It is impossible not to like Claudio Fenoccho. His rustic no-nosense gallant simplicity-cum-directness is carried out in such a disarmingly good-spirited and pleasant fashion that, upon meeting him, made me extremely happy that I liked his wines long before I met Claudio. Otherwise, I couldn’t have been objective.
Moreover, had my luck been extremely bad – it would break my heart if this man made a modern or poor quality wine. Instead, once again, I am delighted to see the clear and explicit connection between the man and the wine. Humble Claudio, allows all that history, geology and the illusive genius of nature to take center stage and is delighted to be its shepherd in the synthesis of these complex inputs into wine that carries its own character. Not the the shepherd’s.
However, obscure genius is by no means the fate of Claudio or his products. While remaining down to earth, the master and his wines are very well known among a certain crowd and over the years have built up quite a loyal following. With production staying around 40,000 bottles (a little over 50% are Baroli) per year around 80% is exported. It seems only appropriate that the first time I tasted Claudio’s Barolo was during a holiday trip to Stockholm, Sweden.
HISTORY, TRADITION, AND EVOLUTION
Fenocchio family has been growing grapes in Bussia, Monforte since 1864. At first, exclusively as farmers (quite typical of the area at the time), but eventually starting to bottle their own wine for domestic consumer and, around 1970, expanding the distribution to export markets under the guidance of Giacomo Fenocchio. The winery is now run by his two sons, Albino and Claudio, aided by Claudio’s wife.
Being the 6th generation of Fenocchio winemakers Claudio had decided early on that tradition is paramount in Barolo, taking close to heart the words of his great-great grandfather who said: “everyone makes wine in the same way because this is how it should be made; it is not up to us to change an entire method and culture”.
The trend in the family seems to be – very solid and unmistakably convincing traditional foundation, upon which an evolutionary (as opposed to revolutionary) experiments are possible.
For example Claudio’s grandfather used wood barrels for fermentation until his (Claudio’s) father switched to cement. In turn, after a brief throwback experiment, Claudio currently ferments in steel. We can easily trace the logic of the wood-cement-steel evolution. Primary concern was hygiene. As Claudio puts it “wood was dangerous” describing his brief experiment with two 60 hl. botti he bought 15 years ago for fermention/maceration. He stopped this practice 3 years later and now uses those botti for ageing his Barbera and Langhe Nebbiolo.
Another example relates to the debate whether traditional Barolo must be a blend of vineyards or a single-vineyard creations are also possible. Historically all Barolo was made as a blend of vineyards, primary reason being – quality control. Agronomic practices of the time, being quite rudimentary, were insufficient to mitigate the risks of relying on a single vineyard every year to produce a proper Barolo.
In the 1980 Claudio’s father was among the first to advocate single cru bottlings. Having all his grapes in Bussia and seeking to expand, in 1972 he bought a plot in Cannubi. After 8 years of producing a Bussia-Cannubi blend, he came to the conclusion that wines from these two vineyards are much better when given the freedom to express their individuality and therefore should be bottled as a single-cru.
Ironically, even single-cru bottlings in Piemonte are often a blend. Not everybody has vineyards large enough to produce the desired quantity from one individual plot and, subsequently, various vineyards from the same cru are used.
Such is the case with Claudio’s Bussia where five individual vineyards are harvested and vinified separately, yielding distinctly different wines which are then blended into Barolo Bussia.
Personally, I have no problem with either approach (blended and single cru) provided the focus remains solely on terroir and on reflecting the character of the vintage rather than turning into a Coca-Cola (same taste in the bottle every year regardless of the inputs).
The total area of the Fenocchios holding is around 15 ha., of which around 12.5 ha. are vineyards and 8.0 of those are dedicated to Barolo. Most of his Bussia vineyards are laid out in an amphitheatre opening from the terrace of Claudio’s Bussia hilltop home.
On the left, running alongside the house and down is the Freisa plot. Further out to the left, on the border of Monforte and Barolo, almost touching the Luciano Sandrone’s cantina are two plots of the Castellero vineyard.
