Barolo en primeur 2021

The wine auction’s debut event, Grinzane and NYC, raises money for charity

Drinkers of fine wine do not need an introduction to Barolo, the king of Italian reds. Lovers of fine food do not need an introduction to the white truffles of Alba. Perhaps a lesser-known fact is that both come from a relatively small area within the mountainous Piedmont, northwest Italy

Officially, Barolo consists of a handful of wine-growing/wine-producing settlements, each with their own chocolate-box village and distinct identity. In the north are the sandy soil vineyards of Roddi, Verduno, Cherasco and picturesque La Morra; just below are the sandy and clay soil vineyards of Barolo and Novello; to the east are the clay soil vineyards of Grinzane Cavour, Diano d’Alba, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba and Monforte d’Alba.

The Piedmont is one of the wealthiest and also largest viticultural regions in Italy, with more than half of its production carrying the Denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) designation. 

In addition to the Barolo wine, it produces the softer tannin/earlier maturing, but equally prized Barbaresco from the Langhe area near Alba (the communes of Barbaresco, Treiso and Neive); the Moscato d’Asti, the eponymous sparkling wine; and the Alta Langa, another dry sparkling wine produced by the traditional method.

Both Barolo and Barbaresco are made from the Nebbiolo grape. The other varieties grown in the region are Barbera, Dolcetto and Erbaluce. The Barolo vineyards are owned by some 300 growers and producers and don’t change hands often. When they do, a 1 ha vineyard would expect a starting price of €2m.

On October 31st, the awesome combined power of three entities came together to endow a number of charitable causes: the Cassa di Risparmio di Cuneo Foundation, the Consortium of Protection of Barolo Barbaresco Alba Langhe and Dogliani, and Christies.

The Cassa di Risparmio di Cuneo Foundation is the 1995 conversion of the eponymous Piedmont savings bank into a non-profit organisation, the bank having merged with Banca del Monte di Lombardia S.p.A. to form Banca Regionale Europea (a subsidiary of Banca Lombarda e Piemontese since 2000 and UBI Banca since 2007). 

The Consortium of Protection of Barolo Barbaresco Alba Langhe and Dogliani exists for promoting the region’s rich wine heritage, monitor enocontrol, certification and all activities associated with the DOC appellations.

Partnered with Christies, they have launched Barolo en primeur: auctioning sixteen lots of Barolo wine, with each successful bid going to a specific charitable organisation.

B Beyond Magazine was invited to attend the debut auction and dinner at Castello Grinzane Cavour, of which later. This was preceded by a whistle-stop tour of the immediate area: the Enoteca of Barolo; the castle itself; the commune of La Morra; and that of Roddi for a gourmet dinner.

The Vineyard Landscape of Piedmont

Barolo the village is tiny, yet thoroughly charming. Freshly renovated houses line its immaculate cobblestone streets; and a sprinkling of bars and eateries serve Barolo, Barbaresco and Vermouth to accompany the local delicacies. The focal point, however, is the Enoteca: an imposing building of classic Italian architecture. Housed and curated here are bottles of the finest regional wines, which are often decorated with some very creative and distinctive labels.

We met with the knowledgeable director of the Enoteca, Cristiana Grimaldi, who explained the process by which the best of the best wines are selected at blind tastings: the most representative Barolo of the year is chosen not to publicize its wine maker (which must remain strictly anonymous), but to be used as an institutional bottle in the events and manifestations of the Enoteca.’

Grimaldi talked us through the different characteristics of the soils in the region and touched upon how climate change affects the wines and their maturing process which, in the last decade, has shortened considerably. Milder winters have made the wines ready for consumption in record short time, although the compulsory 4 year maturing period for Barolo proper remains set in stone.

Wine connoisseurs know they ‘drink the soil’ where it all starts. In the words of Italian wine producers: ‘first the soil, next the weather and last the human touch.’ 

Our arrival coinciding with the start of the white truffle season, we dined at a restaurant in the village of Roddi which served truffle-themed dishes. Ristorante Il Vigneto has panoramic views of the surrounding langhe, the many hills that define the Barolo area. Yet the main attractions are the exceptional, regional dishes: locally farmed Cherasco snails in butter and herbs; vitello tonnato; and rabbit with Piedmontese green sauce. All immaculately presented for what was clearly a discerning clientele.

Our guide, Fabrizzio Ghirardi, gave us a tour of La Morra village and surrounding vineyards the next day. La Morra has spectacular views from the Belvedere – of the valley below, but most of all of all wine-producing langhe. It is another chocolate box village with delicatessen shops and its resident artist who paints with… wine. Of course.

Truffle hunters with their dogs can be spotted in Barolo, La Morra and Roddi. Some organise truffle hunting tours for the large number of tourists who visit during the season.

