sweetish and soft tannins. Very good balance. Very well integrated alcohol. Younger happier than La Perucca. First bottled on its own in 2008.
Nebbiolo d’Alba La Perucca
2,600 – 2,800 btls. Vineyards are just outside Barolo zone and are closer to Barbaresco, with a clay and sandy soil (a little more sand), 250 msl. 24-36 months in botti, 24-36 months in bottle. The latest available release in Oct ’14 was the 2008 vintage because none was made in 2009. Next out will be 2010. Soil: organically poor, calcerous clay marl.
2008: Very much a terroir-driven wine. Due to poor soil, the vines grow slowly, but balanced. Hardly any green harvest is needed because the berries are small and ripe. Touch austere and serious. Savory. Mineral. Tea, rose, strawberry, like a whif of air that brings a delicious perfume. Great balance. Straight out of the bottle nothing sticks out. Richer and more quiet than the Roccabella, but if you listen to it – it’s all there. Tightly packed layers that need time and attention to expose themselves. Patience with this wine will pay of handsomely.
Barolo del Comune di La Morra
~4,000 btls. Vineyards are in La Serra and Fossati crus of La Morra.
2009: Sweetish, light body, elegant, slow start good advance midpalate and a strong even long finish.
2009 was quite warm, especially in August and July and the drought has slowed down the ripening until two or three rains in September put it back into gear. Overall Eugenio pointed out that this vintage for him was very ripe, but also with plenty of tannins. Ripe tannins, but abundant.
Barolo del Comune di La Morra
~3,200 btls. La Serra and Fossati vineyards. 24 months in botti, 12 months in cement, 3-6 months in bottle.
2010: Similar lines as the 2009, but more elegance and structure. Acidity is sharper, providing better freshness and balance than the 2009.
Barolo Riserva Lu
~5,000 btls. Plot in Annunziata. Vines planted in 1968. 250 msl. Soil: clay. Maceration: 25-30 days. Ageing: 24 months in botti, 12 months in cement. Only 2005, 2006 and 2007 vintages were ever made.
2006: Made only for three years from the oldest part of a plot in Annunziata, before Eugenio lost this rented plot when the owner sold it to somebody who now sells grapes in bulk to Terre di Barolo. Great, complex and deep Barolo. Wax candle, church incents, violets, rose. Silky and whispering tannins. Great composition of fruit and herbs where none dominates, but rather lift each other into harmony. Delicious.
…and the parting snaps