Elio Altare – Portraits in Nebbiolo: 1984-2004
Several years in the making, this side-by-side retrospective
of Elio Altare’s Barolo Arborina and Langhe Arborina provided the backdrop for
an exploration of the career of one of Piedmont’s most ambitious growers. Known
for taking a chainsaw to his father’s old casks in a fit of desperation, Elio
Altare is one of the architects of what is often referred to as the “modern”
school in Barolo, a movement created by a group of young growers in the 1980s
who wanted to shake up Piedmont’s sleepy establishment. Although Altare has
made dazzling wines for decades, when all is said and done his most enduring
legacy may prove to be inspiring the numerous young growers who were emboldened
to start estate bottling their production rather than selling fruit based on
For this tasting, the Altare family dug deep into their
private cellar to present every vintage of Barolo Arborina and Langhe Arborina
all the way back to 1984, which is remarkable, considering stocks of many of
these vintages are down to just a few bottles. The goal was to explore the use
of French oak in Nebbiolo. The Barolo Arborina and Langhe Arborina are the
result of the same harvest and vinification, but after that, the wines take two
completely different paths with regards to the end of alcoholic fermentation,
malolactic fermentation and aging, as explained below. Originally, the plan was
to taste through to 2010, but we ran out of time. I hope to taste the remaining
vintages on another visit soon. The
wines were tasted in pairs by vintage, from oldest to youngest, which is how
the tasting notes are presented. All of
the bottles were opened when I arrived at the estate and followed over several
The Arborina Vineyard,
La Morra. From left to right: the Renato Corino, Mauro Veglio and Elio Altare estates
Elio Altare’s small estate is perched atop the Arborina
vineyard in La Morra’s Rocche dell’Annunziata district. Altare is the first to
admit that Arborina is not a truly great site, but in his hands, the wines
consistently reach a very high level. Arborina Barolos are marked by their
expressive aromatics and tannic backbone, which gives the wines their energy
and drive. Incidentally, Altare’s vegetable garden sits on a flat portion of
Arborina, always a good sign, as it means the chance of chemicals going in the
vineyards is virtually zero.
The oldest Altare Barolo I have tasted is the 1970, which
was still in fine shape as recently as a few years ago. That wine was made by
Elio Altare’s father and is very much a wine of its era. The late 1970s were a time of change in
Piedmont. Angelo Gaja took over his family’s business and immediately started
experimenting with more innovative ideas in winemaking, as did Valentino
Migliorini at Rocche dei Manzoni.
In 1983, Altare returned from a trip to Burgundy, deeply inspired
by what he had seen and tasted. “I wanted to see if the same wine I used for my
Barolo could yield an important result if aged in 100% new French oak barrels,
as was the case at all the great Burgundy domaines at the time,” Altare says.
That desire led to the creation of a new wine, the Vigna Arborina, in 1984.
For his experiment, Altare took the grapes from his Arborina vineyard in La Morra, and divided the wine after alcoholic fermentation. The
Barolo Arborina did malo in steel and was aged in cask, with French oak barrels
coming into the mix in the mid to late 1990s. The Vigna Arborina finished its
alcoholic fermentation in barrel, where it also underwent malolactic
fermentation and aged on the lees, with one racking in Spring and another just
prior to bottling. Altare also gave the Vigna Arborina less time in oak than the minimum requirement for Barolo. This tasting traced all of the wines that
have been made since 1984 through 2004, with the exception of the 1997 Barolo
Arborina and 1998 Langhe Arborina, both part of the famous cork taint case that
ruined the entire production of these wines, and the 2002s, which were not made
because of the disastrous growing season.
The 1985 Vigna Arborina and Barolo Vigneto Arborina side by side
The signatures of Altare's approach are rooted in low yields,
the use of rotary fermenters, short periods of skin contact and aging in French
oak, all of which have evolved over time. The wines are forward, fruit-driven
and built on texture. In most vintages, Altare's top bottlings start drinking well around age ten or so. So far, history has shown that the wines age gracefully
for at least several decades.
