Alessandro Masnaghetti was born in 1962 in Milano and currently lives in Faenza, a small town near Bologna. In the late 1980s, Masnaghetti’s passion for wine evolved and became more important than his love for food. In 1994, whilst working for famed Italian wine critic Luigi Veronelli, he created his first map, a map of the communes of Barbaresco. Despite printing roughly 3-4000 copies, only 20-30 sold, so mapmaking was put to bed until 2006. Even upon release of his second effort, only a small portion of producers and wine lovers thought the project to be of great importance. Fast forward 14 years and any self-respecting wine lover, or admirer of maps, counts Masnaghetti’s books, predominately his MGA volumes, amongst their must-have resources. Wine regions can be mystifying and Italian regions tend to be the most confusing of all. Masnaghetti’s latest project, Barolo MGA 360, brings all of his work to life in an accessible, easily-digestible digital format. I spoke briefly with Alessandro about this exciting new project.
What is an MGA?
Before talking in more detail about Alessandro’s new project, a little refresher on the MGA, or in English the Additional Geographic Mentions. In the ‘90s the world rediscovered Barolo, which had changed dramatically in comparison to the rough wines of the past. For anybody more interested in this rediscovery the Barolo Boys documentary is available on YouTube and worth a watch. This change resulted in substantial consequences. Barolo began selling out, prices increased and so did the surface area of vineyards. With new producers came a rise in new labels, new ways to distinguish one from the other. They began personalising their labels with more than just the main appellation, they used the names of the vineyards, villages, and people. This desire to differentiate quickly got out of control, and as has been the case in many other wine regions, the consumer became confused.
The first priority was to create order, to delineate and define the varying wine-growing areas. It was tiresome work that could only be achieved by an organisation that could provide a great deal of political and administrative support, The Consorzio was the obvious choice. It was a collaborative effort, beginning with Barbaresco, defining 66 MGA which were officially included in the 2007 Production Guidelines. Barolo was a more complex, a much larger area to cover, in the end, 181 Barolo MGA was defined, 170 new names plus the names of 11 municipalities that represent the core origin of the wine.
An important distinction is that between the MGA and cru. The menzione (mention) is a geographic marker that is aggiunta (added) to the primary appellation to indicate a smaller area. Cru is a different classification, namely vineyards are owned, and so their size is independently distinguished while a menzione has a collective value. In addition to cru, there is the term climat used in France to indicate a larger growing area composed of many crus. This concept is much more similar to MGA. Essentially an MGA is not the equivalent of a cru because a cru defines more specifically a single vineyard.
Bringing the MGA into the 21st Century …
As many of you will know, particularly those who have followed Masnaghetti’s work over the years, the term landscape forms the cornerstone of his mapping and editorial work, this is where Barolo MGA 360 begins. An interactive, superbly executed, digital tool essential for those who wish to explore Barolo in more detail than has been possible before, particularly in the context of the regions many prestigious wines.
Today, more than ever before, Alessandro is convinced that learning to read and interpret landscape allows wine lovers to understand a great deal about wine even before tasting them. His conviction is that landscapes tell us about culture, how man interacts with natural surroundings, about microclimates, subtle and unequivocal variations in vegetation, and about geology and soils.
In his maps and books, Masnaghetti has attempted to bring together his description of a landscape alongside three-dimensional graphical reproduction. However, no matter how accurate it may be, a digital replica does not convey the same intimacy as a real image. It is for this reason that the images for this project were all taken using a drone, with work beginning in August through to October 2019.
Drones have been used for years in scenic videography; however, for this purpose, Masnaghetti recognises that video has limitations, most notably that the images are almost never capable of conveying the essential elements of the terrain, and even in rare cases where they do, the nature of the video means that a complete view of the clip is required to pinpoint what is of actual interest in it. Acquiring high-resolution panoramic stills was difficult, for this reason, some of the 170 officially delimited MGAs lack a landscape image.
