It is a cold winter night between Christmas and New Years and I am feeling the need for some inner warmth to stoke the internal furnace up a degree or two. I trot down to the cellar and discover a still wrapped bottle of Barolo 1997 ‘Castelletto’ from Gigi Rosso. Gigi Rosso has been in the Lifford portfolio for decades and the 1997 vintage was considered a terrific one. After the bitter harvests of the early nineties, Barolo lovers worldwide were clamouring for such a heralded year. Interest reached such a peak that several producers offered Barolo futures, an unheard of practice in Piemonte before or since.
Gigi Rosso was actually the very first vintner to offer his wines on a futures basis and I personally purchased several cases. This bottle of single vineyard Barolo ‘Castelletto’ is from one of one of those cases and I am glad I made the investment. The vineyard was replanted in 1981 on southwest facing hills. In 1997 at 16 years of age, the vineyard was in its prime.
In the world of wine, great vineyard sites are rarer than a wine professional without attitude. In all of Barolo, there are less than 1,600 acres of vineyards where Nebiolo, the grape varietal responsible, reaches it apogee. To make matters more difficult, despite best efforts, Nebiolo does not feel comfortable in foreign climes and rarely do you find a Nebiolo out of the region that rivals Barolo.
So what makes the terroir of Piemonte so unique? First a lesson in language. "Pied" is foot and "monte" well reasonably enough means mountains, thus Piemonte is foothills. Barolo is situated in the southern foothills of the Alps and cool winds from the north provide relief from intense summer heat. Grapes do best when not over heated in the summer and that is why ocean/mountain breezes are important elements in terroir from Barossa to Napa to Barolo. Then there is the soil. Barolo shares their limestone sub soil with Burgundy, Coonawarra and the Clare Valley to name a few. Limestone in all those regions adds a delicacy to the wines. They are rich in flavor but with sufficient acidity to keep them fresh and delicious from one glass to the next.
One of the reasons I love the Rosso family is that first of all they had the good sense to purchase phenomenal vineyard sites when no one wanted them, and secondly, they had the brilliance to let the grapes and the vineyard make the wine. Basically unknown in North America, this small winery is quietly turning out remarkable wines, and relative to other producers, selling them for a song.
Today the estate is run by Gigi’s two brilliant sons, Maurizio, author of many books including a guide to Barolo, and Claudio who finds the spare time to be chairman of the local Barolo consortium.