Bartolo Mascarello 1955 to…from Magnum


When it came time to decide on the Rare Wine Dinner for La Festa del Barolo in 2023, the year of our tenth anniversary, there was only one choice. Bartolo Mascarello was the first grower I met in Piedmont. Mascarello spent several hours with me that afternoon in a wide-ranging discussion that touched on politics, culture and, eventually, wine. It was an important moment, a moment in which I began to understand that the wines I loved so much were deeply shaped by the people who crafted them.

Bartolo Mascarello’s office, pretty much as it always was.

A Personal Journey

I arrived at Mascarello’s front door by accident. It was a sunny Saturday during the summer of 2000. I was looking for Mauro Mascarello, whose wines I often drank in those days, but I called the wrong number and ended up at Via Roma in Barolo. In the blink of an eye, an entire afternoon flew by in Mascarello’s cramped office, but not before several bottles had been emptied and countless stories shared. I suppose it was destiny.

A few months before that fateful first meeting, I had a bottle of Mascarello’s 1982 Barolo, picked off a list at a small restaurant in Mantova for next to nothing. You could do that back then. It was a magical wine that was further fueled by a growing interest in Barolo. Three years later, I moved to Italy for work. The Mascarello cellar was a frequent stop, as I took every opportunity I could to escape the drudgery of corporate life in Milan. Mascarello was always behind his desk, designing labels and reading everything he could get his hands on. A bout with myeloradiculitis (a neurological virus that affects the lower limbs) had left Mascarello in a wheelchair many years before, yet his spirits were always high. Mascarello was incredibly generous with his time. I think he simply enjoyed chatting with a young American kid interested in Barolo.

A stunning flight of wines from the 1980s, including the 1982, the wine that got me hooked on Bartolo Mascarello Barolo.

It was a very different time for Piedmont and Italian wine in general. The local press was enamored with the younger generation of producers, those who made what were then called ‘modern’ wines. Meanwhile, Mascarello, his cousin Beppe Rinaldi, Baldo Cappellano, Mauro Mascarello and Giovanni Conterno, among other more traditional producers, were completely ignored. Among his peers, only Bruno Giacosa had somewhat of a profile. The market was completely different. With one or two exceptions, every producer struggled to sell their wines. The curious oenophile could visit pretty much any winery and buy whatever they desired in quantity. There were no such things as allocations. Wineries often had several vintages to sell at any given time, something that was the norm up until 10-15 years ago, no more than that.

Some of the artist labels Bartolo Mascarello designed. Typically each case includes one bottle with an artist label.

A Brief History

The Mascarello family is originally from the Torriglione hamlet in La Morra. Giulio Mascarello founded Cantina Mascarello in 1919 and began bottling wines shortly after that, partly in demijohn and partly in bottle. The oldest remaining bottles at the winery date back to 1926 and 1929, the birth years of Giulio Mascarello’s son, Bartolo, and his wife, Franca Brezza.

Bartolo joined the winery around 1945, during World War II. Mascarello contracted his illness in the early 1980s. By 1981, when Giulio Mascarello passed away, Bartolo could barely walk at his funeral. Although Bartolo Mascarello spent most of his life confined to a wheelchair, that did not seem to hamper his overall ebullience and sense of humor, a stark contrast to the more austere demeanor of Franca, a schoolteacher who was always by his side and taught many of Barolo’s winemakers. In 1982, the family changed the winery name to Bartolo Mascarello to eliminate confusion with other Mascarello wineries in the region.

Bartolo Mascarello was a true icon in Piedmont. Mascarello was famous for his wines, but he was at least as well known for his outspoken views on everything from winemaking to politics. His “No Barrique, No Berlusconi” label was the stuff of legend. The same was true of his supposed ‘feud’ with the modernist producers led by Elio Altare. Both men seemed to enjoy the attention this ‘controversy’ brought them, but the conflict was more show created by the media rather than substance. I always found Mascarello in high spirits, his huge smile and large eyes ever present. At the same time, I was less convinced about the wines. Mascarello’s best Barolos were legendary, but the quality of what was in the bottle didn’t always live up to the image. Some part of wine is romance, as it should be. But a closer and more objective look can reveal differences between perception and reality. We will explore that theme later on.

Maria Teresa Mascarello in her office loft.

Against this backdrop, it must have been extremely difficult for daughter Maria Teresa Mascarello to take over the family winery after her father passed away in 2005. Today, women occupy leading roles at many estates, but that was not at all the case twenty years ago. Maria Teresa started working at the family winery in 1993. Longtime cellarmaster Alessandro Fantino departed at the end of 1997, and Maria Teresa started making the wines with the 1998 vintage. However, my impression – strongly reinforced by this tasting – is that she was not able to do everything she wanted until her father’s passing. Part of that may have been a deference and sense of respect to towards the older generation, a core value at the time.

