Burlotto: Arctic expeditions, Monvigliero and the ‘jewel of Verduno’

Besides the Napoleonic ‘interruption’ between 1796 and 1815, the House of Savoy ruled the Kingdom of Italy until 1946; Piedmont had been the House’s power centre, and their royal court was in Turin. During the eighteenth century, the unified Duchy of Savoy promoted greater commercial freedom, and by the nineteenth-century Italian unification was underway, officially consolidated in 1861. Between 1800 and 1850, the Faletti’s—wealthy traders admitted to nobility—planted vineyards and greatly improved winemaking techniques, as did other influential local nobility and their staff. Ten years before unification, Giovan Battista Burlotto, a spirited entrepreneur in Verduno, bravely reorientated his family’s agricultural business solely to grapegrowing. Originally a Roman village, Verduno’s name means ‘flowery hill’, and in 1861, the commune was home to no more than 700 people—200 more than inhabit it today. The Burlotto’s countryside residence there, probably built by Giovan’s uncle, featured a chapel, which is now deconsecrated and adjoins the winery. Before Giovan, Verduno—Barolo’s most northern commune—enjoyed lesser notoriety than the communes at Barolo’s core. So much so that until 1966, the Consortium had excluded part of Monvigliero from their delimitation and subsequent expansions.

burlotto-verduno

Giovan was committed to Langhe’s native grapes, progressively expanding his own property and reducing the quantity of purchased fruit, such that he could ensure consistent quality. Giovan also pioneered selling Barolo in bottles bearing the estate’s name instead of in cask or demijohn, which was common until the 20th century. The Royal House of Savoy recognised these innovative endeavours, naming G.B. Burlotto as their official supplier. Giovan’s wines also received notable acclaim overseas, receiving more than 32 international medals. These early successes bespeak Giovan’s fascination with oenology—later generations found French and Italian winemaking books in the cellar. Recognising his contribution to the local economy, Giovan was later awarded the title Commendatore, an honorary order of chivalry. Then, in 1899 G.B. Burlotto was chosen as the sole supplier of wine to the Duke of Abruzzi’s Arctic Expedition to the North Pole. By 1910, the estate’s holdings had expanded with the purchase of parcels in esteemed vineyards, including Cannubi. Purchasing Cannubi partly protected the estate against efforts to contract the Barolo production zone. 

G.B. Burlotto’s accomplishments rival Biondi-Santi and Vega Sicilia, each having achieved superstardom in an industry dominated by French wines. His tireless work helped make the village of Verduno as renowned as Serralunga or La Morra. Successes notwithstanding, most of the estate’s production was consumed domestically, meaning successive wars were acutely troublesome, particularly the second. Then, Giovan died in 1927, passing ownership of the winery to his son Francesco, and then again, after Francesco died prematurely, to his grandson Ignazio. Between 1861 and 1958, Italy’s economy stagnated; wars, political fractionalisation, and the shift of world trade to north-western Europe and the Americas compounded her troubles. Between 1876 to 1900—the first Italian diaspora—709,076 Italians left Piedmont. Fewer Piedmontese emigrated during the second diaspora; nevertheless, Langhe served as a prominent hub of partisan resistance during the Second World War, further hampering trade and keeping industrial progress at bay. Two of Ignazio’s own brothers had left between 1935 and 1946 and managing the business through successive wars proved difficult. Nonetheless, Ignazio continued to cultivate Pelaverga—the ‘jewel of Verduno’—and was, at a point in time, the only cultivator bottling a varietal wine. 

Fabio-burlotto

In 1968, Ignazio Burlotto died, passing ownership to his daughter Marina, then only seventeen years old; a truly daunting prospect. Although 1960 to 1980 were difficult decades, longstanding employees helped Marina keep Burlotto afloat. Marina also married Giuseppe Alessandria in 1973, who then took responsibility for the cellar. Unsurprisingly, Burlotto’s fortune ran dry during these years, and the estate did not fully recover until the late ’90s. Adversity notwithstanding, Marina and her husband had continued to innovate, enjoying a sense of creative freedom. In 1982, the pair began bottling single-vineyard Barolo and, in 1986, were the first producers in the Barolo zone to plant Sauvignon Blanc. 

