Elio Altare Revisited: 1970 – 1991

"The idea that a Barolo should be undrinkable in its youth and that a consumer should have to wait twenty years for the wine to be great is ridiculous,” says Elio Altare,…and so begins what will turn out to be a memorable day.

Though only in his mid-fifties, Altare is preparing for what will be his 40th harvest in 2006.  Along the way he has had a profound impact in the region and influenced an entire generation of younger winemakers.  In the late 1970s Altare and a group of young local producers traveled to Burgundy in a series of trips that would ultimately lead to a redefinition of Barolo.  Altare recalls that at the time Barolo was made from high yields with little attention paid in the vineyards.  The wines saw long periods of maceration on the skins and were then often aged in attics, where they were exposed to violent swings in temperature that resulted in the premature oxidation of the wines.  In addition many producers did not pay adequate attention to cleanliness in the cellar and dirty barrels were often the root cause of defective, flawed wines.  Altare wanted to make a more elegant, and accessible Barolo, with the finesse of the wines he was tasting in Burgundy.  He sought to convince his father to adopt some of the techniques he had seen in Burgundy such as lower yields in the vineyards and barriques in the cellar, but to no avail.

In 1983 Altare, in a now famous story, took a chainsaw to his father’s old botti.  For this act he was disinherited and the family estate passed to his sisters, something unheard of in the male-dominated society of the time.  Fortunately Altare’s sisters recognized his passion and had the foresight to restore the estate to him. 

Throughout the 1980s Altare experimented with shorter and shorter fermentations and introduced the use of barriques.  Altare’s 1982 Barolo (see below) was aged entirely in cask.  The profound 1985 Barolo Arborina (see Piedmont Report Issue 5) represents a transitional style, as the wine was aged in a mix of cask and barrique, but by 1987 the Altare style as we know it had been formed.  Along the way Altare endured the criticisms of those who decried his approach and claimed the wines would age prematurely.  Today there can be no doubt that the wines have held up well.  In fact, in some cases the wines have actually aged better than more traditional interpretations, proving that quality is a measure of a producer’s seriousness rather than just a reflection of the tools used.

Though outspoken on many issues, Altare remains humble when it comes to his wines.  As he picked out older bottles for us to taste from his personal collection Altare told me matter-of-factly “I’m sure there will be some duds among these bottles.” I fully expected the Barolos from the great 1982 and 1989 vintages to be outstanding, and they were, but the 1987 and 1991, from much less-heralded vintages, were equally brilliant.  I was also stunned by the strong showing of the Nebbiolo and Dolcetto bottlings from 1990.  I think Altare himself was quite surprised how well some of his early wines have held up, saying “I don’t get a chance to try these wines that often myself, so this is a great treat for me as well.”

1970 Barolo—This is about the furthest away you could get from Elio Altare’s wines stylistically and still be talking about Barolo.  The wine shows an advanced ruby color with brownish tones.  At first the nose is a bit musty, with aromas of earth, mushrooms and forest floor, but with some air a lovely, mature Barolo emerges, showing evolved aromas of tobacco, spices, licorice and herbs, with expansive, sweet, perfumed fruit in a soft, delicate style, with outstanding balance.  Although Altare was working at the estate at the time, this is clearly his father’s wine, and very much in the traditional style.  “It’s been a few years since I’ve tried this wine and I am amazed at how well it is showing.  I really did make my father suffer,” says Altare, perhaps with a slight bit of nostalgia.  What an amazing way to start the morning.  91/drink now-, 11/05

1982 Barolo—The 1982 Barolo, from one of the all-time great vintages, does not disappoint.  It displays a lively medium-ruby color, and sweet red fruit, mineral, menthol on a delicate, yet classic frame with excellent structure and a lot of elegance.  Though ready to drink today, this Barolo is still youthful and full of life, with a beautiful, invitingly fresh finish.  This saw 21 day of maceration (then considered shorter than normal) and was aged entirely in cask.  It is a wine that brilliantly bridges tradition with modernism.  “I think back to this wine’s youth, when it was so tannic, it was essentially undrinkable,” says Altare, “and yet today it is very beautiful.”  I think what I would give to have a cellar full of this Barolo.  94/drink 2006-, 11/05

