The Barolo Breakdown, Part 5: Monforte d’Alba
Monforte shines through its sheer diversity. This village shares its chain of hills with Castiglione, its neighbor to the north. Some of its vineyards (Bussia, in particular) are quite close to the village of Barolo, facing Cannubi just across the narrow valley.
It does have quite a bit of limestone in its soils, but less than Serralunga, and in general the soil types, altitudes and orientations are as mixed up in Monforte as in any other village.
So, while Monforte is often lumped in with Serralunga at the “powerful, structured” end of the spectrum, this is a mistake.
Serralunga is very special and unique. Of the three north-south chains of hills that make up Barolo, Serralunga gets the eastern chain all to itself. Serralunga also has the highest concentration of limestone in its soils. Its wines aren’t quite a world apart, but its Barolos are certainly very distinctive.
Here’s a little graphic to help you visualize what I’m talking about:
You see? When I look at this map -- even if highly stylized and simplified -- I can see right away that Monforte should not be so easily grouped with Serralunga. Maybe it's more like Castiglione? Or maybe it's just its own thing.
A very diverse thing! But despite Monforte's diversity, I will, as usual, attempt some generalizations. Monforte does, like Serralunga, tend to display that characteristic combination of dark cherries and powerful structure. But in Serralunga the emphasis is more on the structure; in Monforte the emphasis is more on the cherries.
In fact, I might say that Monforte produces Barolo’s fruitiest wines. Sure, you get all the same wonderful flavors you find in Barolo from anywhere else – roses, tar, dried herbs, porcini – but here, a touch more than elsewhere, Nebbiolo’s cherry side manages to come to the surface.
But generalities are just that! Let’s start looking at the details.
Where are all the Crus?
The first thing I noticed when I studied the map of Monforte (the real one!) is that the village is divided up into a relatively small number of Crus. Barolo, La Morra and Serralunga have between 30 and 40 Crus each. Monforte has only 11 Crus. And not because it’s small: it sprawls over a larger area than any other commune in Barolo, and produces just over 20% of its wine, second only to La Morra.
If you're good at ratios, you'll understand right away that while there aren’t that many Crus, they must be big Crus.
There is a simple, historical reason for this. Wine regions everywhere have to settle on a marketing strategy. Do you focus on wine names that are already well known and just double down? Or do you exploit your mosaic of local vineyards and focus on educating the world about them?
In what were apparently a number of contentious town hall meetings, the wine-producers of Monforte settled on the former strategy. They had names like Bussia and they were going to use them! Before long, many Crus that were traditionally designated by separate names were now all Bussia. Close enough, they figured, and everyone has heard of Bussia.
The strategy isn’t crazy, but it does contribute to the problem of how to describe things.
For example, how does one describe Bussia, exactly? It now covers a lot of hectares, including vineyard sites that point in opposite directions, so it’s a little hard to say!
Take the small number of Crus, and add to that the soil diversity in Monforte, and there is an important take-away for Barolo lovers: focus less on specific Cru names and more on specific producers and specific cuvées. There are several worth your attention, and we’ll cover them all here.
But there are some top Crus right?
Can we actually distinguish the Crus, even though they have been so agglomerated over the years? Let’s try!
This Cru may now be way too large, but it really is one of the great names of Barolo.
It was one of the very first Crus to appear as a name on a Barolo, when Prunotto released a single-vineyard Bussia back in 1961. This is the very same year that Vietti first released Rocche.
Prunotto released his Bussia when it was owned by Barolo legend Beppe Colla. Colla recognized the great potential of the Cru. He eventually sold Prunotto, but loved the site in Bussia so much that he purchased it from Prunotto -- after selling the company -- and now releases a single vineyard Bussia under his own name! It is an extraordinary wine that immediately presents its elegance, together with an imposing structure that portends decades of development.
But the name Bussia is even more associated with Aldo Conterno. Aldo sticks to old pre-consolidation names like Cicala, Colonnello and Romirasco…but now these are all MGA Bussia. His top wine is a blend of the best grapes from all three sub-crus called Granbussia, though the primary source is Romirasco.
So what can we say about Bussia’s character?
In some ways, it is clearly Barolo from Helvetian soils. Just look at a glass and you will see the deep color associated with the eastern, Helvetian half of Barolo. You also get the cherry-intense fruitiness that I associate with Monforte. But the structure, while not at all soft, seems lifted, even elegant, more like a Cannubi than a Serralunga. This is not surprising, as Bussia lies just across the valley from Cannubi, and a small portion of it actually sits within the commune of Barolo.
