From Rioja and Piedmont to Mendoza and Napa, more and more regions and winemakers are creating a ‘cru’ model for their vineyards. Jacopo Mazzeo looks at the latest French wine export to go global
The sense of place is something unique to wine. I can’t think of any other edible thing that can produce such different flavours [from vineyard to vineyard],’ says Laura Catena, the charismatic fourth-generation leader of Catena Zapata in Mendoza. ‘When I taste my White Bones Chardonnay or White Stones Chardonnay, both made from similar plant selections but just a few feet apart, and grasp how different they taste, I can’t help but marvel about the effects of terroir.’
Laura Catena is proudly Argentinian. She often wears a traditional red beret, the unmissable embodiment of her country’s spirit. The motivation that led her to spend years analysing every single little stone of Catena Zapata’s Adriana vineyard is unmistakably Burgundian, however. And when she defines her Chardonnays as ‘grand crus’, because of their ‘taste of place, collectability and ageability status’, it’s another example of an increasing use of the term outside France.
The Piedmont cru
Even within its homeland, the term is somewhat fluid – cru is an estate in Bordeaux but also a vineyard in Burgundy, for instance. Winemakers, sommeliers and consumers alike associate it with a wine of intrinsically superior quality compared to a multi-vineyard or panregional blend. But is it? Up until the early 1960s, it was common practice for winegrowers in Piedmont’s Langhe to make wine by blending fruit from several plots.
The different characters were meant to complement each other to generate a wine that was the purest, most balanced expression they could make. Then, in 1961, came Vietti Rocche di Castiglione and Prunotto Bussia, and as other producers such as Gaja and Giacosa followed suit soon after, consumers became accustomed to the concept of cru even for wines made outside Burgundy and Bordeaux.
The ‘cruisation’ of the Langhe was eventually made official in 2010 with the creation of the much debated Menzioni Geografiche Aggiuntive (MGA), a monolithic census of Barolo’s 181 ‘crus’.
‘A single vineyard is the climax of uniqueness,’ says Matteo Ascheri, owner of Ascheri Vini in Bra and president of the Consorzio Barolo Barbaresco Alba Langhe e Dogliani.
‘Traditionally, winemakers would blend grapes from different areas, but now they vinify single plots to express the peculiar qualities of a place.’ It’s a view shared by most Barolo winemakers, and today only a handful of producers are left to champion the old tradition of blending.
One of these is Maria Teresa Mascarello, who runs a few hectares at Cantina Bartolo Mascarello. She only makes one, multi-plot, Barolo. ‘I believe that blending is the right means to achieve the best possible balance of all components in a wine: tannin, acidity and alcohol,’ she explains.
A single vineyard is the climax of uniqueness
‘From a winemaking perspective, one cannot obtain the best possible wine by vinifying a single vineyard, especially with the challenges of climate change. The technique to make wine from a single plot comes from Burgundy, but I want to champion our own local tradition instead.’
The influence of Burgundy has been a hot topic in the Langhe for decades and for some winemakers like Maria Teresa Mascarello it’s still very much relevant today: ‘Years ago we imported the barrique. Now we import the Burgundian quality pyramid,’ she says. While the Langhe’s cruisation was inspired by the Burgundian model – with vineyards playing the first violin, Tuscany, by contrast, followed the Bordelaises, putting a strong focus on the estate.
Just like the earliest single-vineyard Barolos, the first and now archetypal Super Tuscan, Sassicaia, was created in the 1960s and was made with Cabs from Tenuta San Guido only. The rest is history.
The cruisation of Piedmont and Tuscany was the path that led to super-premiumisation and brought Italian wine worldwide success. ‘It’s not really about making a better wine,’ says Ascheri, ‘but rather that a single vineyard label is unreplicable, individual. That’s its intrinsic high quality.’
Cru goes to Spain
If Burgundy was the initial inspiration, Barolo’s MGAs established the precedent for other regions to review their own labelling parameters. In 2017 the Consejo Regulador of Rioja passed revolutionary regulations that allow producers to label single-vineyard wines.
