Barolo Breakdown, Part Two: La Morra
There are 11 villages in the Langhe entitled to produce Barolo, but really only five of them are household names – and I’m only talking about those few households where Barolo is a regular drink! You can put these famous names on a spectrum that roughly goes from “elegant” to “structured”. Here it is:
My plan is to tackle each of these villages in that order, starting today with the elegance of La Morra. Then I’ll finish this series with a round-up of all the remaining villages (and there are some biggies there, like Verduno and Novello, so don’t think you can just skip that one!).
If you missed Part One, an overview, you can read it here.
La Morra: The big picture.
La Morra is a very important village! And not just because it’s charming to visit and has a number of top producers and vineyard sites.
It’s also important because it produces a lot of wine! Look at any map of Barolo’s villages and you’ll see that La Morra is a giant blob taking over the entire northwest corner of the area. This blob produces around 25% of all Barolo.
It’s also important for the kind of Barolo it produces: more elegant, less structured. That’s great if you like less tannic Barolo that you want to drink at a younger age. It’s also great as an ingredient for producers that like to blend from different sites – a dash of something lighter and elegant is just the thing for a wine that is otherwise brooding and tannic. Read on to find out the very important producer who does exactly that.
Here's the La Morra Breakdown.
Before we hit the details, here’s the key stuff that you really need to know about La Morra:
- Situated in the DOC’s northwest corner, La Morra is the biggest and most productive village in Barolo.
- Of the major villages, it produces the lightest, most aromatic, most elegant wines
- Its soils are Tortonian, with less limestone and more sand than the other villages, and also a good amount of clay
- It has a high number of very famous and highly-rated Barolo sites, such as Brunate, Cerequio, and Rocche del’Annunziata
- It also has a high number of famous producers! Oddero, Altare, Voerzio, Ratti and Marcarini all call La Morra home.
Ok, now we can break things down in more detail.
How is La Morra situated?
You might sense that La Morra is a special wine place when you realize that it’s organized a lot like Burgundy’s Cote d’Or. It’s a long slope that runs roughly north-south and faces east or southeast. This hill is pretty high, the highest of the Langhe’s many hills, but don’t go looking for mountain-top vineyards. Its peak is instead where you find the charming village of La Morra. The vineyards flow down from its streets, mostly to its south and east.
The vineyards near the top of the slope – like La Serra or Fossati – tend to be a little too cold to produce the village’s best Barolo, although this may be changing as vintages are increasingly becoming too warm. The best sites, for now, are found lower down and at the southern end of the slope, where they spill over into the neighboring commune of Barolo. Here you find true Barolo greatness in the Cru of Brunate, one of the best-known names of the region.
There are other clusters of vineyards. Further north, you have slopes that face across the Central Valley towards Castiglione. Here you find top sites like Rocche dell’Annunziata and Gattera. Brunate may be considered a better overall Barolo site, but it’s in this sector that you find wines that more clearly sing La Morra.
To the west you also have a few vines planted on the backside of La Morra’s hill. This is not exactly primo La Morra land. The best known site here is Ascheri.
What are the soils of La Morra like?
Like everywhere in the Langhe, the soils here are limestone-based, but La Morra has the important distinction of having the least amount of limestone and the most amount of sand of all the Barolo villages. That’s why the wines are generally the least tannic.
There is also more clay in La Morra than elsewhere. This is important when thinking about vintages. Dry vintages tend to over-perform in La Morra, as the clay retains water. Conversely, rainier vintages do poorly here.
So what are the wines of La Morra like?
Well, I’ve already mentioned that they are less tannic. Many of the sites are also pretty high up, and these tend to be a little cooler (like La Serra). Put these together and you get wines that are more at the floral, aromatic end of the Barolo spectrum. The lower sites tend to be quite warm and here you find a herbaceous character to the wines that some people describe as eucalyptus – it is so marked in one vineyard site, Cerequio, that they say it is one of the easiest vineyards to pick in a blind tasting. “They”, I say, because I have never done so myself!
But there is more to wine than terroir, and La Morra stands out for one particular trend in what happens in the wine cellars. The invasion of barriques seems to have taken more of a hold here than elsewhere, with notable practitioners including Elio Altare and Roberto Voerzio. A cynic might say this is precisely because the wines are lighter than elsewhere in Barolo, and therefore needed more “dressing up” to get the high scores in glossy magazines. There is also the simpler possibility that the genius of Altare happened to inspire many of his neighbors. There is no stronger influence in wine country than what your neighbor is doing.
