Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Paitin di Pasquero-Elia and the Question of (Post)Modernism in Piedmont

Today is the 54th installment of Wine Blogging Wednesday. As host of this edition, which I’ve called “A Passion for Piedmont,” I thought it only appropriate to approach things from a bigger perspective than it’s possible to convey via the usual WBW tasting note. Instead, I’m embracing it as a chance to travel back a few years in time….

It’s been too long since my last trip to Piedmont, as part of a wine trade junket in February 2006. During that trip, I formed a quick and lasting bond with the region – with its landscape, its culture, the food, the people and, obviously, the wines. I’ve been dying to get back ever since.

Neive is the prototypical Piedmont town, perched atop a hill and surrounded by vineyards, all within view of the Alps.

One of the estates I had the opportunity to visit on that trip was Paitin di Pasquero-Elia, located in the hills above Neive, the largest town in Piedmont’s Barbaresco zone. Giovanni Pasquero-Elia, with whom we spent an enlightening morning, represents the current generation of a family that’s been working the land and vines in their slice of the Barbaresco landscape since 1796. The recent history of his estate, and Giovanni’s role in its evolution, places him at the crux of the never ending debate that has engaged the minds of so many lovers of Piedmontese wine in recent years: the question of modernism versus traditionalism.

Until just a few years ago, Paitin’s wines were represented on the US market by Marc de Grazia, an importer who, as I’ve detailed here before, is often viewed as bringing a heavy hand to play in influencing the winemaking approaches of the producers in his portfolio. In keeping with that approach, Giovanni and his father Secondo had taken, throughout the 1990s, to the use of rotofermenters – machines that quicken color extraction and shorten traditional maceration periods by two-thirds or more – and to aging nearly all of their wines in French oak barriques.

A look inside the rotofermenter, one of the first views greeting us during our tour of the Paitin winery.

But wait… I’m getting a little ahead of myself here.

* * *

The Paitin estate includes 17.5 hectares of vineyard, mostly situated along either side of the Via Serra Boella in Bricco di Neive, with the namesake Sorì Paitin vineyard forming the heart of the property.

The Sorì Paitin vineyard, as seen from atop the hill behind the Pasquero-Elia family's winery.

Barbaresco, not surprisingly, is the family’s most important wine. In good years, they produce three different bottlings: Barbaresco “Serra Boella,” from 1.5 hectares of Nebbiolo planted on the east-facing Serra Boella hillside; Barbaresco “Sorì Paitin,” the flagship wine from four hectares of southern exposed vines in the monopole Sorì Paitin; and their top wine, the “Sorì Paitin Vecchie Vigne,” from a single hectare of 55 year-old vines (planted in 1953) within the greater Sorì Paitin site.

As is typical throughout the region, the Pasquero-Elia family also grows Dolcetto and Barbera, both to provide for the everyday Piedmontese table – Barbaresco (and Barolo) are generally reserved for special occasions – and to take advantage of portions of their property not ideally suited to the finicky Nebbiolo. A single Dolcetto d’Alba is produced from a 1.5 hectare parcel of the Sorì Paitin. And there are two Barberas d’Alba, one from three hectares on Serra Boella, the other, “Campolive,” is a single vineyard bottling named after a one hectare plot at the warmest, sunniest spot on their property.

The family also owns parcels outside of the Barbaresco zone, with three hectares of Nebbiolo and one of Cabernet Sauvignon at a site called “Ca Veja” (Old House) in Alba and, finally, 1.5 hectares of Arneis in the Roero.

* * *

In Making Sense Of Italian Wine, author Matt Kramer paints a clear, up-to-date, opinionated yet level-headed picture of the decades-old clash between modernism and traditionalism in Piedmont. In the introduction to his chapter on Barolo, he describes a paradigm that he clearly feels applies to Barbaresco as well:
“Distinguising among Barolo producers goes beyond just assessing quality. Style now plays a major role. It was easier a decade ago: modernists were then clearly distinguishable from traditionalists. Today, the middle ground is, if anything, the most heavily populated.

These “centrists” take what they believe are most desirable from the modernist camp (small oak barrels; rotofermenters…; short macerations) and apply those techniques with a traditionalist hand – not too much oak, not too short a maceration, not too vigorous a use of the washing machine-like rotofermenter.”

The oldest portions of the Paitin cellars were constructed in the 15th Century, predating the "modern" history of the estate.