As in the Langhe, intra-regional blending has always been key to Rioja’s winemaking. Or, as Jose Luis Lapuente, director of the Consejo Regulador says, it created ‘something greater than the sum of its parts and achieved a sustainable quality over time’.
But he points out that ‘the new geographical indications [including the single vineyard] were set up to complement the traditional ageing classifications. Crianza, reserva and gran reserva have been key to the success of Rioja and are relatively easily understood’.
But some consumers, says Lapuente, are looking for more details about a wine’s origin. Probably because ‘for many years now, terroir has been positioned as an essential element of wine identity, and key to a great wine’. Juan Carlos Sancha, professor of oenology at the University of La Rioja, runs a small winery located in Rioja Alta.
He works with five hectares planted to indigenous grapes such as Tempranillo Blanco, Maturana Tinta and Maturana Blanca, and believes that the new regulations represent a much-needed development to foster quality in the region. ‘The French quality model is clearly based on the concept of terroir,’ he says.
‘If we observe the labels of the wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy we’ll see that there’s hardly any reference to the grape variety or to the time it’s spent in oak [unlike in Rioja]. This is my preferred model.’ With their controls on yield and vine vigour, Sancha believes that viñedos singulares ‘will undoubtedly be the Rolls Royce of wine’.
But Víctor Fernández de Manzanos is not so sure. He’s the fourth generation CEO of Bodegas Manzanos, a company that’s responsible for an astonishing 950ha of land and leading wine brands such as Siglo Rioja.
From a winemaking perspective, one cannot obtain the best
possible wine by vinifying a single vineyard
‘We have no plans to use the viñedos singulares on our labels,’ he sniffs. ‘We could, of course, but all our top wines, our gran reservas, sell fast and our customers are attached to our labels. There would really be no point in changing them.’
Over here, too, the on-trade remains wary. ‘The recent updates in Rioja with the viñedo singular aim to create a separate, almost prestige category,’ points out Terry Kandylis, head sommelier at London’s 67 Pall Mall. ‘The truth is that this area is suffering from an image that cannot justify a sea of wine made and sold at £5 a bottle found in every supermarket and off-licence shop in the UK alongside some of the most iconic wines made in the same region.’
Back in Italy
Modern Chianti shares many elements with Rioja: it can retail at £6 a bottle or be as expensive as any fine wine, it’s made with an iconic indigenous grape and it’s labelled according to age. In 2014, the Consorzio Chianti Classico created the Gran Selezione, a new upper-tier label made with grapes from a single estate. The purpose was to tackle the dilution of the Chianti brand and reposition the Chianti Classico DOCG as a super-premium product.
But the Gran Selezione concept hasn’t really resonated with consumers, perhaps because the international audience already finds Italian labels challenging enough. Or perhaps because if any small piece of land becomes worthy of a label on its own (as happens in Gran Selezione), then this undermines the whole idea of ‘great terroir’ inherent in the concept of ‘cru’.
Despite the failure of Gran Selezione the Consorzio’s president, Giovanni Manetti, is determined to play the cruisation card again. He’s planning to split the appellation into subzones ‘to make the relationship between wine and terroir more evident’.
‘Chianti Classico,’ he says, ‘is really a group of wines from different terroirs.’ Although the subzones will be much larger than Barolo’s MGAs, Manetti still sees Piedmont as the model to follow. ‘The introduction of the MGAs has resulted in a significant sales boost for Barolo. The consumer expects to know exactly the piece of land, the physical place that gave birth to the wine.’
There is great skill needed to create a blend, just like writing a symphony.
Kandylis, however, isn’t convinced the rush to cruisation suits every region. ‘[With Barolo and Barbaresco’s single vineyards] people are willing to spend more,’ he says. ‘Whether it will pick up elsewhere, we’ll see. It’s a harder card to sell in Rioja where not everyone has the fame of Tondonia. ‘For Chianti, either you know your Super Tuscans and you are willing to pay more, or you spend the same money in Brunello, which has a stronger brand name.’