Maria Teresa cuts a much more laid-back figure than her outspoken father, although she shares the same views, namely an approach deeply rooted in tradition. Changes here over the last few years have been measured. Old botti (casks) have been replaced, and there is more emphasis on cleanliness in the cellar and better work in the vineyards, all of which are allowing the wines to unleash their full potential. The estate’s single Barolo – made from five vineyards and aged exclusively in cask – is distinguished by its exceptional purity and delineation, making it a model of elegance and classicism. Not only has Maria Teresa Mascarello succeeded in living up to her father’s legacy, but she has also taken the wines to an entirely new level. Over the last decade or so, the Barolos have been nothing less than stunning. The rebirth of Bartolo Mascarello (the winery) is one of the great success stories in Piedmont.

Cement tanks are still used for alcoholic fermentation.

Vineyards & Winemaking

The Mascarello family currently owns about five hectares of vineyards. The core and oldest holdings consist of 1.3 hectares in Rocche dell’Annunziata and 0.7 hectares in Cannubi. At the end of the 1970s, the Mascarellos traded 0.4 hectares they owned in Terlo planted with Dolcetto and hazelnuts for a parcel in Cannubi planted with Nebbiolo owned by another farmer who wished to have contiguous parcels for greater ease of work. Land values in these two places were the same, so it was an even exchange, something that is impossible to contemplate today.

Maria Teresa Mascarello gathering a sample from cask. Ever the traditionalist, Mascarello eschews the convenience of casks with spigots on their face.

Around the same time, the Mascarellos bought another 0.9 hectares in San Lorenzo (0.6 hectares of Barbera and 0.3 hectares of Nebbiolo). The Mascarellos own another 0.75 hectares in Rué (approximately 0.5 Nebbiolo and 0.25 Dolcetto), plus 0.85 hectares in Monrobiolo (0.60 Dolcetto and 0.25 Freisa). The Nebbiolo portion of San Lorenzo was ripped out in 2015 and replanted two years later, so it was out of the blend until 2020. In the intervening years, Mascarello supplanted production with a rented parcel in Monrobiolo di Bussia adjacent to her parcel in Monrobiolo that has since remained in the fold, adding a bit to overall production now that San Lorenzo is back.

As has been the custom here for decades, fruit is harvested and co-fermented in cement, something that is seldom seen elsewhere in the region. That said, co-fermentation is only possible when parcels ripen more or less at the same time, which implies geographical proximity and/or very similar conditions. For example, the co-fermentation of parcels in La Morra and Serralunga would be next to impossible because harvest dates are too far apart. Fermentation, done with ambient yeasts, usually takes several weeks. In the best years, those with thick skins, Mascarello does submerged cap maceration at the end of vinification. Bottling is in the summer three years after harvest, a change instituted in 1998 when aging was in wood was shortened by a year. The Mascarellos made no Barolo in 1994, so the 1995 went into bottle a year earlier than had been the case in the past.

The Mascarello cellar once contained a large collection of older vintages in magnum.

About the Tasting

One of the curious aspects of the winery is that, until recently, it essentially had no library. Tough economic times dictated that every bottle be sold, pretty much the same situation everywhere else in Piedmont. Over the years and decades, though, the Mascarello family amassed a substantial collection of magnums, wines that no one wanted up until 10-15 years ago, when the craze for Barolo took off in earnest. That may seem hard to believe today, but it is true. I remember buying magnums of the 1958 and 1964 twenty years ago for what today would be very modest sums.

Wines from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s were bottled in 1.9L handblown bottiglioni, a large format intended to give the owner enough wine to fill two standard bottles and have a little left over for sediment. I began to buy wines from this collection, and those bottles deeply informed my knowledge of vintages from the past. For this dinner, I chose to present a selection of the vintages I have, focusing on iconic years to show the various eras in the estate’s history.

The venue was Legacy Records, one of my favorite places for hosting small dinners. Executive Chef Ryan Hardy and his team prepared a fabulous menu. This was one of the best dinners we have ever had at Legacy. Delicious Hospitality Group Wine Director Celia Erickson and Legacy Records’ Beverage Director Theo Lieberman took care of the wines with exceptional care. All of the wines were double decanted a few hours prior to service and checked for soundness.

The Legacy Records team plates the main course in the striking open kitchen. 


2016 Langhe Nebbiolo

Chef’s Seasonal Selection of Passed Canapés

As I always do, I taste the wines when they are first opened, record my impressions and then observe as the wines develop over the course of the evening.

