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Oddero: historical foundations, substantial contributions and greater heights

Between 1835 and 1846, Barolo went dry. Before then, winemakers vinified nebbiolo as a sweet wine. And while grapes had been cultivated in Piedmont for many centuries prior, it was during this period that some locals understood winegrowing to be a serious, potentially lucrative endeavour. The Oddero family lived in La Morra at least a hundred years before this ‘revelation’, experiencing Barolo in all its forms. Then, growers cultivated vineyards “ad alteno”, whereby varying fruit trees supplemented grapevine production and spaced individual plants farther apart, occupying a larger area with greater yields than today. Importantly, it was Giovanni Battista Oddero (1794-1874) during the early 1800s who began segueing the family’s commercial endeavours toward winegrowing. As was commonplace in Langhe, the Odderos had previously tended various crops and orchards, raised animals, and grew Gelso trees for sericulture. Interestingly, the Piedmontese were prodigious silk producers, so much so that in 1717, Englishman John Lombe secretly travelled to Piedmont and illegally sketched local spinning machines by candlelight. 

Following him, between the eighteenth and nineteenth century, Giovanni’s sons Lorenzo (1821-1903) and Luigi (1832-1893) continued vinifying fruit in Santa Maria, a small, rural hamlet in the township of La Morra. There were less than 15 local wineries then, and most of the township’s production (generally Dolcetto, Nebbiolo, Freisa, and Barbera) was sold locally in demijohn. Then, in the mid-1800s, Barolo—both the wine and the appellation—began to be as we know them today. Staglieno’s manual on winemaking encouraged Piedmontese winegrowers to consider fermenting dry, a practice made possible by Pasteur, whose work educators disseminated during the mid-1800s. In Langhe, the Oddero family helped improve local understanding of fermentation practices, keenly observing and reporting on fermentations in their first wooden barrels, a keen example of their earliest contributions to wine quality. A little later, Lorenzo Fantini’s ‘Monograph on the Viticulture and Oenology of the Province of Cuneo’ ignited efforts to delimit Piedmontese winegrowing.

Early Odderos were industrious and productive, but it was Lorenzo’s son, the first Giacomo Oddero (1851-1915), whose vigour, foresight and daring propelled the family business to new heights, both commercially and qualitatively. French and Italian farmers first recognised powdery mildew in 1847 and 1849, respectively. Subsequently, the fungal disease blighted winegrowers for decades—even more so than phylloxera between 1882-92. In fact, at Chateau Latour during this period, 22% of operating expenses were allocated to combating oidium, threatening both wine quality and quantity. The Odderos were among the first local winegrowers to adopt sulphur as a combatant. With help from the mayor of La Morra, his councillors and the invaluable assistance of the local archpriest, who spoke to a clergyman in Sicily, Giacomo formed a collective with the mayors of Barolo and Grinzane. Together, they purchased sulphur from the newly liberated Sicily. The 200 quintals they purchased were transported from Palermo to Genoa by ship, from Genoa to Asti by rail and from Asti to La Morra by cart. Giacomo’s efforts to buy and promote sulphur as a treatment for powdery mildew improved continuity for many locals in difficult years, helping maintain earnings and spirits. 

Giacomo also sought to sell the family’s wines outside the township and, in doing so, recognised the need to market and brand them. After first estate-bottling wine in 1878, Giacomo designed the family logo. He applied the Oddero surname to each bottle, employing a designer to create a particular and characteristic font, which still adorns bottles today. Recent evidence suggests that by the end of the nineteenth century, Giacomo had even begun exporting Oddero’s wines to the Americas, Genova, Zurich, Milan, and London. This export was fundamental to the family’s continued success—repeat orders sustained cash flow and encouraged innovation and improved quality.

Amidst growing European interest in aesthetic wines, Giacomo’s success was such that by the early-1900s, the family had prioritised grapegrowing as their primary commercial endeavour. In 191, Giacomo won honours for his wine at the Turin International Exposition, organised to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Italy’s unification. Giacomo also began gradually expanding the business, buying vineyards bordering the family home, most notably from the Segre Debenedetti family from Cherasco, a Jewish family, who sold off their extensive holdings in Santa Maria, La Morra.

Despite growing commercial success, the following decades were gruelling, not least for Oddero but for all of Italy. Between 1880-1945, the first and second mass emigrations from Italy, compounded by consecutive World Wars (1914-1918 and 1939-1945 respectively) and various distinct viticultural hazards, stifled commerciality and progress. Mass emigration was particularly challenging. From 1876 to 1900, 709,076 people emigrated from Piedmont, including a family working at Oddero, who left for New Jersey. More skilled people also left La Morra, during the early-1900s, 5000 people inhabited the township, compared to just 3000 today. 