No visit to La Morra can be complete without stopping by its chapel in the middle of the Ceretto family-owned vineyards. The Cerettis, both art lovers and collectors, originally sponsored artists Sol Lewitt and David Tremlett to decorate the little chapel – which sees a near constant stream of people taking pictures of themselves in front of it.  

Gallery: a tour of Barolo and environs

Barolo en primeur: auction and white truffle dinner

Castello Grinzane Cavour has a rich history, dating as far back as the 11th century, that is eloquently documented across its public rooms. As most else in the region, many of the exhibits are dedicated to wine production – with a special section on the health benefits of red wine consumption.

The main entrance houses an awesome wine press that looks like it’s designed for giants, but reflects the wine producers’ communal spirit of old. 

The Hall of Masks hosts council meetings, weddings and events, including the prestigious Alba White Truffle World Auction. This  is also where the post-auction dinner took place.

The castle’s most celebrated resident, Count Camillo Benso di Cavour, is credited with being the architect of the Risorgimento and the unification of Italy. Many of the rooms record his political career and family history.

In the bowels of the castle are a series of contemporary conference rooms and one of these hosted the Barolo en primeur itself.

Speeches from organisers and local grandees preceded the charity auction of fifteen barriques, plus a surprise double-lot. The beneficiaries of the odd-numbered lots comprised a range of pre-selected charities, while those of the even lots were left to the discretion of the winning bidder.

The wine itself has been created under the supervision of world-renowned oenologist, Donato Lanati. When they reach maturity in 2024, each barrique will yield around 300 bottles. These will be labelled with a bespoke creation from artist Giuseppe Penone.

We met briefly with the President of the Consortium of Protection of Barolo Barbaresco Alba Langhe and Dogliani, Matteo Ascheri, a renowned wine producer himself, who explained that all the barriques came from a vineyard owned by the Cassa di Risparmio di Cuneo Foundation. He also told us that the philanthropic event will take place annually and include, in future, barriques donated by other individual wine producers.

In a post-Covid innovation, the auction took place simultaneously in Italy and the United States via Zoom. Christies, who waved their usual commissions to benefit the selected charities, hosted the auction in Grinzine. Acclaimed wine critic Antonio Galloni hosted the auction in New York City (he has also minted an NFT as a digital certificate of authenticity for each barrique). Galloni shared his tasting notes for each barrique in a slick, bilingual presentation, filmed in and around Castello Grinzane.

As it happened, the Americans managed only one successful bid, all the rest being successfully bought by the local contingent. In total, the auction raised €600,000, the single lots fetching around €30,000 to €50,000 each.

The Hall of Masks was beautifully set up for a private dinner – but the piece de resistance was an unprepossessing, check cloth-lined basket containing several, large white truffles fresh from nearby Alba. Given the vertiginous cost of the fungus, we felt uniquely spoiled to have our first two courses liberally covered with large shavings of it.

The Piedmontese cheese fondue, topped with a soft poached organic egg and truffle shavings, was followed by a local speciality: fine tajarin egg pasta. The next course was a saddle of rabbit accompanied by the most delicious sauce, a mousseline of potatoes, and baby roast vegetables. The undoubted winner of the dinner, after the truffles, was the pudding: Imperial au citron, created by pastry chef Luc Debove.

The Piedmonte is beautiful in its own right, with the autumnal bright red and yellow foliage, and well worth visiting for its rich history and patrimony, as well as culinary delights. The wines and truffles make it that bit extra-special, as do the Italian people, whose natural exuberance and enjoyment of life are as contagious as ever.

The beneficiaries of Barolo en primeur 2021

The following includes the pre-selected charities for the odd-numbered lots.

Lot 1: ADAS Foundation’s MidLINE project aims to provide free palliative and pscyhological support in the home at the same standard of care as in hospital

Lot 3: The Alta Langa Cultural Park promotes socio-economic, cultural and touristic development of the Alta Langa region

Lot 5: East-West Philanthropy Forum is a platform for intercultural exchange and collaboration between Italian/Chinese philanthropists on climate change, conservation, education, and women’s leadership

Lot 7: Augusto Rancilio Foundation is a non-profit cultural organisation dedidcated to study and research in architecture, urban design and planning, and supporting young people and their integration into the world of work. This lot will benefit the restoration of Villa Arconati, a 17th century villa outside Milan once known as ‘the Versailles of Milan’

Lot 9: Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art is developing a programme to promote and communicate contemporary art, with a thematic focus on nature and sustainability, to children and families across the region.

Lot 11: Sandretto Re Rebaudengo Foundation is developing a project, Terzo Tempo, to promote social inclusion of the elderly, intergenerational relationships, and to combat loneliness

Lot 13: B612LAB Association of Saluzzo and the Thesaurus Monviso Project – to facilitate partnerships and territorial collaborations within socio-economic and environmental sectors, in order to encourage the participation of young people in local governance and policymaking

Lot 15: Mother’s Choice, a Hong Kong charity to support orphans and pregnant adolescents