Piero Busso: in the vineyard we trust

We talk a lot about rising stars, most notably those making wine in Burgundy. To what extent this conversation is motivated by overzealous importers hoping to augment the price of producers with whom they were able to secure an allocation is debatable. Having already, by any reasonable objective measure, risen, there are those estates where with the passing of the baton from parent to child there is a substantive shift in quality. Though the Busso family have cultivated vines since the 1950s, it was not until 1978 that Piero Busso, Guido Busso’s son, overwhelmed by hireathic yearning for the Langhe, ceased selling the families grapes and began making wine, labelling his first Barbaresco in 1982. Over the following two decades, Piero purchased plots in a handful of laudable vineyards, including a plot in Gallina, in 1999, followed twelve months later by San Stunet. In 2010, Piero’s son, Pierguido, alongside his father, his sister, Emanuela, and his mother, Lucia, took over the day-to-day running of their family estate. And though the estate’s quality had long been recognised, since 2012 a distinct amplification is recognisable in both the vineyard and in the glass. Inspired by a handful of iconic winemakers, Pierguido is fastidious and exacting, his philosophy is one of precision and respectful management of the land. I spoke to Pier, exploring the estate and his influence in more detail.

In 1948, Guido Busso, Pier’s grandfather, bought a small parcel of land in Albesani, planting by hand the families first vineyard. Albesani, neighboured by Gallina and Ovello, also encompasses Santo Stefano, a parcel which likely bore the fruit of Bruno Giacosa’s first wine, a 1961 Barbaresco Riserva, as well as his single-vineyard Riserva. Sadly, Guido never saw the fruits of his labour, unfortunately dying in an accident at just 32. Pier’s Grandmother maintained ownership of the vineyard, selling the majority of its fruit, retaining only a very small volume for the production of domestic wine. 70 years ago the world, and the Langhe, were in stark contrast to that which we know today. The Langarolo drunk wine without particular consideration for quality, the region’s wines were also not well known globally. On top of this, it was particularly difficult for a woman on her own to have started a business.

In the 1970s, content though they may have been, the Langarolo were relatively poor. Parent’s encouraged their children to leave the Langhe and study elsewhere. Making a living solely off of wine was at this point unimaginable for most. The majority of farmers relied on planting several crops, including Hazelnuts. Having dreamt of being a vet, Piero had himself left the Langhe. Despite having completed his studies, he felt an intense yearning, a longing to return home. In 1979 Piero returned to the family estate, ceased the selling of their grapes, took over the winemaking, and bottled his first Barbaresco in 1982.

Until 2007, when 66 MGA (Menzione Geografica Aggiuntiva) were officially included in the Barbaresco production guidelines, Piero had not listed Albesani, the larger geographical area, on the wine’s label. It had been traditional in the region for a families parcel to bear the name of their house, in this case, Borgese. Piero Busso Albesani still bears this name, as did Giacosa’s Santo Stefano, the parcel in Albesani from which he had purchased fruit. Demonstrating admirable humility, Pier notes how lucky he was to have begun with a lot of ‘old, but super healthy, vines’. Even in the early days, though it had not always been the trend, Piero had worked in a manner synonymous with the thinking of today. Having spent his childhood in the vineyards, Pierguido tells me had never seen a synthetic herbicide used.

Tasting 2017 Piero Busso Langhe Nebbiolo, the quality of plant genetics and fertility of the families plots are obvious. In a year fraught with drought, where tannins were in the most part unresolved, course and unattractive, not a single sign of struggle is evident in Pier’s wine. The importance of healthy soil and root microbiome in strengthening the vines ability to uptake nutrients and resist disease and drought is vast. Having avoided the use of synthetic herbicides since at least 1979, the families vines and soils are as healthy and resilient as they come.

Among the vines there is magic

Today, having added Mondino, San Stunet and Gallina to their holdings, the family own 10ha in total shared across Neive and Treiso. His father, such was the zeitgeist at the time, was averse to bureaucracy and as such shunned certification. The estate is now certified organic and remains small enough for Pier to oversees, and be involved in, the physical work, all of which, other than cooper and sulphur spraying, is done by hand. The vineyards are never pushed beyond their own desire to grow, there is no fertiliser, whether organic or chemical. Pier works a lot with cover crop, in the past, he has experimented with planting a selection of grasses; however, he now prefers spontaneous grass naturally selected by the immediate environment. Walking in any one of the families vineyards today one can observe anywhere from 30 to 50 different varieties of grass.

In the rolling hills of the Langhe, cover crop is an effective tool in combatting rapid erosion of topsoil caused by profuse and unexpected periods of rain. The grass is cut twice a year, first in April and again before the harvest, the grass cuttings are left to serve as a natural organic fertiliser, as well as further combatting the runoff. There is never any thinning, instead Pier prunes in such a way (working with old vines certainly helps) that the vines produce a balanced yield, an approach shared by Christophe Roumier and others. Green harvest has always felt somewhat paradoxical to me, wanting to concentrate the plant’s resources appear sensible; however, thinning once fruit has been produced appears somewhat similar to saving energy once the race is run.