Then, during the First World War, local vineyards were left abandoned or worked by old folk, women and children. Such was the shortage of strong arms that the Italian government sent Austrian prisoners of war to work for farming families with vineyards and fields to cultivate. At Oddero, a dozen young Austrian soldiers came to work under the command of an Italian lieutenant. They became part of the family, who always ensured they had minestrone and bread on the table. Giacomo’s wife, Luigia Oddero, was determined they would not suffer from cold or hunger and treated them like sons, hoping that Austrian soldiers would afford the same treatment to captured Italians.

Despite these challenges, Giacomo, who died in 1915, and his son, Giovanni Oddero (1883-1951), successfully navigated those problematic years, keeping the family business afloat and producing wine. Amidst this challenging period, Giovanni’s wife gave birth to two sons, the late Luigi Oddero and the second Giacomo Oddero—arguably the most influential of all the Odderos to date. Giacomo began working at the family winery in 1941, aged 15; his first responsibility was to collect single berries from the soil which fell during harvest. Then—in stark contrast to later viticultural orthodoxy—the prospect of dropping viable fruit was unimaginable, not least because locals considered food crops God-given. Most notably, discarding fruit directly reduced income for growers concerned with immediate survival, including many selling fruit directly to negociants paying by weight. 1939-45 was characterised by loss, resistance and conflict in Langhe. A fierce local partisan resistance, documented at length by Beppe Fenoglio in his harrowing novels Il Partigiano Johnny and The Twenty-Three Days of the City of Alba, met intense German aggression, resulting in bloodshed. In La Morra, the Germans executed 18 young local boys at a farmhouse and burnt houses to the ground if they suspected families of hiding partisans. Giacomo had once found himself unwillingly involved in the war and partisan struggle. 

Italy exited World War II defeated and demoralised, with a growing development gap, devastated infrastructure, and looming second mass emigration. Fortunately, the United States considered Italy a strategic ally and, between 1948-1952, provided more than $12 billion in aid under the Marshall Plan—a program designed to rehabilitate and stabilise Western nations amidst fears that poverty, unemployment and dislocation were reinforcing the appeal of communist parties to voters in western Europe. Amplified by cheap labour and growing global demand, this investment stimulated Italy’s ‘economic miracle’, a period of spectacular growth. At first, burgeoning industrial centres benefitted most from this growth; better-paying jobs at newly established factories in Alba, Turin and further afield drew poor farmers away from Langhe in considerable numbers. When their father, Giovanni Oddero, died aged 68 from flu in 1951, Luigi and Giacomo faced a similar decision. Fortunately, an overwhelming sense of duty and commitment, both to their mother and sustaining their longstanding family business, kept the brothers firmly rooted in La Morra.

Post-1945, mechanisation, industrialisation and agrochemical application boomed globally. For the first time, Piedmontese farmers began indiscriminately applying synthetic fertilisers, chemical herbicides and pesticides, and grubbed up cropland and woodland for grapegrowing. Additionally, as was typical for a period in European wine production, merchants and negociants regularly bastardised Nebbiolo, adding cheap, poor-quality wine from Southern Italy. Giacomo knew that to escape poverty and elevate Barolo’s status, the region’s vigneron would need to establish and agree to shared regulations, guarantees and guidelines to improve quality and penalise fraud—it was not enough for him to prosper in isolation.

Giacomo committed himself to this collective struggle, first encouraging winemakers to declare their production in a local register. Then, promoting considerate farming, lower yields and collaboration and sharing. In 1965, Giacomo became mayor of La Morra, and with fellow influential local vigneron, including Renato Ratti, Giovanni Gaja, Arnaldo Rivera, and Giovanni Battista Rinaldi, spearheaded the establishment of Barolo as a DOC in 1966, and its elevation to DOCG in 1980. Additionally, in his work as Provincial Assessor of Agriculture, Giacomo signed many of the procedural guidelines that gave other wines of the Langhe and Roero their DOC and DOCG certifications. 

In the decades following their taking over the estate, Giacomo and Luigi also began expanding their holdings. Then, estate holdings consisted of many small, fragmented parcels close to the family homes—such that workers could transport fruit by cart. Fragmentation—resulting from Napoleonic influence, inheritance divisions, and small property sales during the war—also helped hedge against poor weather and hail and partially explains the local tradition of blending parcels in big botti. Intrigued by the characteristics of their neighbours’ wines, Giacomo and Luigi extended this hedging principle beyond their commune of La Morra. In 1968, the brothers purchased a parcel of vines in Brunate, followed by Rocche di Castiglione in 1969, the Tenuta Para estate and associated vineyards in 1970, followed by parcels in Villero and Fiasco in Castiglione Falletto from a renowned professor and agronomist Ferdinando Vignolo Lutati, one of the first to study and discuss soil composition in Langhe. Finally, Bussia Vigna Mondoca in 1980 and Vignarionda in 1985.

