A lot of my articles draw attention to small importers, often working in specialist areas. Without the innovation and deep knowledge these small merchants bring to the table we’d probably miss out on some spectacular wines, as I hope recent articles covering wines from Central Europe have shown. The small guys are the ones most likely pushing the boundaries.
Whilst many of these small importers are at the cutting edge of the natural wine movement, it is no different in the world of classic wines from classic regions. Ultravino has only been known to me for around eighteen months (they were born in 2017). I attended a Tasting of their wines at 67 Pall Mall in November 2017 and a few of the wines on show at the Summer Portfolio Tasting yesterday (at Citizen M Hotel near the South Bank in London) were the same vintages, giving us an opportunity to taste them with a little more age.
The Ultravino list shows a real depth of knowledge in Barolo, Barbaresco and Roero, introducing boutique producers of the highest quality in necessarily small quantities to a select group of Nebbiolo lovers, most of whom share a real passion for this singular European terroir, possibly the only one capable so far of taking this fickle grape variety to greatness (although the wines of Ar.Pe.Pe in Valtellina do show the consistency to challenge that supposition).
From my perspective, this Tasting exceeded the previous in quality terms. Every single wine here was enjoyable in its own way. In many cases purchasers were given a genuine dilemma – whether to stretch to some of the top wines, which showed exceptional class at fairly steep prices, or whether to snap up some of those producers’ so-called lesser wines which seemed, looking at the quality:price ratio, to offer real value for money.
I happen to love the wines of Barolo, Barbaresco and (increasingly) Roero, and the region itself, one of Italy’s too often forgotten destinations for wine tourism (and also, in my humble opinion, the best food in Italy). If you share my passion you should take a look at the Ultravino portfolio.
I shall cover the white wines, all Arneis, first, and then the red, mostly Nebbiolo, wines by producer, with a couple of Barbera thrown in as we go.
The Classic White Variety – Arneis
Arneis can be a marmite variety for some. As with Viognier, I know people who love it and those who just can’t get along with Arneis. What I enjoy is the pure variety which producers manage to conjure out of it. It’s a subtle grape which can give fruity wines, erring towards the peach and apricot spectrum. Others tease out of it the flavours of quince and other similarly bitter notes which add a refreshing twist, rather like a gin and tonic. Those wines more often seem to show fruit reminiscent of pears. Acidity levels vary too, so there is no one iteration of the variety in the wider region.
Roero, to the northwest of Alba, is the heartland for Arneis, where the variety of terroirs (chalk, sand and clay) give different qualities which, when blended, add interest and complexity. Arneis has also crept down into the Langhe, allowing another string to the bow of Barolo producers, and this is why Ultravino chose to concentrate on it.
It can be a notoriously difficult grape to grow (prone to low acids and over ripe flavours), but producers are discovering that when the quality of the wines is proven, perseverance is rewarded. There have been examples of Arneis in the UK for many years, but it is perhaps only just beginning to gain wider recognition among lovers of the region’s reds.
A very good start on a scorching hot day (the whites were well iced and tasted on an outdoor terrace in the shade) was Ca Rossa “Merica” 2016. This was very fresh with a little body, and the bitter twist here almost went as far as juniper. No less attractive was Val Del Prete “Luèt” 2016. At just £45/6 IB this is surely remarkable value from Mario and Giovanni Roagna, who make biodynamic wine from their Cascina at Priocca. Their four hectare amphitheatre of vines is farmed with great care, and it shows in all of their wines. This is a summer garden wine par excellence.
Giovanni Almondo is considered by many specialist commentators to be the best producer of Arneis in the whole of Italy, certainly in Roero. His “Le Rive” 2016 is very probably the best example of this variety I have ever tasted. At £105/6 IB it is perhaps equally the most expensive I’ve tried, but if you want to see the subtlety and class, and nascent complexity of which this variety is capable, head directly here, do not pass go! However, Giovanni makes an Arneis which will cost you just £65/6 IB. “Bricco delle Ciliegie” 2016 has less of the ethereal about it, but nevertheless is a wine of zippy acidity and wholly refreshing qualities. It comes from vines planted in a former cherry orchard.
Almondo is blessed with some exceptional soils. Sand seems to give wines of good acidity, with the limestone soils giving the wines structure and clay adding complexity. Of course alongside these varied terroirs, Giovanni has some old vines which reach more than sixty years of age in places. Old vine Arneis can be a different beast to an Arneis you might find in the supermarket (Malvira’s Roero Arneis, which many readers will have seen in Waitrose in the UK, is a pleasant enough wine for around £11 but it doesn’t show the added dimension that the Almondo wines have).
