One of the most fulfilling aspects of working in a specialty wine shop is actually getting to know the people behind the products I sell. It’s more than simple “star appeal.” Rather, it’s a humanizing factor which enriches your knowledge and your ability to convey meaningful information to others. Imagine how much more insight you’d have into your favorite novel if you had a chance to get to know the author. It’s like that, but with the sun, sky and land attached.
Over the last five or six years, I’ve gotten to know Sergio Germano through his regular visits to the shop and through the wine dinners we’ve hosted with him. My understanding of the man behind the wonderful wines of Germano Ettore was driven home during a trip to Italy in February 2006. The group I traveled with spent three days at Sergio’s agriturismo. We walked his vineyards, tasted in his winery, breakfasted with his wife – while he worked the cellar – and absorbed the atmosphere of the Serralunga hillsides. And we tasted more wines in one sitting – 25 to be exact, barrel samples included – than at any other stop on our trip. That experience was reinforced just last week, when Sergio stopped by our shop in Wilmington to take our staff members through the entire line-up of his current releases. Following are my tasting notes from the day:
- Langhe Chardonnay 2005: Sergio’s 2005 Chardonnay went through 100% malolactic, with 5% of the wine spending a short time in barrel to add structural nuance to the finished wine. Lovely fruit, rich lemon and apple flavors with lively acidity. Fully dry but with ripe, sweet flavors. The Chardonnay is not planted in Serralunga but rather in a vineyard about 25 miles away in the town of Ciglie, near the Dogliani zone.
- Langhe Bianco “Binel” 2005: This is Sergio’s signature white, a blend of 60% Chardonnay and 40% Riesling. The Riesling is vinified in steel, the Chardonnay in small barrels of which 15-20% are new. The richer, more formidable of his two whites, redolent of figs and fresh bread with sweet pear fruit on the palate. The oak-flecked richness is cleansed by ample acidity and by a more evident minerality than in the varietal Chardonnay. With air, the aromatic influence of the Riesling really begins to emerge.
- Dolcetto d’Alba “Lorenzino” 2005: When the ’05 Lorenzino first arrived in our shop a few months ago, it seemed a bit closed. It’s now emerged from its shell, showing classic inky aromas followed by ripe, round cherry fruit and licorice tones on the palate. Good length and very savory with a gentle little grip on the finish. Explosive. Lorenzino is a single vineyard with a relatively rich soil base and moderate yields, always giving the softer of the estate’s two Dolcetti.
- Dolcetto d’Alba “Pra di Po” 2005: With a more calcareous, chalky soil base and naturally lower yields, the Pra di Po vineyard reveals the darker, more structured side of Dolcetto d’Alba. Darker in both color and aromas, with scents of black cherry and brambles. Tannic but round and supple in the mouth. Both Dolcetti are vinified in the same method, in steel with five days of maceration and some pumping over. The differences are all about site.
- Barbera d’Alba 2005: Young vine fruit, again done in steel with a maceration of five days. Bottled in April after the vintage, like Lorenzino. Also like Lorenzino, I found this Barbera to be ungiving when first tasted a few months ago. It’s now emerging with red berry fruit and lively (but no longer tangy) acidity. Germano’s simplest wine, but perfect with everyday pasta and white meat courses. Sergio reiterated our understanding that Barbera d’Alba tends to have slightly mellower acidity and richer flesh than Barbera d’Asti.
- Barbera d’Alba “Vigna della Madre” 2004: This is one of the wines that puts Sergio in the centrist-to-modernist camp in Barolo. Vigna della Madre is a single vineyard planted to fairly old vines of Barbera. Following one week of maceration, the wine spends one year in barriques, 25-30% of which are new. In most vintages, 2004 included, the della Madre is Germano’s ripest, most opulent wine, always balanced by the characteristic lively acidity of Barbera. The terroir of the site combined with winemaking choices give this cuvee a firm tannic backbone and produce a wine suitable, in Sergio’s opinion, for 10-15 years of bottle aging.
- Langhe Rosso “Balàu” 2004: In a region which includes no tradition for blended wines, Balàu, along with its “sister” Binel, represents Germano’s clearest step toward the modernist end of the spectrum. This tendency is driven home by the inclusion of an international grape variety, Merlot. To reflect the character of each vintage, the final blend often changes subtly from year to year, with the final selection for 2004 comprised of 50% Dolcetto, 25% Barbera and 25% Merlot, all grown in the Balàu vineyard. Due to harvest times which can vary widely for these three vines, each variety is fermented on its own. After blending, the wine spends one year in old barriques. Showing a very fleshy, round palate, Balàu is less opulent yet somewhat more elegant than the Barbera della Madre. The 2004 contains the highest percentage of Merlot to date, adding a measured softness and rich, red-fruited tone to the finished wine.
- Langhe Nebbiolo 2005: Like all producers in Barolo, some of Sergio’s plantings of Nebbiolo are not suitable for inclusion in Barolo. Like those producers of Barolo who are as conscientious of quality as Sergio, he opts to produce a varietal Nebbiolo meant to showcase the more direct, immediately pleasing side of the noble vine of Piedmont. Selected from the young vines in his Barolo vineyards, the Langhe Nebbiolo is fermented and aged only in steel, bringing out a purity of fruit and delicacy of texture. 2005 was a fantastic vintage for Sergio and this wine makes it absolutely obvious. Its aromas -- violets, roses, red licorice and raspberries -- literally jump from the glass. It’s a “Wow!” wine on the nose and is simply a joy to drink. No patience necessary.
- Barolo “Cerretta” 2001: In good years, Sergio produces three Barolo bottlings: a Barolo “normale” and two different cru Barolos, Cerretta and Prapo. Cerretta is always the richest and densest of the three. It’s treated to a more modern touch in the cellar, with aging in barriques (20% new) and 500 liter barrels. And it’s damn good wine. Dark, brooding and powerful with an underlying ripeness, it shows aromas and flavors of tar, blackberry and black licorice.
- Barolo “Prapo” 2001: From a separately defined site which is part of the Cerretta hill, Prapo is the more traditional and also longest lived of Sergio’s crus. Fruit from 40 year old vines is aged in botte, the classic large oval casks of Piedmont. It is a leaner wine than Cerretta, more firmly tannic yet also more precise, elegant and sharply defined. The aromas are more floral, the licorice notes more red than black and the wood tones more dusty than sweet. It finishes with fantastic length.
Sergio is quietly proud of his wines and earnest in his desire to receive thoughtful feedback and questions. In showing us his wines, both his drive to continuously improve and a true love of what he does show through. I almost always find the opportunity to learn from great winemakers like Sergio to be invaluable. My above notes for his two Barolo are consistent from vintage to vintage, a sign of good work in the vineyard and the cellar. But my understanding of the wines has been strengthened and deepened by the time we’ve shared. While Prapo always comes across as the more tannic of Sergio’s Barolos, we learned that the Cerretta site actually produces a more inherently tannic wine. This drives Sergio’s choices in the winery, not for the sake of the modern appeal of small barrels and new oak but rather for their tempering effect on Cerretta’s muscle. The increased air space relative to volume in a small barrel, he tells us, softens tannins. It’s a choice made not for its appeal to the big critics but simply for the sake of making a more balanced wine. It’s a mature approach to making a great wine in a world where the immediacy of flash and opulence all too often lead the way. And it makes me proud to sell Germano Ettore wines.