Mascarello vs. Mascarello, by the numbers

Despite unseasonal early fall weather reaching into the 90s, our core mission remained intact: drink a lot of Nebbiolo, a quintessential cold-weather wine, and wash it down with some home-cooked osso buco and polenta. Accepted, happily! Winemaker Dan Petroski (Massican, Larkmead), vintner Bob Bressler, and a crew of current and former Napa sommeliers—Jimmy Hayes, Dennis Kelly MS, Sur Lucero MS, Jason Heller MS, and yours truly—got together to taste, spit, gulp, slurp, and work our way through a lengthy flight of wines. The evening presented a rare opportunity: with two four-wine verticals of Bartolo Mascarello Barolo and one three-wine flight of Giuseppe Mascarello "Monprivato" Barolo, we could really drill down on vintage differences and contrast producer styles. (All while enjoying AMAZING wines.) With ETS Labs down the road we had the chance to back up our tasting with some real numbers: Dan ran chemistry panels (about $80 and a couple ounces of wine each) on all the wines, measuring SO2 levels, pH, TA, residual sugar, volatile acidity levels and alcohol. The results—in taste and analysis—raised some interesting questions...

Mascarello vs. Mascarello

It's often the contrasts that provide the best window into a particular producer's style. Tasting through eight vintages of Bartolo Mascarello Barolo was wonderfully illuminating in terms of just how different the individual wines were, but the overall style of Bartolo Mascarello became clearer and easier to comprehend once we started tasting through the Giuseppe Mascarello bottlings.

In TONG Magazine #16 Maria Teresa Mascarello, daughter of the late Bartolo, wrote a really detailed piece on her family's winemaking style. (The following is a summary to get us up to speed.) The Bartolo Mascarello estate produces one Barolo, blended from several vineyards: San Lorenzo, Rué and Cannubi in Barolo, and Rocche dell'Annunziata in La Morra. Maria Teresa stepped into her father's shoes after he died in the middle of the 2005 harvest, and she finished fermentation, aging and bottling in that vintage and has continued to make the wines. Grapes are 100% de-stemmed and fermentation occurs in concrete at ambient temperatures (26-30° C). Fermentations may begin naturally, but in warmer years she may use commercial yeasts to prevent stuck fermentations. Post-fermentation maceration lasts for 30-50 days (and sometimes even longer). The wines are then pressed and racked into large, neutral Slavonian oak casks, where they undergo malolactic fermentation the following spring. The Barolo is typically bottled in July of the third year after harvest and is sold after one additional year of bottle-aging. Given how deeply traditional these techniques are, it is not likely much has changed from father to daughter in the winery. But keep in mind—particularly as you inspect the data—that the '90s wines were made by Bartolo and the '00s wines were made by Maria Teresa. 2005 was the year of transition. 

While B. Mascarello's Barolo is a blend of four sites, Giuseppe Mascarello "Monprivato" is an expression of one—a seven-hectare, southwest-facing site in Castiglione Falletto that has been under Mascarello's sole ownership since 1991. Mauro Mascarello, son of Giuseppe, has been making his family's wines since 1967 and is a living legend in the region. The winemaking style here is traditional as well. 30-day-long macerations (reduced from 60 in the old days) and aging in large Slavonian oak casks are the order of the day. Like Bartolo's vineyards, Monprivato is mostly planted with the Lampia clone of Nebbiolo, but there is some Michet as well. Michet is essentially a virused version of Lampia—according to research by ampelographer Dr. Anna Schneider, only 10% of Barolo vineyards planted with Michet are totally free of fan leaf virus. (Giuseppe Mascarello's "super riserva" Cà d'Morissio Barolo is a showcase for the Michet clone plots.)

In broad terms, the Bartolo Mascarello wines were a cut above, with a level of refinement and precision unmatched by Monprivato. Perhaps that's an unfair statement—reflecting differing provenance and sample size—but the Monprivato was "low-toned, all bass," to Sur Lucero, and as a whole the Monprivato flight seemed a little more disjointed, fuller, warmer, and chunkier. The split reflects the classic division: wines from Barolo/La Morra tend to be more perfumed and graceful whereas those from the eastern communes show more power, tannin, and structure. 

Tasting a series of back-to-back vintages was an interesting reminder of the way that vintages have recently progressed as pairs in Piedmont, one warmer and the next cooler, and so on. 

