3.2.10. What can be said about this winery that hasn’t already been said? Bartolo Mascarello was a legendary figure in the Barolo, one of the few producers who categorically rejected modernist winemaking, acting as a cultural memory of historical Barolo. He’s a larger-than-life figure who has assumed mythic figure since his death in early 2005. I never met him. But I’ve loved his wines and have a pretty serious collection of his bottles going back to 1958, and I’ve continued to add to this collection every vintage. He spent many winters hand-drawing labels for his friends that expressed his artistic and political leanings: “No Barrique, No Berlusconi” has become a classic of subversive wine etiquettes.
I am content to leave the legend alone. There’s lots of fawning accounts of meeting Mascarello by wine writers and wine makers alike, as if having the chance to “meet the legend” bestows some degree of authenticity on the visitor. Unfortunately, the cult of personality that sprung up around him as a de-facto leader of the traditional bloc in the battles between modernists and traditionalists in the seventies and eighties has obscured the unfortunate variability of some of the wines made in the last decade of his life.
These are some of the most prized bottles in my collection, but I have learned to approach them with a degree of trepidation, no matter how good the provenance (I bought many on release, but some of the older bottles are from the secondary market; a bottle of 1964 that came through a broker directly from the winery for my 40th birthday was amaaaaazing; others less so). Luckily for all of us, Bartolo’s daughter Maria-Theresa has taken over the reigns of the estate and has produced two of the best Barolo in recent memory. Her 2005 is a remarkable achievement in that variable and difficult vintage. Her 2006 is gorgeous and a refutation of all the pundits on the web telling you to avoid wines from that vintage.
Maria-Theresa is a tiny, lovely woman with nerves of steel. She is direct and strong and knows how to get the best possible performance out of her tiny team at the cantina. Her mother is still in the old family home (M-T has an apartment across the cortile) and the two of them share a vision of a great wine. Italy is still a very paternalistic culture; M-T is one of the first women to be groomed to take over a winery of this stature in the region. Every time I visit, I’m amazed that this petite, bright woman more than holds her own. I suspect she scares the bejeebers out of many of her peers.
At a dinner in Alba in March, she told me that growing up, she never drank wine. In fact, she hated it – I thought to myself at the time: what a perfect teenage rebellion. (I have a great friend, from a longtime Colorado family, all Democrats, who rebelled by being a preppy glow-in-the-dark Young Republican during her teenage years … kinda the same situation here; she, also, came to her senses in college.) M-T and Luca Sandrone grew up together. After she had finished her studies, she slowly came to like wine (we drank an Austrian Riesling with dinner; she professes to detest Piedmontese whites: “Per favore, Emilio, no no no no Arneis!”), and with time, learned the workings of the winery and winemaking. 2005 was her first vintage from bud break to release without her father’s guidance; it is a great wine and an incredible personal and professional success by any measure.
Vineyard management and vinification here is resolutely traditional. The wine has always been a blend of various vineyard sites in accordance with historically correct Barolo (cru Barolo is a relatively recent phenomenon). Yields are kept low, harvest starts considerably later than many peers, and vinifications are long: 30-45 days for Barolo, depending on the vintage. Wines are aged in huge botti for almost three years, then bottled and released a full 4 years after the harvest. Perhaps the only concessions to modern winemaking is that the grapes are destemmed. Last year, Maria-Theresa bought a labeling machine; previously, ALL the labels had been hand-applied during the slow winter months. When I saw this new machine for the first time, she shrugged and smiled sheepishly – “Well, the labeling machine does not touch the wine, so I could accept this technology.” Fair enough. Still, there is no email, no winery website (just a fax and a land-line), and cellphones are deeply suspicious items.
The wines? At their best, they are beautiful, elegant, long-lived and an absolute joy to consume after a decade or two in a quiet and cold cellar (right now, I am slowly consuming my cases of 1989 and 1990; still vibrant and delicious). The Mascarello wines speak of place before all else: winemaking is something that fades into the background of terroir, expressed in particular melodies of black cherry fruit, earth and minerals, and the violets, dried roses and truffle so characteristic of great Barolo unsullied by new wood barriques.
