Tag Archives: Piedmont

The House At 15 Via Roma

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.
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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

Unmasking Massolino

There’s something about the impeccable presentation of this fourth-generation wine producer. I confess I can fall into casual inverse snobbery when it comes to labelling; anything too fussy and clean raises suspicion. I wonder whether the people behind it know what fun is, or whether they’re too busy being perfect.
The home of Massolino, perched in the shadow of Serralunga d’Alba’s 14th-century castle, reinforces that impression. It’s a polished presence, although there’s a bit of mess inside with renovations going on. But those are only going to make it even more perfect.
Then again, I made this appointment because on the handful of occasions I’d tried the wines, I’d enjoyed them. And this would prove no different, except that it also brought home quite how misleading the personality-free packaging is. Massolino has a certain precision about it, no doubt. But it’s a precision that zones in on characterful varieties and wonderful sites.
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The tone of the tasting was set by the meticulous preparation of our glasses. A sacrificial drop of Langhe Chardonnay 2012 was lovingly caressed around every inch of the bowl, then gently discarded to make way for the tasting measure. After the token – and very good – white, the glass-readying ritual was replayed for a lovely suite of reds: Dolcetto d’Alba 2012, a pair of spot-on Barberas and the Langhe Nebbiolo 2012. This latter in particular deserves so much more than this cursory mention.
But let’s allow the Barolo to do the talking here. We kicked off with the Barolo 2009 (14% alcohol; $89 from Prince Wine Store in Melbourne), made with Nebbiolo grapes from Serralunga vineyards lying between 320 to 360 metres up. It displayed raspberry and black cherry, mushroom, forest floor and plenty of grippy, earthy tannins that arrived late on the scene. The Barolo Margheria 2009 (fruit from a Serralunga vineyard at 340 metres; 14% alcohol and $150 at PWS) displayed balsamic and orangey tones on the nose, along with spice, tar and graphite to go with the red fruit. More time is needed for the tannin to fully integrate, but it had great freshness.
Then there was the Barolo Parafada 2009 (14% alcohol; $150 at PWS), an elegant wine from a south-facing vineyard with 55- to 60-year-old vines. It had pronounced perfume and better-integrated tannins, a little more body, smooth, plum and cherry fruit through the mid-palate and good length.
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Next came the Barolo Parussi 2009 (14% alcohol; $150 at PWS), a more recent acquisition for Massolino (the first release was 2007) and also the only one of these vineyards outside Serralunga – though only a short distance away, in Castiglione Falletto. A more complex bouquet this time, with sweet spice, leather, tobacco and mushroom. Its colour was also deeper and the tannins more masculine, with high acid taking it through to a long and savoury finish.
Last of all was a pair of wines from Massolino’s most-celebrated site: Vigna Rionda, on the winery’s doorstep. This is released at six years of age (three and a half in large Slavonian oak, two and a half in bottle). The Barolo Riserva Vigna Rionda 2007 (14% alcohol; $210 at PWS) had a pronounced nose of roses, red fruits, exotic spice, clove, mint and smoke, with roasted nuts coming in to join the wild strawberries and plums of the medium-bodied palate. Last of all, we were treated to the Barolo Vigna Rionda Dieci Anni 2000 (14% alcohol; $365 at PWS), a wine which was held back until 10 years after the harvest. It was pale garnet in colour, with a bouquet of game, leather, tobacco, spice, tar, liquorice and black fruits. Fleshy cherry, blackcurrant and blackberry came through beautifully on the palate, with well-integrated tannins and plenty of length.
It was always going to be a polished performance, but behind Massolino’s poker face lies plenty of personality. It was a privilege to see a bit more of it.