The final two Arneis were less intriguing as to complexity, but made up for it with pure drinakbility. Palladino showed some mightily impressive reds indoors, but their Roero 2016 white was pale and fresh, and quite distinctive. It won the “Star of Italy” and “Star of Piemonte” awards at the Harper’s Wine Stars Competition 2017. I’m positive that the judges loved that vibrant freshness which just lifts the wine. Livia Fontana Langhe Arneis 2016 is just a little fuller and perhaps fruitier. A wine for simple drinking.
For me, both of the Almondo whites were exceptional, and for general drinking, especially at this time of year, I liked the Palladino and the Val Del Prete.
The Region’s Reds – Terroir Wines Plain and Simple
Actually, Nebbiolo is rarely simple, except for perhaps one or two co-operative examples from the Val d’Aoste, and the kind of Barolo made for the lower end of the supermarket chain. The examples from Roero bore this out. Roero is no longer a region you’ve never heard of, but incresingly is a source for great value but ageable Nebbiolo.
Val Del Prete showed again what good wines they make. I’m guessing many will ignore them in favour of the big boys here. That would be a shame. “Vigna di Lino” 2013 has a gorgeous colour, lovely Nebbiolo scent, a smooth body, and the sense that it has a bit of age. Although it’s not like a complex Barolo, you can have this for a mere £85/6 IB (though currently out of stock, it is due back in the autumn). Their Riserva 2013 is a bigger wine with tannic structure, but it is a wine which will clearly age.
I’d recommend tasting it for yourself, because I don’t claim to be an expert on the ageing of Nebbiolo at this level, but I found it an impressive wine for just £130/6 IB, bearing in mind that Jancis Robinson said of 2013 “the prognosis is for a vintage similar in quality to the already legendary 2010”. What I can say is that 2010 Roero has aged well, and is a great value bet for those wanting Nebbiolo to drink other than just on special occasions.
As an aside, staying in the region near Nizza several times, I realised that when Barbera is given the best sites (as there, but never in the Langhe), it produces wines with noticeable terroir specificity. Roero-grown Nebbiolo can often express site better than generic Langhe Nebbiolo, though this is a broad generalisation. But those of us who look for individual character as much as we look for a particular definition of quality, should bear Roero in mind.
Ultravino showed some lovely red wines from Giovanni Almondo. “Bric Valdiana” came as both 2014 (from magnum) and 2015, two wholly contrasting vintages. 2014 gave us tannin and good acidity, but is somewhat lighter than the smooth 2015, which showed more concentration. I’m not yet as convinced as some commentators as to whether 2015 is generally a vintage for me on account of low acids (I like a bit of fresh acidity in a young wine). That the producers here generally managed to keep their 2015s at least a little fresh at this tasting was a good sign. This could certainly be said for Almondo’s wine, and even more so for Cà Rossa Valmaggiore 2015.
That said, Cà Rossa Mompissano Riserva 2013 was even more impressive. My note says “so alive”. Angelo Ferrio’s Riserva comes from unique terroir where the white soils contain marble. It sees thirty months in large oak and clearly has massive potential, as did the 2010 when I tried it back in 2017. You forget you are in Roero here, and it may surprise you to know you can purchase this for £125 for six in bond (around £20 before taxes for a wine with genuine potential over the medium-to-long term).
My friends know, because I’m constantly telling them, that Barbaresco is the place to look for interesting top quality Nebbiolo. After all, Barbaresco has a co-operative which has been turning out magnificent single vineyard Nebbiolo for as long as I’ve been drinking the variety. Without the fame of Barolo, you just need to look harder, and that’s what Ultravino has been doing, as have canny purchasers. They showed two producers well known to anyone who has ventured into the region, plus one absolutely oustanding newcomer.
Paitin is based at Serraboella, which is about half way between Neive and Mango, in beautiful rolling hills which make this bit of Piemonte so attractive to first time visitors. The Pasquero family are best known for their singular patch of vines within the Serraboella vineyard itself, Sori Paitin, which produces wines of some longevity.
Sori Paitin 2013 shows its class immediately through the lovely ethereal and haunting scents which dominate the bouquet. As with Pinot Noir, for me, fifty percent of the pleasure from this variety is derived through the nasal passages. The best wines have not so much the “power” as the gift to transport you somewhere else, in this case directly to the vineyard. Actually, as I type I’m listening to Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole (the Habanera), and that has a similar quality.
