Calgary Wine Life: Technical Tasting with Barolo’s Claudio Viberti

26 05 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

It all began when Cavalier Antonio Viberti purchased a restaurant, the Locanda del Buon Padre. In 1923, Antonio decided to start making wine in the basement, as many do in this region. The original intent was to keep things simple and just sell the wine to patrons in the restaurant. Well, Antonio’s son Giovanni had other ideas. Things began to expand. Eventually cement tanks for fermentation were installed, and in 1955 wines were sold in nearby markets for the first time. By the 1970s the operation had become a full scale winery, even if the family never forgot their roots as restauranteurs. Giovanni’s son Claudio Viberti, who was our host at this past week’s tasting event at Willow Park Wines & Spirits, took over management of winery and restaurant operations in 2008. He hasn’t looked back since. The man is a dynamo.

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Claudio tells a few of us early birds the story behind the rosé served before the beginning of the formal proceedings. First off, and much to our surprise, this rosé is 100% Nebbiolo. Secondly, the wine is made first as a white wine from Nebbiolo juice obtained via an extremely gentle press. Claudio also makes a small amount of red wine from the same batch, using this to fix the colour of the end product. No combined maceration on the skins was involved, à la pink Champagne. I start scribbling notes. This is dry as a bone but does yield a subtle candied character, with the robust illusion of a sweet finish after a rather dense midpalate. Fairy-like whispers of strawberry, raspberry leaf, and nectarine flit about a more solid core of Parmesan cheese and those pink wintergreen mints, a rather burly rosé with a shimmering coppery finish. This is a rare wine but seems unlikely to remain so.

2017 Viberti Giovanni Piemonte Chardonnay DOC

Let us begin the formal endeavour. The inaugural sip of the official tasting proceedings represents a radical departure from the Chardonnay pioneered by Claudio’s father, which he describes as “buttery, fat, and oaky… I didn’t like it. This was my number one priority to fix.” The entire oak program for the old Chardonnay was scuppered in favour of stainless steel tanks, cool fermentation temperatures, and absolutely minimal lees contact. Claudio’s mantra of lively acidity reigns supreme here, although full malolactic fermentation is permitted to occur, lest the wine have too many sharp edges. Claudio answered one of my burning questions when he spoke to why his family makes a Chardonnay. Everyone and their winery dog makes one, and perhaps with good reason; the grape produces serviceable to fantastic wine basically everywhere grapes can grow. Well, the family wanted a white wine for the restaurant, and Barolo has no indigenous white grape (the broader Langhe does, however!), so Chardonnay it was. IMG_0688Claudio’s white sports a clean, pure nose and a taut crystalline frame with rather little fat on its bones. Vision realized. A little chalk dust lurks in the background, behind a starburst of the freshest green pears and Granny Smith apples, starfruit, dangerously underripe nectarines, zucchini, that watery green rind found under a watermelon peel, and a verdant note of snap peas that would not be out of place in a Sauvignon Blanc. Forget Mentos, THIS is fresh. Just a bit too broad for me to categorize it as a purely linear limestone lightning bolt. As we drink, Claudio lets slip that he recently planted another plot of Chardonnay, intended to yield a richer wine with extended lees contact. Why? “To make peace in the family!”

89- points

2016 Viberti Giovanni La Gemella Barbera d’Alba DOC

Barbera. How does a red wine lover not see at least some appeal here? The grape is naturally high in acidity, low in tannin but yields a tantalizingly opulent dark hue in the glass, and does its best work when minimally oaked. Sounds tailor-made for the Viberti portfolio. Indeed, Claudio explains that his mom has continually pushed to plant more Barbera, predicting early on that the market would eventually suffer a dearth of high quality Barbera due to Nebbiolo getting the best sites. Claudio describes Barbera wines as a rather binary concept: either “awful or excellent”, depending on whether the sun-loving grape gets enough opportunity to ripen at quality sites, as well as on whether the wines have broad enough shoulders to tame (but never suppress) the grape’s fearsome acidity. Although steeped in tradition, the Viberti family willingly uses modern technologies to achieve the desired winemaking aim. Rotofermenters are used to keep the grape skins continuously mixed with the juice for 8-10 days, which minimizes exposure to oxygen that might threaten the acid-driven freshness Viberti always seeks, while simultaneously providing enough extraction to provide needed ballast. Small oak barrels (barriques) are never used, with the wine instead seeing 8 months in large French oak vats followed by two additional months in bottle. Voila. This wine carries the name of Claudio’s mom, Barbera’s champion.