These acutely foresightful decisions gave the Oddero family a unique tapestry of vineyards spanning most of Barolo’s communes. It’s important to note that these benchmark purchases were made possible by Giacomo’s wife, Carla Scanavino—one of Oddero’s ‘unsung heroines’—who worked as a pharmacist in Alba and was one of the first local women to earn a degree. Carla invested most of her earnings into expanding the family winery, supporting her husband in his ambitions to continue the Oddero heritage.

Until 1982, Oddero blended these parcels into the estate’s Barolo Classico. Then, between the mid-1970s and 1990s, Barolo experienced a fiery revolution. Heavily influenced by Italian gastronome, wine critic and intellectual Luigi Veronelli—amongst other cultural and stylistic changes—producers began bottling single-vineyard wines, including Oddero, whose earlier investments in exceptional vineyards paid dividends. This period also saw ‘modernists’ and ‘traditionalists’ clash over how Barolo ought to be made and taste. The Barolo Boys sought to elevate Nebbiolo and attract international palates, doing away with botti and marketing their new wines far and wide. Consumers responded positively, flocking to the region in incomprehensible numbers and inducing stratospheric price rises. Giacomo did not care much for journalists or enjoy travelling frequently. Ergo, the Oddero family were bystanders during this period and, having remained steadfast to their traditional production philosophy, were temporarily unpopular with new, international consumers. Nevertheless, Giacomo continued to make significant ‘silent’ contributions, most notably in the form of running water, which was not commonplace in Langhe until 1991, and resulted from a project Giacomo spearheaded in 1970 during his time as mayor of La Morra. Access to water made sanitation more accessible, not to mention making showers available to visiting oenotourists.

In 2000, Giacomo’s daughter Mariacristina—a thoughtful and astute woman—left a teaching position in Alba to join the family business full-time. Cristina attended Liceo Classico in Alba for high school and then went to the University of Turin to study agriculture, achieving a master’s degree in Viniculture and Oenology in 1983. Following this, she first taught soil chemistry and then chemistry and biology in Alba until joining her family at work. The years following her joining were formative, shaping Oddero as we know it today. In 2001, winemaker Luca Veglio joined the business, shortly after viticulturist Sergio Blengio and in 2006, the Oddero family split, with Luigi departing and establishing his winery, taking with him vineyards located in Santa Maria, Borgata Bettolotti di La Morra (constituting the former Tenuta Para estate), significant holdings in Castiglione Falletto (a part of Villero and Rocche Rivera vineyard) and a part of Vignarionda in Serralunga d’Alba. Oddero retained all the historical crus including Vignarionda, Rocche, Villero, Fiasco, Brunella, Bussia Vigna Mondoca, Brunate, Bricco Chiesa, Capalot, Roggeri, Bricco San Biagio, Cascina Fiori in Trezzo Tinella for Moscato d’Asti and the more recent additions Gallina in Neive and Vinchio d’Asti for Barbera d’Asti, now Nizza DOCG. During the same period, in contrast to the Barolo wars of the 80s and 90s, international drinkers became less interested in punchy, extracted and flamboyant wines. Instead, they favoured restraint, elegance and sophistication. This serendipitous shift favoured Oddero; coupled with having never strayed from their traditional production methods, a series of improvements were underway which dramatically improved the estate’s wines.

In 2008, Cristina began converting the 35ha estate to organic viticulture. Initially, she eliminated chemical herbicides and began mechanically controlling undesirable weeds. She also prioritised copper and sulphur for combatting fungal vine diseases and implemented Pyrethrum and sexual confusion to defend against insects. Cristina also sought to reduce yields, further reinforcing her father’s qualitative philosophy; organic fertiliser replaced synthetic predecessors, and cover crop was planted between rows using selected seed mixes—useful for encouraging hydric stress and healthy, living soils. This work is gruelling, physical and demanding. Each day the Oddero team take their vehicles from Santa Maria to neighbouring communes, sometimes having to respond urgently to tackle opportunistic vine pathogens.

Difficulties notwithstanding, Oddero manage their current Nebbiolo, Barbera and Dolcetto vineyards organically and their Moscato and Riesling vineyards sustainably. In the winery, Cristina began pursuing a more elegant aesthetic; she purchased a new destemmer and negated crushing, carefully preserving intact berries, promoting healthy spontaneous fermentations which can encourage superior extraction. Cristina also extended macerations in wooden tini, enhanced cleaning protocols and renewed several of the family’s older large barrels, replacing them with new Austrian and Slavonian botti. Finally, she further extended the winery, constructing a section designed to store bottles for ageing in ideal conditions, enabling the family to maintain a library of back vintages. 

