The Barolo Breakdown, Part 6: Serralunga d’Alba
Serralunga is the only village that is more Barolo than Barolo itself.
Barolo, the DOC, may get its name from Barolo, the village, but the essence of Barolo – its power, its structure, its nuance, its cherry fruit, its aromas – is found more in Serralunga than anywhere else.
I love Serralunga, and that is why.
That’s a personal impression, of course, but I have a couple of facts and figures to back me up!
One is the marketplace. I think it is no accident that Barolo’s greatest wine – both in terms of the price it commands in the marketplace but also by general reputation among consumers, critics and the Piedmontese themselves – is Monfortino, a wine that is entirely from Serralunga. Bruno Giacosa’s high-priced red label Barolos are also from Serralunga. And Barolo’s cultiest and most allocated wine is made by Cappellano – also from Serralunga. I’ve also heard that back in the day when most grapes were sold to large producers (Pio Cesare etc.), grapes from Serralunga were among the most expensive.
It’s also true in terms of terroir. The key to Barolo is its limestone, and there is more limestone in Serralunga than anywhere else. That’s why you get the power! That’s why Serralunga is at the opposite end of the Barolo scale that I presented in the La Morra blog post:
You might look at this graphic and conclude that Serralunga lacks elegance and aroma. But that’s not really how the graphic works.
Barolo from La Morra is powerful; Barolo from Serralunga is elegant. It’s all Barolo after all! It’s more a question of what element of the wine is emphasized.
Believe me, a great Serralunga is a beautifully elegant wine. This has been increasingly true in recent years as producers have learned to better manage tannins – mostly using green harvests to get them to ripen better, and therefore presentl less harshly.
Of course, Serralunga is itself a complex place with lots of internal diversity. That’s why it needs this blog post!
Serralunga, the Big Picture
Remember this graphic from the Monforte guide that shows Barolo as mostly consisting of three chains of hills, separated by north-south valleys?
Well, as you can see, aside from a couple minor villages at the very top, like Diano d’Alba, Serralunga pretty much gets the entire eastern chain to itself.
Right away you can see that Serralunga is special! You might also be reminded of La Morra, another special village with vineyards sloping down a long ridge. Also like La Morra, the village of Serralunga sits at the top of this ridge, the medieval castle that dominates the village looming over the surrounding hectares of vines.
But there is an important difference to note when comparing Serralunga with La Morra. Most of La Morra’s great vineyards all lie on the slopes descending eastward. In Serralunga, famous sites lie on both sides of the ridge. This means you get both east-facing sites – which typically give more acid – and west-facing sites – more power.
But Serrralunga’s ridge is also more broken up than La Morra’s and behaves a little bit more like a series of small hills, with some vineyards pointing south or north.
All to say, the terroir changes faster and is slightly more expressive here. The village is broken into a larger number of smaller Crus. It keeps things interesting! (And it means you really need this guide, right?)
So what does Barolo from Serralunga taste like?
We have talked about Serralunga’s power and structure, but that is not its only defining feature.
This is also, alongside Monforte, a place where Nebbiolo’s cherry side is strongest.
And wild herbs! Here is where sage comes to the forefront, but also rosemary and oregano. In the past, when the tannins did not always get fully ripe, these herbaceous flavors were sometimes too strong and green – though years of cellaring tended to help. Now, with better tannin management (mainly green harvests that help accelerate phenolic ripening), the herbaceous flavors are finer and they contribute to the enjoyment and complexity of the wine.
Barolo is an extreme wine. And Serralnga is extreme Barolo!
Shall we take a trip through the top vineyards?
When you look at a vineyard map of Serralunga, it looks like a crazy jumble. There are a lot of small sites that seem to point in every direction. But if you travel through the vineyards, it all makes a lot more sense. I recommend you hop on a bicycle, but a car will do. For now, I suppose, we’ll just imagine that we’re taking the trip.