It seems cruisation is spreading beyond Rioja and the Langhe, now reaching Napa and Australia, Champagne and even Jerez. After the spread of Cabernet and Chardonnay, and French barriques, this, perhaps, is the next wine trend to go global; a winegrowing ethos that vintners from France, Italy, Spain and Argentina now all share and understand.
Yet the industry must be wary. With winemakers on a quest to find their own little ‘grand cru’, broad regional identities are becoming blurred – and a classic production technique is in danger of being downplayed. ‘One might think [blended wine] is a recipe that can be reproduced,’ says Ten Trinity Square’s Jan Konetzki. ‘But there is great skill needed to create a blend, just like writing a symphony.’
Single vineyard and blends for your list
Catena Zapata Mundus Bacillus Terrae Malbec 2014
Made with fruit from a 1.4ha parcel of Catena Zapata’s Adrianna Vineyard in Gualtallary District, at over 1,500 metres elevation.
Scents of violet and dark berries are followed by liquorice and black cherry. It’s got firm tannins on the palate and a bright acidity, but nothing that can’t be tamed by a juicy steak.
Nieto Senetiner Mendoza Malbec DOC 2016
Made with old-vine Malbec grapes from owned vineyards in Luján de Cuyo, this is the archetypal expression of a Mendoza Malbec.
Purple colour in colour, its scents of red berries and cherry, and that hint of vanilla delivery exactly what's expected.
In the mouth it shows sweet tannins, an ample palate and a lingering finish.
Massolino Vigna Rionda Barolo Riserva 2012
Vigna Rionda is Massolino’s top site, and this wine is all about structure and concentration.
A fragrant nose with aromas of crunchy blackberries, crisp strawberries and intense sour cherries leads to a palate of mint, tobacco and tar with smooth tannins.
It will show beautifully in a few years’ time.
Bartolo Mascarello Barolo 2013
This cantina, now led by Maria Teresa Mascarello, is one of the very few still to champion the art of blending. Their only Barolo is a blend of fruit from Cannubi, San Lorenzo, Rué and Rocche.
With three years in large botti and one year in bottle, its nose is gently perfumed, with elegant scents of sour cherry, cassis and rose petals. On the palate there is a delicate spiciness and a hint of balsamic. Unique.
POA, Justerini & Brooks
Artadi Viña El Pisón 2016
Although official viñedo singular wines won’t be available on the UK market earlier than 2020, there are already plenty of single-plot Riojas out there to choose from.
This T Tempranillo from a single 2.4ha vineyard in Laguardia spends 12 months in new French oak and 12 in bottle. It shows an impressive balance of fruit and mineral character, and a refined palate with elegant, ripe tannins.
£82.90, Pol Roger
CVNE Imperial Reserva 2015
This classic blend of Tempranillo, Graciano, Garnacha and Mazuelo comes from CVNE’s oldest vineyards round Villalba, Briones and Torremontalbo. Fermented in French oak vats, it spends 24 months in French and American oak barrels, then a further 24 months in bottle.
It boasts a nose of red berries, dried fruit, tobacco, leather and liquorice and a classic palate, with velvety tannins and a long finish.
£16.75, Hatch Mansfiield
Villa Calcinaia Chianti Gran Selezione Vigna Bastignano 2016
Villa Calcinaia in Greve is managed by 37th-generation Count Sebastiano Capponi. The Vigna Bastignano is an elegant and delicate expression, matured for 30 months in large Slavonian oak,
then refined for six months in the bottle.
A ripe-fruit character leads into coffee, toast, vanilla and cocoa. Intense yet medium bodied, with soft tannins and a savoury finish.
£29, Cava Spiliadis UK
Riecine Chianti Classico Riserva 2016
Made with Sangiovese grapes from vineyards in Gaiole, this wine is fermented in cement then matured for 20 months in large oak vessels.
On the nose, it screams Chianti, with an abundance of wild berries, cloves, a delicate floral touch and an unmistakable savouriness. On the palate it boasts discreet tannins and a lovely bright, moreish freshness.
POA, Alliance Wine