Conterno Monfortino Magnum Vertical: 1970-2014
BY ANTONIO GALLONI | FEBRUARY 02, 2021
With this year’s Festa del Piemonte in full swing I thought it would be fun to revisit one of the highlights from the 2020 edition, our Rare Wine Dinner featuring a stunning vertical of Giacomo Conterno’s Barolo Riserva Monfortino spanning vintages 1970 through 2014. It was truly a night to remember.
The Rare Wine Dinner is a recent addition to our Festa del Barolo, which has now become an expanded Festa del Piemonte in this very strange, ‘virtual’ world we are living in at the moment. These small, intimate dinners focus on a single estate or theme. The first Festa Rare Wine Dinner was a breathtaking retrospective of Giuseppe Rinaldi Barolo, all from magnum, going back to 1978. For the 2020 edition of Festa, we hosted a vertical of Giacomo Conterno’s Monfortino, also all from magnum. I would love to say it was a ‘once in a lifetime’ event, but it wasn’t, as we were fortunate to host pretty much the same tasting (minus the more recent vintages) in London back in 2014.
The complete lineup, Monfortino 1970-2014, all from magnum.
A Little History to Start…
A discussion of the Conterno family and their iconic Barolo Riserva Monfortino could easily fill several articles, and it has. Readers will find a wealth of information on both topics on Vinous. Rather than repeat myself too much, always a risk as I get older, I am going to share a few anecdotes that I hope paint a portrait of the family and their signature wine.
Monfortino was first made in 1924 as a Riserva bottled only in the best years. It is one of the most historic wines in Piedmont and Italy. At the time, Monfortino, like most Barolos, was made from purchased fruit. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a whole lot of record keeping during this era, so it is hard, if not impossible, to reconstruct a lot of the history of where exactly fruit was sourced. Elio Grasso was among the growers who sold grapes to the Conternos. “I remember one year Giovanni Conterno came by to pick up his grapes,” Grasso told me a few years ago. “I was so proud of our fruit. I picked up a bunch to show Conterno and he yelled at me, telling me to never touch the grapes, but to pick up the bunches only by the stems.”
In the 1970s, Giovanni and Yvonne Conterno realized that land prices were going up and that the supply of high-quality grapes would be threatened. Owning vineyard land was the only way to guarantee the future. The Conternos found a property and entered into an agreement to purchase it. On the day of the closing Giovanni asked Yvonne “What if they raise the price at the last minute?” It was a common tactic in these negotiations. “Just come home with the vineyard,” she replied. Surely enough, the seller raised the price, but Conterno agreed and bought the vineyard. The year was 1974, the vineyard was Cascina Francia. Shortly thereafter, the Conternos planted the site, which was fallow at the time. In 1978, the Conternos made their first wines off Cascina Francia, including a Monfortino that is legendary. Today, the estate is run by their son, Roberto, who has built on his parents’ hard work and sacrifice, elevating the family winery to the position it occupies today among the world’s elite properties.
From 1978 to 2014, Monfortino was a selection taken from Cascina Francia, now known simply as ‘Francia.’ In 2015, Conterno acquired the neighboring Arione vineyard and began adding some of that fruit into Monfortino, returning that wine to its roots as a Barolo made from more than one site. Farming and winemaking are best described as rooted in tradition but contemporary. Conterno favors long macerations and 6-7 years in cask for Monfortino. Destemming equipment, quality control for corks, temperature control in the cellar and the bottling line are as state of the art as it gets.
The Cascina Francia vineyard, Serralunga d'Alba.
Striving for Perfection
Leaving aside the real stresses and trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic for a minute, Piedmont is going through a period of tremendous prosperity. The world has never had such a keen interest in the region and its wines. But it wasn’t always that way. It wasn’t that long ago that Barolo was an insider’s wine. I was quite fortunate to spend a lot of time in the region when it was still largely undiscovered. In the 1990s, when I started buying these wines, Monfortino was easy to find, especially in Italy, a market the Conternos have consistently supplied, unlike other estates that have focused more on export markets. “When visitors come to Piedmont, they have to be able to find my wine,” Roberto Conterno has often told me.
Monfortino was always expensive, but it was not collectible in the sense that prices did not explode right after release. Things weren’t too different a decade later, in the 2000s, when I could afford a bottle or two as a splurge. There were no such things as ‘allocations.’ Winery price lists routinely included several vintages, as wines would sell through over a course of several years. Around that time a merchant offered me an amount of 1996 and 1997 Monfortino that would make most people, including me today, drool. Alas, I was in business school and could not afford all of it, but I did get a few bottles. Barolo lovers who are a bit older than I am remember the days when Giovanni Conterno would thank visitors for their time and leave them with a bottle or magnum of Monfortino, a custom back then. It was a normal, polite gesture of appreciation.
