In wine, there is a pattern that happens with such profound regularity that it remains inconceivable that this industry, whose bread-and-butter is quantifying sensations and experience, has yet to give it a name. If you aren’t in the wine industry, no bother, you’ll recognize it.
The pattern is simple. A winery is marketing its newest release. A number of decisions were made during the growing season to the benefit of the dollar, and not to the wine. Perhaps the grapes have been grown on the flatlands to make machine work easier, though the slopes would produce more interesting wine. Maybe yields haven’t been managed, maybe pesticide is indiscriminately sprayed, maybe the work simply wasn’t put in. It now comes time to sell this wine, and the story of sex and nature gets sprayed like pesticide. “X winery is at the forefront of modern innovation, but with an eye towards tradition…” It’s often the siren song of a wine with no further story to tell.
To be clear, this isn’t an affront on modern winemaking techniques, this is an affront on those who use them at the expense of their environment; those who erase the special character of their place by manufacturing the type of wine they already assume you want to drink. The unbelievable over-planting of chardonnay, for example, in environments not suitable to the grape, and especially at the expense of the indigenous varietals that thrive there, confirm this point. I firmly believe wine can be artful, and I firmly believe that this is the point where it stops being so.
This converging globalization can be found in all cultures of taste, but I find it particularly frustrating in my industry because the offending wineries often lean on the cache of the very environments they spend all year disregarding. The average consumer simply doesn’t have the time to investigate every marketing claim a wine makes, and so these wineries can make a good living putting more effort into their words than they do to their soil.
All this to say, it’s why, when I find a producer that does the exact opposite of this, whose decision making is clearly motivated by character, and who pursues conscientious stewardship of their land and tradition at the expense of immediate financial gain, I like to share their stories.
This is the backdrop for the wines of Enrico Rivetto.
"They don't like me, I'm a winemaker." This was Enrico’s response when asked about a group of butterfly enthusiasts we noticed walking in his vineyards. Of course, it was hilariously self-aware. Enrico is on track to be the first certified biodynamic wine grower in Barolo, and on the day we visited, his vineyards were swimming with life. Jeff Porter, an NYC wine professional and frequent visitor to the region remarked that he couldn’t recall ever hearing the sound of so many singing birds in a Barolo vineyard.
Above all, biodynamic wine growing involves a complex understanding of ones’ environment. It relies on natural plant/animal based treatments in the vineyard, eschewing the use of chemical products to assist in plant growth or combat disease. Working in this way requires one to be finely tuned into the lifecycle of their vines, and though anecdotal, is a particular favourite for those who actually live on the land and tend it themselves. Even more than this, Enrico maintains a true polyculture. He was most excited to show us the endless rows of sage, rosemary, nettle, thistle, lavender, and mint, not to mention large areas of woodland and fruit trees, and most impressively, entire blocks dedicated to the planting of many varieties of ancient wheat. The vines themselves were very healthy, but we could have taken this for granted. In an environment where vineyard land is sold for upwards of €1m per hectare, planting wheat to make bread instead of highly profitable grapes seems almost unthinkable. It is even more unbelievable when we are told that vineyard land was torn out to make this happen. “It is not sustainable to plant only one thing. This is not an ecosystem.”
We sit down for an outdoor lunch next to the family’s pond. This is our first introduction to the wines themselves, and it is perfectly fitting that they are tasted alongside cuisine from the family garden, tended biodynamically by Enrico’s father (and former winemaker) Sergio. Enrico is quick to remind us that ‘former’ is a loose label in Italian wine growing families, as no one really retires from their lifework. It is obvious to see how proud they both are of what their land has given them, and what they have given it, too.
We open with a fairly idiosyncratic wine, their ‘Kaskal’ Sparkling Nebbiolo. Made from the tip of the grape cluster, this is harvested early when the acidity is still very naturally high in the grapes, then aged on lees for 45 months (a marathon for sparkling wines made outside Champagne.) Admittedly, when you are poured a glass of ‘welcome’ bubbles you rarely expect to be rocked, but this was full of quinine, straw, chamomile flowers and salt. I found myself laughing as I tasted it, thinking of how these nebbiolo grapes could easily just be blended into Enrico’s barolo, without the painstaking 4 years of work tending a one-off cuvee of sparkling wine. Like the man himself, this wine was completely full of character.
I finish my glass and notice a cat swipe a fish from the pond, running proudly into the forrest with it for his own lunch.
Next was a comparison of 2007/2015 Barbera d’alba ‘Zio Nando’, with a large portion of the vines dating to almost 80 years old. The 2015 was singing with a bright cherry freshness and a great aromatic lift, owing to the sandy soils the vines are planted in. The 2007 was much more obviously round and plump, with lavender, sweet tobacco and morels. The lighter-on-its-feet 2015 was the hit for me, and it’s exciting to see the direction this will go in.
Enrico’s 2011 Barolo “Leon” Riserva followed, a wine from an extremely hot vintage but that was able to sit on a knife-edge of balance and restraint. The aromatics were again beautiful (something I found across the board in his wines), tending towards a sweet core of cracker, dried cocoa, fig, and earth. The temperature outside hit 31°, the humidity was beyond obvious, and somehow this powerful wine floated in seamlessly. I still remain puzzled at that.
To compare Barolos, we were also poured the 2012 Barolo Briccolina, a wine from a single vineyard in Serralunga D’alba. While perhaps not the most friendly lunch sip, the potential of this wine was obvious. Sneaky bits of dried lavender, violet, and dried cherry poked their head through a sturdy but graceful wall of tannin. More airy and ethereal than Leon — I can only hope to run into it a few years in the future.
Our last lunch wine was a new project, the 2016 Vino Rosso, a wine that embodied everything I’d grown to appreciate about Enrico’s approach. This was a blend of Nebbiolo aged in Amphora with 8 months of maceration. Not only does Enrico sacrifice labeling these grapes as Barolo, he also sacrifices labeling them as Nebbiolo, opting to call this, essentially, “red wine” for the sake of experimentation. While very floral and fresh, this wine has serious tannin, and a totally herbal, wild edge. It evolved constantly. “It’s tannic, but not too tannic, I think” Enrico mused, “is it?” This curiosity is infectious.
After lunch, we were given the choice of cycling between napping in their garden in the shadow of the castle of Serralunga, eating hazelnut cake made from the trees planted amongst their vines, losing gracefully at basketball, or helping ourselves to the back-vintage staples of their Barolo. It became easy to forget how much work was put in so that we may experience the fruit of it all. It is, however, unsurprising, that a family who are such conscientious stewards to their land and lifework would similarly be such uncompromisingly hospitable hosts. The energy they put into their wines radiates through you, too. Rivetto’s way of making wine is full of toil, but the answer why is glaringly simple: why would anyone ever want to jeopardize all this life?
Ready and open, smoked rosemary, mesquite, sweet cracker, dried rose and lavender.
1990 Barolo Riserva
Still plenty of life left. Liquorice, spice, airy and light-on-its-feet. A floral bright lift.
Sweet buckwheat honey, lavender, cigar smoke, bitter cocoa, hazelnuts and cream with a long, dynamic finish. A total treat, like a boxer at the top of his game.
1961 Barolo Riserva
Hazelnut, sweet mesquite smoke, leather and dried figs. Soothing liquorice. An old man with a quiet story to tell.
I visited Rivetto as a part of Collisioni festival 2018, which I attended as a wine professional for Ian D’agata’s progetto vino program. All wines were tasted July, 2018, and while currently unavailable in Alberta, we’re working on that. Thank you to Collisioni, Ian, and Enrico for the opportunity.
- Evan Watson, 07.31.2018