In the chapter covering Barbaresco, Kramer includes Paitin di Pasquero Elia among his recommended estates and says, “Although decidedly modern in style, there’s no doubting the seriousness of the wine or the quality of the grapes. This is a producer that shows the possibilities of modernism in pursuit of traditional Barbaresco goodness.”

* * *

Visiting Paitin at the time we did proved very interesting in the context of the above descriptions, as we were able to observe the estate in the midst of flux. In the early part of this decade, growing increasingly unenamored with their importer’s approach, the Pasquero-Elia’s elected to leave the de Grazia camp. Though he continues to work with a rotofermenter and to practice micro-oxygenation (to counteract the extremely reductive environment within the rotofermenter), Giovanni immediately chose to eliminate barriques from the estate’s aging regimen. He also began to move away from the super-ripe, concentrated style that marked the estate’s wines through the 1990s, working instead toward a more elegant expression of his terroir and a fresher, brighter fruit focus.
Hearkening back to an earlier time, an old bottle of Barbaresco, from Secondo Pasquero-Elia's era, is watched over by one of the cellar spiders.

Many of the wines we tasted in the Paitin cellars that day were produced on the cusp of that change. Among them were some of the last wines produced during the de Grazia years and some of the first from the current era. As such, this report should be viewed as a snapshot of that time. I’m sure the approach at Paitin has continued to evolve since. As to how I feel about the new direction then indicated at the estate, which might be described as a step toward “centrism,” I happen to agree with Kramer’s assessment. To paraphrase his words, Paitin is a producer that shows the possibilities of modernism – and post-modernism – in pursuit of Piedmontese goodness.

* * *

If this leaves you hungry for more, you’ll find a detailed accounting of the wines we tasted during our visit below.

Roero Arneis “Vigna Elisa,” Paitin di Pasquero-Elia 2004
Named after Giovanni’s grandmother, “Vigna Elisa” is the only white wine produced at the estate. Arneis, by the way, means “difficult boy” or “rascal” in the old Piedmontese dialect. Paitin’s example, produced from yields of 30 hl/ha, falls into neither the fresh and fruity style nor the broad, oxidative style of Roero Arneis. The wine sees cold maceration on its skins for 24-36 hours, followed by fermentation in steel using selected yeasts. It then remains on its lees in tank until bottling time, about six months after the harvest. Giovanni recommends it be consumed in its first 2-3 years in bottle. The ’04, tasted from bottle, showed richly extracted color accompanied by heady, oily aromatics. Medium acidity carried through to a long finish, full of honeysuckle and almond flavors. (13% alcohol.)

Dolcetto d’Alba “Sorì Paitin,” Paitin di Pasquero-Elia 2004
Giovanni’s 2004 Dolcetto showed a less floral, cherry-driven nose along with a denser palate impact than much of the other Dolcetto tasted on our trip. Following quick rotofermentation on selected yeasts, the wine ages for six months in old botte and tonneaux of Slavonian oak. Though many producers eschew wood for their Dolcetti, Giovanni feels that the naturally oxidative environment in the old casks helps to counter both the reductive aspects of rotofermentation as well as Dolcetto’s natural tendency toward reductivity.

Barbera d’Alba “Serra Boella,” Paitin di Pasquero-Elia 2004
Most of the Barbera on Serra Boella was originally planted in the early 1980s with clones that turned out to be poorly suited to the site. After replanting in 1997 with vine cuttings propagated from the “Campolive” vineyard, Giovanni has found the site to give much better wines. The ’04 is a typical example – maybe my favorite of the last several vintages – of Serra Boella Barbera, full of sweet berry fruit, zingy acidity and fresh, direct aromas. The 2003 version saw a six-day rotofermentation followed by 12 months of aging in 50% new tonneaux and 50% three-year-old barriques. In contrast, the 2004 was aged for 12 months in old botte after a nine-day spell in the rotofermenter.

Not from the archives.... Some of Paitin's current releases.

Barbera d’Alba “Campolive,” Paitin di Pasquero-Elia 2003
Campolive, again, is the warmest spot on the Paitin property. Its name is a reference to Giovanni’s belief that olive trees were planted on the site during the Roman era. The 2003, with its raisiny nose and richer, more opulent flavors, spent nine days in the rotofermenter (fermented on its natural yeasts), followed by about one month in steel to allow for settling and precipitation of solids. After that, it underwent 18 months in a mixture of barriques, 50% new and 50% two-year-old. The ’03 was the last vintage to see any barrique aging; Giovanni planned to switch to aging in new botte beginning with the 2004 vintage.

