Did someone say a vertical of Barolo? At a wine dinner? In Australia?
Such an occasion is like finding a unicorn shitting rainbows, so when the invite came through from the Calabria family to explore multiple vintages of Fontanafredda Barolo, I was, shall we say, very there.
Of course, yet another week of illness threatened to derail all of the plans, just because our family hasn’t gone through enough paracetamol in the last few months. But I still fronted up to Sydney Italian institution Otto on Wednesday (albeit I had to keep wandering off to cough like a leper) for a session of delicious wagyu and aged Fontanafredda Barolo.
Again, who wouldn’t? Check out this menu:
Laying my cards on the table, I wouldn’t say I’m a massive Fontanafredda fan, not helped by some inconsistent wines and the shuffling of distributors over the past decade. But the more recent wines are more polished than ever, plus they’re sorted by the Calabria family’s new importer/distributor arm, Vintners & Co. Merchants.
The Fontanafredda history is wildly impressive. One of the most storied names in the Langhe, it was started by a count (and the son of Italy’s first king) in the mid-1800s, with the estate spanning over 300 acres of organically farmed vineyard across Serralunga d’Alba, Barolo and Diano d’Alba.
In other words, the back story is undoubted. Now for the evidence. For this dinner, we were treated to a vertical of single vineyard Barolo from the La Rosa vineyard in Serralunga d’Alba.
The style here is textbook Barolo too – 15 days on skins (which is average, in context), ferment and maturation over 2-3 years in large Slavonian (ie Croatian) and French oak, plus an extra year in bottle. That said, it was fascinating to see some obvious oak richness on the 2005 (and a little saddle too), which doesn’t fit the ‘old oak’ narrative.
What these wines do show is the agelessness that marks top, old-school Barolo. Something immoveable, tannic, and occasionally pretty, even after fifteen to twenty years in bottle. It makes the prices look cheap, especially given that you can pay much more for Burgundy, Bordeaux etc and end up with something that may give less pleasure for fewer years.
The only thing missing was some tannin profundity. That’s the element that marks the highest levels of Nebbiolo. A sensation that a wine can be satisfying in its weight, richness and flavour, yet with a thrust of mouth-bonding tannins that remind you that these are wines that don’t fuck around. AKA wines, not fruit drinks, and proudly so.
My notes are more vibes than full deep dives, as I sat next to the ever-notorious Rob Geddes MW, and it was a distracting pleasure to catch up on the latest in his ever-colourful life.
Oh, and I had a chat to Andew Calabria at the end of the dinner about the family’s plans with the old McWilliam’s business that they now purchased. As he explained, there is a lot to sift through – they’ve loved discovering a treasure trove of old fortified in the Hanwood winery (hello 40yo tawny), but that also comes with a realisation that the McWilliam’s portfolio had some baggage. There will be lines deleted, was the impression I got, although coupled with an upgraded focus on premium wine from Canberra, Hilltops & Tumbarumba. The Calabria family realise that this is a long-haul investment, but with some love, the McWilliam’s name can fly high once again.
Anyway, the wines:
Fontanafredda Pradalupo Roero Arneis 2020
Didn’t move me much. Cheesy, waxy with some green melon. The nose suggests weight, but the palate is tart and yet sweet fruited. None of it matches together. Intensity, but not cohesion. 16.5/20, 88/100.
Fontanafredda Vigna La Rosa Barolo 2016
Fascinating to think that this, a six-year-old wine, isn’t ready. Tar and roses, yes, but the palate swings between primal red fruit with an almost glace fruit song, without the mid-palate weight of the older wines. Pretty classic, undoubtedly, all you need is patience. 18/20, 93/100+. (circa $180 RRP)
Fontanafredda Vigna La Rosa Barolo 2011
My pick of the vertical, which is probably a reflection of the timing as much as the wine – a ten-year Barolo sweet spot is not unusual. This has the tar and roses classicness, a palate that is medium-bodied, with a push-pull between ripe fruit, some leathery earthen secondary characters, ironstone, and hung meat, but with a core of dark cherry fruit too. It’s not a showy wine, the tannins are more subtle than sublime, but the style has an old school, Pinot-meets-Nebbiolo, with an earthen charm to it. A genuinely enjoyable drink too. 18.5/20, 94/100.
Fontanafredda Vigna La Rosa Barolo 2005
Such a different wine. This spent a full three years in oak and looks oakier too. The ripe fruit and sweetness from the wood makes this more forward – more new world even – with a mode that is more rounded compared to the granular wines on either side. It’s not without charm, but a bit showy (and I thought a smidgen bretty too). Will be a massive hit with certain flavour-loving audiences, though. 17.7/20, 92/100.
Fontanafredda Vigna La Rosa Barolo 1996
Fully mature, but a very enjoyable wine because of it. It’s in the mode of the 2011 – medium-bodied, savoury, reserved, but with a certain core of intense fruit. The flavours are now more sausagey, leafy and secondary, but no loss in fruit to back it all up. Lovely licoricey nose too. Lots of people are going to like the forward 2005, but this has the aged, edicalte, unshowy charm and sophistication I really appreciate. Will still be alive in a decade, no probs. My second top wine of the bracket. 18.5/20, 94/100.
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