By the way, that ’45 Romanee Conti I had the other week was a (99+), for those of you that were wondering. It is my first 99+ point wine; the wine was so good it made me redefine my personal envelope of wine greatness. We will taste two bottles again from the same batch at my ‘Top 100/All-Star Weekend’ next October here in NYC. In fact, that event will be made public this week. I expect very few seats available by the time last year’s participants have their say, but I am sure there will be a few, so if you are interested and have not already let me know, I suggest you do it immediately, as in right now. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
As luck would have it, Roberto Conterno happened to be visiting New York City around the time of our last scheduled Angry Man event, so I brought the two superpowers together for an amazing and historical evening of Monfortino, arguably Piedmont’s greatest wine. Wendy was our hostess extraordinaire, the one ‘Angry Chick’ in our group, and she put together an amazing meal at Lattanzi’s in midtown Manhattan. Roberto came with a translator, although much of the (mis)translation was done by our own Italian Stallion, ‘Big Boy’/Angry Man Roberto. This proved entertaining and at times a bit frustrating for Mr. Conterno, who we found out had a little Angry Man in him himself!
We started with a frankly disappointing bottle of 1964 Dom Perignon ‘Oenoetheque.’ The nose was complex, with ‘white toast fresh from the toaster,’ as Ray put it, and there were also additional, exotic aromas of vanilla bean and custard. The bread quality became soaked lightly in marzipan, and there was also nut and honey. It was smooth and round on the palate but did not have any acidity. The sweet flavors of white corn and caramel were not enough to overcome the lack of every Champagne’s most important characteristic: acidity. Therefore, it seemed flabby on the palate but was still complex and exotic enough to score (91), but it was more like a wine (still without acidity).
We started auspiciously with a maderized 1968. The wine still had a beefy and bouillon-y style to it and great acidity. Its mushroom, earth, leather and cedar were noticeable, as was blood and iron. Roberto commented how the maderization process is a three-step one, and how this one was not in the totally dead/third stage of being maderized, and he was right. There were still tannins and acidity, he explained, and also pointed out how some people actually like a wine in this stage. I totally saw what he was saying but still had to (DQ) it. The 1974 Ray was convinced was corked, but I didn’t get it that much and am usually quite sensitive to the affliction. Of course, those of you that know Ray know that Ray is always right! Nonetheless, I enjoyed its spine of leather and cedar with supplemental tar, roses and earth. There was also very good acidity and tangy flavors with some earth underbrush and dust. It was a very good but not great Monfortino and had nice traces of citrus, lit match and almost butter (92). Roberto told us that the 1979 was very hard to find because it was so good and drinkable upon release that everyone drank it up! Ray was loving it and playfully jested that ‘it blew the corked and maderized wines away.’ That was pretty funny. The nose was intense and very complex; there was a lot going on. There were lots of t ‘n a, great minerality, anise, black rose, beef, chocolate, iron and slate. It was a regal wine. It got the universally accepted ‘Wow’ by the Angry Man Roberto, aka ‘RR’ aka ok, that’s enough. The palate was big, beefy and meaty and full of cedar, tar, mineral, smoke and Cuban cigar flavors. It was chewy and long (95+). Someone asked Roberto about the significance of ‘Riserva’ vs. ‘Riserva Speciale’ on bottles of Monfortino, and the answer was absolutely nothing. ‘There is only one Monfortino,’ he said in English, and we all understood that loud and clear. The production of Monfortino averages only 6-800 cases a year, and Conterno makes about 4,000 cases in total on an annual basis.
The next flight began with a controversial 1937 Riserva Speciale (the only non-Monfortino wine of the night). In the end, it wasn’t as controversial as it was when everyone first saw it, because the color of it was horribly pale and light brown and looked more like a Sherry. The color was a tea rose and made everyone nervous, but the nose was actually very good with its perverse aromas of caramel, nut, tea and ‘parmesan cheese,’ as Ray put it. I told Ray that that was just Mike. Ha ha ha. There were lots of chocolaty flavors, and there was no doubt that the wine was more than fully mature. It was still smooth and very good. We found out that Giacomo was Roberto’s grandfather and responsible for the first vintage in 1920. I have never seen a bottle of Monfortino from the Twenties myself. Who out there’s got one? Back to the 1937, Ray caught some ‘pine needles,’ and Mike found it ‘all together.’ (91) The 1943 was in the third stage of maderization and undrinkable (DQ). The 1961 more than made up for it with its great nose that was both young and mature. It had the vigor and alcohol of youth but nutty, mature fruit as well as bouillon, chocolate, tar and rose. It was tasty, meaty and deep (95).