I share this context because I think it is important in understanding the vision the Conterno family has long had, a vision based on conviction more than anything else, long before there was any sort of economic benefit to be gained. Readers who have visited the winery know how spotless it is. Striving for perfection is nothing new here. Robert Conterno once told me his father had to have the casks perfectly aligned with the flooring when the casks were moved into the new winery in the mid 1980s. In that regard, nothing has really changed here.
The spotless cellars at Giacomo Conterno, Serralunga d'Alba.
I am typically pretty nervous before one of our events, especially dinners like this one. I want every bottle to be spot on. On this night, every single magnum was just extraordinary as I tasted through the bottles before guests arrived. That doesn’t always happen. One after the other, I was just blown away. I thought the wines were even better than they were at our London event a few years prior, and that is saying a lot. We opened the bottles 2-3 hours in advance and double decanted for sediment. The wines were poured and then served, each vintage in its own glass, so that guests could follow the wines over time. Naturally, the collection of glasses on the table at the end of the night was pretty epic. Each flight was presented before the food, which allowed for a moment of concentration before participants enjoyed the wines. Conversation flowed liberally, inspired by the beauty of the wines and the historic significance of tasting this number of vintages together, from magnum. The NoMad sommelier team led by Wine Director Thomas Pastuszak, Assistant Wine Director Sarah Plath and Sommerlier Ren Neuman did a great job with the wines.
It’s always a challenge to know how many vintages to serve at a dinner like this one. It is easy to go into overload, which we aren’t especially good at avoiding. I had a magnum of the 1987 as a back up for the only vintage we did not have a second bottle of. That magnum turned out to be stellar, but I decided to open the 1987 anyway. It’s one of my very favorite vintages and also an example of how superb Monfortino can be in vintages that are challenging. We just had to have it, and we did.
All of the bottles came from my cellar, except for two wines that Roberto Conterno added. The first was the 2014 Monfortino, which at the time had not been released. Our guests were the first outside the winery to taste it. That in and of itself would have been pretty amazing, but the more interesting part is that it was a perfect time to taste the 2014 before it started shutting down, as I explain in the tasting note. We also had Conterno’s 2015 Nebbiolo d’Alba Arione Charity Wine, a special bottling made from a tiny parcel in Arione that lies just over the line, outside the Barolo DOCG before that vineyard was redeveloped right after the harvest.
Astute readers will notice the absence of three benchmark vintages from the 1970s: the 1971, 1974 and 1978. Why? That goes back to Giovanni Conterno’s attention to detail. Conterno was never satisfied with bottling large formats by hand. He knew this practice introduced a level of bottle variation, and he didn’t like it. After the 1970, Conterno vowed to never bottle magnums again until he could do so on a bottling line, a remarkable position to take back then, especially given that many producers continued to bottle large formats by hand for years, in some cases, decades, after. But in the 1980s, technology advanced, and bottling magnums on the line became possible. Magnums returned with the 1982 vintage. As an aside, my personal advice is to skip large formats unless they are bottled on a line. There is just too much variation, and too great a potential for disappointment, especially given where wine prices are. Obviously there are some exceptions, but it is a good rule of thumb. Ever the perfectionist, Roberto Conterno is now able to also bottle his 3Ls on the line. He is one of very few producers in the world who can make that claim. And that is what separates the elite from the rest, in any field – the willingness to do what others can’t or won’t.
As we often do, we organized the wines in thematic flights rather than tasting them chronologically. It’s an approach I have used for many years that I think keeps the palate fresh, engaged free from the shackles of a strict chronological order. That also allowed us to taste wines that are closer to maturity at first, and then taste other wines with similar characteristics together, like our ‘Cooler Shades of Expression’ flight, which grouped together 1996, 2002, 2005 and 2008. ‘Epic Vintages’ consisted of 1970, 1982, 1985, 1999 and 2010. The menu created by Chef de Cuisine Mike Reilly was full of highlights, especially the NoMad Roast Chicken with Foie Gras, Black Truffle & Brioche, which was served in two mini-courses, first the breast and then the darker meat.
A flight of Monfortinos set against the Manhattan skyline.
Flight 1: To Start….
Barolo Riserva Monfortino 1988, 1993, 1995 & 1987
Obviously, it is next to impossible to know where to start with a dinner like this one, but our first four wines are as good a flight as any in that regard. The 1988 is close to mature, while the 1993 and 1995 have many more years of fine drinking ahead of them. On a good night and from the very best bottles, the 1995 can be truly superb, in the style of the time and year, which is to say with some rusticity and a lot of genuine expression. The 1987 Monfortino is a late surprise addition. I couldn’t help myself. For years, the 1987 was an under the radar Monfortino. That’s not the case any longer, as wine lovers have seen for themselves what an exquisite wine it is.
Four stellar Monfortinos from warmer vintages.