Just Went Vajral

“The wine speaks very well, not me,” is the disarming claim from Milena Vaira. She’s wrong on one front – she’s an engaging hostess with very good English – but otherwise spot on: these are eloquent wines that you could listen to all day.
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In any case, Milena’s relieved from duty by her 28-year-old winemaker son Giuseppe, who’s clearly more at ease entertaining the masses. He’s just got back from showing his wines in Singapore, where Barolo-on-the-rocks in 40-degree heat was the order of the day. “It’s important to get out of your comfort zone,” he says.
I certainly get the impression throughout the tasting that this is a thoroughly adaptable clan, the kind that’ll run with a printing error that sticks a rogue ‘j’ in the family name. Giuseppe’s father Aldo set upon a life in wine despite vehement entreaties not to from those around him. His first vintage was 1972, uniformly written off as a stinker, maybe the toughest of the century. But he stuck at it.
This same man later took a shine to the art of Father Costantino Ruggeri. He wanted some stained-glass windows for the winery so the cellar hands would never lose sight of beauty as they went about their work. The talented monk declined Aldo’s request but received a case of wine as thanks for his consideration. Anyway, you guessed it: he changed his mind.
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And so to the wines. The winery is situated in Vergne, a couple of kilometres from Barolo village. The family has 60 hectares of vines, taking in Barolo, Novello and Serralunga d’Alba. Riesling is the token white here (floral and pure it is, too), while Pinot Noir (“a good teacher,” as Milena puts it) and Albarossa are the other outliers. Then you have the red quartet: Dolcetto, Barbera, Nebbiolo and Freisa, all showing finesse and sensitivity and – it must be said – thoroughly enjoyable drinking. Dolcetto and Barbera are given both a traditional and alternative rendition, while Nebbiolo comes in five guises. There’s a Langhe Nebbiolo and four Barolos: Albe (a blend of three vineyards); Bricco delle Viole (see below); and two wildly different single-vineyard wines bottled under the Luigi Baudana label, from the Baudana and Cerretta vineyards in Serralunga. I found the 2009 Baudana particularly exciting; a little unruly and way too young to drink but bursting with energy and personality.

G.D. Vajra Coste & Fossati Dolcetto 2011, Dolcetto d’Alba DOC, Italy

Named for the Barolo vineyards of Coste di Vergne and Fossati which provide the fruit, this is the big brother to the more conventional, light and fresh Dolcetto d’Alba. This one is aged for eight to 12 months in large oak casks.
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It’s medium ruby in colour, with a surprisingly subdued nose (for Dolcetto) of violets, red cherry and clove. It’s medium bodied, with a soft, slinky, almost creamy mouthfeel and lots of sweet, juicy damson, raspberry and cherry fruit plus a hint of menthol. The chalky tannins have a bit of grip, there’s enough acidity to give it drive and it finishes with a pleasing cherrystone tang.

RRP $52 from Enoteca Sileno in Melbourne – Alcohol 13.5% – Tasted 17/11/13

G.D. Vajra Barolo Bricco del Viole 2009, Barolo DOCG

You can see the sloping vineyard from the tasting room. Bricco del Viole takes its name from the violets exposed when the blanket of snow is peeled back each spring. A pretty image befitting this lovely Barolo, made from vines grown 400 metres up and aged 45 to 48 years old. It’s intensely perfumed, very reminiscent of top-notch Pinot Noir on the nose, with roses and violets joined by plums, earth and some underlying smokiness. It tastes like it smells, but the real winner here is the softness of the fruit on the palate – gentle but with real strength and length – allied to tannins that are almost velvety, finishing with some gentle spice.

RRP $175 from Enoteca Sileno or €55 direct from the cellar* – Alcohol 14.5% – Tasted 17/11/13

Brezza Fresh Heir

They’re not textbook tasting conditions – a tad dingy, bulbs missing from the chandelier above – yet the setting’s perfect. The room’s littered with old photos and pristine current-release wines. Dusty ancient bottles adorn the mantelpiece and fourth-generation family winemaker Enzo Brezza sits opposite me.
These organic wines, fermented with natural yeasts, are made from fruit sourced from 16.5 hectares of vines. Just over three-quarters are in Barolo itself, taking in vineyards such as Cannubi, Sarmassa and Bricco Sarmassa. Add to this a hectare in each of Novello and Monforte d’Alba and another two situated between Barolo and Barbaresco.
Enzo places a cheeseboard and grissini in front of me as we prepare for a look at his handiwork. We’ll be here a while. The 2013 harvest ran pretty late and there’s still a fair amount going on in the winery. Also, visits are sporadic this time of year and some open samples have to be tested for freshness. Any lack of would stick out like a sore thumb; my host has successfully made freshness a priority. “I like elegant style,” he tells me. “I don’t like overconcentrated wine. I like the character of the grape.”