If you enter Serralunga from the south you will find yourself on highway 125, a road that follows the ridge from south to north. Vineyards will descend on either side of you, pointing roughly west and east.
- ARIONE: Begin heading north, into the commune, and the first vines you will come to are in the MGA of Arione, descending to your left. Because of a curve in the road, these vines are pointing southwest. This is one of the higher points along the ridge, and you are at about 400m als.
- We are not yet in the heart of limestone-rich Serralunga, and there is a little more sand here than elsewhere. That sand seems to add a touch of La Morra’s personality to the wines, and this is actually one of the finest most elegant sites in Serrlaunga.
- So fine, infact, that Roberto Conterno seized on the opportunity to purchase vines here and now includes some of them in his Monfortino! Enzo Boglietti (see a write-up in the La Morra post) produces single-vineyard Arione, and he believes it is his most “Burgundian” wine. Going back further, you will see bottles from Gigi Rosso (the producer that sold the vines to Conterno) and even Bruno Giacosa (who bought grapes from Gigi Rosso up until 1978). I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad Arione!
- FRANCIA: The road very quickly bends to the right and suddenly the vines descend more west than south. Now you are in a very special place: Francia, also called Cascina Francia.
- This was the sole source of Monfortino from 1978 up until 2014, and going forward will continue to be the principal source, along with some contributions from Arione.
- Aside from facing more westerly, you have a little more limestone here and there is a little more variation in altitude, with vines that drop below Arione’s. Things are getting a little more Serralunga-like, but the wines still possess loads of perfume. I guess that’s the key to the Monfortino magic!
- FALLETTO: So, things got off to a fast start on this little tour! Keep heading north along the road, however, and you can take a short break – take a sip of water if you’re biking! – as you pass through some less famous vineyard sites.
- But then, still before you get to the village of Serralung, you arrive at a parcel of vines on your left side that are owned by the great Bruno Giacosa (of Neive in Barbaresco). This is his monopole vineyard site – his only holding in Barolo. It’s called Falletto, and is not to be confused with Castiglione Falletto, as I have certainly done!
- Halfway through Falletto, the road whips to the left, and suddenly the vines descending on your left side are actually facing due south. When Giacosa releases a red label or white label “Rocche del Falletto”, it comes from these south-facing vines. Giacosa’s wines from other Falletto vines are simply labeled “Falletto” and they bear only white labels.
- Giacosa’s Barolos are grand: powerful, austere and regal. Is it the site or the greatness of Giacosa? Who knows. What everyone knows is that you should get these wines if you can afford them.
- ORNATO: The road turns to the north again and you will briefly pass through Ornato, a site made famous by a single-vineyard bottling from another out-of-towner, Pio Cesare.
- VIGNA RIONDA: You’ll pass through a handful of lesser known sites and then, just before arriving at the village, with its castle looming overhead, it’s time to get off your bicycle and follow a path leading off the highway to the west, towards Monforte. Descend for a while, and you get to one of the commune’s most famous sites, Vigna Rionda.
- Vigna Rionda is lower down on the western slope of Serralunga and the hill of Castelletto looms just across the narrow Serralunga valley to its west.
- You are well sheltered from the wind here and the grapes ripen well in classic limestone-rich Serravelian soils, producing some of Barolo’s deepest and most powerful wines.
This is yet another site that benefits from top-level producers. Experienced – or just lucky -- Barolo drinkers will have come across this name on bottles from Bruno Giacosa (up to 1993) or Roagna. Those are some of the greatest Barolos ever made! Their source was the Canale family, whose estate was broken up in 2011 upon the death of the patriarch. Some vines were transferred to two of my favorites in the neighborhood, Guido Porro and Ettore Germano, who both replanted the vines. Porro’s first single-vineyard Vigna Rionda was in 2014, made from baby vines. Germano released a Langhe Nebbiolo from the site that year and plans to release a 2015 Barolo. I haven’t tried these wines from either producer.