Directly in front of us are the Barbera and Dolcetto and on the opposite side of the amphitheatre off to the right are the four of his five plots for Barolo Bussia.
The bulk for the Barolo harvest comes from his five Bussia Sottana (5.5 ha.) plots in Monforte and a smaller Castellero plot (1.0 ha.) right on the border of Monforte and Barolo. The rest – from 1.0 ha. in Villero (Castiglione Falletto) and 0.5 ha. in Cannubi (Barolo).
Castellero is the recent addition to the line-up of single-cru Baroli in Fenocchio stable. In spite of having been in the family’s possession since 1954 – 55, was never been bottled separately before the 2011 vintage (to be released in 2015), but rather, blended with the grapes from Bussia to produce Barolo normale. Going forward, the normale bottling will persist, but the blend will obviously change.
APPROACH AND PHILOSOPHY
Although not brandishing organic or biodynamic certifications, Claudio Fenocchio and his wife are strong believers in sustainable farming and have long since adopted the integrated pest management approach (IPM) which basically means that the focus is on “growing a healthy crop with the least possible disruption to agro-ecosystems and encourages natural pest control mechanisms”.
While green harvest has its place, Claudio is cautious not to overdo it. His view is that while this practice was much more critical in the 1970s when it first came about in Bordeaux, now the effects of the global warming and advances in agronomy must be taken in consideration.
He recalls that his grandfather, true to the tradition, vinified whole clusters without de-stemming. However, at that time it was possible to harvest as late as November, allowing proper phenolic ripeness due to extended hang time (which resulted in “ripe” tannins from the stems and seeds as opposed to harsh green tannins). As the average temperatures were somewhat lower back then, the additional hang-time did not result in sugar level spike and kept the alcohol level in check.
Nowadays, over-thinning most often leads to excessive concentration “jeopardising the balance of the wine” and balance is Claudio’s mantra. “Balance is critical to me,” he explains. “I seek the balance in the vineyard and also in the cellar. It is important to me that my wines are light in color and have reasonable alcohol level. 15% is not good. Ideally it’s 13-13.5%, maybe 14%.”
While the regulation allows for a maximum harvest of 8.0 tons per hectare, he limits it at around 7.0 tons/hectare at Bussia and Cannubi and 5.5 tons/hectare at Villero. The latter’s yields coming in lower not so much due to the more aggressive crop thinning, but also as a result of the naturally lower fertility of Villero vines (60 years old versus 30 years at Bussia and Cannubi).
As a terroir-driven winemaker and having utmost respectful for the beauty of individuality, it comes hardly as a surprise that the Fenocchio way in the cellar is anchored in keeping things simple and not meddling with the wine.
Think of a necklace made up of various beads. They are all pretty and different in their own way. The red one isn’t trying to be green, the round one is just that and you won’t mistake it for a cube-shaped one. Yet they’re all connected by an invisible thread, keeping them in one logical and beautiful line.
Well, the beads are Claudio’s wines – individual, unique, honest, unmasked, and true to their nature. The invisible thread is Claudio. He doesn’t change the wine to represent him or to showcase how good his technical skills are. Instead, he keeps his involvement invisible, yet crucial in its gentle guidance.
Vinification: All the wines are vinified by individual plots in steel with ambient yeasts (except for Arneis, where selected yeasts are needed to overcome low temperatures). Maceration for Barolo is 30 days for normale, 40 days for riserva and 90 days for Claudio’s fantastic experiment Bussia 90d. Freisa and Dolcetto vinify for 8 days, while Barbera and Langhe Nebbiolo get 10 days.
Ageing: Dolcetto is the only one that is aged solely in steel (6 months), the rest see Slavonian oak. Freisa 8m in old tonneaux, Barbera 10 months in 60 hl. and Langhe 10m in 25 – 50 hl.
No filtration or cold-stabilization are carried. Instead the wines spend some time in cement or steel before being bottled for a gravitation-driven settling of the heavier particles.
Sulphur use is kept to a minimum. However considering that 80% of his wine is exported, Claudio does try to help the wines reach their final consumer by adding small amounts of sulphur at the bottling stage.
