Terroir in Barolo: Poderi Gianni Gagliardo

There’s no question that terroir—the concept that wines reflect the individual and unique site where the grapes grow—exists in Barolo.  How could it not?  With myriad growing plots differing by soil, exposure, and elevation, the Barolo DOCG produces hundreds of different wines, all from the same grape, Nebbiolo.  The problem lies in demonstrating the idea of terroir to the average consumer.  Here’s the issue.  You can open and compare a Barolo made by Vietti from Nebbiolo grown in Serralunga to one made by Mascarello from Nebbiolo in Castiglione Faletto.  They will be dramatically different.  But is the difference due to the terroir—the difference between the two communes of Serralunga and Castiglione Faletto—or due to the difference in producer’s style and technique? The challenge in identifying terroir, then, is finding and comparing wines made from grapes grown in different sites but made by the same producer.  It’s more difficult to do in Barolo, compared to Burgundy, but it can be done, as shown by Stefano Gagliardo, from Poderi Gianni Gagliardo.

Even before Burgundy (or Bourgogne as it is in the native French) received UNESCO World Heritage Site status for its patchwork of vineyards, it was the poster child for terroir.  The traditional way Burgundy wines were marketed, by négociants, explains why it was, and remains, the paradigm of terroir.  The major négociants, such as Maison Louis Jadot, Maison Louis Latour, and Maison Joseph Drouhin, to name just three, make wines from scores of vineyards and villages from throughout Burgundy.  Importantly, they use the same basic winemaking philosophy and techniques for each of the wines.  So, the average consumer can descend into their cellars, taste 10 or 20 wines from throughout the entire region, from Santenay in the south to Marsannay in the north and more specifically from vineyards within each village, and immediately see the dramatic differences the sites bring to the wines because the winemaking is a constant.  Contrast that to the situation in Barolo.  Most of the production there comes from small growers who make and market 3 or 4 wines from individual plots, usually near their wineries and homes, not from throughout the entire region.

Poderi Gianni Gagliardo is different because the house holds vineyards throughout the entire Barolo DOCG, from Monvigliero in Verduno in the very north to Mosconi and Castelletto in Monforte d’ Alba in the extreme south, to Fossati, which spans both Barolo itself and La Morra in the west, to Lazzarito in Serralunga d’Alba in the far eastern section of the DOCG.  Stefano emphasizes that the winemaking, barrel treatment and aging is the same from all his wines so that the differences you taste are due to the specifics of the site—the terroir.  Tasting through a selection of Gagliardo’s 2020 shows that terroir is alive and well in Barolo.

By way of advance warning, the wines are stunning, making it hard to pick among them!  Do you want to enjoy the relatively delicate Monvigliero now or cellar the more strapping Lazzarito?  One of the reasons the wines are so impressive is likely because Stefano bottles only a portion of the wine from the individual crus.  He notes, with a smile, “There’s always a special corner” in each cru.  He blends the rest into their classic Barolo.

First a word about the 2020 vintage in Barolo.  It was, unsurprisingly these days, hot, but unlike many hot years, the wines still reflect their origins.  The site differences are still clearly etched, not blurred by over-ripe grapes.  Some growers attribute the seeming paradox of heat and transparency to the lack of heat spikes during the growing season.  Others felt that the lack of water stress usually present in scorching years allowed the grapes to mature continuously without the stopping and starting caused by stress of drought.

Whatever the reasons, Gagliardo’s 2020s are fresh and lively, reflecting their origins in a crystal-clear fashion.  For the most part, the Mosconi and Lazzarito excepted, they are forward and amazingly easy to taste, even at this youthful stage, with suave tannins and bright acidity.  Don’t let their approachability dissuade you from cellaring them because I’m sure they will take on additional complexity with bottle age thanks to their flawless balance.

Stefano and his team regularly travel to Roussillon in France to learn how growers there deal with heat and drought.  He explains that changes in the vineyard and in the cellar can help mitigate the effects of climate change.  Altering the cover crop between the rows of vines can actually lower the temperature of the vines.  Stefano emphasizes that it is critically important to protect the grapes whose tannins can become bitter with exposure to heat and especially to light.  So, they will spray the grapes with a white powdery mixture of clay and water that acts like sunscreen.  He’s using less aging in the cellar because the grapes are typically riper when they arrive.

While Gagliardo’s floral 2020 Barolo from the Monvigliero cru is the most delicate of their cru bottlings, it still delivers substantial weight.  A beguiling and distinct mineral-y component balances and enhances its floral nature.  Suave tannins lend support without intruding.  It’s quite delicious now! ( 93 pts.,  $220)

Stefano emphasizes that the Fossati cru, spanning both the communes of Barolo and La Morra, is a cool site where Nebbiolo never gets overripe.  Their stunning 2020 delivers dark red fruit nuances mixed with an appealing floral character.  Subtle tarry elements and firm, fine tannins explain why its profile is more substantial than their Monvigliero.  Still, it’s a refined wine with great finesse, which makes this beauty enjoyable even at this youthful stage.  (96 pts., $180)

The Castelletto and Mosconi crus, both located in Monforte d’Alba, couldn’t be more different.  They are the bookends to the style of that village.  Stefano explains that Castelletto lies on the border with Serralunga and that its soil is akin to that of Serralunga, but its exposure, cooler east-facing instead of warmer south/southwest facing, is not.  The soil imparts power while the exposure adds restraint and elegance.  The breathtaking 2020 Castelletto is truly an iron fist in a velvet glove with a floral start culminating in a panoply of minerals.  The tannins in the Castelletto provide a touch more structure compared to those found in Fossati yet are perfectly integrated making the Castelletto agreeable now.  (96 pts.; $180)

Gagliardo’s muscular 2020 Barolo from what Stefano describes as the warmer Mosconi cru packs the power and weight for which Monforte is known.  Although the measured tannins of Castelletto and Mosconi are the same, according to Stefano, their imprints on the wines are strikingly different, giving the Mosconi bottling a far more structured and youthful profile.  With time in the glass, the tarry aspect of its minerality emerges.  Unlike the Castelletto, this wonderfully youthful Barolo needs far more bottle age to reveal itself.  (96 pts., $220)

The Lazzarito Cru is one of Barolo’s most revered.  Both Ian D’Agata and Michele Longo, two experts on Italian wine in general and Barolo in particular, rank it among their top ten Barolo sites.  (Barolo fans should not miss their comprehensive and authoritative book, Barolo Terroir: Grapes, Crus, People, Places, 2022.)  Stefano explains that he focuses on elegance, not power in all of his wine.  Of the 12 owners of Lazzarito, he aims to make his, from his Vigna Preve site that sits high on a ridge, the most elegant and the least powerful of them all.  That said, Gagliardo’s majestic 2020 packs plenty of power with an enthralling interplay of tarry minerality intertwined with flowery elements.  It’s tightly wound, befitting a young great wine, with exceptionally fine and smooth tannins, which seem to be Gagliardo’s signature.  This impeccably balanced youthful Lazzarito has a fine future.  I suggest cellaring it for at least a decade.  (96 pts., $220)

Poderi Gianni Gagliardo, one of the DOCG’s top producers, shows that the concept of terroir thrives in Barolo.  Open their wines and you, too, will find it.

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June 5, 2024

E-mail me your thoughts about terroir in general or Barolo in particular at [email protected] and follow me on Twitter and Instagram @MichaelApstein.