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The birth of Barolo’s Crus

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Prunotto was one of the first Barolo estates to produce a single-vineyard “Cru” wine – kickstarting a trend that has transformed the region. We spoke to Emanuele Baldi to find out what inspired the estate

Prunotto’s Emanuele Baldi has an encyclopedic knowledge of Barolo. Listening to his stories about the last century in the region is fascinating, providing context to how and why Barolo and the surrounding Piedmontese regions have developed as they have. Perhaps one of the biggest developments over this time was the birth of wines from a single Cru or vineyard. A trend that Prunotto, along with Vietti, started in the early 1960s, these single-vineyard wines completely transformed how Barolo was sold. Today it is rare for producers not to sell both single-vineyard wines as well as their Barolo “Classico” made from a blend of vineyards and regions. But this trend wasn’t necessarily Prunotto’s intention, believing only certain vineyards had the capacity to produce wines as complex as those of the blended Barolos the region had become famous for.

It was Prunotto’s winemaker at the time, Beppe Colla, who came up with the idea, inspired by a trip to Burgundy with both Vietti’s Arturo Bersano and the famous Italian wine journalist, Italian gastronome and intellectual Luigi Veronelli. On discovering the region’s obsession with terroir and single-vineyard designations, they recognised the link between the region’s complex soils and wine - something familiar with certain Barolo Crus, which has a distinct imprint. The concept of the single-vineyard Barolo was born.

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The transition to producing a single-vineyard Barolo was not such a difficult progression, since back then Barolo producers like Prunotto were based in the city of Alba, rather than the vineyard hamlets themselves. Following the harvest, the grapes were brought to the town square on carts and for many grape growers it was only at this point that they bartered their goods with the town’s wine producers. Winemakers, Baldi told me, would famously bargain for the grapes. They would often complain that the prices were too high and that they should come back tomorrow with a better price, with the grapes already decomposing in the growers’ carts. The growers had little option but to drop their prices before their crop became worthless.

Prunotto, along with the likes of Pio Cesare, was one of a handful of prestigious producers happy to pay a premium for the best grapes. With no bargaining, they saved precious time (preserving the quality of the fruit), while also securing the cream of the crop. Because different smallholders brought their separate carts of grapes, it became easy to identify the different qualities depending on the vineyards they came from. Initially, Prunotto found the Bussia grapes stood apart from the rest – which is why it became their – and the region’s – first single-vineyard Barolo (along with Vietti’s Rocche di Castiglione) in the 1961 vintage.

But why did the Bussia vineyard stand out, earning a solo bottling? The historic region of Bussia (which today represents Upper Bussia) is a perfect amphitheatre of vineyards, in which different parts of the same vineyard produced grapes with different, complementary characteristics that together create a complex wine when fermented. Baldi feels that Nebbiolo is typically best when it is a blend of different vineyard sites. Most Barolo vineyards on their own, he thinks, don’t provide the balance, intensity, and complexity of a multi-site blend. “Each of the individual vineyards are like parts of an orchestra,” he explains. Each vineyard adds a layer of complexity, whether it be perfume, tannic structure or a rich mid-palate which, if on its own, would be too simple. “Have you ever listened to hours of music played just by a double bass?” Baldi quips. “But some vineyards in Barolo are an orchestra in themselves.” And this is exactly what he, and Prunotto, feel is true for upper Bussia – an amphitheatre that can produce something truly distinct and complex.

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For Prunotto it is Bussia’s “grace and balance” that sets it apart. Upper Bussia is situated right in the middle of the two dividing styles of Barolo: to its east are the vineyards of Serralunga, known for their tannic structure and power; to its west are the vineyards of La Morra and Barolo, known for their elegance and florality. Upper Bussia is one of the perfectly situated Crus (similar to Cannubi and Rocche di Castiglione), capturing the best of both these styles. The estate’s two flagship wines – Barolo Bussia and Barolo Riserva Vigna Colonnello – are both from Upper Bussia. Following the success of their 1961 single-vineyard Bussia, Prunotto went on to produce many other single-vineyard cuvées, including the Crus of Ginestra, Cannubi and Barbaresco’s Rabaja and Montestefano, but the winery always kept going back to Bussia, which has become its spiritual home. That’s also why, upon their arrival at Prunotto back in the late 1980s, the Antinori family immediately focused their attention on the Bussia Cru, purchasing seven hectares in the area.

Barolo built its reputation on its blends. More often than not, these multi-vineyard blends are wines of fantastic complexity and balance. Today, however, most Barolo producers’ single-vineyard Cru wines are their most prized (and expensive) wines. Clearly, top Crus such as Bussia, Falletto, Villero, Monprivato and more have developed a huge following amongst collectors and connoisseurs. Prunotto’s and Vietti’s pioneering leap, introducing the concept of single-vineyard wines to the region, brought a new layer of complexity to drinking Barolo. It’s even prompted cartographers to map out the region in extraordinary detail. While multi-site blended Barolos remain an important benchmark for the wider region, showcasing each producer’s blending skills; the success of the Crus in Barolo has left the drinker with a lifetime of discovery – exploring the many different nuances of each single Cru.

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