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The wines bear out his claim. The Dolcetto d’Alba 2011 (13% alcohol, stainless steel, Vinolok glass closure or natural cork options) I found a bit too subtle for its own good, missing out on the juice and sport of this variety, but both the super-fresh, traditional Barbera d’Alba 2011 (14.5% alcohol, stainless steel, Vinolok) and the less lifted, rounded, plummy and smooth Barbera Superiore 2010 (14% alcohol; one year in big, newish oak, cork) were vibrant, gluggable and elegant. The light-bodied Langhe Nebbiolo 2012 (14.5% alcohol, stainless steel, Vinolok) with which we kicked off, was gorgeously fragrant and caressing, with strawberry compote, roses, liquorice and herbs. The Santa Rosalia Nebbiolo d’Alba 2011 (15% alcohol, one year in oak, Vinolok and cork) is clearly related: medium bodied this time, with roses, raspberry and earth.
The Barolos (there are five; I’ll take a closer look at two of them) undergo a 20-30 day maceration and immediate malolactic fermentation, They get two years in large-format, seasoned Slavonian oak before an additional year in bottle. Enzo says he likes to drink Barolo between six to 15 years after the harvest, with the best window between eight and 10. “For me, you like it because you like it, not because it’s old and you respect it,” he adds.

Brezza Barolo Cannubi 2009 Barolo DOCG, Italy

Medium ruby in colour with a relatively pronounced nose of raspberry, strawberry and wood smoke. It’s medium bodied with poise and strength, great depth of red fruit on the palate plus some sagey herb. The rich tannins are nicely integrated, the natural acidity high, and it finishes long with raspberry and a sensation of crushed flowers.

RRP €25 from the cellar* – Alcohol 14.5% – Tasted 19/11/13 – Cork

Brezza Barolo Sarmassa 2009 Barolo DOCG, Italy

The pick of the bunch for me. Nose of lifted roses and violets, plus red cherries, redcurrants and strawberry compote. The savoury side of things is catered for with earth, rosemary, fennel and fresh mint. It’s high in tannin, of course, but these are almost lacy and well balanced with the fresh acid. There’s some roundness to the fruit but there’s nothing broad about it; it’s focused and linear. Again, only medium bodied but superb strength across the palate, with a long finish of plum and raspberry. Sensational.

RRP €28 from the cellar* – Alcohol 14.5% – Tasted 19/11/13 – Cork

*Brezza’s Australian distributor Déjà Vu expects the 2009 wines to arrive here in December. The best outlets to get them will be Prince Wine Store and Winestar. Prices are expected to be around $79 for the Brezza Barolo Cannubi 2009 and $85 for the Brezza Barolo Sarmassa.