The 1969 had a stinky nose with a lot of horse, shit of the earth and some rose barely behind those with a touch of green. The wine was much better on the palate, containing a lot of ‘sour cherry’ and having a nice mouthfeel. It was very rounded, rich and earthy. It was one of the few wines whose nose was unpleasant (at least to me), but the palate was still very good (92+). The 1970 had a beautiful nose and ended up being one of my wines of the night. It was inviting and deep with its classic nose, and the palate was enormous yet somehow smooth. The fruit was mountainous with loads of beef and chocolate; thick, long and outstanding (96+). The 1971 was very good but disappointing in the context of other bottles of Monfortino I have had from this vintage. There was a touch of coffee and watermelon (I swear) in its exotic fruit. Cedar and anise (some of the usual suspects) were also there, and the nose was beautiful, more silky and feminine, satiny and smoother (94+). This flight probably saw the widest range of different opinions than any other flight of the night. It was at this moment of increased discussion that a whole, ‘nother discussion emerged, so much so that it deserves its own paragraph
Roberto thought that the 1971 would age the longest, but the 1970 took the limelight on this night, as it was more open and ‘took over all the mouth,’ as he put it. Speaking of tannins, Roberto went on to insist how they only use the tannins of the grape, finding tannins from the wood less important and in essence, less real. ‘A long maceration is very important to get the tannins of the grape,’ he said. ‘Alcohol, acidity and tannin are the three important things for aging, and the ’69, ’70 and ’71 have it.’ There were no arguments there, and when that is the case when you are with the 12 Angry Men, you know it is the truth! ‘It is difficult to pick a favorite,’ someone said. The fact that a 1989 Monfortino was never made came up, and the fact that all of the Monfortino went into the Cascina Francia that year. Speaking of which, how come Conterno’s ‘other’ Barolo gets so little attention. Conterno’s Cascina Francia is an amazing wine in its own right, but everyone seems to forget that fact. Don’t! Roberto told us that in 1974, his father bought the Cascina Francia vineyard and went on to give respect to his mother, ‘a pillar in Piedmont’ his French translator reasoned (she spoke Italian but was French interestingly enough). The story from Roberto was that his father went to his mother and said what are we going to do to increase business, and his mother reasoned that owning the land from which they made wine in Serralunga was the answer. Why? 1) To be able to get better fruit from the oldest of vines, to nurture and pay attention to these vines better, and to not be forced to buy random levels of qualities of fruit altogether, as many negociants offer the best of their fruit mixed with lesser quality fruit. 2) At the time, Cascina Francia was selling to other growers, so by buying the vineyard they would have exclusivity to its fruit and have a brand name with the vineyard. This is how they would make better wine and increase prices and business at the same time. Roberto continued about some of the philosophy behind how his family has made wine over the years. The last fifteen days before harvest, he stressed, are critical. In the vineyard, you can see where the grapes are best; these places also change every year. They choose the best grapes to go into Monfortino. The wine is born in the vineyard and spends a minimum of seven years in a giant 5000-liter oak barrel (sometimes a smaller, second barrel for any spillover depending on quantity of wine) before release. They bottle in July and release in the Fall when they are ready to release. The average age of the vines is 45 years.
