21 November 2011

n.d.p. in piemonte: g.d. vajra, vergne

I'm not often told I should be more critical. At times however I do sense that in covering winemakers on this blog I tend to be a bit polite and circumspect, at the expense of clarity or humor. I'm not unique in this; it is an industry norm, as far as I know. Because, no matter what one may think of the wines one tastes with winemakers, in writing about the experience afterwards one always owes a small debt of gratitude for their welcome, and for their time. This is to say nothing of how wine writers, due to the structure of the industry, usually need to maintain positive relationships with their subjects in order to guarantee continued access, and thus their livelihoods...*

With that in mind, I can say I had a really enjoyable time this past August visiting the G.D. Vajra winery in Vergne, west of the town of Barolo, where my friend J and I toured the facilities and tasted through current vintages with the family's sunny tasting coordinator Sabrina. We met briefly with Aldo, Giuseppe, and Milena Vaira, and thanked them for making time for us during such a busy period. It was the first day of harvest - Pinot Noir destined for spumante first, as I recall - and there was a genuine electricity in the air.

But, it has** to be said that, with certain notable exceptions, I do not like the wines.

If I used to like the wines a lot, back when I was just getting into the subject, it was probably because Aldo Vaira is immensely respected in the Italian wine industry, and I'd picked up on the prevailing opinion. To be sure, the wines are technically innovative, precise and clean, and Aldo's achievement in rehabilitating his grandfather's (Giuseppe Domenico) estate since 1972 is immense. The estate now comprises 50ha, mostly in Barolo, though with parcels in Serralunga and Novello, and Moscato production in Mango. Everything is farmed sustainably, which in their words means with neither pesticides nor herbicides and grass planted between rows, the family having decided against organic certification mostly because they do not wish to be branded that way.

For a time I just assumed that all the Vajra wines I tasted were too young. I will still admit now that I haven't tasted seriously old bottles from the estate; perhaps they would change my mind. But for now, having tasted numerous vintages of most of their wines, I have to say I find the house style very opaque and soulless. These are technocrat Barolos, with their only appeal coming from a certain choreographed inevitability. They remind me of Mitt Romney.

Tasting through them with Sabrina, I couldn't help confirming the uniform absence of the qualities I seek most in Nebbiolo: grace, energy, perfume... A 2007 Barolo "Albe" from younger vines was mercifully untannic, but marred by heat, at 14,5%.

The 2006 "Bricco delle Viole" was more profound, but utterly unapproachable, it's dense Christmas-pudding flavors obscured behind a murder of tannins.

The family's Pinot Noir cuvée, the Langhe Rosso "PNQ497," named for the altitude of the vineyard, was a textbook example of all that is usually wrong with Piemontese Pinot, brackish, fruit-leathery, and slightly brown-tasting.

Absolutely nothing good can yet be said about the estate's new project, taking on stewardship of winemaking, and soon viticulture, at the 5ha Luigi Baudana estate, whose owners are blessed with a valuable Wine Spectator-approved brand, but not with heirs. The current vintage wines, 2006, all began their aging processes without Vajra's help, meaning that they're still showing all the heaviness and clumsy modern oak construction of Baudana.

It wasn't all bad news for reds. The estate's Freisa cuvée, "Kyé," which I remember from previous vintages being like Barolo with the head cut off, just tannins shorn of cerebral function, has markedly improved. Now it displays a grapey, Lambrusco nose that is almost fun, and the grape's piercing black fruit is both more forceful and more agile. The wine, sourced from vineyards in Vergne right next to the cellar, spends 1.5 years in Slavonian oak; total production is 4-5000btls per year. (Photo above, next to the "PNQ497.)

The oddest thing about tasting the Vajra range is that it's hard, for me at least, to avoid the conclusion that this famous Barolo producer shows much more virtuosity with sparkling wine. The Moscato d'Asti we retasted that day was as evanescent and perfumey and floral / nectarine as ever, a benchmark for the genre.

But even more interesting was the estate's experimental dry sparkling cuvée "N.S. della Neve," a blend of 50% Pinot Noir and 50% Nebbiolo, vinified in rosato.

The bottle we tasted was one of very few remaining from the first vintage, 2007, but for now the family plans to continue producing the cuvée. (Earlier in the tour we'd passed bottles of the 2008 in repose.)

What acid, what awesome acid and rasping tannins. It was like being attacked with a neon pink whip, and liking it. The red fruit was chisel-sharp, and Nebbiolo dominated the spicey, slightly lees-y nose. Tasting it prompted a digressive discussion about the market potential of sparkling Nebbiolo. Sabrina had tasted a few other cuvées by local vignerons in a similar style, and I gathered that she was as curious as we were about this relatively novel genre.

As J and I left that day, discussing the relative merits and demerits of the wines we tasted, I was reassured by the thought that the same contemporary ideals - be they technocratic efficiency, or over-sanitization, or what - that presumably result in such leaden red wines at the Vajra estate will probably be the same ideals that ensure Aldo e famiglia keep producing innovative winners like the "N.S. della Neve." These are the cuvées that will keep me interested in returning one day (should they still be willing to have me).

* For the ten or twenty people who are able to make a credible living writing about wine. I resort to other things.

** Does it have to be said? There are differing schools of thought on this. Some figure we ought only to write about what we like, which doctrine seems like a good way to stay popular. Others, myself included, feel it benefits readers and the culture at large to encounter voices of dissent once in a while, particularly now, in the present cultural moment, with the web flooded with grinning novices posting positive notices anytime a door opens for them.

Related Links:

N.D.P. in Piemonte: Giorgio Barovero, Monforte d'Alba
N.D.P. in Piemonte: Case della Saracca, Monforte d'Alba
N.D.P. in Piemonte: Walter Porasso at Bovio, La Morra
N.D.P. in Piemonte: Vinoteca Centro Storica, Serralunga

A totally over-awed, inexperienced 2008 tasting with Giuseppe Vajra @ ThePassionateFoodie
A vastly more informed 2010 visit to the Vajra winery @ EnotecaMarcella

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