What are La Morra’s top sites?
Wine-searcher has usefully provided a compilation of all Barolo sites designated as top sites in three expert classifications: Antonio Galloni’s, Renato Ratti’s, and Alessandro Masnaghetti’s.
Only three sites in all of DOC Barolo was deemed “top” by all three men. Of those three, two are in – or mostly in – La Morra. “Mostly in” because these two top sites, Brunate and Cerequio, both cross the border into the village of Barolo. A third site, Rocche dell’Annunziata, lies entirely within La Morra, and it sits in the next tier of three vineyard sites on wine-searcher’s site. You can see that La Morra is a really good village!
So what's there to know about these great sites?
This big Cru (about 28 hectares) starts out on the lower portion of La Morra’s great hill, at around 230 meters, and slopes upward sharply towards a crest, at 400 meters, where it meets La Serra. Exposure to the sun is excellent: there is a fold in the slope here, such that Brunate faces due south rather than east.
The soils are classic La Morra: clear and light, with blue-grey marl and that mix of limestone, sand and clay. There is also a touch of manganese.
This is a warm site, and the fruit here is a bit darker. The wines are also more tannic than other La Morra Barolo – does the manganese enhance the tannins, as it does in Beaujolais’ Moulin-a-Vent? Some people say that in Barolo manganese offers up a bit of spice. La Brunate’s tannins, in any case, are exceptionally fine and integrate seamlessly with the fruit. That’s a sure sign of good terroir!
There are many famous producers of La Brunate, including Giuseppe Rinaldi, Vietti, Oddero, Marcarini and Voerzio. I am also partial to lesser-known Brunate growers Enzo Boglietti and Claudio Boggione.
Like any hill, the slope of La Morra is not perfect, and it has folds and crests interrupting the flow. Cerequio is basically one fold over from Brunate, just to its west. The portion of the fold that abuts Brunate faces the wrong way and is cooler. But go beyond the fold in the hill and suddenly you are facing perfectly south once again, with the village high up behind you protecting you from the northern wind.
This may be the warmest microclimate in all of Barolo. Indeed, it is the only place within the DOC that olive trees can grow! But Cerequio is not all warmth and sunshine. The magnesium that you find in Brunate is even more intense here -- as much as 5 times the content as in any other Barolo Cru.
Put this together and you might think of Cerequio as an “exaggerated Brunate” – even darker and more structured, but still elegant with tannins that integrate perfectly. It is also known for an herbaceous quality – often called eucalyptus – which I also associate with the site’s warmth (it’s a common note in some new world sites). Cerequio makes for very distinct Barolo.
Top producers include Roberto Veorzio, Chiarlo, and Gaja, who bought a farm here in 1995 and produces from it the wine he calls “Conteisa”.
It is said that when Bartolo Mascarello was young, he met a grower from Rocche dell’Annunziata who was selling his grapes. He told Bartolo “In Barolo you have the name, but in Rocche we have the perfume.”
Of the three vineyards profiled here, only this one is 100% in La Morra, and it is definitely the one most associated with what La Morra is most famous for: perfume and elegance. The locals just call it “Le Rocche”, but the rest of us need the full name to avoid mix-ups with the better-known Rocche del Castiglione.
The soils are pretty classic La Morra, but with a twist: there is an unusually high concentration of silt. Some people associate this with silkier tannins.
Growers include Renato Ratti, Scavino, Accomasso, Veorzio and Aurelio Settimo, all of whom produce single Cru wines from the site. This is also the only Cru from outside the village of Barolo that goes into Bartolo Mascarello’s Barolo, making up about 30% of the blend. With all that perfume and elegance, it really helps their wine!
Are there other good sites to know?
Sure! You will see bottles bearing the name La Serra, which is a cooler site upslope from Brunate. Perhaps global warming will one day allow this site to eclipse its neighbor beneath.
You may also see Gattera, which is over by the border with Castiglione di Falletto and behaves a bit like this neighbor with tannins that are somewhat more pronounced.
Arborina – bottled most famously by Altare -- produces fresh and fruity Barolo.
Who are the top producers of La Morra?
As I mentioned, La Morra is home to many more modernist producers, but this is a big commune, and you have full gamut here, from culty traditionalist to fervent modernist and producers both big and small. Here are some highlights:
He is the original “modernist”, but he denies the term and is widely admired by Barolo-lovers on both sides of the aisle. Inspired by a visit to Burgundy back in 1976, he is a true rebel who turned his back on tradition, destroying his father’s giant old casks with a chainsaw. Fans of La Morra must try his single vineyard Arborina, which comes from vines surrounding the winery. I once had the privilege of lunch with Elio Altare and he spent most of the meal attempting to convince us that his short macerations was the key to success in off vintages. His 1994 was thoroughly persuasive!