0.5 ha. in Bussia (Monforte) / Exposition: West / 300 msl. / Soil: mineral rich “Elveziano” (limestone, clay, sand) / Vines age: 10 y. / Vinification: 8 days in steel / Ageing: 10 months in tonneaux / No filtration, no cold stabilization.
2012: Bottle sample open for 48 hours. Claudio ages his Freisa in used tonneaux. Great fruit attack of strawberry and raspberry pie, quite dry, medium weight, round and balanced with good acidity and tannins. This is an interesting and serious Freisa. Maybe a little too serious for what it is, but it give it a couple of years and it will probably be delicious. Definitely not your typical light, fruity and slightly sweetish kind.
0.7 ha. in Bussia (Monforte) / Exposition: East / 300 msl. / Soil: mineral rich “Elveziano” (limestone, marl, tuff, sand) /Vines age: 15 y. / Vinification: 10 days in steel / Ageing: 10 months in 60 hl. Slavonian oak* / No filtration, no cold stabilization / ~4,000 btls.
2012: Bottle sample open for 48 hours. Lovely, light, luminous and vibrating Nebbiolo made with the grapes which came up shy of Claudio’s standards for the Barolo use. Very friendly, but not simple. Violets, montpensier candy. A baby-Barolo, a great value and excellent starting point for someone just starting to explore the traditional rendition of Nebbiolo in Langhe.
2013: Barrel sample. Still a wine in transition and tannins are quite active and shadowing the fruit and acidity a little bit. However, the tannins have medium grip are perfectly ripe, providing no harshness. They will continue to mellow further in the bottle, giving the other components an equal time in the spotlight
2.5 ha. in Bussia (Monforte) / Exposition: West / 300 msl. / Soil: mineral rich “Elveziano” (limestone, marl, tuff, sand) / Vines age: 30 y. / Vinification: 10 days in steel / Ageing: 10 months in 60 hl. Slavonian oak / No filtration, no cold stabilization / ~20,000 btls.
2012: Bottle sample open for 48 hours. Doughy, bready nose is more pronounced, covering that savory tobacco nose. Brighty cherry acidity. Very decent, but felt a bit harsh, slightly disjointed and not too friendly. I suspect it may be undergoing the initial bottle shock and will re-emerge more composed and balanced in about a year.
2013: Barrel sample. Deep red cherry, tobacco, typical fresh acidity. Lively and refreshing, but surprisingly integrated and showing layers.
5.0 ha. in Bussia (Monforte) / Exposition: South, South-West / 300 msl. / Soil: “Elveziano” (limestone, marl, tuff, sand) soil rich in iron and other minerals / Vines age: 30 y. / Vinification: 30-40 days in steel at moderate temperature control / Ageing: 6 months in steel, 30 months in 35 – 50 hl. Slavonian oak / No filtration, no cold stabilization / ~ 25,000 btls.
2010: Bottle sample, freshly opened. Wonderfully savory, with the light layers of tobacco, hay, herbs, rose and strawberry. Put a strawberry in a handful of dry hay and squeeze it just enough to bleed the fruit a little, sniff it closely. That’s the aromatic story of this wine. Fantastic long finish where tannins or ripe red fruit don’t dominate, but gently reverberate until crossing the horizon.
2011: Barrel sample. Focus here is more internal. Great structure, complexity, tightness and prohibitive austerity are just signs that it needs some time. A serious and beautiful musical piece which is played somewhere behind closed doors and all you’re getting is a muffled, yet clearly and distinctly beautiful melody. Let’s wait till the doors are opened. Aromatically, 2011 places somewhere in between the more closed 2013 and the already open 2012 Riserva.
2012: Barrel sample. The nose is much more open than 2013, but structure is very similar. The terroir reads through and through, while complexity layers up almost translucently – providing new nuances and half-tones at virtually no increase in concentration or weight.