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I am greeted by a cavalcade of red fruits right out of the gate: red cherries first and foremost, fresh and candied, along with pomegranates, red plums, and redcurrant, with a prominent purple flower top note of lilacs/violets and herbal lavender. These notes are a harbinger of blue fruits to come, blueberries galore (but nothing too black, just a hint of bramble). I get further faint undercurrents of sarsaparilla and black liquorice. “Making good wine is about balance, integration”, says Claudio. Quite.

90- points

2016 Viberti Giovanni Nebbiolo Langhe DOC

For some reason I figured we’d try the Dolcetto next. Nope. Somehow one’s perceptions of Nebbiolo as the king of Piedmont means that we assume no such wine can possibly show up mid-tasting…wrong. This order works and in Claudio we trust. This wine is deliberately done in a younger-drinking style, consisting of earlier bottlings of not-quite-Barolos-to-be. Confession: I adore declassified Nebbiolo Langhe. These wines often hint at majesty but still scratch a decidedly proletariat itch, with all of them falling somewhere between the “tar and roses” grandeur of the erudite wine snob and Swedish fish candy gulped down in front of the TV late at night in your underwear. Forgive me that image, dear reader. This one seems closer to the former pole than the latter. Claudio describes this as a “Pinot lover’s Nebbiolo”. F%^k yeah. The parallels between these grapes I have mentioned previously in a blog post on this very site. This wine also sees some rotofermenter action, followed by 10 months of aging in stainless steel tanks and then three more months in large oak vats that are steamed rather than toasted. It is almost as if these guys know that too much new oak mars the delicate nuances of this otherwise robust grape. More on that later.

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This one makes my nostrils tingle with rose petals (check), pink peppercorns, dried red chilli flakes, and above all else, cardamom. The green pods. Whenever a winemaker mentions a note that I have already written down, I feel ridiculously vindicated, as if this whole endeavour of tasting taps into some autochthonous collective unconscious of the vine as opposed to a purely idiosyncratic individual art. Lord knows, I encounter the latter reaction often enough. Perhaps along that vein, this wine conjures up a potent image of some trippy hybrid of earth and spice, like a cement matrix blended with smashed cinnamon sticks. The promised ripe red fruits do not fail to disappoint, delivering strawberries galore with a dash of rhubarb and just a whisper of spicy beef stick in the medium long dry finish. Claudio conducts an informal survey of which wine is the best so far. Most pick the Barbera. This Pinot lover was the lone Langhe vote.

90+ points

2015 Viberti Giovanni Dolcetto D’Alba Superiore DOC

Dolcetto, meaning “little sweet one”, is the earliest ripening of the three native reds tasted here and is further distinguished by its deep violet colour. Indeed, this is the only truly black-fruited wine in the present line-up, with strawberries and red cherries swapped out for blackberries and even a hint of dark jam. Claudio explains that this wine should not be mistaken for an early-drinking lightweight: As Barbera is taken seriously here, so is Dolcetto. “We are here to showcase many wines, not just Nebbiolo,” he says, and proceeds to warn us that the tannins here may even grade towards “Nebbiolo-like”. This sees absolutely no oak, only stainless during aging, as this grape is particularly oxidation prone.

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Someone says they smell almonds, and sure enough, I too get a lovely gust of fresh kernels and Amaretto liqueur. A red that smells like almonds — another Dolcetto calling card. The palate recalls the expected blackberries, accompanied by something more legitimately grape-like (a note I typically deem “purple Popsicle” when I find it in Malbec), chocolate-covered raisins, and a hint of crumbly bacon bits (recall that this has seen no oak). True to form, the tannins are less velvety than expected, but are instead rather nubby and a tad scratchy. This is thickish but far from plodding. I return to that almond on the nose again and again. Tiramisu, maybe? There’s some mad genius behind these fancy rotofermenter contraptions after all.

89+ points

2013 Viberti Giovanni Buon Padre Barolo DOCG

We reach the flagship wine, a blend of various 50+ year old vineyards on a combination of clay and limestone, all vinified separately, a classic old-school blend as opposed to a single vineyard “cru” of the sort that currently represent the gold standard in the DOCG (see the next wine). I begin to wonder where Claudio falls along the infamous “traditional” versus “modern” Barolo divide, a difference in winemaking philosophy so profound as to have led commentators to coin the term “Barolo wars”. Traditional wines were fermented in large wooden casks called botti, with both fermentation and maceration times often lasting as long as 2 months, based on the notion that as much tannin as possible needs to be extracted if the wines are to enjoy a long life span. Of course, this approach is going to massively oxidize the wines, and they might also taste downright dirty or faulted depending on the state of the botti and what else might grow in them besides the desired yeast strains. Modernists say that proper cellar hygiene and temperature control yield more balanced, tasty wines with much shorter maceration and fermentation times. As it turns out, the modernists are quite right in this regard, with all of the colour available in the relatively thin-skinned Nebbiolo extracted during the first day or two of maceration. Longer soak times will simply leach out more bitter tannins, and many producers believe that a balance across fruit, acidity, and tannin is what ultimately determines a wine’s ability to age, as opposed to merely a textural resemblance to sandpaper.