These investments yielded encouraging scores from mainstream wine journalists. Oddero’s 2007 Barolo Riserva Vignarionda, scored 95 from Parker, Barolo Riserva Vignarionda 2008 94+, 2011 Barolo Riserva Bussia Vigna Mondoca 94, and 2014 Oddero Barolo Brunate 93 from the same publication. Then, in 2020, Cristina’s Oddero Barolo Bussia Vigna Mondoca Riserva 2012, Oddero Barolo Vignarionda Riserva 2013, and Oddero Barolo Villero 2015 ranked 41st, 73rd, and 100th, respectively, on James Suckling’s list of the top 100 Barolos. 

The sixth generation

In the same year Cristina began organic conversion, her niece, Isabella—a charismatic, charming and reflective woman—also joined the family business. Then, in 2015, Cristina’s son Pietro—an energetic, spirited and affable gentleman—joined the duo. Isabella and Pietro are a worldly pair, both well-travelled and tasted with a strong sense of duty to continue their ancestors work. In recent years—working closely with Cristina—both have found their feet and forged their own aspirations, ambitions and philosophy. Collectively, the trio have elevated Oddero to new heights—viticulture, winemaking and public relations have all improved in recent years.

In applicable vineyards, pruning is transitioning to guyot Poussard, apical shoots are left to grow, and tilling decisions are made parcel by parcel, tailored to site characteristics and vine age. In addition, managing the impact of climate change has been a priority; canopies are encouraged to grow, providing shade to delicate fruit, and work is performed at appropriate times, specifically tailored to each specific site. Most interestingly, Oddero is carefully curating their own massal selection, focussing on selecting vines demonstrating strong resilience to drought and heat. Most of the selected vines are taken from Rocche di Castiglione parcel and from the oldest plants in Brunate, Bussia Vigna Mondoca and Vignarionda.

In 2017, the family further expanded their holdings, purchasing a south-exposed 0.74ha parcel in Monvigliero adjacent to G.B. Burlotto, whose 100pt 2016 Monvigliero catapulted the Verduno vineyard to stardom. This significant acquisition marks the first purchase completed by Oddero’s sixth generation. One year later, in 2018, Isabella, Pietro, Ito, and Stefano—the owners of Osteria More e Macine in La Morra—began a new adventure in the village of Monleale, close to the town of Tortona in the province of Alessandria. The quartet bought a small 1.45ha parcel for plating Timorasso, an ancient, indigenous white variety known colloquially as ‘Il Barolo Bianco’. For many years, growers abandoned Timorasso. Nevertheless, several excellent local producers, including Walter Massa, recently resurrected the variety. Continuing Giacomo’s legacy, Cristina, Isabella and Pietro are proud to continue preserving and maintaining Piedmontese heritage.

Things continue to evolve in the winery too. Continuing Cristina’s efforts, Isabella and Pietro pay great attention to avoiding crushing grapes before fermentation begins. A Pellenc destemmer—destemming from the rachis only—helps preserve whole berries, aiming to extract aromatics and add complexity while limiting tannins—skin and seed tannins are extracted more in crushed fruit than during whole-berry fermentations. Some whole cluster experimentations are also underway, sandwiching 10% whole cluster in selected tini between layers of whole berries. Finally, fermentations are spontaneous, with a final passage in concrete tanks for 3-4 months before bottling for greater resolution.

For more than two centuries, the Odderos have grown wine in La Morra. Since Giovanni Battista Oddero, successive generations have strengthened the family business, preserved local varieties, enhanced winemaking practices, spearheaded the construction of critical local infrastructure, and codified regulations and requirements for making quality Barolo. Following consecutive World Wars, Giacomo Oddero purchased important vineyards, expanded the winery, encouraged qualitative viticulture, and began bottling single-vineyard wines. Giacomo’s daughter, Cristina, began converting the estate to organics, purchased new botti, reduced yields and continued refining the estate’s winemaking, marking a substantive shift in quality. Isabella and Pietro are the sixth generation of Odderos to tend the land and manage the family business. Gradually the pair are forging their aspirations and have recently increased the estate’s holdings, expanded its offering, and begun developing and improving relationships with global markets and consumers.

Too often, critics and commentators fixate on rising stars and ‘unicorn’ estates, overlooking exciting wines and work hiding in plain sight. Today, Oddero’s wines have never been better and, in this taster’s opinion, are criminally overlooked and underscored. Cristina, Isabella and Pietro are dynamic, energetic and determined; readers and buyers alike should pay great attention to this historical and evolving estate.

British drinkers can find Oddero’s wines for sale at Astrum Wine Cellars.

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