The next flight was one a great one: 1988, 1990 and 1993. The 1988 seemed like a whole, new world as we entered a more youthful stage of Monfortino. The wine still had its baby fat in its nose and was nutty, almost syrupy, with lots of black fruits, tar, cement and peking duck. The wine was much heavier in its tannin and alcohol expressions, and the fruit was dominated by cassis and grape. After having all those older wines, this flight was definitively youthful. Roberto found the 1988 to be the ‘most complete at the moment.’ He then continued how 1988 was a disastrous vintage at Giacomo Conterno because it was the year that he started working full-time in the family business – HA! He was then asked when he started making the wine, to which he replied ‘never. The wine is made in the vineyard and in the winery you can only damage the wine.’ Ray found the 1988 ‘a little rough’ by comparison to the older wines, but it was still an excellent, bordering on outstanding, wine (94+). The 1990 was spectacular. ‘What a nose,’ I wrote. It was incredible – the fruit, the finish, the layers – the wine had it all. Roberto called 1990 ‘one of the great vintages of all time.’ There were also bricks, minerals, cedar, thick black fruits and a touch of syrup and liqueur. The palate was huge with great t ‘n a and a long and fine finish full of more cedar and minerals. Ray got ‘licorice’ in the nose and Jim picked up on some ‘peppermint’ (97). The 1993 is generally considered an unimportant vintage, but Roberto feels that it will be regarded differently in time. Wheels called 1993 in Piedmont the equivalent of 1980 in Burgundy in that people trashed the vintage, but in the end it turned out great. There was a hailstorm that limited quantity and put a black cloud on the 1993 vintage. The nose was fine and elegant with spearmint, cherry fruit and licorice. ‘Dolce and elegante,’ Roberto cooed. It was incredibly classic by Barolo standards with its tar, smoke, leather and asphalt and indubitably a beautiful wine, fine and smooth. The elegance and finesse to its style and length were intoxicating. I have to agree with Roberto that 1993, at least for Monfortino, is an outstanding vintage (95). The 1988 was served out of magnum, and Ray went into his magnum conspiracy theory about how a lot of producers put the best barrels into their magnums. Roberto said he does know some producers that do that, but obviously that he did not since they usually only have one barrel!
We went back in time again with the 1958, which had a gorgeous nose of complex truffle, mushroom, earth, nut, mature stew, game, beef and leather. It was on the mature side and not as good as the bottle that I had at Cru during La Paulee weekend. There were some vanilla flavors, but Roberto agreed that the ‘best bottle of 1958 would be the wine of the night.’ The wine still had some redeeming qualities and was not totally shot by any stretch of the imagination, so I gave it (93+?). The 1955, one of my personal favorite Monfortinos, had big-time Peking duck in its nose and was super exotic in that regard. There was also leather, cedar, minerals and earth with mature, nutty fruit but also saucy, rich and heady fruit. There were secondary qualities of soy, marijuana and chocolate. Roberto called it ‘one of the greatest bottles of 1955’ that he has had (96). The 1964 was no slouch, either. The nose was nice with a ‘touch of barnyard,’ someone noticed. It was rich, round and long with excellent mouthfeel and structure. Gritty, sandy, dusty and more gritty, the wine was on the leathery and earthy side with complements of mushroom and forest floor (95).
The 1978 was great as always, a veritable black and white shake in the nose, accompanied by deep cassis and plum fruits. Ray caught some ‘pine needles.’ The wine was smooth as silk and long, and there were complex flavors, but I have had better bottles. This bottle was a little softer than my memories of the wine, but Roberto thought that the wine needed more time to express itself and that it was closed right now and that it had the most potential of the flight. He would know (95+). Someone asked when would be the best time to drink this wine, to which Roberto replied, ‘I can’t speak about the future or thirty years from now. I prefer to talk about now.’ I just realized then that I had my spokesperson for Vintage Tastings, because that is exactly how I feel about wine myself! You can say that a wine is young and has a long way to go, but to say that it will be drinking best between 2015 and 2020, for example, is a bit incomprehensible to me. The 1982 had very dry tannins in its chocolaty and earthy nose, more mature than youthful. It seemed to be on a faster maturity curve than most of the other vintages. The wine was very spicy in an earthy way with sandpaper flavors. Ray was surprised by the 1982 and found it to be one of the better ones that he has ever had (94). The 1985 was a knockout, gorgeous wine. It was lighter up front at first but the tastiest wine of the flight by far with its smooth cherry fruit. The tannins really came out in the glass, and the wine was classic and great. ‘The most complete today,’ Roberto remarked (96).
I kind of lost my steam for the last flight of 1995, 1996 and 1997, but here we go anyway. The 1995 was very leathery and cedary with lots of sandy t ‘n a in the nose. However, it was softer on the palate but still had a long finish (93). The 1996 was great and full of black licorice. It was elegant, stony and long with great tannins and a hearty character. Long lived will be wines from the 1996 vintage in Piedmont (96)! The 1997 was so ripe, similar to the 1979 because of its accessibility. It had lots of potential, but I preferred the style of 1996 to 1997. Roberto liked the 1997 a bit more, his father the 1996, and his mother? ‘The Barbera!’ he joked. He continued that neither he nor is father are making a mistake. We will see how the 1997 stands the test of time (94).
It was a great night, indeed.