I thought it would be fun to start with something different. The 2016 Langhe Nebbiolo is gorgeous. Bright, vibrant and classically austere – in the best sense of the term – the 2016 is a picture-perfect example of the vintage, but in a slightly more approachable package than is found in the top wines. It’s a terrific introduction to the evening.

Our first flight features three vintages that are ready to drink.

To Start...

2001, 1999 & 1996 Barolo

Little Gems, puntarella & radish

For this first flight, I chose vintages that are ready to drink. The 2001 Barolo (magnum) has always been an enigma at this address. From magnum, the 2001 has always been better than from 750ml bottles, so it is no surprise to see this showing so well. Dense, powerful and quite rustic, the 2001 offers up dark fruit intermingled with spice, menthol, tobacco and dried flowers. This potent, old-school Barolo opens beautifully with a few hours of air. The 1999 Barolo (magnum) is very clenched at first. Chalk, white pepper and red-toned fruit lend notable vibrancy throughout. There is some lack of focus in the bouquet at first which is distracting. When I come back to the 1999 at the end of the evening, I find a wine of greater cohesion. There is still plenty of drive and persistence. While the wine does clean up, it remains a bit unyielding. From magnum, the 1996 Barolo is quite the powerhouse. Dense and potent to the core, the 1996 is packed with dark fruit, tobacco, leather, incense and dried herbs. This is an impressive showing.

The Epic 1980s

1990, 1989, 1988, 1985 & 1982 Barolo

Agnolotti, sunchoke, brown butter & sage

For this flight, well, I simply wanted to taste all the great vintages of the 1980s together. That’s all the thinking there was.

The 1990 Barolo (magnum) is in fine shape. Sensual and racy, the 1990 is a fabulous example of the year. Dried cherry fruit, spice, worn-in leather, tobacco and mint show the signs of well-worn age. I wouldn’t hang on to the 1990 too much longer, as it is not going to improve. Explosive and effusive, the 1989 Barolo (magnum) shows terrific density in its beautifully layered fruit. Time in the glass brings out that characteristic 1989 inner sweetness that is such a signature of the year. The 1988 Barolo (magnum) is a very pleasant surprise. Over the years, it has been inconsistent, but this magnum is terrific. Bright and nuanced for a wine of its age and era, the 1988 offers gorgeous Nebbiolo character to complement its mid-weight personality. Although the 1988 doesn’t have the presence of either the 1989 or 1990, it more than holds its own in this flight, and that is saying a ton.

The 1985 Barolo (magnum) is a fine example of a wine whose time has arrived. It’s a pretty Barolo with plenty of aged Nebbiolo character, but the density it had as a young wine has receded. What remains is a soft, expressive Barolo that has now entered the first part of its maturity. Hints of sweet dried cherry, tobacco, crushed flowers and pine linger on the effortless finish. The 1982 Barolo (magnum) has always been a special wine for me. It is the first older Bartolo Mascarello wine I tasted. Ever since then, I have been captivated by its seductive magic. On this night, it is fabulous. Penetrating aromatics meld into a core of delineated red-fleshed fruit in a Barolo that gains energy with air. This is as classic as classic gets. A masterpiece.

Agnolotti, sunchoke, brown butter & sage, one of the highlights of a superb menu prepared by the team at Legacy Records.

A New Vision Emerges

2008, 2006, 2005 & 2004 Barolo

Cavatelli Verde, sausage ragu, pecorino & mint

This was arguably the most interesting flight of the night from an educational perspective, as we had a rare opportunity to watch the transition from Bartolo Mascarello to his daughter Maria Teresa unfold before our very eyes and palates.

The 2008 Barolo (magnum) is a stunner, as it has always been. Intensely aromatic, silky and layered, the 2008 is so elegant. I especially admire its vibrancy and overall freshness, both signatures of the year. Plum, dried flowers, crushed rocks and lavender build in an undeniably sexy Barolo that hits all the right notes. Potent and explosive in feel, the 2006 Barolo (magnum) is a brooding, imposing wine. Dark fruit, menthol, spice and mocha infuse the 2006 with notable depth. As impressive as the 2006 is, there is a slightly advanced quality that is worth watching over the next few years. It’s hard to say if that nuance has always been present or if it simply made more evident because of the presence of so many strong vintages in this tasting. Either way, it seems pretty obvious that the 2006 doesn’t reach the level of more recent vintages. Of course, it is also possible this particular magnum was not totally perfect.

The 2005 Barolo is fresh and vibrant, with bright acids driving a core of red-toned fruit, chalk, white pepper, plum, licorice and crushed rocks. There is a crystalline purity that I especially admire. The 2005 will always be a bit lean in construction, but there is a feeling of classicism that is undeniably appealing. The 2004 Barolo (magnum) is soft and silky, but it is also more forward than I expect, or want, to be honest. Dried flowers, leather, spice, game and dark-fleshed fruit fill out the layers. Vertical tastings serve, among other things, to shine a bright light on a single wine over many vintages. In this context, the 2004 does not live up to my original enthusiasm.