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At first glance, Claudio would appear to be a staunch modernist. (You guessed it) rotofermenters are used to vinify each parcel of grapes for 14-20 days at a strictly controlled temperature of 28-30 degrees C. However, other Barolo producers who use these devices can ferment their wines in as little as four days. Claudio seems to be looking for more extraction of tannins than these folks. His wines are also left to macerate for an additional 14-18 days on the skins, a relatively long time. If there is a clear strike against modernists, it is overuse of new oak barriques, which obscure the delicate perfume of Nebbiolo. As mentioned previously, Claudio refuses to use these, with his Barolo wines instead aged in previously used barrels made of steamed wood rather than toasted. It would seem that Claudio is one of the many producers who has found a middle path, traditional-leaning and new-oak-phobic but not afraid of modern technology. It pays off in the drinking. The Buon Padre is rife with rustic, slightly aggro tannins (just how I like my Barolos), but still provides a linear, clean strike of cranberry, strawberry, raspberry, and blood orange fruit right up the middle. The all-important Nebbiolo perfume has not been sacrificed, a whirling dervish integration of dried rose potpourri, sandalwood incense, soft chamois leather, Red Hots candy, modelling clay, and hints of flesh blacktop and cow chip (yes… just a hint). And check out that price tag (~$65 retail). The “good father” is a tremendous bargain Barolo.

91 points

2011 Viberti Giovanni Bricco Delle Viole Barolo Riserva DOCG

Viberti has four parcels of grapes within this cru, one of the highest vineyards in Barolo (400-500 metres above sea level). The altitude and calcareous composition of the soils are known to yield finely mineral wines with elegant perfume and a so-called “feminine” character. This wine hails solely from a 0.5 hectare parcel that features more clay than is typical for this site, around 27% of the soil content. Perhaps this small section would therefore be expected to yield more fruitiness than the less adulterated limestone that surrounds. Regardless, this wine is produced only in exceptional vintages, and again sees no new oak, only 46 months in 5-10 year old steamed oak vats, followed by 12 months in bottle prior to release.

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Check out this shot of a young Claudio that appears in an Italian cookbook. He’s got nothing to worry about, but I’m glad my 12 year-old self doesn’t appear in print.

I take a sniff and immediately conclude that this needs further time to open up. Or does it? Seems delicate, light-footed. Lilacs, camphor, the cardamom and roses from the Buon Padre, and orris root waft up, along with a few stray balsamic notes. The cranberry and strawberry fruits take a back seat to the floral spicy aromas and tightly-wound minerality. Less rustic than the Buon Padre, the tannins are smooth(ish) but do sneak up a bit, coating the palate like a heavy blanket. Further searching reveals a little meaty sausage with fennel seeds. Often when I taste a wine, my immediate inclination is to start dissecting, not just the structural components but the specific aromas. What’s vexing here is that this task is really bloody hard. This wine is a monolith of graceful Nebbiolo, like a completed jigsaw puzzle where no single piece is knocked or dinged: nothing can be removed. Now this is balance and integration. Each sip is a holistic whole, with any individual flavours providing a brief wink at best. It’s Barolo, full stop.

92 points

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2018 Viberti Giovanni Moscato d’Asti DOCG

Seven wines into a Piedmont tasting, and my palate is wondering whether it can handle much more acid and tannin, heedless of how delicious the delivery systems may be. Well, it turns out that the ol’ sensory apparatus has enough jam left for a Moscato d’Asti, albeit one that manages to land one final sour punch on the chin of this apparent masochist. Claudio explains that with this wine he sought enough brisk acid to cut the sweetness inherent to this style, while at the same time keeping the carbonation on the thin and gentle side. This is bursting with fresh peaches, mangoes, starfruit, cooked pears, and orange smoothie, not to mention a metric ton of fresh blossoms (apple, vanilla, and the classic elderflower soda)…and a ton is a LOT of flowers. What a lovely finale. Although the formal tasting is over, the conversation is not. I will be taking you up on that offer to visit your restaurant, Claudio.

91 points

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