Nebbiolo d’Alba “Ca Veja,” Paitin di Pasquero-Elia 2003
This is from the family’s three-hectare plot of Nebbiolo near Alba, located outside of the Barbaresco zone and only one mile from the border of Barolo. The site was replanted in the mid-1990s after a flood and subsequent mudslide destroyed much of the original vineyard. The 2003 was arguably the most “traditionalist” wine produced at the estate up to that point, aged in old botte only. It displayed intense tannins on the front palate followed by sweet rhubarb and herb-laced red fruit. The 2001 version, in comparison, was aged in tonneaux, 50% of which were new.

The main barrel cellar at Paitin, circa 2006, showing a mixture of barriques, tonneaux and botte.

Barbaresco “Sorì Paitin,” Paitin di Pasquero-Elia 2001
The 2001 vintage was finished before Paitin ended their import relationship with Marc de Grazia. Here, the power shown in “Ca Veja” continued but with darker fruit and suppler texture, along with a hint of leather. Following nine days in the rotofermenter, it was aged for two years in oak: 30% in new French barriques, 20% in 2-3 year-old barriques and 50% in tonneaux. More recent vintages are aged in botte only, and the elegance hinted at in this 2001 version has come more to the fore in subsequent releases.

Barbaresco “Sorì Paitin Vecchie Vigne,” Paitin di Pasquero-Elia 2001
The top wine of the estate, from a one-hectare parcel of the Sorì Paitin that was planted in 1953. It’s also the most powerful wine of the estate, an easy dispeller of the old “Barolo is masculine, Barbaresco feminine” adage. Darker in color and flavor than the Sorì Paitin “normale” but still well-balanced, with plenty of finesse and complexity. Giovanni’s father, Secondo, formerly bottled this as Barbaresco Riserva, starting with the 1974 vintage. Since then, Giovanni has dropped the Riserva designation, feeling that the term’s meaning has been destroyed by it commercial, international manifestations. The 2001 spent three weeks clarifying in steel after a nine-day spell in the rotofermenter, and was finished with two years aging in a mixture of French oak barrels, 50% new and 50% two years old. It is now aged completely in botte of Slavonian oak, varying from light toast to no toast at all.

Barbaresco “Serra Boella,” Paitin di Pasquero-Elia 2002
The only Barbaresco produced at Paitin in the difficult 2002 vintage. It was surprisingly dark for the vintage, likely an attribute driven by the strong color extraction achieved via rotofermentation, yet it was also more evolved in tone and aromas than the 2001s we’d already tasted. Plummier and rounder than the wines from the Sorì Paitin, it was also a tad reductive when first poured but that quickly resolved with some time in the glass. A solid effort for the vintage. Regrettably, my notes don’t include any technical specs for this bottling.

Langhe Rosso “Paitin,” Paitin di Pasquero-Elia 2003
In 2003 the “Langhe Paitin” was a varietal expression of Cabernet Sauvignon. Yes, 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from the Langhe. Not surprisingly, it was much blacker in color than the Nebbiolo-based wines. Surprisingly low alcohol (13%) given the infamous heat of the 2003 growing season, it led off with a soft, round feel and attractive flavors of blackberry, cassis and licorice but was then marred by astringent, slightly green tannins. The very fact that Paitin had planted Cabernet Sauvignon might be looked at from one perspective as outrageously modern, a move toward internationalization of Piedmontese tradition. Given that Cabernet constitutes only a single hectare of the overall estate and appears in only this wine, it might just as easily be viewed (from a more forgiving perspective) as a natural outlet for a vine grower and winemaker’s curiosity. Earlier experiments with both Pinot Noir and Syrah, in fact, were abandoned after Giovanni found the vines to be unsuited to his terroir. Giovanni continues to farm his plot of Cabernet but now blends the fruit with Nebbiolo and Barbera to produce a slightly more typical, slightly less outrageous Langhe Rosso blend.

My roommate Dale B. and I, pausing for a moment of contemplation after our visit. The family residence is behind us to the right, the old winery building at left.

Azienda Agricola PAITIN di Pasquero Elia
Via Serra Boella 20
12052 Neive (CN)


Anonymous said...

great post david here is mine:


Anonymous said...