In Monforte, though, you always have to speak in generalities. There is a sub-cru of Bussia called Mondoca, for example (Oddero has a bottling), which produces enormously backwards and structured wines. Like I said, this is a village where you need to think less about Cru, and more about individual bottlings.
Look at a map and you might guess that this is a pretty good Cru. Like Rocche or Brunate it faces, for the most part, southeast (like many of the great vineyards around Europe).
But Ginestra is different from Rocche and Brunate in one very important regard: it has a particularly high concentration of limestone in the soils, and it therefore produces very structured wines.
In other words, it’s very Serralunga-like, and sure enough this is a Cru that is on the Serralunga side of the village, facing just across the valley from the great Serralunga Cru of Francia (yeah, that's where Monfortino has been made for like 40 years...).
The greatest source of Ginestra may be Elio Grasso, who makes several single vineyard wines all from Ginestra sub-Crus: Gavarini Chiniera, Runcot, and Ginestra Casa Mate. These are worth checking out. You will also come across Conterno-Fantino’s Sori Ginestra, which is another Ginestra Sub-Cru. Monforte is really all about sub-Crus!
Note that this is the ONLY Monforte Cru to appear on the wine-searcher chart I referenced in an earlier blog (view it here) that consolidates three classifications of top Barolo Crus.
This is thanks to Antonio Galloni, who deems it to be one of the 10 “Exceptional” Crus in the DOC. It's the only one in Monforte. (Actually, there is a tiny sliver of Rocche that is technically on the Monforte side of the border with Castiglione, but of course that’s really a Cru we associate with Castiglione.)
Perno is a small village that sits on top of a hill, with vines sloping down in every direction. To the north, they face across a small valley towards Rocche. To the east, they face Gabutti and Margheria in Serralunga.
As you can imagine, there is a fair bit of diversity here, and it really makes sense to talk about individual expressions. The one I have the most experience is with Giuseppe Mascarello’s, which is from the sub-Cru of San Stefano, which faces neither north nor east but west towards Bussia. It is a lovely Barolo with a little more roundness and fruit-forwardness than the Monprivato.
This is not a super well-known Cru but it appears on bottles from a couple of my favorite off-the-radar producers so I like to talk about it. Fratelli Alessandria, whose wines are usually from Verduno, makes a delicious example, and it is a terrific experience to taste through Alessandria’s Verdunos and compare them to this wine from Monforte. Typically, the wine combines rich cherry fruit with tension that demands time to unfold and ease up.
Another producer is Giovanni Manzone, a highly organic, low sulphur producer who is a specialist in these parts and has a trio of Monforte single vineyards. Of the three, the Gramolere shows the most richness but still exhibits that tension.
Ok, that’s probably enough on the Crus, especially for a village where the Crus have, shall we say, a little less brand recognition than they do in other villages?
There are, on the other hand, so well-known and well-admired producers in the village.
So, who’s making the best Monforte?
Here are a few to watch out for:
Aldo was (he died in 2012) the son of Giacomo Conterno, whose estate, under Aldo's nephew Roberto Conterno, continues to make the most sought-after Barolos.
Roberto’s estate is also located in Monforte, but his wines are from Serralunga and so we’ll take a closer look at it in the next post. Aldo split with his brother, Giovanni (Roberto's dad), in 1969 to form his own estate. It has never attained quite the same fame as what became his brother’s, and then his nephew's. But it does produce some of the most fabulous wines of Monforte.
Aldo was always a believer in making Barolo “friendlier”, so he shortened macerations, switched to pump-overs, and quickly became thrown into the modernist camp.
But because he never abandoned Slavonian oak casks, they wines have never had that new barrique “sheen” that so marks many modern Barolo. Today many people would describe this estate as mixing tradition and innovation – kind of how you could describe virtually all of the top estates, actually.
The wines are beautifully pure and quite fruit-expressive, but without any excess.
Bussia is where they (now Aldo’s sons) make all their wines, from a blend of different sub-Crus in Bussia – simply called Bussia – to the single-vineyard bottlings Colonello, Cicala and Romirasco, and the masterpiece Riserva Gran Bussia, which is again a blend but is 70% Romirasco.
Even die-hard traditionalists tend to admit that these are wines that are very easy to love.
This is a producer that Kerin O’Keefe describes as a “cult” producer in her must-read guide to Barolo & Barbaresco.