This flight captures the transition from Bartolo to Maria Teresa Mascarello. The four wines say it all.

Modern Day Classics

2016, 2013 & 2010 Barolo

Choice of: Dry-Aged Ribeye, wild mushroom & charred onion or Farm Chicken, caraflex cabbage & quince

For me, this was the flight of the night. As much as I admire the much older vintages that follow, or some of the classics from the 1980s and 1990s, the wines I love most are those from 2008 to the present, including the three reference points in this grouping.

The 2016 Barolo (magnum) is obviously a very, very young wine, and yet its inclusion in this flight is essential, both for getting a glimpse of the wine at this early stage and also for understanding its place among recent vintages. Supremely elegant and classically austere in bearing, the 2016 is sublime. The vibrancy of the flavors is captivating, as is the wine’s energy. All the 2016 needs is time. The 2013 Barolo is, in my estimation, one of the wines of the evening. Deep, powerful and brooding, the 2013 offers up a kaleidoscope of aromas, flavors and textures that do not let up. Plum, rose petal, kirsch, lavender and spice lend an exotic flair throughout. Magnificent. Still embryonic, Mascarello’s 2010 Barolo (magnum) shows all the classicism it did when I first tasted it from cask many years ago. There is a feeling of crystalline purity and translucence here that is simply captivating. This is Nebbiolo and Barolo in all its glory in what has turned out to be an epic vintage for the estate. Time in the glass brings out scents of lavender, dried flowers and dark fruit, all wrapped together by huge swaths of tannin. Readers lucky enough to own the 2010 are in for a tremendous treat.

The 2016, 2013 and 2010 are three of the greatest wines ever made here. Tasting them together is illuminating.

Going Way Back…

1978 Barolo, 1964 Barolo Canubbi, 1958 Barolo Canubbi & 1955 Barolo Canubbi

Chef’s Seasonal Selection of Artisanal Cheeses

This last flight was pretty special, to say the least. The opportunity to taste four reference point vintages from perfectly stored bottles was a real treat. Astute readers will note that some of these wines are labeled ‘Canubbi,’ with the old-fashioned spelling rather than the modern-day spelling Cannubi, which could be mistaken for single-vineyard wines. At the time, the custom was to use the name of the most famous vineyard on labels, hence the existence of these ‘Canubbi’ Barolos and also some very curious older bottles of Barbaresco Canubbi. All of the wines in this flight were served from 1.9L bottiglione, a large format that is no longer used. These hand-blown bottles are historical artifacts in themselves and a poignant reminder of simpler times in Piedmont.

Four older vintages from pristine larger formats. That’s about as good as it gets.

The 1978 Barolo (1.9L bottiglione) shows notable depth for a wine of its age. Then again, that’s the style of the year. Dark fruit, spice, worn-in leather, menthol and tobacco all open in the glass. I am surprised to see that the 1978 is the most forward of the wines in the flight, but at this age, that really comes down to the specific bottle, or in this case, magnum. The 1964 Barolo Canubbi (1.9L bottiglione) represents my ideal of a fine older wine, one that has aged with sublime grace. Silky and layered, with tremendous persistence, the 1964 is pure seduction. Macerated cherry, spice, tobacco and cedar take on shades of exoticism in this super-expressive Barolo.

On any other night, the 1958 Barolo Canubbi (1.9L bottiglione) would have been the wine of the evening, but this flight offers a lot of competition for that honor. Even so, the 1958 offers all the power and depth it has always shown. Now fully mature, the 1958 is seamless, its once-searing tannins are now softened by age. Heady aromatics add to its explosive, soaring feel. Mascarello’s 1955 Barolo Canubbi (1.9L bottiglione) is a sort of time capsule, a wine that takes us back to another era in Piedmont. Delicate and quite sensual, the 1955 offers a striking counterpoint to the more assertive 1958. Sweet red cherry, spice, tobacco and worn-in leather lend nuance to a fully mature, translucent Barolo that is alluring from the very first taste. It has been a number of years since I last had the 1955, so my memory may not be entirely accurate, but I don’t recall another magnum with such exceptional balance. It’s a superb wine with which to close out the evening.

Seven decades of Mascarello Barolo. A journey through time.

© 2023, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

You Might Also Enjoy

Nebbiolo Shines in Alto Piemonte, Carema & Valtellina, Antonio Galloni, June 2023

Alto Piemonte, Valtellina & Points North, Antonio Galloni, March 2022

Alto Piemonte & Valtellina, Continued…, Antonio Galloni, September 2020