In response to requests over recent years, Alessandro decided to include in the entries of many MGAs suggestions of one or more wines for those who would like to better understand the style of the MGA in question. Whilst these are good wines, Alessandro is clear that having mentioned them does not imply that they are the best on the market, his personal favourites or the most prestigious. This is an invaluable asset, particularly for those studying more advanced wine courses namely CMS and MW. Having the ability to place a wine immediately in the context of its surroundings is a highly effective learning tool.
The aim of this approach was to go beyond establishing what is good and what is less good, a choice that is entirely subjective. Rather, Masnaghetti prefers to focus on the differences between places and if possible to explain them. He believes that only through linking the wine and the landscape in this way can one hope to learn something. In these guides, Alessandro is clear that the comparison ought to be made with the same vintage and with wines that are not too old, otherwise one may lose the fruity component that is often one of the distinguishing tasting factors between sites.
In the case of MGAs themselves, Masnaghetti has chosen to highlight only the vineyard areas and not their total territories, which almost always take in spaces dedicated to other crops or woodlands. This is a small but significant detail, allowing users to more accurately appreciate how a particular site is conveyed in the bottle, expanding the area beyond that which is under vine may obscure this understanding.
In some images, he has also tried to specify different types of soil or geological formations found within a given area. Even more so than with the MGAs, these borders are to be considered purely indicative as the transitions between one formation and another or between one soil type and another often occur in a gradual manner. This creates distinct areas of evolution, as is the case with many historical vineyards. Alessandro also provides extensive annotation across all functions of the site, ensuring users are able to extract maximum value throughout, can you tell he was once an engineer …
For some of the delineated MGAs, he has also indicated the owners or renters of individual plots, whether they make a wine from it or not. This can be seen above in the case of Arborino, which reveals that Elio Altare owns a very interesting over crest plot of vines, right at the top of the mound. For those who own the MGA books, you will know that all of this information can be found in them in its entirety. That being said, transferring data from print to digital is an obviously laborious process, so Masnaghetti decided to do it only where changes in ownership/rental were less likely and, above all, the visual result was attractive. Finally, not all MGAs require the same degree of in-depth analysis, depending of course on several factors including but not limited to dimensions, complexity and ultimately reputation.
The site covers only part of the contents of his books (Barolo MGA Vol. 1 and 2) and his aim was not simply to embellish his words with images, but rather to integrate them with the information and observations that can be rendered and developed effectively only through the use of such a specialised digital tool. The great thing about a site like this, unlike a book, is that a site can be updated, integrated and reshaped according to needs.
One of the fundamental aims of the site is to convey the vast and varying beauty of these sites. However, believing that these images should be at the service of information and content, and not vice versa, Masnaghetti chose to focus on photographs which convey realities opposed to those which inspire awe. It was his aim to exploit the drone’s ability to reveal details often invisible to the wine tourist’s hasty eye. That being said, complete photographic coverage of the entire Barolo territory is tedious, during the period of time spent gathering images conditions of light and visibility varied significantly. Masnaghetti is evidently an incredibly self-critical individual, I have scoured much of the site and am yet to find an image which is not both spectacular and awe-inspiring.
In his humble nature, Alessandro asks us to look upon his work with a benevolent eye. To appreciate any imperfections or fortuitous juxtapositions between the seasons, and to focus more on content than on aesthetics. Furthermore, he acknowledges that as accurate as one may try to be, drawing borders on panoramic aerial images is no simple task. For this reason, they are to be considered indicative, whether they are borders of communes or MGAs.
It’s hard to imagine anybody doing a better job at conveying the spectacular terroir of Piedmont than Masnaghetti. For any wide student, lover of maps or intrepid explorer a yearly membership to Barolo MGA 360 is a must-have, for only €40 (currently reduced from €50) users can gain a year’s full access to 170 MGA panoramic files and descriptions, “Ask MapMan” priority support and access to new content. You can also find more of Alessandro’s work, including maps of many other regions, at his website.