David 14 October 2014
One debate that’s certain to continue within wine circles is the traditionalist versus modernist approach to winemaking. There’s no doubt that all estates aim to nurture their vineyards to produce fruit of optimal ripeness and flavour, however there’s no such consensus in the winery.
Advancing technology has made a number of new winemaking techniques available to winemakers, so depending on which camp you’re in, it’s possible to make a wide variety of wine styles, all of good quality, from exactly the same grapes. In regions where there’s a long history of specific techniques, you regularly see modernists and traditionalists taking sides.
While I often focus on traditionalists, it’s just as well to remember that in the glass and away from the debate, a good wine is a good wine. A while ago a friend introduced me to the wonderful wines of La Spinetta (thanks Giulio) a winery which is boldly and unashamedly modern. This is notable given its location in northern Italy where winemaking tradition dates back many hundreds of years.
La Spinetta’s rise to Italian superstardom is astounding - more so given that Giuseppe and Lidia Rivetti only founded the estate in 1977. La Spinetta means ‘Top of the Hill’ and refers to the location of their first cellar in Castagnole Lanze, in the famous region of Piedmont. They started out making high quality Moscato d’Asti (delicious low alcohol, sweet sparking wine) and it wasn’t until the mid-80s that they produced their first red wine. Since then the estate has expanded significantly with the acquisition of several excellent vineyard sites, not only in Piedmont, but further afield in Tuscany. The empire now comprises 165 ha and provides all their fruit. Four separate wineries have been constructed - three in Piedmont and one in Tuscany and the founders’ three sons, Giorgio, Bruno and Carlo now run the show, with Giorgio the frontman and chief winemaker.
Despite the modern approach in the winery, the estate focuses on native grape varieties and produces an astounding array of wines, red, white and sparkling. But they’re famed for their reds, most notably their Barbera, Barbaresco and Barolo. Their top wines sell for hundreds of dollars a bottle and are regularly rated in the high 90s by leading critics.
I describe La Spinetta as modern, not only because of their state of the art winery, but because of their techniques and the style of wines they produce. The modernist style came to prominence in Piedmont in the 1980s and 90s and focuses on shorter maceration periods (1-2 weeks), the use of rotary fermenters (kind of like a cement mixer) and shorter periods of ageing (12-24 months) in small new French oak. Traditionalists prefer longer maceration (months) and longer periods of ageing (many years) in large old oak. The red varieties of Piedmont, most notably Nebbiolo, are fiercely tannic and have traditionally needed 15-20 years in the cellar to settle down. The modern approach aims to soften the wines and make them more approachable when young. The wines of La Spinetta are forward, ripe, intense and approachable on release, but can still cellar.
As Giorgio explains in Wine Spectator Magazine (2005): “Some people around here think that if a Barolo or Barbaresco doesn’t punch you in the stomach (from the high tannin and acidity levels) then it is no good. I don’t agree. I want my wines to be structured, but approachable.”
The magazine went on to note: “In a little less than a decade, Giorgio Rivetti, owner and winemaker of La Spinetta in Barbaresco, has become one of the leading forces in Piedmont. He’s making exciting ripe, fruit-forward Nebbiolos that would give many highly rated new world wines a run for their money. Now he’s making waves in Barolo... Rivetti is, first and foremost, a winemaker - one of the best and most innovative winemakers in Piedmont today. But he is also in tune with today’s consumer, whom he believes shares his preference for wines that are more approachable on release.” Wine Spectator, Jan 2005, A New Force in Barolo.
La Spinetta’s rise has been meteoric. Their top wine, Barolo Campè, released in 2000, debuted at 98 points in Wine Spectator. And their greatness was cemented when they were rated number 2 winery in Italy (behind none other than Gaja) in 2007 by Gambero Rosso, the Italian wine bible. They continue to be lauded by the international press as one of Italy’s most progressive wineries.
Gourmet Traveller 2009, “if you’ve ever had just a sip of a La Spinetta wine, it’s unlikely to have escaped your memory. They are heroic, memorable and expensive, but my god they are good.” Shock of the New, Nick Stock, 2009.
Incidentally, most La Spinetta wines feature a rhinoceros on the label. There has been much conjecture about the animal’s link to La Spinetta but the story is pretty straight forward. Giorgio Rivetti admired the German artist Albrecht Dürer and liked not only this drawing but the story behind this particular rhino. He explains: “The drawing records the arrival of an Indian rhinoceros in Lisbon, Portugal in 1515. It was the first animal of its kind to be seen in Europe. As a gift from the governor of Portuguese India to the king of Portugal, it was arranged that the rhino fight an elephant. The elephant apparently turned and fled. A description of the rhino soon reached Germany, presumably with sketches, from which Dürer prepared this drawing and woodcut without ever having seen the actual animal. So convincing was Dürer’s fanciful creation that for the next 300 years European illustrators borrowed from his work, even after they had seen living rhinos without plates and scales.”
La Spinetta truly is a world-class producer but, contrary to myth, not all their wines are insanely expensive. Take your pick of these luscious tipples.