Serraboella 2013 may be from a larger parcel, but it also serves up the structure and tannins with underlying ripeness which mean that you should not be broaching this for a long time. If the price differential (£150 as opposed to £200 for six in bond) is important, you won’t feel hard done by.
My problem has always been that I like Paitin and Giorgio Pelissero more or less equally. The wines of Treiso can show the more elegant side of Barbaresco and although there can be structure here, you do get a sense of that elegance. The “Tulin” 2013 has, additionally, an almost meaty edge to it, something like an almost imperceptible hint of iron or a little blood from a rare steak. This is almost a family trait, yet “Vanotu” 2013 has less of this, and is a little plumper. Price would suggest it is the finer wine, but the differences for me are more about terroir than quality.
Silvia Rivella is the label of former Gaja winemaker of forty years, Guido Rivella. After retiring from Gaja in 2015 he has been making tiny quantities of wine at his small family estate at Barbaresco itself, and Ultravino has the UK exclusivity for these wines. They are something special, though that is not to say that they are easy wines. For a start, despite using large old wood, they do have power, and tannic structure of the kind one might associate with barrique wines. They also show amazing levels of concentration, concentration which almost takes your breath away in the top wine. Prices are steep, but as we shall see, there is value.
Barbaresco “Montestefano” 2015 is that top wine. The asking price is £380/6 IB, but there is potential for this to be world class. Slavonian oak dominates yet underneath the fruit is elegant, despite the vintage. “Fausoni” 2015 is a little cheaper (£315/6 IB) and is very classy too, with fine ripe and well managed tannins. There is concentrated cherry fruit here. It’s a wine that somehow manages to be big yet subtle at the same time.
The (relative) bargain here is the straight Barbaresco 2015 (£230/6 IB). There is the sort of concentration which you don’t always find at this level, and despite the genuine excitement and class in the two single site wines, this one would be my own personal selection. A chance to taste what I think is greatness without breaking the bank completely. But beware, Ultravino has an allocation of a mere 300 bottles of the 2015s across the three wines.
Striking a note of optimism, Rivella reckons his 2016 fruit is the best he’s seen harvested in the whole of his career. I think many will find these wines to have been almost shocking to taste, such is their concentration. They do, however, clearly have underlying subtleties which will come to the fore when properly aged.
I believe Guido’s daughter runs a small bed and breakfast/agriturismo, so in theory you could go and taste for yourself. My hunch is that everything not sipped goes back into the barrel. These wines are, as far as I’m aware, available for pre-order, shipping for Autumn.
We were shown Barbera from two producers. Both were quite big wines with smooth fruit and alcohols topped 14%. They were not the classic Barberas with acidity and that bitter twist finish, but they still seemed to go down well in the room. I would describe Palladino “Bricco delle Olive” 2015 as more of a “classic Barbera from a warm vintage”, a bigger wine yet without losing the qualities which we look for, of ripe fruit and freshness, a bit of acidity and bite.
Livio Fontana Barbera Superiore 2015 is from Castiglione Falletto and is a wine for ageing in the classic “superiore” style. It has seen a couple of years in oak and then an extended period in bottle before release. I did prefer the 2014 when I previously tasted it, but that may well be personal preference.
Although I judge Ultravino on their exceptional selection from the two lesser appreciated regions, there is no doubt that they will be judged by many on their Barolo selection. There were no wines from Chiara Boschis on show yesterday, but there were some fine Barolos from Carlo Revello, Livia Fontana and Palladino.
Carlo Revello & Figli makes classic La Morra Barolo, in a softer style but still with grip. In the past this producer has been known for using small oak, but in 2016 Carlo began replacing the barriques with larger Slavonian oak. The pendulum is most definitely swinging back in Barolo, as producers realise that the problems of the past were caused by hygiene, and the state of repair of the vessels for ageing, not the size of the vessel. Larger oak is now seen to enable terroir expression unencumbered by extraneous flavours like toast and vanilla. In particular, Slavonian oak is coming back too.
We had four wines from Carlo, three single site wines and a blend. Both “Gattera” and “Giachini” were from 2011, a very dry vintage in parts, where water stress has led to many making wines of little interest. That is not the case here. Although there is none of the stewed fruit character some 2011s display, the alcohol levels do reach 15%. This is also the case with the “Roche” 2012 (a generally much lighter vintage).