The remaining vines were transferred to a domain called Giovanni Rosso. The Rossos had a family connection to Canale, and so have decided to use the Ester Canale name on their bottles. They have been releasing an extraordinary Ester Canale Barolo for a few years now, at high ($500+) prices. There is a far more affordable, but not cheap, Ester Canale Nebbiolo made from younger vines on the site that you should try.
The entry of the Ester Canale Barolo on the marketplace means that what I believe are the three most expensive Barolos to be made – this one, Giacosa’s red label from Falletto, and Monfortino – are all made within walking distance of each other. Just mentioning that in case you still had some doubts about my claim that Serralunga is super special!
But here’s a buying tip: Massolino, who is actually the biggest owner of the vineyard, and Oddero, from La Morra, also make Vigna Rionda. Both wines are fabulous. They’re not exactly easy to find, but you can usually track them down and we offer them from time to time. They are far cheaper than any of the wines mentioned above!
- MARGHERIA: If you keep descending westward through the Vigna Rionda, you hit the valley floor. This is the north-south valley that separates Monforte and Castiglione from Serralunga, called the Serralunga Valley. Follow it a few steps to the north and here is another well-known vineyard, Margheria.
- We are very close to Vigna Rionda here, and yet the wines of Margheria are some of the lightest and most perfumed – spicy, even – in all of Serralunga. The contrast with Vigna Rionda, just a few feet away, is remarkable. The reason is sand: Margheria has a lot more of it. Several good producers have single vineyard expressions, like Massolino, Luigi Pira and Azelia.
- VILLAGE OF SERRALUNGA: Ok, from Margheria there’s a road that will take you back uphill again and into the village of Serralunga. Take a break for some lunch – the winery Schiavenza has a trattoria here -- and don’t forget to grab your bike!
- BREA: Now head north for a bit, leaving the last houses of Serralunga behind, and right away you enter into yet another cluster of superb vineyards. Three of those sites fall down to your left, facing west, southwest or even south, but now we also have a great site on the right side of the road, on the eastern side of the ridge: Brea.
- Brea is a monopole vineyard of (i.e. owned entirely by) Brovia, the great Castiglione Falletto producer (covered here) who happens to own just one Barolo vineyard outside of Castiglione, and it is Brea. For years, the Barolo from here was presented as “Ca’ mia”, but recent vintages also include the vineyard name: “Brea Ca’ mia”. It produces great wine, perhaps not quite as refined as Brovia’s Rocche, but quite successful in its combination of power, energetic lift, forward fruit (a shade redder than other Serralungas) and a foresty earthiness. The redder fruit, I think, comes from the fact that this is one of the few great sites on the east side of Serralunga’s ridge, where it exposed to the gentler morning sun.
Meanwhile, on the left side of a road, you get three famous sites in a row: Lazzarito, Parafada and Gabutti. All of these sites descend from an amphitheater that curves away from the ridge so that they face perfectly south (Parafada), southwest (Lazzarito) or a mix of south and west (Gabutti).
- LAZZARITO: is bit like Arione, in that there is more sand here than elsewhere in Serralunga and the orientation is southwest. But it differs from Arione in altitude: the median altitude in Lazzarito is a good 50 meters lower than Arione, which makes a difference. This is a site that produces powerful wines for sure, but like Arione, they also tend to have an elegant side. It’s a very highly regarded site with several good producers, like Vietti, Porro and Germano.
- PARAFADA: Curving around the amphitheater you start to face perfectly south, and you are in Parafada. More sun, and richer soils, produces a fruitier wine that is still intensely structured thanks to limestone. Massolino produces a wine here that ages well but can show a nice fruity exuberance in its youth.
- GABUTTI: Finally you get to Gabutti, which at first is simply an extension of Parafada but then curves sharply towards the north when you get to the end of the amphitheater. Here you’ll get good views of Perno, more towards your left, and Castiglione, towards your right. The vines here descend sharply down to the floor of the Serralunga Valley. This is where Cappellano makes their highly prized wines of immense structure that are not exactly short on finesse. You’ll also find bottles of interest from the small producer Boasso (Sordo also makes a bottling that I have not tried).