  • B. Mascarello 2008: Pure, nervy and expressive. My favorite of the young wines. "Like frutto di bosco, fruits of the forest—piney red, blue, black berries." — Dan. Incidentally, this is a great vintage for restaurants to invest in—the wines are overall pretty and aromatic, and will show well alongside classic foods from the region.
  • B. Mascarello 2007: Crushed and macerated fruit in comparison to the '08. Warmer and riper. "You can drink the '07s now." — Jason. "This is the wine of the flight for me; it has so much interest." — Jimmy.
  • B. Mascarello 2006: The most classic nose of the flight. Tar and licorice aromatics start to emerge. The wine had the best tannin/acid balance of the young wines but was also totally closed down. Likely a long life ahead.
  • B. Mascarello 2005: Leaning into oxidation with salt, licorice and earth character. "The fruit is baked, a little more cooked. Prematurely nutty." — Sur. The wine had a broad entry and good richness, but the finish evaporated. Likely not one for the long haul, but a good candidate for drinking now or in the near future. Is this more a result of vintage or of Bartolo's death? 
  • B. Mascarello 1998: This was surprisingly the most advanced wine in the older flight. Soy and prune with melted tannins. Will the '05 age like this wine?
  • B. Mascarello 1997: Really ripe/dried on the nose but fresher and more savory on the palate. Bright acid and firm tannin. A really good bottle from one of the first hot modern vintages.
  • B. Mascarello 1996: Bone dry and really perfumed. A great wine.
  • B. Mascarello 1995: Alas, one bottle corked and another maderized.
  • G. Mascarello "Monprivato" 2008: Muddied nose. Difficult bottle. Will this gain clarity with some time in the cellar? 
  • G. Mascarello "Monprivato" 2007: A much better bottle than the 2008, with sweet, baked fruit aromatics and plushness despite fine tannic grain.
  • G. Mascarello "Monprivato" 1997: A lot of discussion here. "Reductive, Syrah-like character." — Dan. The wine was smoky, big and monolithic but lacked the secondary tones one expects in Nebbiolo—except a lot of VA. A great bottle of wine. But great Nebbiolo? 

We took a look at the chemistry reports (below) after tasting the wines, and a few questions came up.

  •  The alcohols jumped by nearly 1% from the 1990s to the 2000s for the Bartolo wines. Is climate change to blame in such a short time or is this driven by winemaking and viticultural changes?
  • Why did unfermented residual sugars in 2005 and 2007 Bartolo wines increase by so much? This is below the threshold of perception for sweetness, but these two wines did show more supple fruit and richness on the palate than either the 2006 or 2008. Additionally, bottling with so much residual sugar can be an issue for volatile acidity: according to Dan, VA can "bloom" in bottle (like brett) and worsen over time. Brett, which carries on its work in anaerobic environments, produces acetic acid as well. And as Dennis said, "the wines I thought had higher levels of VA were not fully dry. The presence of sugar seemed to amplify the perception of VA, yet those wines did not necessarily show higher levels of VA in the technical analysis." 
  • Why did pH drop so much in the younger Giuseppe Mascarello wines? One would assume that the '97 and '07 should be more in line here.
  • Have the young wines been acidified? 
  • For most wines VA was under 0.6 g/l. For comparison, many Napa Cabernet VA values are above 0.6 g/l. UC Davis suggests the perception threshold for VA is somewhere between 0.6-0.9 g/l. So, is noticeable expression of VA really "classic" for Barolo or Barbaresco? 

All wines tasted were opened but not decanted five hours prior to tasting. Pricing for both wines is fairly equivalent for current vintages: Rare Wine Co. is selling Monprivato 2009 for $110 and Bartolo Mascarello 2009 for $100. The Bartolo Mascarello wines, long been favorites of Antonio Galloni, took a recent price hike; one at our table suspected this came after Galloni started reviewing CA wines for the Wine Advocate—receiving Parker's "blessing," as it were—and his newly faithful followers started taking a closer look at the critic's older Piedmont reviews.   

The 1997 Vintage and Modernist Nebbiolo

Upon its release, US critics anointed the warm 1997 vintage as the best thing ever. This vintage was hot but even, arriving at a time when the vanguard of modernism was sweeping over the Langhe. James Suckling called it "legendary" in 2007, but in shades of Napa Valley 1997 most critics are by now tempering earlier prognoses of greatness with doses of reality. A lot of wines from the vintage aren't showing well—and this may have as much to do with abandonment of traditional techniques and the unfamiliarity of new ones as anything else. We tasted two modern renditions of 1997 Barolo against the classics: Vietti "Lazzarito" and Aldo Conterno "Granbussia." Lazzarito is a 30-hectare cru smack in the middle of Serralunga d'Alba; Vietti is one of six core producers in the vineyard. Dan said it best: "Barrel-aged Manhattan in a wine bottle." It really did smell like a Bourbon cask, as Jason commented, showing vanilla, brown sugar, brandied maraschino cherry, and char on the nose. Faint tannins. (And not necessarily representative of modern Vietti Barolo bottlings.) The Granbussia suffered as well, even as it lacked the obvious new oak overtones of the Lazzarito. Burnished, baked fruit with caramel and loads of VA. Both wines were forward and pleasant, but neither really felt like Nebbiolo. We added two Barbaresco bottlings from 1997 to the mix, both from the 14-hectare Asili cru: Ceretto and Produttori di Barbaresco. The Ceretto "Bricco Asili," a pretty modern rendition, didn't show well—it had some of the most noticeable VA and brett in the group. The Produttori, on the other hand, was an excellent reminder of why this co-op remains one of the best values in the region. It was in a different class altogether—fierce tannins, sustained and lengthy finish, and power without dissolution that shows nimble winemaking in a warmer vintage. The traditionalists won the round for this vintage: B. Mascarello and Produttori "Asili" were the top wines of the flight.  