Barolo Bussia Riserva
0.50 ha. in Bussia (Monforte) / Exposition: South-West / 300 msl. / Soil: “Elveziano” (limestone, marl, tuff, sand) soil rich in iron and other minerals / Vines age: 30 y. / Clone: 100% Michet / Vinification: 60 (pre-2010) – 90 (2010-onward) days in steel at moderate temperature control / Ageing: 6 months in steel, 30 months in 35 – 50 hl. Slavonian oak / No filtration, no cold stabilization / 4,500 – 5,000 btls.
2012: Barrel sample. This rare bottling from Claudio is truly a masterpiece. Grapes come from one of the 5 vineyards he has in Bussia. Up till 2009 (inclusive), the Bussia Riserva used to receive 60 days of maceration, while Claudio experimented with longer skin contact. Happy with the results of that experiment, in 2010 he decided to move all Bussia Riserva production to 90 days of maceration. After that, the wine spends another 3 years in a 35-50hl botti. Comparing to non-riserva Bussia ’12, this wine is even more nuanced and elegant, but has even lighter weight and finer tannins. Laced with absolutely gorgeous liquorice note the refinement is uncanny, frankly. The texture is so seductive and pleasing that it is a bit of decision between treating your taste buds to another swirl of it on the tongue or to swallow and enjoy that ethereal finish that, I swear, triggers some euphoria-linked parts of your brain. Bravo, Claudio!
1.0 ha. in Villero (Castiglione Falletto) / Exposition: South-West / 300 msl. / Soil: “Elveziano” (limestone, blue marl, tuff, sand) soil rich in iron and other minerals / Clones: Michet, Lampia, Rosé Vines age: 60 y. / Vinification: 30-40 days in steel at moderate temperature control / Ageing: 6 months in steel, 30 months in 35 – 50 hl. Slavonian oak, remainder – bottle / No filtration, no cold stabilization / 4,500 – 5,000 btls.
2011: Barrel sample. Some of the oldest vines in the Fenocchio estate, standing at 60-65 years old they produce the smallest yield (about 5.5t/ha) and small parts of the plot are prone to pest problems, but over the past five years Claudio seems to have nurtured them back to health. Tea, raspberry, coke & some menthol. The sexiest and most feminine. So far, no plans of mass replanting of this plot are on the books and that makes me very happy. Villero is undoubtedly the sexiest of Fenocchio’s Baroli. Full of tea, raspberry, liquorice, touch of quinine it does charm you and makes your heart beat a little faster. What a lady!
1.0 ha. in Castellero (Barolo/Monforte) / Exposition: South-West / 300msl. / Soil: “Elveziano” (limestone, blue marl, tuff, sand) soil rich in iron and other minerals / Vines age: 60%: 40 – 45 y., 40%: 10 y. / Vinification: 30-40 days in steel at moderate temperature control / Ageing: 6 months in steel, 30 months in 35 – 50 hl. Slavonian oak, remainder – bottle / No filtration, no cold stabilization / 3,000 – 4,000 btls.
2011: Barrel sample. Castellero, the new cru Barolo from Fenocchio starting with 2011 vintage, lies somewhere in between the sexy and very feminine Villero and the structured and manly Bussia. Very light and round, it has less nerve than either Villero or Bussia. Actually, it feels like a slightly toned-down version of Cannubi, which isn’t all to strange considering similar terroir of the two. However, the wine is still evolving and we’ll see how it comes out in the bottle
0.5 ha. in Cannubi (Barolo) / Exposition: South-East / 280 msl. / Soil: Tortonian, tuff, marl, large presence of sand / Vines age: 30 y. / Clone: 100% Michet / Vinification: 30-40 days in steel at moderate temperature control / Ageing: 6 months in steel, 30 months in 35 – 50 hl. Slavonian oak, remainder – bottle / No filtration, no cold stabilization / 3,000 btls.
2013: Barrel sample. Fine, gentle and more sensual than Bussia. It leans more towards the coffee, leathery territory and feels less focused on structure (despite no lack thereof) and more on the emotion. Probably won’t have the longevity of the Bussia, but we’re talking 30-40 years out here, so no worries for the time being.