What do you mean when a wine tastes reduced?

Serge the Concierge said...


Enjoyed the dusty pictures on your story and your pick of course.

I just finished writing about my 'Passion for Piedmont' pick Cascina Lo Zoccolaio, Dolcetto d'Alba, Vigna dij Sagrin 2007, my WBW #54 pick on 'Serge the Concierge'...

Take care


hvwinegoddess said...

Here's my Passion for Piedmont

Director, Lab Outreach said...

And I thought I drank a lot...

Anonymous said...

Your post humbles us all.

Here's all I had to say:

Thanks for a great edition of WBW. I'll be hosting the next one in March. Thanks for paving the way so well!


TWG said...

You're cheating by posting old notes, we want something current. Otherwise the post is very interesting. Hope you got Dale's permission to post his photo.

Wicker Parker said...

...and here is my post on two De Forville nebbioli. Thanks for the great theme, David.

Anonymous said...

David: Great post and topic for this month.


Brooklynguy said...

hey mcDEE - excellent post. i think i understand now the big difference between the two paitin wines i drank in my post.

Diane Letulle said...

Thank you for prompting me to buy the delicious wine I had tonight
Great topic!

Do Bianchi said...

wow, this is such an amazing post, on so many levels... I feel like such a putz for not taking part in this edition of WBW but I've been super slammed since re-entry from France. I have so much to say/comment on this post but am running out the door (at 6:40 in the morning!) and so will just note that _this is a great example of why wine blogging is so important_. Chapeau McDuff! Well done...

Unknown said...

Fascinating perspective, informative & perceptive. Drink now to 2015. 98 pts.

Joe Manekin said...

Very informative and interesting read, as always David.

Here's my WBW post:

David McDuff said...

Thanks for participating, everyone. I've already enjoyed checking out your posts and am looking forward to whipping them together into the ubiquitous WBW summary, which I'll try to post on Sunday.

David McDuff said...

Thanks much for the kind words. I'll look forward to your more in-depth feedback.

Terence, or is that Strappo speaking? I'll try to take your comment as a good one, though I think I detect a tongue stuck firmly in cheek.

And Terrance T.,
You ask a very good question, and one that's difficult to answer without going through contortions. But here goes.... In short, "reduced flavors/aromas" refer to aspects of a wine that are direct side effects of a reductive (vs. oxidative) winemaking regime (i.e., steel vs. oak, rotofermentation vs. traditional maceration, etc.). Some grape varieties, Dolcetto for one, are partiularly prone to showing the negative traits of reductivity if not handled properly. Reduced flavors can include things ranging from sulfur to rubber to smoke. In subtle forms, they can actually add interest to a wine's aromatic profile and will also usually blow off with aeration. In extreme cases, though, reductive aromas/flavors can be so strong that they may never integrate, thus rendering a wine flawed.

For a more technically precise explanation, you may want to refer to a text such as Jamie Goode's "Science of Wine."

Marcus said...

This is tremendous. Great reading all around (and my first trip into Italy starts the day after tomorrow). David, thanks for being so instructive and helpful.

Sorry for being incomplete on previous thread... you can read the Dolcetto wines I tasted, including a Pecchenino and one a Dolcetto d'Acqui over here:

Anonymous said...

Great post, David! Oddly, there was a Paitin tasting here in SF on Wednesday that I sadly missed. Love their wines. I'm almost done with my WBW post! (It'll be more like Venerdi del Vino at this point...)

David McDuff said...

Glad to have you back, buddy. I'd already found the notes on your Fb page but thanks for the link. Have a great trip!

Thanks as well. Bummer about missing the Paitin tasting. As for your post -- Vendredi, Samedi, Dimanche... it's all ok. Even if it goes live after I've posted the summary, I'll go back and post an addendum.

Anonymous said...

Incredible photo of Nieve! I was hoping you'd have a write up on one of those dusty bottles in the Paitin cellars. Your notes were educational and gave me a thirst for some Paitin wines. Thanks for hosting. I now have an appreciation for the wines of Piedmont.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post McDuff. I would say more but that really wraps it up.

Anonymous said...

Howdy David... I've finally finished my way-late post. Time to start a group called "Sauce-blogging Saturdays:"

David McDuff said...

I was hoping we'd open of those dusty old bottles myself.... No such luck.

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