Vintage Wine Free SO2 Total SO2 pH TA VA RS ABV
1995 Bartolo Mascarello nil nil 3.61 6.3 0.56 0.3 13.1%
1996 Bartolo Mascarello nil nil 3.52 6.7 0.57 0.1 13.1%
1997 Bartolo Mascarello nil nil 3.55 6.2 0.58 0.6 13.4%
1998 Bartolo Mascarello nil nil 3.61 5.6 0.47 0.5 13.9%
2005 Bartolo Mascarello nil nil 3.43 6.5 0.76 1.6 14.0%
2006 Bartolo Mascarello 4 12 3.48 6.1 0.77 0.3 14.0%
2007 Bartolo Mascarello 4 16 3.52 6.1 0.62 1.1 14.7%
2008 Bartolo Mascarello 2 8 3.48 6.4 0.52 0.3 14.5%
1997 Giuseppe Mascarello nil nil 3.63 6.7 0.68 1.0 14.4%
2007 Giuseppe Mascarello 7 37 3.4 6.0 0.41 0.8 14.6%
2008 Giuseppe Mascarello 9 49 3.36 6.1 0.49 0.6 14.1%
1997 Vietti "Lazzarito" nil nil 3.59 6.2 0.71 0.5 14.0%
1997 Produttori "Asili" nil nil 3.43 6.6 0.52 0.3 13.9%
1997 Ceretto "Asili" nil nil 3.62 6.0 0.92 0.7 13.8%
1997 Conterno "Granbussia" nil 2 3.41 7.1 0.74 0.6 13.6%
1961 Gaja Barbaresco nil nil 3.36 6.4 0.91 0.2 13.3%

Free SO2: Measurement of SO2 available to bind to other molecules, like oxygen.
Total SO2: Measurement of total free and bound SO2.
VA: Volatile Acidity, measured in grams per liter. (The US legal limit for volatile acidity in red wines is 1.2 g/l.)
TA: Titratable Acidity, measured in g/l of tartaric acid equivalent.
RS: Residual Sugar, measured in g/l. Anything under 2 g/l is basically under threshold for anyone. 

Takeaway

I discover very little about producer style by sampling a single bottle, but with an arc of vintages in front of me and another producer or several to contrast I can learn a lot in very short order. This tasting was a good reminder.  

Overall, we were all a bit surprised by the numbers, particularly alcohol levels in the 1990s Bartolo Mascarello wines. 13.1%?? This could have been a very different tasting had we looked at the numbers beforehand—our perception of VA, acidity, and alcohol did not necessarily match what the numbers were telling us. In other words, the wines with the highest levels of alcohol did not uniformly feel the hottest, nor did wines with the highest TA values always feel the most acidic. VA seemed higher—and certainly perceptible—in a number of wines. It's easy to look at numbers beforehand and taste the numbers—just as other tasters can put words in your mouth (or smells in your nose) when describing a wine. Structural components do not live in a vacuum. "I had difficulty making good correlations between the wines I loved and the chemistry. Some of my favorites (Bartolo '96 and '07) were quite divergent in some of the categories we tested. Which suggests to me—unscientifically—that there will always be great intangibles in wine that cannot be measured." — Jimmy.

This was by and large a tasting focusing on two traditional producers, but the modern 1990s wines tasted here (and elsewhere) did not hold up. Are the recent DOCG aging changes—from 2 years to 18 months in oak for Barolo—a move in the right direction? Such a change seems to favor a "new" modernist perspective, or at least laissez-faire deregulation, but Sur is in favor: "The changes implemented a few years ago allow for a more pristine expression of fruit and a more precise structure." Jason adds: "I'm all for deregulation; it allows those willing to make a fine product to age the wines as they want. The true Barolo producers are going to continue to age for longer periods before release." I'm on the fence, personally. I think reducing time in oak creates something that may very much be Nebbiolo, but it might not be Barolo—isn't that what the Langhe DOC category is for?  

Final takeaway? Our lives in the wine world don't suck. Thanks to everyone who generously contributed wines for this incredible tasting! Also, who brought that '61 Gaja? Not in theme, dude!

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