In the middle of Gabutti there is a small hamlet with a road that connects you back to the main ridge following Serralunga’s ridge. Start heading north again, and you soon get to a group of fine Crus that cluster around two hamlets. The hamlet of Cerretta is off to your right and up a hill set back from the main road, which veers to the left and cuts directly through the hamlet of Baudana. You are far enough north now that when you look directly west you will see Castiglione on the next hill over, really not all that far. Here we find...
- CERRETTA: A Cru that surrounds the hamlet of Cerretta on every side, pointing therefore in every direction. This is a big Cru and as you can imagine it is not exactly homogenous. The soils are mostly classic Serralunga. Perhaps I am being fooled by the name, but I always taste deep dark cherries in bottlings from this Cru, a bit like I get in Monforte d’Alba. There are many good examples, including from Schiavenza, Baudana and Ettore Germano, all profiled below. There is also a bottling from Giacomo Conterno, who acquired land in 2008 and started to release Barolo in 2011. It was tasting that 2011 side by side with Conterno’s wine from Francia that I was really struck by that cherry thing….
- The south-facing portion of the hill of Cerretta, for some reason, gets its own Cru: Prapo. Again, you get bottlings from Germano and Schiavenza. Scavino’s marvelous collection of Crus includes holdings here. Logically, this appears to be the sweet spot of the Cerretta hill, with its perfect southern exposure. The tannins do seem a little finer, and maybe there is a little more aromatic lift here? I haven’t tasted enough of these wines side by side to figure it out for myself, but this seems to be borne out when comparing reviews from the same critic of the two wines from the same producer.
- BAUDANA: Go back down by the SP 125, keep going north, and very quickly you are in a large hamlet: Baudana. Like Cerretta, this too is completely surrounded by a vineyard with the same name. Baudana is a less famous name, and I’m only familiar with one wine produced here, by a producer also called Baudana (written up below). The wine is extreme Serralunga and can be very powerful.
- LAST STOPS: Once you’re through Baudana the road starts to wind down into the Serralunga Valley before continuing on to the minor Barolo villages of Diano d’Alba and Grinzane Cavour. You’ll pass through a few more Serralunga vineyards but no must-know names. Before leaving Serralunga, you will pass by Fontanafredda, a great historic estate that may be on the rebound after its purchase by a consortium led by Oscar Farinetti, the founder of Eataly (he had just bought Borgogno, in the village of Barolo, just six months earlier!).
Who are the top producers?
Serralunga is an interesting place, because it’s the furthest major Barolo village from the village of Barolo itself, and yet it’s producing some of Barolo’s greatest wines. It has the quality, but not so much the industry. It’s a backwater, and yet its top wines have more international fame than any other in Italy!
All the other major villages I’ve covered so far have famous artisans who practice wine in a distinctly modern style. There’s Altare and Voerzio in La Morra, Sandrone in Barolo, Conterno Fantino in Monforte, and so on. It’s hard to identify who would carry that mantle for Serralunga.
There’s the theory that La Morra has the most modernist producers because the wines are the lightest, and therefore they needed the most modernist sheen to win awards in the shiny magazines. Serralunga’s relative lack of modernists certainly is consistent with this theory, as the wines are powerful and definitely don’t need dressing up! But it’s also consistent with the picture of Serralunga as a bucolic community of small producers who operate away from the buzz of civilization in the hubbub of Barolo (the commune). Modern trends can take a while to spread around, and they might take a little longer to get to Serralunga.
Anyway, let’s focus in on actual producers, starting with the most famous Serralunga producer, who is actually based in Monforte….