In Praise Of Freisa

This might shock and amaze ya
But you’re gonna dig this Freisa

At the mention of this little-known Piedmontese grape, my teetotal father – as white and English as they come – pulled out a terrible impression of Muhammad Ali’s rhyming-couplet threat to “destroy Joe Frazier”. Perhaps the fact that he’d nosed more Nebbiolo than the wine critic at the Barolo Chronicle had something to do with it. Whatever, the boxing legend and this underdog variety will be forever linked in my memory.
It’s fair to say Freisa is not the greatest. In fact, it was almost out for the count – once Piedmont’s second most planted variety, it’s little more than a palooka these days. Giuseppe Vaira, of Barolo family winery G.D. Vajra, says its decline has come about for a number of reasons. First, a good chunk of it is used for Vermouth, thanks to its vibrant acidity. Then there are the inconsistent yields, and the fact that it’s way down the pecking order when it comes to selecting sites. In addition, this highly tannic variety gives lots of harsh, malic acid. “If it’s not ripe, the acid/tannin combination kills the wine,” says Vaira.
It also has identity issues. It’s commonly made “vivace”, as a slightly sweet, forthy wine for quaffing at picnics, but is a very different beast as a quite masculine, dry red. And let’s not forget the divisive bittersweet flavour profile. The Oxford Companion to Wine quotes Hugh Johnson as finding it “immensely appetising” and Robert Parker shuddering at a “totally repugnant wine”.
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So what does it have going for it? Well, one can never overlook breeding, and Freisa is a close relative of Nebbiolo, Italy’s king of reds. (Apparently this DNA-profiling revelation was “mindblowing” for local growers. ‘How can this crappy grape be related to noble Nebbiolo?’ is the refrain Vaira recalls.) Then there’s its comely purple colour and fragrance of wild red fruits and violets.
For many, it’s a bit of a legacy grape. “We make Freisa because we’ve always made Freisa,” they quip at Bartolo Mascarello. Here it’s a dry version, but there’s no firm line taken on the spritz. If it happens, it happens, which means customers have to take the rough with the smooth – or the flat with the fizz. It’s not the kind of variation normally tolerated by wine folk but like everything at Bartolo Mascarello, the wine is good and runs out in no time.
Conversely, Brezza’s Langhe Freisa 2012 (14% alcohol) is a resolutely still version, with a perfumed nose of raspberry and red cherry, zingy acid and lots of fine tannins that carry the fruit nicely. It definitely calls out for food, though – pork belly or salami would go down a treat.
At Vajra they’ve gone to even greater lengths to get Freisa fighting fit. Giuseppe Vaira says the trick is to pick it late, at the same time or later than Nebbiolo. He gives it a long maceration – 20 to 25 days – before 12 to 18 months’ ageing in large, seasoned oak casks. The Langhe Freisa Kyè 2010 (14.5% alcohol; the name’s a phonetic transcription of the Italian ‘Chi é?’, or ‘Who is it?’) is a knockout. A nose of earth, cherry, plum, white pepper and spice, its rich, fine tannins and vibrant acidity give a firm frame for the juicy cherries, plums, redcurrants and herbs.
Not necessarily the greatest, but it’s well worth going a few rounds with this one.

Meet Johnny Canonica

“I’m a lucky man. One and a half hectares of land is enough to live.” Giovanni Canonica – Gianni to his mates and honoured guests at his Barolo home – is pretty cool from where I’m sitting. Scruffy and handsome in red-rimmed specs that only an Italian could carry off, he’s showing us his wine in his sitting room. We’re staying next door, in his three-bedroom farm stay, Il Quarto Stato. The place is named after the iconic 1901 painting of striking peasants by Piedmontese neo-impressionist Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, a print of which adorns our front door. The house is slap bang in the middle of this storied village, and the Paiagallo vineyard can be seen from my bedroom window.
It’s from a 1.5-hectare patch of this vineyard that Gianni makes his one and only Barolo. He does it naturally, with no yeasts, no filtering, just a touch of sulphur at bottling to arrive at 30mg/L. It’s made in tiny quantities – 6,000 bottles in 2009 – in the shed and cellar out back. The basket press is endearingly ancient, the 2,500L Slavonian oak casks cumbersome and uncomplicated. The only other wine Gianni makes is 1,000 bottles of Barbera d’Alba.
And distribution is fittingly random yet simple. In the mid-1990s, when times were pretty desperate here, a natural wine lover from Japan tasted some and became unofficial brand evangelist. Gianni now sells half his production to the Japanese. They’ve scored a rare treat.

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Giovanni Canonica Barolo Paiagallo 2009, Barolo DOCG, Italy

Light ruby to garnet colour, this 100% Nebbiolo has a pronounced nose of cherry blossom, roses, red cherry, tar, leather and roasted nuts. It’s medium to light bodied, and the soft strawberry, red and black cherries and prunes on the palate are a striking follow-up to the savoury overload of the nose. Plenty of layers here too, though, with caramelised orange, leather and spice on the back palate. The tannins are very fine with a firmness that keeps everything in check. The wine finishes long, with bit of tang and some spirity warmth. It’s a bit out there but honest as the day is long, and with bundles of intrigue to go back for. Personally I loved it. Drink 2014 to 2022.

RRP €20 from the cellar* – Alcohol 15% – Tasted on 16/11/13

*Gianni says he’s sending 120 bottles of Giovanni Canonica Barolo Paiagallo 2009 to Australia this month.

