Toward the end of the 19th century, many of Piedmont’s sprawling aristocratic estates had collapsed, their demise linked in part to falling land prices following Europe’s catastrophic phylloxera epidemic. Many of these estates belonged to Countess Juliette Colbert de Barolo who is rumoured to have made Barolo in her Turin estate long before it was sold on the open market. In Castiglione Falletto, the Countess’ estate included the south-facing Monte della Guardia, tended by her vineyard manager, Giuseppe Boschis, from whom today the site takes its name. Having inherited the land, Giuseppe later sold the estate to Giacomo Cavallotto. In 1946, following the fall of fascism, Giuseppe decided to stop selling his grapes to a negociant and in 1948 registered the Cavallotto name with its own label. By 1965, the cru Bricco Boschis had been added to the label, followed in 1970 (inspired by the pioneering Renato Ratti) by the names of the vineyards core constituent parcels. In 1989, the family expanded their landholdings to include the historic Vigonolo cru, adjacent to Bricco Boschis. Together the sites form a contiguous parcel spanning a large portion of the hillside parallel to Monprivato. Today, fourth-generation winemakers Alfio and Giuseppe Cavallotto tend to the family’s 25ha estate. Both enologists, the pair have further strengthened their predecessor’s commitment to pioneering, exigent and attentive farming, producing deliciously vibrant wines. I spoke to Alfio about the estate’s continued evolution and progressive approach to viticulture and winemaking.
Falling land prices post-phylloxera contributed to the untimely demise of aristocratic estates in Piedmont, who at the time were large landowners. Sold cheap and in small parcels, the land was bought or inherited mostly by poor farmers who had neither the capital, expertise or motivation to vinify wine themselves. For years, Barolo was produced almost exclusively by negociants, who after purchasing many small parcels of grapes, would blend and vinify the best plots to produce Barolo. To what extent these negociants forged the regional tradition of ‘blending’ parcels to create the ‘ultimate expression of Barolo’ deserves some musing.
Going it alone
Alfio’s grand-grand-grandfather Giacomo bought the hill of Bricco Boschis from the Boschis family (including a house and cellar) in 1928. Shortly after, he began producing a small quantity of wine as well as selling a portion of his fruit to a negociant in Alba. In 1946, Giacomo made the brave decision to cease selling his grapes and began vinifying 100% of his crop himself. The years between 1922 and 1946 were difficult, Italy’s borders were closed, not willing to trade with the rest of the world, she found herself out of global favour. Following a tumultuous period, the fall of fascism left many Italians invigorated and though transport proved difficult following the destruction of streets and bridges, Italy looked to the world once again. As well as working as a farmer, Giacomo was an agronomist, this undoubtedly made it easier for him to connect viticulture and winemaking and go it alone. Emboldened by his independence, in 1948 the Cavallotto name would appear for the first time on a bottle of Barolo.
Giacomo was among the first winemakers in Barolo to recognise the importance of cru. Aspiring to produce something not entirely identifying with his own ‘brand’ but instead with a particular territorial identity. Inspired by the likes of Renato Ratti and Luigi Veronelli, Giacomo braved rabid scepticism at a time when writing anything other than Barolo on a label was considered a slur. In 1965, the cru Bricco Boschis was labelled as a single-vineyard wine and in 1970 three further single-vineyard wines were added: Vigna Punta Marcello (the highest part of the hill with southeast-south-southwest exposure), Vigna Colle SudOvest (the lower part of Bricco Boschis with excellent south-southeast exposure), and finally about 30% from the Vigna San Giuseppe (the central part of the Bricco Boschis facing southwest).
Each was bottled as a single vineyard until 1995 when Cavallotto stopped producing Vigna Colle SudOvest and Vigna Punta Marcello, blending them into Bricco Boschis instead. In 1989, the family purchased 60% of the Vignolo cru directly adjacent to Bricco Boschis, forming a single contiguous parcel. Today, Vigna San Giuseppe remains the jewel in the Cavallotto crown, last replanted in the mid-’90s, it is situated on the highest and best-exposed part of the hill.
