I asked reserved Barolo winemaker Gianni Canonica which of his peers he particularly admired. He instantly, effusively blurted out the name of his near neighbour, Bartolo Mascarello. So I popped next door to 15 Via Roma – no golden ticket, just a referral from my farm-stay host and a sense of expectation. And I left, Charlie Bucket-like, the scales fallen from my eyes. The vision, the fixity of purpose, the magic, all of it there under one roof. I drank in its whole rich history.
Bartolo Mascarello would doubtless have scorned such hyperbole. And it is, to be fair, quite inappropriate for such a thoroughly modest, dignified family operation. But sometimes you walk through a door and walk out changed. What looked like an unassuming village dwelling was really a microcosm of Barolo, a potted history of pioneer and traditionalist, with a 100-year timeline running from room to room.
A pioneer because it was pretty rare to grow, make and market your own wine in 1919, when Giulio Mascarello got the ball rolling. Back then he had just a corner of the property, the old cellar hewn from river rock, which is now crammed with dusty demijohns and racks of visitors’ gifts.
Giulio’s son Bartolo went on to cement the reputation of the winery in the second half of the twentieth century, and continued the process of buying up, bit by bit, the rest of the ‘house’. To give an idea of how gradual that expansion’s been, until 2006 – a year after the legendary Bartolo died – bottles had to be stacked between the casks because there was nowhere else to put them. Until 2008, every bottle was labelled by hand. That’s quite a feat for an operation that’s grown to some 30,000 bottles a year.
It’s now run by Bartolo’s daughter, Maria Teresa, who follows the proud and patient methods of her forbears. The fruit – even for the Barbera, Dolcetto and Freisa – comes from four crus of Barolo: Cannubi, San Lorenzo and Rué in Barolo itself and Rocche dell’Annunziata in La Morra. Primary fermentation occurs using natural yeasts in concrete tanks dating back to the middle of the last century. Malolactic fermentation is left to occur spontaneously (which often means waiting until the spring following the harvest – a “high-wire act” because of the risk of spoilage; everything I tasted had come through unscathed). Wines are matured in large, Slavonian oak casks. The Dolcetto, Freisa and Langhe Nebbiolo get nine months, the Barbera two years and the Barolo three years. There’s no temperature control and all wines are unfined and unfiltered.
The estate doesn’t go down the single-site route for its Barolo. It never has. Instead, it coferments the fruit from all four crus. Everything that goes into the bucket on the day of picking has to be perfect, because that’s where the wine’s made. During its time on skins, the fruit is tasted first thing every morning, with everyone poised to leap into action if it’s deemed ready for the basket press.
If you’re looking for the Wonka factor, then I’m sorry: you were misled. This is no factory and there’s no mad-professor jiggery-pokery here. But Bartolo Mascarello was a singular character and this alchemist’s lair cast its spell on me.
During the last years of his life, a wheelchair-bound Bartolo spent a lot of time drawing. Some 500 pictures were found after his death, and these now appear on the labels of wines every bit as beautiful and faithful and this family’s vision.
Bartolo Mascarello Langhe Nebbiolo 2011 Langhe Nebbiolo DOC
I had the pleasure of drinking this with my wife upon returning to Australia. The Barolo is tucked away in the cellar, for as long as I can resist it. The Langhe Nebbiolo is relatively intense ruby in colour, and the nose perfumed and pronounced, with lifted red fruits, raspberry compote and strawberry-flavoured boiled sweets. Hovering around the fruit is fresh mint and earth, with liquorice beneath. The medium to light-bodied palate pulsates with raspberries, redcurrants and a hint of blood orange, with a notable mesh of fine tannins and fresh acid. The medium-length finish features earth, wild strawberries and rose petals. Elegant and perfumed but no shrinking violet, this has a delicate strength and poise. A delicious wine.
RRP €17 from the cellar – Alcohol 14.5% – Tasted 22/11/13