My own favourite from Carlo Revello was actually the blended wine. RG 2013 does have the advantage of vintage, of course, and it’s a selection from Roche dell Annunziata and Gattera (hence the letters). It shows that characteristic La Morra softness, a smooth wine which might be approachable younger than many 2013s. The grapes come from sandy soils at altitude, and from a windy site where temperatures can be kept down, or at least kept consistent, in a hot year. “RG” is £225/6 in bond.
Livia Fontana showed yet more thoughtful winemaking with her reds. And, as always, value is to the fore at this Castiglione producer. With two hundred years of winemaking history behind them, Livia runs the company with the help of her two sons, Michele and Lorenzo. These may not be the top wines of the DOCG yet they do display typicity for the wider Barolo region, and more specifically, for the terroir of their village.
So “Villero” 2013 has the structure of this well known site, where they have around a hectare of vines at between 300 to 350 metres altitude. Winemaking is described as traditional, which means fermentation in stainless steel followed by at least 40 months in cask, and then more time in bottle. This wine has structure, and I personally think it would benefit from more than a decade further cellar ageing. Yet the tannins have that velvet texture which does signal approachability sooner, if that’s how you like your Barolo.
“Fontanin” 2013 is the less expensive option. It’s nicely made and £140/6 IB as opposed to £225 for Villero. Winemaking looks just the same so what you are paying for with the senior wine to some extent is the fame of the vineyard, which of course probably gives that wine a little more concentration and longevity. But in a vintage like 2013 the cheaper wine can shine.
We finished with the Palladino Barolos. Palladino operates out of the old Cappellano Winery in Serralunga, and they are also great terroirists. The wines from the 2013 vintage are quite big, it must be said. They have tannic structure, and in some ways that structure seemed if anything a little accentuated since I last tasted them in 2017. But I find them very impressive, and I do have a soft spot for Serralunga.
Both “Parafada” and “Ornato” show subtle differences between them. The former sees a year in barrique before going into larger oak, and it combines elegance with power. Ornato is a site on clay and chalk, with none of the common (to the region) sand in the soil. It has a real earthy quality, and the structure (I think) to age like a Riserva. That’s not something to ignore when it can be had for £190/6 IB, as opposed to £310/6 for the next wine.
Palladino Barolo Riserva “San Bernardo” 2012 won a “Platinum Award” (97 pts) at the Decanter World Wine Awards 2018. This is a powerful wine, of the type which tends to stand out in these awards, but that should not take anything away from what is a brilliant wine, quite spectacular, and a nice way to end the tasting.
It’s just that if I’m buying Barolo to lay down, the Ornato ticks all the boxes, if not quite to the same degree, for £20 less per bottle before taxes, and to be quite frank what you save on a six pack is more than enough to buy a nice Roero, or half a dozen Arneis to see you through the heatwave. I would leave the senior wine to those who can easily afford it, and hope that one of them is kind enough to open a bottle for you if one is still here in 2038.
I think I’ve done enough to communicate my enthusiasm. There are plenty of big name wine merchants who can furnish you with the big names of Barolo. I have a hunch, from chatting to people at the Ultravino Tasting, both those who I knew and those I’d never met before, that this is a slightly different crowd, more clued up, and more able to judge a wine on its special qualities rather than on name.
It’s often disappointing when you take a wine to a dinner that you know to be of spectacular quality, yet the guests have never heard of the producer. Some, not all, of those imported by Ultravino fall into that category. But this is a special list. The depth of knowledge shared between James and Gabriele is such that there are no duds here, not remotely. It’s a case of what style you like and how you want to spend your money. This is especially true as Nebbiolo wines head towards becoming “the next Burgundy”, in terms of price and rarity on the secondary market.
What I would say is that tasting these wines brings proof of their quality, and (to me) more importantly, their personality. If you don’t necessarily want the wines which the books, perhaps written a few years ago, will tell you are the best, but instead prefer to look for differentiation and terroir at a sometimes more affordable level of pricing, then get down to the next Ultravino Tasting. If you want the opportunity to try the “impossible to source” wines of Sig. Guido Rivella, then don’t leave it too long to give the guys a call.
Ultravino can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org or directly from their website here.
The few photos below are from the slightly unusual venue of the “boutique” CitizenM Hotel, Bankside. Downside, they call themselves “cool”, upside, it is pretty cool.