Coinciding with rapid globalisation, by 1990, emboldened Piedmontese grapegrowers ceased selling fruit, instead opting to estate bottle. Meanwhile, children returned home to help manage new and growing family businesses. In 1988, Marina’s son, Fabio, began studying Viticulture and Oenology at a local technical school, and between 1994 continued his studies at university. Fabio had been helping his parents for several years prior, and in the early 2000s, officially joined the family business, later taking charge and continuing to manage the estate today. Fabio notes a significant shift in demand for his wines post-2005, perhaps testament to the estate’s stylistic qualities and increased demand for Piedmontese wine. Demand continued to grow, and prices rose sharply following perfect scores for the estate’s famed Monvigliero. 

Growing grapes

Located north of Barolo’s ‘core’ communes, the village of Verduno straddles the northward extension of the ridgeline of La Morra. Altitude varies dramatically, peaking around 385-400m asl in Verduno itself, descending to 205m asl in San Lorenzo di Verduno. Similarly, soil type transforms between at least four significant formations as one travels through the commune. Perhaps the most influential geographical influence is the Tanaro—the proximity of the river to Verduno’s northern border influences the commune’s microclimate, promoting an extensive shift in daytime and evening temperatures. The river’s cool evening breeze extends the growing period, offering much-needed relief during warm summer nights. 

Burlotto-vineyard

Upholding a filial commitment to the land, Fabio spends most of his time in the vineyard and advocates’ simple’, manual work, aiming to maintain friable living soil and organically low yields and to harvest suitably mature fruit. Green harvest has never been extreme; today, it is even more modest and aims to achieve uniform maturity as opposed to strictly restricting yield. Interestingly, Fabio’s final work at university was studying optimal green harvest timing. When necessary, treatments are made by hand, as they were in 2018 when heavy rain made tractor access impossible. Pruning is careful; Fabio recently began experimenting with Guyot-Poussard (advocated by Simonit & Sirch), which he hopes will protect his vines against Esca—a grapevine trunk disease amplified by large cuts. 

Making wine

Fabio’s work is ‘uncomplicated’ in the winery, as has always been true at Burlotto. Previously the entire crop was vinified whole cluster; today, only Monvigliero and Dolcetto (50%) retain stems. Destemming en masse began in the early-70s, paused briefly in the 80s, and resumed with the purchase of a new, gentler destemmer, maintaining greater berry integrity at ferment. Reds are fermented in conical, open-top wooden fermenters (tine), maintaining a more constant temperature and exposing the fermenting wines to desirable oxygen. Additionally, Fabio likes their physical accessibility, allowing close monitoring of the cap during fermentation and maceration. Whilst indigenous fermentation is preferred, Fabio is not religious and won’t risk spoilage for dogged belief. Maceration generally spans up to 20 days, except Monvigliero, which can last up to 60 days with the cap submerged.

tine-barolo-burlotto

Following maceration, a small pneumatic press is moved close to the vats, and the skins are pressed with low pressure. Fabio prefers not to pump fermented Nebbiolo skin, believing this process increases the risk of ‘green’ tannins. Malo is spontaneous and takes place as such, though Fabio admits he prefers when initiation is delayed, in part because it is slower. Ageing is in large botti, despite past experimentation with barrique, small barrels were not favoured. Post-botti, the wines are bottled and further aged in a recently expanded segment of the cellar; this period of élevage is crucial in ‘resolving’ the wines. The finished wines are multidimensional, elegant and staggeringly complex. 

As it is today

Today, there are nine wineries in Verduno, and Nebbiolo plantings have grown substantially, from 51ha in 1995 to more than 110ha today. Burlotto’s contribution to this rising popularity cannot be understated. Additionally, twelve Piedmontese producers now cultivate Pelaverga, a staggering number considering its near demise only three decades earlier, when Fabio’s parents were the only growers bottling a varietal wine. Under Fabio’s stewardship, Burlotto is once again recognised as exemplary in the wake of several perfect scores. Fabio’s sister now helps with admin at the winery, exports are up, and new releases continue—2018 will be the estate’s inaugural vintage of Castelletto. Continuing the work of his forebears, Fabio maintains a distinctly classic, compelling and multidimensional aesthetic. Readers will not be surprised to know I consider Burlotto among the most exciting estates one might drink today. 

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