Flight 2: The Warm Vintages
Barolo Riserva Monfortino 1990, 1997, 1998 & 2000
Hamachi: Crudo with Pears, Capers, Shiso & Yuzu Koshu
I was not really prepared for the jump in quality that happened with this flight. The 1990 Monfortino is unreal. I have been fortunate to drink it a number of times. This particular magnum is off the charts, and is the first truly breathtaking wine of many that will follow. The 1997 is the first Monfortino I tasted from cask, so drinking it brings back a lot of memories about my early days in Piedmont. It has always been a special wine, as it is again tonight. Unfortunately the 1998 can get lost between the 1996, 1997 and 1999, but it is a strong wine, especially when it is enjoyed on its own. For some reason, the 2000 is one of the relatively recent Monfortinos that I have not tasted often. It is in great shape though.
This flight of cooler vintages includes the 2002 and 2008, two of the latest-ripening years in the estate's history.
Flight 3: Cooler Shades of Expression
Barolo Riserva Monfortino 1996, 2002, 2005 & 2008
Dorado: Grilled with Hen of the Woods, Enoki Mushrooms & Mizuna
A flight of wines from cooler years follows. All four are classic Monfortinos built on aromatics and structure. In prior generations rain and cold weather were considered lethal to making high quality wines because Nebbiolo struggled to ripen. Today, the exact opposite is true. Heat and excessively dry weather are the biggest challenges for winemakers. Perhaps more than anyone else, Roberto Conterno is a fervent believer that Nebbiolo can cope with rain and cold weather far better than the opposite. His wines certainly bear that out. The 1996 is a super-classic Giovanni Conterno wine, while the 2002, 2005 and 2008 show the refinements Roberto Conterno has brought to his family’s flagship Barolo.
These five vintages span two generations and have so many stories to tell.
Flight 4: The Epic Vintages
Barolo Riserva Monfortino 1970, 1982, 1985, 1999 & 2010
NoMad Roast Chicken: Foie Gras, Black Truffle & Brioche
It’s hard to know where to start with this flight. The 1970 Monfortino is one of my favorite wines ever, from any producer or region. From magnum, it is celestial. Sadly, this is my last magnum, but I can’t think of a better occasion to have opened it. The 1982 is another vintage I have long adored. It does seem to be fading just a touch though, so I wouldn’t wait forever. On this night, the 1985 is especially great. Rich and bold, it captures the natural intensity of the year so well. A truly special Barolo, the 1999 Monfortino is a wine that will thrill classicists for its power and explosive energy. It takes every bit of my will power not to open the few bottles I have. And then we have the 2010, one of the greatest Barolos of all time. What I love most about this flight is traveling through time across forty years and two generations, a period that sees Conterno move from buying fruit to becoming an estate, and then an ascent into the stratosphere.
Each wine in its own glass makes for a fun view at the end of the night.
Flight 5: Modern-Day Classics
Barolo Riserva Monfortino 2001, 2004, 2006 & 2013
This next grouping follows quickly, so that all nine wines from Flights 4 and 5 are on the table at once. There are so many themes to explore. I have not had the greatest luck with 2001 recently, but this magnum is in fine shape. The 2004 has long been one of my personal favorites. Once again, it is riveting from the very first taste. What a wine. The 2006 and 2013 are young, powerhouse Monfortinos. I think it is critically important to taste wines across their entire lives. It’s really the only way to understand the arc of a wine over time. The 2006 and 2013 Monfortinos are clearly both Barolos that will offer their greatest drinking somewhere down the line.
Roberto Conterno at La Festa del Barolo 2020.
Flight 6: Surprise, Surprise….
Barolo Riserva Monfortino 2014, Nebbiolo d’Alba Charity Wine 2015
A Selection of Cheeses
Everyone likes a surprise, right? We always like to add something a little extra. On this night, guests had a chance to taste the 2014 Monfortino ahead of its release, which is so unusual. In most vintages, Monfortino is bottled in the summer and then sold in the fall, with just a few months in bottle. The 2014 was bottled with a year less in cask, but released on its typical schedule, which is why it was possible to include the wine in this tasting. In so many ways, the 2014 represents the height of what Barolo is and can be today. A sublime marriage of power and elegance. Our last wine is Conterno’s 2015 Nebbiolo d’Alba Arione Charity Wine, a one-off made from a small section of the Arione vineyard that sits just outside the Barolo appellation. I absolutely loved this wine from cask. It is every bit as magical from bottle, or magnum, to be more accurate. There is a sense of exuberance and joyousness to the 2015 that makes it the perfect wine to round out this truly unforgettable evening.
Two wines served blind - the 2014 Barolo Riserva Monfortino and the 2015 Nebbiolo d'Alba Arione Charity Wine.
As we go to press in early February 2021 it’s hard to say when events like this one can resume. We can’t repeat a vertical back to 1970 from magnum, but I do have a collection of many Monfortinos in bottle going all the way back to 1958. Perhaps we can open those when the world returns to normalcy, whatever that is going to look like. To be continued…
See the Wines in the Order Tasted
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