Monday, April 9, 2007

Men of Monforte

Tasting the 2003 Barolos of Elio Grasso recently, the first thing that struck me was their amazing restraint. In and of itself, that restraint should be no surprise. Grasso is not a particularly modernist producer. Most Piedmont fans would call him a “traditional centrist.” Big, in your face color and texture are not overtly sought nor highly prized. 2003, though, was an incredibly hot and dry growing season in Piedmont, much as it was in Western Europe as a whole. Many wines, whites and reds both, suffered from the heat, showing high, often out of balance alcohol, lower than typical acidity, overripe aromas and over-extracted colors. The elegance and typicity of Elio’s Barolos in such a difficult vintage bespeak not just skilled winemaking – that’s self-evident in all of the estate’s wines – but also great farming. Knowing the man – men, actually – behind the wines, it’s no surprise.

I had the pleasure of visiting the Elio Grasso estate, located in the beautiful hills of Monforte d’Alba, during a trip to Italy in February 2006. After a nail biting descent down an ice covered dirt road, we were greeted at the winery by Elio’s wife, Marina Grasso. Marina informed us that Elio and their son Gianluca were both out at a business meeting with the engineering and architectural teams working on a new underground cellar for the estate. Marina wasted no time in getting us started at the tasting table, graciously walking us through – “Prego! Prego!” – the current releases of their Langhe Chardonnay, Dolcetto d’Alba, Langhe Nebbiolo and Barbera d’Alba.

As Marina moved on to pouring the family’s Barolos, the sound of gravel crunching under wheels alerted us to the arrival of Elio and Gianluca. Sure enough, a few minutes later we were joined by Gianluca who, after greetings and introductions, launched right into a detailed explanation of the special characteristics of each part of their property and the corresponding wines. There was a time when Gianluca, like many sons and daughters of the next generation, was unsure that he wanted a future as a farmer, as a winemaker. Over the last few years though, he’s not only accepted the role but embraced it. As we walked through the cellars and then the vineyards, his knowledge of each barrel and each plot became incredibly clear. As Gianluca talked to us about farming techniques, about the rigors of both the 2002 and 2003 growing seasons and about the fantastic vintage just past of 2005, we began to wonder what had become of Elio. He had returned from town with his son but we had yet to see him.

It wasn’t until the absolute end of our visit that Elio finally appeared. As we turned the switchback out of the Grasso’s driveway toward the road, a portion of the Vigna Martina plot, previously hidden, came into view. There was Elio, the patriarch, pruning shears in hand, working his vines. He’d returned home, changed straight away into his work clothes and headed directly out to the farm, a man at one with his land. Having met both of the Grasso men before, I know that they hold the utmost respect for other producers who do great work in the vineyards and then let their wines speak for themselves. It’s the ideal that Elio – and now Gianluca as well – strive toward. And it’s the only honest way to make great wines in “bad years.”

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