Splurge vs. Steal: A Barolo Bargain
F&W's Ray Isle tastes a great cru Barolo, and tells you how to experience something like it for far less.
Recently, one of the world’s top Barolo producers, Vietti, was sold to an American businessman—Kyle Krause, the CEO of the Kum & Go chain of convenience stores. The sale certainly raised eyebrows in the wine world, partly I suspect because of the incongruity of those two brands, but as it turns out Krause is a longtime Barolo lover (and more recently, landowner), who's been visiting the region for years.
Winemaker Luca Currado, whose family founded Vietti in 1873, told me that he feels the change will strengthen Vietti’s wines in the end. Certainly it helps that Currado himself has no plans to leave, nor does his brother-in-law Mario Cordero, who handles the winery’s sales and marketing. And Krause, for his part, has no interest in changing that aspect of the business either: “I wouldn’t have bought Vietti without Luca and Mario. [Their continued presence] was a necessity for us to even move forward with the deal,” he told me.
For Currado, it seems the heart of the decision (outside of the purchase price itself, which while unpublished was almost certainly extremely high) was about vineyards. Though Vietti owns a fair amount of land, it also rents vineyards in some of Barolo’s top crus. The problem, Currado says, is that “now that the price of the land is so crazy—over a million euros for a hectare—all the people who own these vineyards no longer want to rent them; they want to sell.” Which, when it happens, means Vietti then loses access to those grapes. Krause, on the other hand, brings 30 acres of top vineyards into the Vietti portfolio, permanently reducing the reliance on rented vineyard land.
It's impossible to predict what these changes will mean for Vietti fifty years from now. But one thing that won't change is that great Barolos—which Vietti makes—are wines defined by the vineyards they come from. Take the 2011 Vietti Barolo Rocche di Castiglione ($150), with its pure cherry notes and rose scents, and its balance of elegance and power (“Rocche for me is always the Sophia Loren of the Barolo vineyards—such personality,” Currado told me a while back). It’s a gorgeous Barolo, and one that will clearly age without effort for decades; if I had a case of it in my cellar, I'd be a very happy guy.
But I don't, nor am I likely to. Not all of us (very few of us, in fact) can run out and buy $150 Barolos. So how do you find a wine that gives you a sense of something like Vietti’s Rocche di Castiglione? The most affordable way is to look to Vietti’s 2013 Perbacco ($27). While it isn’t labeled Barolo, all the grapes used in it come from Barolo vineyards; essentially it’s the wine that doesn’t quite make it into the winery’s mid-rage Castiglione Barolo (in itself a bargain at $52). There’s no question Perbacco doesn’t have the subtlety and nuance of Rocche, nor is it the expression of a single great vineyard. But it’s Barolo in all but name, floral and delicate yet with formidable underlying tannins, and at the price it’s an absurd bargain.