In 1987 or 1988, Paul Pontallier of Chateaux Margaux visited
Altare in Piedmont. A few weeks later, Altare returned the favor, with a bag
full of samples in hand. “Pontallier destroyed my wines,” says Altare. “He told
me I needed to make wine for the barrique and not think of the barrel as a
vessel for aging wine. From then on, I worked to achieve greater ripeness in
Rotary fermenters arrived in 1994, a weak vintage in which
Altare crafted gorgeous wines and also ignited a significant amount of
controversy because he only gave the fruit 40 hours of skin contact, which was
shockingly low. In reality, macerations had been coming down for some time. The
1982 Barolo saw three weeks of skin contact. By 1988, that had moved down to
just four days.
Elio Altare in his tasting room
French oak was introduced in 1984, first for the Langhe
Arborina. The 1986 Barolo was the first to be made with a combination of
traditional cask and barriques, but by 1989, the Barolo was done entirely in
French oak, around 20% new.
Today, the wines are made pretty much as they have been made
since the mid 1990s, which is to say the wines see around 4-5 days on the
skins. The Barolo Arborina undergoes malolactic fermentation in steel and
spends two years in French oak barrels, with about 20% new oak. The Langhe
Arborina goes into barrel sweet, where it finishes alcoholic fermentation and
then malolactic fermentation. Aging, which lasts eighteen months, is done on the
lees in 100% new barrels, much like in Burgundy, with one racking in April and
another just before bottling. With the 2012 vintage, the Langhe Arborina has been renamed Giarborina because the new vineyard regulations in Barolo do not allow for the use of a vineyard name for a Langhe appellation wine.
The main takeaway from this tasting is so obvious, yet I
have to admit I am also slightly embarrassed that it took me all these years to
figure it out. For all the talk of
modern versus traditional Barolo and French oak barrels versus botti, it is clear that the Langhe
Arborina is Elio Altare’s true wine, because it most completely captures his
spirit. Not coincidentally, in a number of vintages, especially once the early
kinks were worked out, the Langhe Arborina is superior to the Barolo Arborina.
In many instances the Langhe Arborina has aged more gracefully as well.
Of course the Barolos can be fabulous, but I get the impression Altare makes those wines because he has to, because he is a
grower in Barolo. But if the constraints of history and tradition did not
exist, I am not sure Altare would make any Barolo at all. In that sense, it is
clear Altare’s kindred spirit is Angelo Gaja. Their backgrounds are quite
different. Altare comes from a dirt-poor upbringing, while Gaja inherited an
already prosperous family business. Both producers are unmistakably Piedmontese
in culture, yet their best wines are made outside the confines of the
An assortment of opened wines from the Altare library
Another takeaway is that Altare’s wines have proven to age
beautifully, even in the smallest of vintages, which is arguably the greatest
proof of a grower’s true skill. The reality is that we don’t know how Gaja,
Aldo Conterno, Giacomo Conterno or Bruno Giacosa – to name some of Piedmont’s
most illustrious names – would have performed in less than stellar vintages
because they had the financial strength to skip a vintage or two when the growing season was less than ideal. The smaller guys, Elio Altare and Roberto Voerzio among them,
did not have that luxury. They had to pay the bills. So they bottled no matter
what. In many ways, the wines from the smaller vintages tell us more about a
grower’s talent than the wines from the much easier, consensus top years where
everyone made a great wine.
Elio Altare told me this tasting was critical for the future
of the estate because it would either confirm or deny the validity of his ideology.
I don’t see it quite as black and white as that. My distinct impression is that
Altare views any change or even evolution of the estate’s philosophy as a
repudiation of his ideas and the many battles he waged to champion them.
But that is simply not so. No one can ever deny the beauty of the 1986 Larigi,
the 1994 Langhe Arborina, or the results Altare achieved in vintages
like 1991 and 1992, when virtually all of the top estates of the time did not
bottle any Barolo at all. That legacy will remain intact no matter what.
Ironically, today it is Altare who has to deal with the
ideas and desires of the new generation, headed by daughter Silvia Altare, who
clearly wants to try new things. The power struggle between generations runs through many
families. It is normal. At some estates, the conflicts are very much on the
surface, while at others they simmer in the background, yet they are almost
But the future? Well, the future belongs to the new
generation. It simply must be so.
See All The Wines (listed in the order tasted)
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Altare: A Retrospective of Larigi 1985-2008 (May 2009)
Elio Altare Revisited: 1970 – 1991
-- Antonio Galloni