It must be nice to be universally regarded as the greatest wine producer in all of Italy! In the old days, Conterno did what many Barolo producers did back then, and they purchased grapes. But since the 1970s they have shifted gears and have focused instead on acquiring a collection of amazing vineyards in Serralunga and producing wines exclusively from their own grapes. In 1974, Giovanni Conterno acquired Cascina Francia. For a while, it looked like they would just stick with that monopole vineyard. But his son Robert has proven to be ambitious: he acquired land in Cerretta in 2008 and then a sizable chunk of Arione in 2015. He produces single vineyard Barolos from all three sites, plus the great Monfortino, which going forward will blend Francia with neighboring Arione.
Given that Monfortino on release now costs more than $1000 per bottle, it’s easy to dismiss Conterno as an overrated producer of trophies for rich people. Perhaps those of us who lack the means should content ourselves with such a sentiment, but truth be told it is off the mark. Monfortino is the greatest wine of Italy. There are plenty of less worthy French wines that cost far more. This may be rich people’s wine, but it’s really good rich people’s wine.
Let’s get back to earth and find some of the small Serralunga producers that make affordable wine! Schiavenza very much represents my idealized image of a Serralunga producer: small, traditional, even a bit backwards, quite familial (it was founded by two brothers and is now operated by two sisters a couple of generations later)….and really quite good. I remember tasting these wines 15 years ago when modernism was the rage and Barolo purists insisted that only Mascarello and the like was still making the real thing. No, I would say, try Schiavenza! Nobody paid me much attention then, and given how fair the prices here remain it appears that still no one is listening. They seem to specialize in mostly east-facing Crus, with holdings in Ceretta and Prapo, profiled above, as well as Broglio, an east-facing Cru that slopes down directly from the village of Serralunga. The wines are tannic and not for everyone on release, but a recently tasted 2004 Prapo was truly mind-blowing.
Another producer in that idealistic Serralunga mold: small, traditional, and working with just a few scattered plots not far from the winery. Like Schiavenza, they work with plots in Ceretta and Prapo, which are right by the winery, but also in Lazzarito, the great site just on the other side of Serralunga’s ridge. Sergio Germano (Ettore’s son) was also in on the deal when the Canale holdings in Vigna Rionda were broken up and he will start releasing Barolo from there in 2015 which I’m very excited to try. Germano is not a strict traditionalist and it shows when comparing his wines to Schiavenza’s, as these are a little more polished.
Yet another producer that is small, traditional, and focused on a smattering of top terroirs. The specialty here is really Lazzarito, as the winery possesses two monopoles of two sub-Crus, Santa Caterina and Lazzaraisco. They also have vines on the other side of the ridge in a Cru called Gianetto, though the vines here are still young and mostly offer up a less expensive Barolo for early drinking. They were also in on the Canale break-up and started releasing young vine Vigna Rionda in 2014. Tradition and non-intervention are the reigning philosophies here – I would put them somewhere in between Germano and Schiavenza on the approachability scale.
This follows the Serralunga pattern of small – 4 hectares small! – traditional producer, but there is a twist: it was bought out by G.D. Vajra, the great estate in the Commune of Barolo. I’ve always liked the wines here, but I’m confident that under Vajra they will only get better. Their tiny holdings are clustered in the northern sector around the hamlets of Baudana and Cerretta and they produce single vineyard Barolo from the Crus that bear those names – yeah, that’s Cru Baudana made by Baudana in the village of Baudana. The wines here are naturally powerful, a nice contrast to the airier Barolos of Vajra at the far western edge of DOC Barolo.
This is an estate that does not at all follow the usual pattern in Serralunga. Far from being sleepy and bucolic, this is an old historic estate that was literally founded by the King. It has a large winery surrounded by its own vines at the northern tip of the commune, right on the border of Diano d’Alba, forming what is a Bordeaux-like property. For decades it made commercial wines of not much interest to Barolo aficionados in the U.S., but it’s still a name to keep in the back of your head. For one thing, if you can get your hands on old bottles from the 1960s they are fabulous. For another, this is another estate that was purchased by Oscar Farinetti (founder of Eataly), just six months after he acquired Borgogno. When I was last in Piedmont the locals seemed optimistic that Oscar would bring about significant quality improvements, after decades being owned by a bank.