1984 Barolo Arborina—Medium evolved ruby.  The nose offers mature aromas of tobacco, spices, and licorice, followed by stewed prune flavors on a delicate, medium-bodied frame of modest depth.  Though ready to drink, this Barolo still shows the signature slightly-hard tannins of Arborina, proving that a vineyard’s inherent characteristics will always come through.  This is the only wine of the tasting that appeared tired, and with it its best days in the past, it is a wine for current consumption.  88/drink now-, 11/05

1987 Barolo—Lively medium ruby.  The superb 1987 displays a perfumed, aromatic nose of flowers, spices, and vanilla, with more prominent toasted oak aromas than the preceding vintages.  On the palate it offers the vibrant red fruit so typical of La Morra Barolos with modest depth, but much overall elegance and freshness.  Like other first-rate 1987s I have had recently, this wine is an over-achiever.  What it may lack in complexity it more than makes up for in its sheer drinkability and the pure pleasure it delivers.  By 1987 the signature Altare style is clearly in place.  This saw 6 days of maceration and fermentation, and was aged entirely in barrique.  “In 1987 I waited to harvest perhaps a bit too long.  On the day were supposed to start picking it started to rain and did not stop for three days.  As a result, I did not make a Barolo Arborina, and that fruit ended up in the normale,” explains Altare.  A great choice for drinking today, this wine also shows no signs of fading.  93/drink 2006-, 11/05

1988 Barolo—Lively dark ruby.  Though not especially expressive on the nose, the 1988 is a classic Barolo, showing layers of sweet dark red fruit with the structure and freshness typical of the vintage.  While attractive, it doesn’t quite have the captivating balance of the very finest wines, and still appears to be very much on the young side.  This bottle was a bit reduced and did not improve with air.  Cleaner bottles might merit an additional 1-2 points.  89+?/after 2008-, 11/05

1989 Barolo—Medium ruby.  The 1989 Barolo is a breathtaking wine.  It opens with a beautiful aromatic nose, followed by perfumed sweet red fruit that blossoms on the palate with incredible depth, expansiveness and purity of expression.  With some air lovely nuances of licorice, mineral and tobacco gradually appear completing this magnificent effort, which closes with an eternal finish.  An extraordinary and unforgettable wine, and easily one of the best Barolos I have ever had from Altare.  This is just entering its maturity and well-stored bottles will have at least another decade of prime drinking ahead of them.  95/drink now-, 11/05

1990 Nebbiolo delle Langhe—Light red.  The Nebbiolo is one of the great surprises of this tasting.  It is a soft, open wine showing sweet red fruit, menthol, licorice spices and vanilla on a medium-bodied frame of exquisite balance and grace.  In a great vintage like 1990 and in the capable hands of Elio Altare this wine is elevated to an unexpectedly high level of elegance.   It comes across as a mini-Barolo of sorts, providing all of the classic notes in a more subdued manner, and offering incredible drinking pleasure.  “This is a simple Nebbiolo I used to make from young vines in a plot I rented years ago,” says Altare, although there is nothing ‘simple’ about this wine.  91/drink now-, 11/05

1990 Dolcetto D’Alba—Medium violet.  Conventional wisdom says a fifteen-year-old Dolcetto should be dead, but this bottle, like the Nebbiolo tasted alongside it, is instead vibrant and full of life.  It offers all of the classic Dolcetto notes of blue/black fruit and minerals, but with a more attenuated, hushed personality, along with more evolved notes of tobacco and white truffles that provide balance.  There is an irresistible, ethereal sweetness to the fruit, as well great length on the palate which make this wine a sheer joy to taste.  A superb achievement.  91/drink now-, 11/05

1991 Barolo—Medium ruby.  The 1991 Barolo, from a vintage long forgotten by most, is another strong effort.  It opens with a perfumed nose of spices, vanilla and toasted oak followed by sweet red fruit, with excellent persistence and finesse as well as well as notable freshness on the long finish.  This is the third bottle of this wine I have tasted recently, and the flavors are just now starting to show the early signs of maturity.  90/ drink now-, 11/05

—Antonio Galloni