An important name in Piedmont, partly because with 35 hectares they are a solidly mid-sized producer, but also because Renato himself was a huge leader in Barolo’s quality revolution, as head of the consortium, founder of a museum, and a writer of many important works (such as guides to Barolo vintages and Crus that are still highly widely referenced today, including near the top of this blog post). Old bottles of Ratti, if you find them, can be quite good. These days they produce wines that are solid but not brilliant.
This is a very old name in Piedmont, as the Marcarinis have been making Barolo for at least five generations. They are a fairly traditional producer and the quality is decently high, especially relative to the fairly modest prices. The crown jewels are single cru wines from Brunate and La Serra. The Brunate, in particular, is consistently very good, made as it is from some of the choicest parcels in both the La Morra and Barolo sides of that grand cru.
Accomasso has been making wine for longer than just about anyone anywhere, and he says that he hasn’t changed a thing in his production since he started out in the 1950s. Is he the Noel Verset of Barolo? Perhaps, and yet he still makes wines and you can still (occasionally) buy them! Though enough people have caught on that they are not cheap. The wines are powerful and backwards, but with a bit of patience and maybe a bit of squinting, you can make out the elegance and finesse of his home village La Morra.
This is an old established Barolo house with holdings in top Crus from many villages across the Barolo DOC (and Barbaresco), but they are rooted in La Morra. Their Barolo normale comes mostly from La Morra vineyards that surround the winery, and they also produce a single vineyard Brunate that is, frankly, one of the greatest Barolo being made today. This is a traditionalist winery, though they are not afraid to experiment with Stockinger (Austrian) barrels and the like.
The Oddero domain actually split back in 2006 due to fraternal conflict, and Luigi Oddero is one of the successors. They have pretty much the same holdings as the other successor, plus some additional La Morra holdings that they subsequently acquired. At first the wines did not seem to be as good, but in 2012 they hired Dante Scaglione – the legend who for years made the wines at Bruno Giacosa – and the wines have soared in quality.
A thoroughly modernist producer whose obsessive attention to detail in the vines results in incredibly low yields and very powerful, deep and purely fruited wines. He has the greatest collection of La Morra vineyards of anyone, with holdings – and bottlings – in Brunate, Cerequio, Rocche dell’Annunziata and others.
The Boglietti brothers are La Morra’s alchemists, experimenting like wizards in their small winery to figure out how to make the best Barolo possible. They were initially quite influenced by Voerzio and therefore produced wines from low-yielding vines that were aged in barriques. They have since experimented with other extremes, now macerating their wines for an astonishing 90 days and aging them exclusively in large neutral (French) barrels. These experiments can work, and they are producing some truly astonishing wines.
This is a small producer with a very clear specialty: single vineyard Rocche dell’Annunziata, from vines by the winery. They make wines in a very classical style, and offer them at very reasonable prices. This is excellent wine for getting-to-know La Morra…or just for drinking!
This is a small producer that originally made wine just to serve in their La Morra restaurant. But then legendary importer Robert Chadderon – importer of Bartolo Mascarello at the time – discovered them and started to bring them over (Chadderon has since retired but another excellent boutique importer has picked them up). They mostly follow tradition but not rigorously. This is a really good, fairly inexpensive and quite approachable source of single-Cru La Morra wine from Arborina and Gattera.
How can I begin buying and drinking La Morra?
Time for my own personal advice. If you love this village – why wouldn’t you! – then make sure you have some of Oddero’s Barolo normale lying around. It is a superb value and good and approachable in virtually every vintage. It’s great Barolo to just have on hand.
For your cellar, pick a few wines you love to buy in all but the worst vintages -- perhaps Marcarini’s Brunate, Boglietti’s Brunate or Settimo’s Rocche – and then buy more broadly in great vintages like 2016. Get a bottle or two of Accomasso whenever you are offered some!
You can in general drink these wines a little earlier than Barolo from other villages, but it’s still a good rule of thumb to wait about 10 years for top crus, and sometimes longer from the more structured vintages (2010, 2006).
But the normale wines from La Morra are really good right out of the gates – one of the reasons I recommend Oddero’s.
OK, see you next time, when I tackle the village of Barolo.