The family’s holdings remained unchanged until 2010 when the officiation of the MGA resulted in some cru increasing in size. This included an expansion of Bricco Boschis’ borders. Previously a monopole, after expansion the site included a slither of the cru Melera, a little west of the original Bricco Boschis and lower down the hill. Maintaining a respectful tone, Alfio and I discussed the controversies the MGA brought with it. In Monforte, many rich and diverse cru were to some degree lost in place of a handful of macro areas. The same can be said for Bussia, which is arguably far too big to serve as a useful indicator of quality or identity. As for Melera, which was ‘swallowed’ up by Bricco Boschis, Alfio blends this fruit into the family’s Langhe Nebbiolo.
Today, Cavallotto’s range consists of 10 wines. Barolo Bricco Boschis, Barolo Riserva Bricco Boschis Vigna Giuseppe, Barolo Riserva Vignolo, Langhe Nebbiolo (a particularly good buy), Barbera D’alba Vigna Cuculo, Langhe DOC ‘Grign’, Dolcetto D’alba Vigna Scot, Langhe Freisa, Langhe Chardonnay, and ‘Pinner’ (a white Pinot Noir).
By the 1970s, Gildo and Olivio Cavallotto (Giacomo’s children) had grown increasingly troubled by the increasing use of agrochemicals such as miticides, pesticides, herbicides and other systemic chemicals. Both were particularly concerned by the health of their workers who were inevitably exposed to these potentially harmful products. Growing impatient, the duo worked with the faculty of the University of Agronomic Sciences in Torino, the Institute for Experimental Viticulture in Asti, the San Michele Agrarian Institue of the Alto Adige and with the Agronomist to the Direct Cultivators Group of Alba, to perform a complete “reset” on their vineyard practices, Becoming one of the first wineries in the world to work sustainably, practising what would later be known as integrated organic viticulture.
Developed in the late 19th Century, Bordeaux mixture was developed by Millardet who recommended the mixture to combat downy mildew. Though approved for organic use, indiscriminate use can result in a buildup of copper in the soil as well as contaminating nearby water sources, damaging livestock, fish and earthworms. Gildo and Olivio were quick to acknowledge these risks and began substituting the mixture with copper oxides and hydroxides, which were 6-8 times more efficient against Peronospora, one of the ‘American diseases’ ravaging Europe. In 1976, the brothers introduced predatory insects to control destructive red spider mites. The predator mites were sourced and bred from populations in abandoned vineyards in Northern Italy that had never been sprayed with chemicals. This re-introduction helped Bricco Boschis produced healthy resilient fruit without the use of any synthetic pesticides.
Inspired by apple farmers in Trentino, in 1974 Cavallotto began promoting native cover crops as opposed to the then-common practice of complete clearing of vegetation between the vines. This had typically been achieved through a combination of tilling and chemical herbicides. In ’75, the practice was extended to the entire estate. The benefits of cover crop were seen as twofold: eradicating herbicides as well as minimising tractor passes. Additionally, preserving the upper layers of soil and encouraging root establishment reduces erosion due to rainfall and runoff. After mowing (only a handful of times a year) the resulting decomposing plant material contributed organic humus to the soil, resulting in a lighter, airier soil that encouraged the growth of bacterial microflora in the subsurface.
Today, increasingly unpredictable weather leaves Langhe’s steep hills more prone to erosion than ever before. As it was for Gildo and Olivio in the 1970s, cover crop (as well as mulching) proves a particularly effective solution. In tackling climate change in Piedmont, many producers (Oddero, Bruno Giacosa, and more) are betting on cover crop to directly combat erosion. Established roots produce an anchoring effect and increased soil fertility negates the loss of minerals due to erosion. As it does to this day, the Cavallotto estate has long pioneered innovative and practical viticultural practices.
The estate today
Beginning in the late ’80s, Gildo and Olivio’s children, Alfio, Giuseppe and Laura, took responsibility for the estate. Both oenologists, Alfio and his brother studied at the oenology school in Alba, graduating in the mid’90s. Both worked at the winery before and during their studies, Alfio tells me that he remembers the bottling of ’85, an important vintage at Cavallotto, and the commercialisation of ’79 and ’82. Since assuming joint responsibility, Alfio has continued to innovate, building upon the families organic foundations where possible. In 2008 he began further reducing copper use and from 2008-2013 experienced a relatively small period using zero copper. Instead of copper, the family experimented with essential oils of plants and herbs such as sage, ivy, aloe vera, yucca, cinquefoil, quillaia and certain algae species. These oils are prepared in a water-based solution and sprayed on the vineyards helping protect against downy mildew.
