02 November 2011

n.d.p. in piemonte: walter porasso at bovio, la morra

J and I pulled up in his in-laws' Audi at Azienda Agricola Bovio at what we were pretty sure was the agreed-upon time. There had been some language-related confusion. "That's not Walter," I said to J, as a short, smiling, heavily-tanned fellow in a wife-beater and plaid shorts ambled over to the car. 

Bovio is owned by a La Morra family more famous for their restaurants than their wine; we were to meet their longtime winemaker Walter Porasso, about whom I knew only that he spoke very little English, and that he'd been responsible for a heavenly half-bottle of 1998 "Gattera" I used to sell quite often at the restaurant where I used to work in LA. While the Bovio wines have a fine reputation, they don't regularly receive superstar acclaim, at least not in the states, and accordingly my expectations for this visit were about ankle-high. 

Well, I was wrong about everything. It was indeed Walter Porasso, more salt-of-the-earth than I'd imagined. And the whole visit turned out to be an object lesson in why it's worth visiting more than just the grand names of Barolo.

Porasso, it turns out, is a native of La Morra who initially began working for the Bovio family as a handyman in their cellar. The Bovio family, renowned for their restaurant, Ristorante Belvedere, had begun rehabilitating their family's 3ha of Nebbiolo and Dolcetto in 1977, and around the time they purchased seven more hectares in 1983, Porasso began making the wines, having in the meantime studied oenology in Alba. The Bovios sold Ristorante Belvedere in 2007, opening the smaller Ristorante Bovio nearby, but Porasso continues to make all the wines at their domaine, thirty something years on.*

Overall production is now about 70,000 btls, of which half are various Barolo cuvées. The rest is Dolcetto, Langhe Nebbiolo, and Chardonnay. Upon arrival our monosyllabic small talk with Walter Porasso quickly turned to the subject of the rotten economy. My Italian got left in the dust, but I gathered that Porasso was none too pleased with his former US importer, Robert Chadderdon, from whom he'd not heard in three years. This isn't the sort of thing I'd repeat, except that I seem to be hearing it from a lot of vignerons who work with Chadderdon lately. Porasso has now begun working with someone else; when we visited, he was shortly to leave for a trip to Shanghai, in efforts to develop what seems to be the world's only emerging market these days.

Where some vignerons evince an individualism bordering on egomania regarding their cellar decisions, Porasso is refreshingly modest. He makes no effort to mask his admiration for some of his fellow winemakers, even going so far as to describe his wines as being made in a "Bartolo Mascarello-style." Fermentation is temperature-controlled and long, lasting from 4-5 weeks for the Barolos, only cuvée of which, the "Arborina," sees any barrique. The rest age in 16HL old oak botti. The Barolos sit in cement for two weeks before bottling.

When it came time to taste, Porasso, with what I was beginning to suspect was characteristic honesty, asked us whether we'd like to taste the 2006's or the 2007's, given that the 2007's weren't ready to taste yet? (I found this all the more endearing since by that point in the trip I'd already acquired a mild dislike for 2007 as a Nebbiolo vintage.) Hence what follows is a brief run-down of the 2006 Bovio Barolo line-up.

2006 Barolo "Rochettevino"

A minor wonder. The "Rochettevino," sourced from 50 year old vines in the southeastern-exposed cru of same name, was outrageously perfumed for a wine so young. It attained a high spice-floral accord, all hallucinogenic nutmeg and black pepper sweetness - like a Tom Waits falsetto on a latterday classic.

2006 Barolo "Arborina"

Sourced from 40 year old vines, Bovio's "Arbonia" is their nod to modernity, seeing partial barrique aging. The nose is more glowy, rosey, fatter and more diffuse that the "Rochettevino." The oak here performs the same role as fog on a mirror while you're trying to shave.

I was amused to discover that aging "Arborina" in barrique, alone among the family's cru holdings, was a practical rather than aesthetic decision. Bovio owns only 1/2ha of "Arborina," which isn't enough to reliably fill their larger botti.

2006 Barolo "Gattera"

The "Gattera" is sourced from 1ha of that cru, a parcel of 85 year old vines. Notably chewier than the "Rochettevino," but with fruit tannins, rather than wood tannins. Black fruited, with a lovely persistent acid, I'd expect this to show fireworks similar to the "Rochettevino" in a few years.

2004 Barolo "Bricco Parussi"

Visibly darker than the other crus, the "Bricco Parussi" is also the only one not grown in La Morra. The vineyard from which it derives is located rather in Castiglione Falletto, where the clay-based soils tend to yield brawnier, more structured wines intended for longer aging. (By contrast, La Morra is known as the most supple and feminine of all the Barolo subregions.) This cru has been made only since 1999; I get the impression it was mostly intended to fill a market gap for richer Barolo. The wine is impressive, full of focused baking chocolate and leather notes, but comes across stern and somewhat of a downer after the pleasures of the La Morra crus.

J had been looking for that Holy Grail of Italian wine lists, a respectable glass-pour Barolo, and when we tasted the "Rochettevino" it was all I could do not to stand up and start ringing bells. But honestly all the wines were extremely soulful and downright pretty. I'm sure many things account for their quality and form - good vineyard holdings, and Porasso's massive cellar experience, and his traditionalist principles, to name just a few factors. The natural wine partisan in me will, however, note in passing that Porasso was the only traditionalist winemaker we spoke to on this trip who went on record as not inoculating his vats, but relying on wild yeasts to start fermentation.

This wouldn't move any eyebrows in the Loire, but in Piedmont, where natural winemaking is nil, it's a quiet bombshell. (Much like the whole Bovio range, in fact.)

* For sake of completeness I should relay the names of certain consultants who I hear have a hand in the wines from time to time: Beppe Ca' Viola and Federico Curtaz. But the whole Bovio range retains such a distinct and classic personality that I find it difficult to imagine what these consultants are paid to do. Not even the Bovio cuvées intended to be modern wind up tasting very modern. Perhaps they work on the whites, which I didn't taste.

Borgata Ciotto 63
12064 La Morra
Tel: +39 0173 50667

A profile of the Gianfranco Bovio operation @ ItalianWineMerchants

1 comment:

  1. Good article. Bovio wines are wonderfully honest. BTW, the new importer in the USA is David Vincent Selection based in NY/NJ.