Pier also prefers never to hedge (trimming the apical shoot during the growing season). Amongst others, a handful of iconic vigneron spearheaded the ‘zero-hedging’ approach, including but not limited to Lalou Bize-Leroy, Dugat-Py and Soldero, who had stopped in the 1990s. In Burgundy producers often opt to braid (tressage) the apical shoot, for Pier his choice depends on the vintage conditions. Where temperatures are not excessive he will braid or tuck the shoot, in notably hot vintages Pier constructs a sort of cap with the apical shoots, adding additional shade. The reasoning underpinning no-hedge (oversimplified, I know) is fairly simple. Each time it is cut, the vine produces a hormonal response promoting lateral vegetative growth opposed to berry ripening, by not cutting the apical shoot the plant focusses on ripening instead. As does Lalou-Bize, Pier also leaves a fair amount of leaves on each plant.

Pier tells me that for him, winemaking is an 80/20 split between viticulture and work in the cellar, with 75% of that work in the cellar being avoiding making a mistake. Understanding this, one immediately understands why Pier has no desire to grow the estate much, if at all. This kind of exacting work is impossible, or at least grossly expensive if your total hectarage is large.

Start how you mean to go on

If I were to outline the most impactful changes taking place under Pier’s management. The first would be a further increase in the families exacting work in the vineyard, the second would likely be the handling of fruit and oxygen management pre, intra and post-fermentation. Picking is done by hand in small 15/18kg baskets, these baskets are never left under the sun for more than 30 minutes, and handling throughout is extremely delicate. The aim to keep fruit intact pre-fermentation, protecting the fruit from oxygen and more. There are never more than 8 people picking, these are often the same people who have picked at the estate for the last 10-15 years, meaning not only do they understand what Pier expects but Pier is able to carefully oversee picking, ensuring only clean, healthy grapes are selected.

Pier has also, in difficult vintages, invested a great deal of money in analysing pH in order to identify the right moment to pick, often achieving healthy pH even in those difficult years, a testament to the resilience of his vines. Two years ago he also invested in a new de-stemming machine, the machine is delicate enough such that it does not tear the fruit pre-fermentation. ‘This was the case 10 years ago in Burgundy; however, they are richer than we are’ Pier jovially notes. There is absolutely no doubt that one can taste this commitment in the glass. High-quality, optimally ripe, intact, and clean fruit starting the fermentation results in bright, precise and high-definition aromas in Piero Busso wines.

While his father had tried to work with selected yeast in the 1990s for two vintages, he later stopped. Fermentation is now entirely spontaneous. The only change is that in warmer vintages, Pier opts to prepare a pied de cuve (winemaking’s equivalent to a sourdough starter) 5-10 days before harvest, with a light pump over, fermentation is usually roaring in under 24 hours. The population of ambient yeast in the winery is strong, Pier ensures the winery is clean but never sterile. Rather honestly he admits that in the past there have been problems with ferment resulting in wine being sent to a distillery. However, he notes that which each year they become more capable and prepared. Such is his concern for the yeast population, recent renovations, consisting of painting the winery, gave Pier sleepless nights, concerned this would disturb the winery’s ambient east.

Tradition usually rests upon something which mankind did know

Winemaking at Piero Busso is generally traditional. Fermentation of the Dolcetta, Langhe Nebbiolo, and Barbaresco Mondico is in stainless steel vats, with no submerged cap and fairly frequent pump over by hand. Skin contact is shorter at 25 to 30 days. For the single vineyards Gallina, Albesani and San Stunet, fermentation takes place in oak casque (ranging from 1000 to 2500 litres) with skin contact duration averaging 40-45 days with submerged cap for some period of this time. While his father had extracted more over a shorter period, Pier opts to extract less with longer on the skins. While this may seem counterintuitive and there is much confusion on cap management, pumpover is more than suitable to extract gently depending entirely on how one pumps over.

Pier also likes that spending more time pumping over, sometimes 12 hours a day for Barbera, enables him to smell closely the wine, identifying issues quickly. He likes malo to take place in the year of the harvest, for him delaying malolactic is difficult. In Burgundy where many producers opt for new oak each vintage and age wine on the fine lees, microbial issues are easier to manage. With large, old casks, these issues present much more of a risk.

William Kelley has said ‘it is the quality of the grapes in the vineyard that determine the parameters of the possible‘. It could be said the truth in this statement is evident in its purest form at Piero Busso. Pierguido has a big vision, he is humble and unafraid of change. Each vintage is an opportunity to craft more carefully the actions and learnings of the last. Inspired by many of the greatest winemakers (Giacosa, Reynaud, Leroy, Solera and more) his commitment to exacting viticulture and perfectly ripe, quality fruit is telling of his philosophy. A philosophy which seeks to achieve freshness in each and every vintage. Pier has an open mind and is firmly optimistic of the Langhe’s direction, suggesting that within a decade Barbaresco may itself be an entirely bioorganic region. These are wines which deserve immediate attention, belonging at the centre of any discussion of greatness in Piedmont.

Much appreciation to Tom Myers for suggesting I speak with Pier and to Giles Burke-Gaffney and Nicholas Constantine at Justerini & Brooks, Piero Busso’s UK importer, for establishing contact and sharing his wines.

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4 thoughts

  1. Wonderful post! It was great to learn more about Pier and his team. As you note, it seems like he was ahead of the current winemaking curve in many ways, opting to take a more ecocentric approach to winemaking. It seems it is paying dividends in the health of the soil and the quality of the wine. I’ll keep an eye out for these in Canada!

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