In addition to the plant extract fungicides, Alfio uses propolis, a natural antibiotic produced by bees, in combination with mustard powder and cave-quarried sulfur to tackle oidium. The downside of natural treatments such as these is that winemakers are required to spray more often than those using systemic products. Practically this results in more tractor passes, which is of course far from ideal. To mitigate this, Alfio is watching closely the developments of high-pressure spraying drones and small electric tractors.
Pruning is equally considerate, each vine is pruned to Guyot Basso with low-hanging fruit cluster formation. After winter pruning, 8-10 buds are left for Nebbiolo (pruning Nebbiolo is an art in and of itself) and 5-7 for the other varieties. For each vine, a ‘renewal spur’ with two buds is selected to provide and shape the succeeding year’s growth. Each hectare is planted to c. 5000 vines, a fairly modest planting with low yields aimed at producing concentrated, ripe and healthy fruit.
In the summer, the side of the canopy opposite the sun is pruned, providing much-needed shade yet maintaining balanced alcohol and good airflow. Clones are also of particular importance. Alfio believes the best vineyards are those which boast a broad range of clones, resulting in a more complex wine in all regards. In Vigna San Giuseppe there is no rosé, only michet and lampia. Today, 50% of the estates vines are massale selection while the other half are sourced from a trusted nursery. ‘We will probably stop massale selection now for the next 10-15 years’ Alfio tells me, quoting flavescence dorée as the reason. Though the vine disease has not yet affected Nebbiolo, massale selection will cease as a preventative measure. Investment in viticulture remains significant at Cavallotto, the integrated method practised by Alfio is expensive and reducing those costs are a priority.
Though tempting to label Cavallotto as ‘traditional’, (you wouldn’t be strictly wrong), the estate demonstrates fitly Barolo’s stylistic paradigm. Commentators imbibed by the protagonists of the modern vs. traditional ‘war’, suggest to some degree that these players were the sole source of innovation in Langhe. Not only in the case of viticulture (Giacomo pioneered organics) but in winemaking too, Alfio wholeheartedly acknowledges the importance of technological advancements in the family’s winery. Attributing to them in part, a rise in quality. All the while maintaining what could be considered atypicality. Advancing this paradigm, this quasi-demarcation does little to adequately describe the wine. These are not Rinaldi, nor are they Mascarello, Conterno or Oddero. While each may be considered traditional, their identity remains unique.
On arrival, fruit is entirely destemmed and placed into large stainless steel temperature-controlled vats. Alfio prefers larger vats which he believes make managing bacteria easier. The downside is that large vats make manual punchdowns virtually impossible. Stainless steel makes for easy cleaning and temperature control allows for refrigeration if fermentation is wild and short. Fermentation is with indigenous yeast by way of pied de cuve, as it is at Cascina delle Rose, Trediberri, Piero Busso, and more. Generally, the cap is submerged for 20-35 days, rarely longer. Mechanisation allows Alfio to submerge portions of the cap, rotating frequently if need be (sometimes several times per day), or submerging on one side or the other. In the past maturation had been a little longer with less extraction in the first few days. Ageing is in Slavonian oak casks for as long as 5 years in the case of Vigna San Giuseppe.
Wines of this quality are born only from an amalgam of unwavering commitment to diligent farming and prudent winemaking. Starting with fruit of the highest quality, Alfio produces vivacious, vibrant, expansive wines which are simply a joy to drink. For many years the Cavallotto family have tentatively maintained their hillside parcel, resulting in vines of remarkable resilience capable of yielding concentrated, ripe fruit well into their 70s. Pioneering organic viticulture, the family have not shied away from innovation and mechanisation, embracing it where it makes sense. This steadfast devotion and forethought surely rank these among the very best wines of Barolo if not the entire region. Richly structured and moreish beyond belief, these are wines every collector must have in their cellar.