In 2001 the brothers acquired 65 ha in the hills south of Pisa, in the heart of beautiful Tuscany and by 2007 had completed their third winery - La Spinetta Casanova. My good Italian friend tells me the term ‘Casanova’ may be in reference to local geography rather than the famous lothario.
This entry-level wine offers an insight into La Spinetta’s greatness. It’s 100% Sangiovese, a local Tuscan variety, and is sourced from relatively young vines (an average age of 16 years) grown at an elevation of 250m.
As to be expected, it’s made in the modernist vein. Fermented for 9-10 days in roto-fermenters, the wine is then aged in medium toasted French oak for 9 months. It’s finished in stainless steel vats for two more months before being bottled. Surprisingly there’s no clarifying or filtration.
This wine is a clear garnet colour, with a slight bricky edge and has classic Sangiovese aromas with flavours of cherry, spice and violets. There’s a little vanilla from the oak, but you’ll still find some of that traditional Italian dirtiness and chinotto bitterness. It’s medium weight and, as with all Italian wine, there’s a good hit of acid to give backbone and structure – always a great food match. As it was left to breathe in the glass, it gained more body and found the smoothness La Spinetta is renowned for. Flavours of blackberry, mocha and tobacco also emerged. I enjoyed the contrasting elegance and depth and at four years of age the tannins have already softened.
Hard not to like this.
I can offer it for $30 a bottle. SOLD OUT.
Barbaresco and Barolo are the names of two small vineyard zones and the names of the red wines that come from them. They’re located a mere 15km apart, within Piedmont and are renowned for producing some of the finest reds in Italy. Both are rated DOCG - the highest tier in the Italian appellation hierarchy.
Both wines are made from 100% Nebbiolo, which in this part of the world produces complex wines that are traditionally light ruby in colour. With flavours of ‘tar and roses,’ as well as liquorice, the wines are also characterised by high acidity and very firm levels of tannin.
Despite their close proximity and use of the same grape variety, there are subtle differences between the two wines. These differences are usually attributed to the soils, which are richer and more fertile in Barbaresco. As a generalisation, Barolo is considered richer, fuller in the mid-palate, more massively tannic, and longer lived than Barbaresco which, relatively speaking, is more elegant and approachable. There are also differences within the wines of Barolo… but that’s for another time.
La Spinetta has built its reputation on Nebbiolo, here are a couple of beauties.
2. La Spinetta Barbaresco ‘Vigneto Bordini’ 2009
This 100% Nebbiolo is from the single, south-facing 4ha Bordini vineyard, which is a Grandi Vigne or cru vineyard. Giorgio Rivetti purchased the vineyard in 2006 from the last of the Bordini family who farmed the vineyard over the last 300 years. It was clearly a great acquisition.
The vines are around 30 years old and grow at 270m elevation. The grapes are fermented in roto-fermenters for a relatively short 7 to 8 days before being aged for 20-22 months, 50% in one year old (ie. used once before) and 50% in new, medium toasted French oak barriques (225L). The wine is then aged for a further year in bottle before its release. It’s neither clarified nor filtered.
This Bordini is an elegant and complex Barbaresco, full of red cherry fruit, flowers and spice. The tannins are quite refined for a Nebbiolo and like all the La Spinetta wines, it has great texture, approachability and aromatics when young, yet still has the ability to age gracefully for 20 years.
“The 2009 Barbaresco Vigneto Bordini sees fruit harvested from 30-35 year old vines planted in the sandy soils of the Bordini cru of Neive. This wine is hugely aromatic with floral tones of pressed violets and lavender backed by garden herbs and mint. The long, menthol finish is divine. Anticipated maturity: 2015-2025.” 93 points, The Wine Advocate #207, June 2013.
I can offer for it for $115 a bottle (limited availability). SOLD OUT - Check availability
3. La Spinetta Barolo ‘Vigneto Garetti’ 2009
I mentioned that the rhino appears on most of La Spinetta’s labels. Their two Barolos however, feature a pencil drawing, also by Albrecht Dürer, of a lion. The rationale is that Barolo was traditionally referred to as the ‘King of Italian reds,’ hence the lion.
This fruit comes from the famous south-facing Campè vineyard, in a lower, more protected area, referred to as Garetti cru.the This vineyard is the jewel in the La Spinetta crown and was purchased in 2000. Sites like this rarely come onto the market and I hate to think how much the Rivettis paid for it! Higher up the slope, fruit is sourced for their top wine, the La Spinetta Barolo ‘Vigneto Campè’ (over $300 a bottle).
The vines are just over 30 years old and grow at an altitude of 200m. The wine is also made using roto-fermenters (10 days) and then aged for 20 months in 50% new, 50% one year old medium toasted 600L French oak. It's aged for another year in bottle before release.
The result is a rich and expressive Barolo, with great elegance and wonderful dark fruit notes.
“The 2009 Barolo Vigneto Garetti comes from the lowest part of the vineyard. It shows great power and density with fleshy fruit, dried cherry and prune. The mouthfeel is round and dense, supported amply by the firm tannins at the back. Anticipated maturity: 2015-2030.” 95 Points, The Wine Advocate #207, June 2013.
The praise is pretty restrained given the massive score! Go on… get one for the cellar.
I can offer it for $120 per bottle (limited availability). SOLD OUT - Check availability