Barolo Travel Cheat Sheet

Seems strange now, but I used to be daunted by Barolo: that authoritative label bearing down on you from a high shelf, like a hilltop fortress. I suppose the price tag – not astronomical in the UK, but enough to intimidate a scavenging journo – played a part.
In reality, the region is extremely accessible. I’ll be writing about some of the fantastic people and wines I came across on my recent visit, but first want to put together a basic guide. Though sketchy – especially relating to prices – I hope it’ll persuade some to discover the region for themselves.

Location

Barolo is a village just over an hour’s drive south of Turin or 15km south of Alba, in the region of Piedmont in northern Italy. It’s also a DOCG appellation for wines made from Nebbiolo grapes sourced within the immediate vicinity of Barolo itself, including famous villages such as La Morra, Castiglione Falleto, Serralunga d’Alba and Monforte d’Alba. These villages are an easy 10-minute drive away. It’s a fabulously picturesque area, strewn with steep vineyards and hilltop castles.

Accommodation

For my money, it’s agriturismo all the way. These local farm stays are often well situated, give good guidance on food and wine and offer great value, starting at about €45 a single and €55 a double. I stayed at – and heartily recommend – Gioco dell’Oca, 2km from Barolo, and Il Quarto Stato, in the heart of the village. Friends stayed at Casa Svizzera a couple of doors down. Another one that caught my eye was Le Viole, but there’s nothing to stop you staying in La Morra or Serralunga. For a more complete listing go to Agriturismo.It

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Food

The villages are small but have quite a few options. You may need to book on Friday and Saturday night, especially in Barolo. My favourite in Barolo was La Cantinetta, while L’Osteria del Vignaoiolo in La Morra was sensational. Value across the board is good – primi piatti (pasta ribbons with porcini mushrooms or ravioli with butter and sage, say) start around €9, and secondi piatti might start at €12. As you’d expect, the wine lists are superb and the mark-ups thankfully modest – say, €20-€25 for a lovely drop of Nebbiolo. For Barolo you’re probably looking at more like €40+. There are also by-the-glass options – Dolcetto and Barbera from €3.50, Nebbiolo from €4 and Barolo from €8.

Wine

It’s common for wineries to close the doors for a couple of hours for lunch. In any case, it’s best to email or ring ahead to make sure it’s OK to visit. You’ll often find the ensuing welcome embarrassingly warm. Many will show you round the winery and chances are there’s unlikely to be any hard sell attached to your tasting. For those meaning to buy, price lists are not prominently displayed, so here’s an idea of what you might be in for: Dolcetto d’Alba from €6, Barbera d’Alba from €7-8 basic Nebbiolo from €10-12, Barolo from €25-€30 (climbing much higher for single-vineyard wines from best sites and producers).

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This is red territory. Some producers have a token international white in their stable – we tried a good Chardonnay and Riesling – or else a white from further afield in Piedmont, such as a Gavi, Arneis or Moscato d’Asti. But really it’s all about these varieties:

Nebbiolo: High in tannin and acidity, low in colour, with typical aromas of roses, tar, red fruits from strawberry to plum, and liquorice. Producers may offer a Langhe Nebbiolo or Nebbiolo d’Alba, often approachable, ready to be drunk young and spectacular value. Barolo is the cream of the crop, produced from a designated area and released after at least three years (minimum 18 months in wood). It has the potential to change your life and, with age, do things you can’t even imagine.

Barbera: High in colour and acid, low in tannin. Varies in quality but can be extremely juicy, lively and fresh and food friendly. Some producers also make a Superiore version, a little more complex, ready to drink a little later, perhaps with some oak, perhaps able to age well over an extended period.

Dolcetto: Low-acid grape producing early-drinking wines that are fragrant, soft, round and juicy. Typical aromas of cherries and plums, liquorice and almonds. As one winemaker quipped of this and Barbera: “They’re family wines. You can drink them all day.”

Freisa: A slightly weird and much-maligned local grape, which you can read about on the blogpost, In Praise Of Freisa.

For more information about wineries, the Barolo di Barolo website is good for producers in the village itself, but you’d be missing out on lots of other great Barolo makers on your doorstep. Hugh Johnson’s Wine Companion has good recommendations, including contact details. Bear in mind, too, that Barbaresco has Nebbiolo to rival these, and is just a few miles up the road…