Total yearly production at the Mascarello estate is 30-33,000 bottles, divided between 5 bottlings.
2007 Freisa. Bright red cherries, grapey and slightly mousseaux – called mossa here. The wine is bottled with a little residual sugar – 1-2-3 g per liter (“Eeeeeeh … depends on the vintage,” M-T says) and when the wines warm up a bit the summer following bottling, it starts fermenting again, so the wine has a bit of fizz. The wine is also “Nebbiolato”, which means the young freisa must is passed over the pomace of the Nebbiolo to give it more alcohol and tannins. This is a lovely, grapey, fresh and vibrant wine, delicious with salami or prosciutto. Reminiscient of cru Beaujolais, but with more structure and weight. Good length, fresh and ripe tannins, though very soft and lively in the mouth. Fun and delicious. 2.5+ Drink 2009-2013
2008 “Nebiolo.” One “b” from the dialect. Bright red cherries, mineral, bright acid. This is driven by the purity of its fruit and the precision of its acids. Terroir is supreme here – this is not a juicy, fat wine, but lean, elegant, precisely defined and surprisingly soft in the mouth. 3.0 Drink 2011-2016
2007 Barbera. Ripe cranberries, raspberries and tea leaves, deep pure dark fruits, some hints of raspberry, plums, lovely acid, no tannins. This is a delicious Barbera, bright and pure and fresh and just plain delicious. This is possibly my favorite Barbera ever made at this estate. (Barbera, I think, is one of the few grapes which can benefit from a touch of new wood – the wine has terrific acidity and almost no tannins, so the wood softens the edges a bit. However, this NEVER happens at the Mascarello estate - even the word "barrique" is a very, very bad word here.) Really fabulous, neither complex nor complicated, but just plain delicious and perfectly focussed. Very traditional, and lets the fruit express itself in ways impossible with new oak barrique. 3.5+ drink 2012-2017
2005 Barolo. Incredibly pure nose of black fruits, minerals and violets. Lovely classic aromas, ripe ripe ripe. Lots going on here – there are classic perfumes of flowers, licorice, lots of violets and minerally earth. Lovely, balanced wine from a moderately difficult vintage, and it shows the lean character of the year. This is closing somewhat from last fall and I think it will need a few years until it re-emerges, but the fruit and tannins are really ripe and the finish is fantastic and long. Lovely, lovely wine. (I think I;m gushing a bit here, but damn, this is good.) Still dry and tight, but I think the wine will knit together beautifully with patience. 4.0+/4.5- (I agonized over where this sits, and could be a solid 4.5 very possibly in a few years when it emerges from its shell), very fine, elegant. Lovely. Drink 2015-2025
2005 was a difficult year as there was some rain just before the harvest, the grapes plumped up and there were the beginnings of problems with rot, mold, etc. The harvest was pushed up to avoid letting the mold and disease spread - but this was before the tannins could reach full ripeness (many producer’s wines show slightly astringent and lean tannins). Maria-Theresa harvested right away with “velocity and quickness” before disease set in. The last grapes came in on a Saturday, then from Sunday to the following Friday there was rain 24hs a day nonstop. Those who harvested before the rain made decent to excellent wines. Those who waited were ruined. Still, even with grapes harvested before the rain, it was less than ideal fruit. This wine is a great success given the difficult conditions.
2006 Barolo (not in sale yet – starts in September 2010). Deep rich dark cherry fruit and loads of mineral and earthy elements, really ripe and elegant fruit – also violets and rose petals. M-T says 2007 is a lot like 2004 – a more classic vintage. The tannins in the mouth are enormous and very dry but exceptionally ripe. In the mouth, the tannins fill the mouth - big, unevolved and classically tight and dry, but ripe ripe ripe. Lovely structure, the finish is elegant and dry without a hint of bitterness, and delicious sweet fruit emerges and lingers as it fades. This is gorgeous, lovely, and balanced – an elegant, Volnay-like wine – and it has a core of darkness in its heart. Needs at least a decade. Drink 2018-2030. One of the best, if not the best, wine I have tasted so far from 2006. Beautiful. 4.5