That’s perhaps true in Italy – or in my own household, where we drink them regularly! – but I still find these to be mostly off-the-radar in the U.S.
This is an old-school producer who, despite their adherence to tradition, manages to turn out fairly accessible Barolo (both in terms of drinkability and price!).
They have an interesting range of sites that focus on Bussia but that flows over into the communes of Barolo (Cannubi, Castellero) and Castiglione (Villero). If you take a moment and look at a map and you’ll quickly realize how tightly these sites are all clustered together – it’s a very good space to carve out a specialty!
An especially noteworthy wine from Fenoccho is their Riserva Barolo Bussia “90 di”. This is from a southwest facing site in the Cru, and is made with a 90-day maceration using the traditional submerged cap method. The only other producer I know who ever goes that long is Lucca Roagna, who sometimes macerates for up to 100 days. Needless to say, this is a wine that requires extended aging!
Grasso is one of the stars of Monforte, possessing monopole ownership of Gavarini, and holdings in other parts of Ginestra as well.
This is some of the best terroir in Monforte.
Their approach is that of an enlightened traditionalist, combining ultra-long macerations (60 days for these wines!), aging in large Slavonian oak barrels, extreme hygiene in the winery and obsessive farming in the vineyard. It works.
The result are wines that are large-scaled and often backwards but that still manage to convey charm and finesse. Kind of the key to top Barolo right?
This is the producer mentioned above that owned Prunotto for a while before setting up his own domain in 1993.
At Prunotto, they released one of the first single-vineyard Barolos ever in 1961 (call it a tie with Vietti who released Rocche that year). It was from the sub-cru of Dardi Le Rose, a prized portion of Bussia that faces more or less due south. Beppe Colla loved the parcel so much that when he set off on his own he bought it, and now the Dardi Le Rose is the only Barolo that they make.
It’s a wine of power and length, with a structure that is classic Monforte: very present, but without the chewiness of Serralunga. Pricing is very reasonable and this is a wine I highly recommend following from vintage to vintage.
This is another small producer specializing in just one Cru of Monforte: San Giovanni, a Cru that is closer to the village, proper, of Barolo than the village, proper, of Monforte. In fact, it is right beside Novello’s great Cru of Ravera.
Again, it’s one of those moments when you look at a map and realize that the communes are far more mushed together than their divisions might suggest.
This is a producer that focuses on natural farming, and precise and polished wine-making that does include the use of some new barriques. Despite the nearness to Barolo and Ravera, I find the wines to be very classic – and quite beautiful – expressions of what I expect from Monforte.
This is the top name in ‘modernist” Barolo in Monforte. French barriques, short macerations and low yields all give the wines a modern, polished sheen.
There is lots of precision and attention to detail here, as well as organic farming, and to my taste these are some of the best examples of the modernist style from anywhere in Barolo.
Good terroir helps! They operate exclusively in Monforte, and release single vineyard bottlings from Sori Ginestra, a Mosconi and a Vigna del Gris.
So what should I buy, drink and cellar from Monforte?
The most collectable wines here are the Aldo Conternos. The wines are excellent, there is a long and superb track record, and the Bussia terroir is first division.
Collectors should also stock up on Elio Grasso, who really are wizards in the cellar who have material from one of AOC Barolo’s best sites, Ginestra.
If you think of yourself more as a Barolo drinker rather than collector, then stock up on the other producers profiled above!
- Fenocchio provides especially fantastic value and a great diversity of Crus to try. Really, you can learn far more about Barolo’s Crus drinking through the various offerings from Fenocchio than you can reading this guide!
- Alessandria and Colla are also useful for providing brilliant wines that really demonstrate what Monforte is all about.
In general, I would say these wines can be drunk a little younger than Barolo from elsewhere. They can be quite structured, but the cherry-fruitiness usually manages to overcome the battle with the tannins to provide a good drinking experience from a relatively young age.
Sadly, I can’t think of any Monforte-focused Barolo normale to recommend for an “every day” (if only!) Barolo.
If that’s what you’re looking for, stick to La Morra or Castiglione for better options.
Interested in learning more about the rest of Barolo? Read on.
Here we have an overview of everything you need to know about Barolo.
Why is La Morra so important? What makes these wines so elegant? Who makes the best wine from La Morra?
Why does this village bear the name Barolo? What makes Cannubi so special? Are all wines from the village of Barolo impossible to buy?
Why are all Castiglione wines so balanced? Where can I find the best Castiglione Barolo? How is the village laid out?
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