Actually, the full name here is Massolino-Vigna Rionda. If you have holdings in one of the very best Crus in Barolo why not tack it on to your name? The winery, in fact, is blessed with vines pushing nearly 60 years of age in the sweetest part of Vigna Rionda, and they make only a Riserva from it. It is very special wine, and strangely off the radar, though I can see this one day becoming a highly-treasured trophy. They also produce Parafada – a classic Serralunga – and a Margheria, where sandy soils echo the more elegant wines of the western communes. Some Barolo purists were turned off Massolino when they produced the Parafada in barriques – one of the few Serralungas to be done in this style – but they ended that experiment in 2006 and now everything is made in a classic style, although there is more of an emphasis here on accessibility and fruit purity than at the hard-core traditionalists.
Speaking of hard-core traditionalists, this is the most famous in Serralunga! Cappellano, together with Bartolo Mascarello and Giuseppe Rinaldi, were long dubbed the "last of the mohicans" for their fervent defense of traditional wine-making practices in Barolo. All three producers have stuck with tradition (long macerations, aging exclusively in large neutral casks, etc.) to produce extremely high quality Barolos with very long aging potential. The marketplace has noticed and all three producers' wines are now collected with a cultish obsession that is well deserved. Of the trio, Cappellano is the only one working in Serralunga. He is also the only one to work with just one Cru, Gabbutti, the great west-facing Cru profiled above. There, he makes both his regular Barolo, called Pie Rupestris, and a Pie Franco from ungrafted vines. The Rupestris is hard enough to find; the Pie Franco, for anything like a reasonable price, almost impossible.
Serralunga being a patchwork of mostly small, under-the-radar producers, American importers are no doubt scouring those hills looking for the next find….
What are some buying tips for Serralunga?
This is a great village to shop in.
I sometimes imagine eccentric, hyper-specialized cellars -- like nothing but Alsatian wine – and I actually think that nothing but Serralunga wine would work just fine. Of course, you have to like powerful reds...but if you’ve made it this far into a Barolo guide, then you probably do.
Here are my tips:For “every day” Barolo – under $50 bottles that you can drink without cellaring, or without much cellaring, this isn’t the best village. Try Castiglione or La Morra. That said, Massolino produces a terrific normale, Porro’s Gianetto is quite charming and accessible, and so are the normales from Germano and Schiavenza.
At the other end of the spectrum, is there any point in recommending that you buy Monfortino? Obviously, if you have the means and want to build a cellar of fabulous wines, then it should include Monfortino. Here’s what I have to add to the conversation: the non-Monfortino Barolo from Conterno, especially the Cascina Francia, are really very close in quality. Given that they cost only a fraction – like 15-25% -- of the cost of Monfortino, this is a good place for serious collectors to look (and hunt, as the Crus are now more tightly allocated than the Monfortino).
Stock your cellar with Cru Barolos from the small artisans I profiled above. Get Prapo from Schiavenza, and the Lazzarito wines from Porro and Germano. These are all well under $100, very good and very ageworthy. Just these wines alone could keep a Barolo lover happy for many many evenings.
Don’t skip Massolino. They are making some special wines and for some reason they get overlooked. I think the Vigna Rionda is going to one day be considered a trophy wine as the Cru is getting more and more famous.
Keep an eye on Baudana and Fontanafredda. Baudana, especially, is likely to prove to be a very fine source under the hands of Vajra, although with only four hectares of vines there won’t be much wine. Fontanafredda, as I mentioned, has recently changed hands and there is reason to believe that new management is committed to high quality.
Cappellano has become harder than ever to buy. Don’t forget to be polite to your local wine merchant who may get a tiny allocation!