Each new release from the tiny Cappellano estate in Serralunga d’Alba is a cause for celebration. Although they have never courted the press—the legendary late Teobaldo Cappellano famously forbade critics from scoring his wines—they have developed a riotously enthusiastic following over the years for their uncompromisingly traditional, scintillatingly pure creations. Today, in the Langhe, the style pendulum thankfully seems to be shifting away from the mania for new wood and intrusive technology which swept the region in the 1990s and 2000s. However, how much more special is it to encounter a grower like Cappellano—one who never succumbed in the first place? Baldo above all prized wine’s connection to the earth and to humanity, and he saw his work as that of an artist rather than a purveyor of commercial goods. Today, ten years after his sudden passing, his son Augusto carries on his father’s spirit in his own thoughtful, sensitive, remarkably warm manner. To witness Augusto’s evolution over the past decade has been moving—from a young man clearly deeply mourning his larger-than-life father’s presence to a grower with a crystal-clear vision of both the tradition which flows through him and of the kind of wine he wants to craft. The small changes he has made—slightly shortening the passage in botti due to a warming climate hastening the wines’ evolution; pruning less aggressively with a mind to prolonging the lifespan of his vines—have only served to enhance the purity of his wines without at all compromising their proudly old-school spirit.
The famously difficult 2014 vintage provided Augusto with his biggest challenge yet, but the wines he wrested from such a punishingly tough, labor-intensive season are chilling in their elegance. The severe sorting such a vintage required means that quantities—already minuscule even in a normal year—are down significantly, but those fortunate enough to access Cappellano’s 2014s will find them to be sublime. Wisely, rather than trying to compensate for inherently lighter-bodied fruit, Augusto employed a slightly gentler-than-usual extraction in order not to draw unwanted elements into the juice. The ensuing wines are ethereal yet not lacking for concentration, offering immense early-drinking pleasure but with layers of subtle profundity which suggest good ageability. We eagerly await their arrival at the end of this month.
2014 Barbera d’Alba “Gabutti”
Frequently, Barbera in the Langhe is treated either very simplistically, with a vinification and brief passage in stainless steel, or very lavishly, with heavy-handed extraction and long ageing in small, often new oak barrels. Cappellano, however, takes a simpler approach: he treats it just like his Barolo, with a lengthy maceration and a multi-year passage in large neutral botti. The resultant wine is always astonishing in its depth, showing the complexity this variety can achieve when grown in a great terroir such as Gabutti and treated with unflashy reverence. Vintage after vintage, it stands as a benchmark, and the 2014 is striking in its chiseled clarity. Beautiful, mouthwatering acidity melds seamlessly into a tightly focused core of bright, tangy red fruits, which are offset by cleanly articulated soil notes and an enveloping sensation of exotic spices. Its equilibrium is utterly perfect, and while other vintages might offer slightly greater amplitude, this 2014 is irresistible in its sleekness and energy.
2014 Barolo “Pie Rupestris”
Since the pernicious vine disease flavescenza dorata decimated Cappellano’s small holdings in the nearby town of Novello (the source of their Dolcetto d’Alba, basic Barbera d’Alba, and “Nebiolo” for some years), their three hectares in the fabled Serralunga d’Alba cru of Gabutti are all that remain. And, of those three hectares, the Nebbiolo planted on the lower third of the slope is used entirely for the Barolo Chinato (see below)—meaning that this Barolo comprises only the heart of their holdings. (It is worth noting that Cappellano conspicuously excludes the word “Gabutti” from this Barolo as a mild gesture of protest against the expansion of the cru’s boundaries some years back.) The 2014, fermented naturally in cement and aged for two and a half years in very large botti, shows a similarly captivating sense of balance as the Barbera above. That classic Serralunga brashness shows itself in an assertively earthy presence, along with bass notes of deep, woodsy spice, but the overall impression is one of finesse and freshness. The interplay of musky flowers, resonant acidity, and savory minerality is thrilling, and the wine is delineated and accessible even at this young age.
2014 Barolo “Pie Franco”
One of the rarest and most coveted wines in the Langhe, Cappellano’s Barolo “Pie Franco” comes from a miniscule section of their Gabutti holdings which Teobaldo planted to ungrafted Nebbiolo in 1989. Fortunately for all of us, the vines have managed to survive, and the wine they produce provides an endlessly fascinating counterpart to the “Pie Rupestris” above. Although it is produced in exactly the same fashion, “Pie Franco” is unfailingly more ethereal, silkier in texture, and more complex overall—compelling one to imagine what Barolo might have been like before the ravages of phylloxera. If Barolo and Burgundy are sometimes conceived of as cousins of a sort for their ability to convey nuances of terroir with unparalleled complexity and beauty, “Pie Franco” makes that connection far more literal, particularly in such a lithe vintage as 2014. This version is simply mesmerizing in its elegance, with a lighter color and a gentler tannic presence than the “Pie Rupestris,” but with an enveloping panoply of aromas that prompts goosebumps, and a palate presence both commanding and achingly caressing. Though it is unmistakably Barolo, it stands nearly outside category.
The spellbinding elixir known as Barolo Chinato was actually invented by the Cappellano family, with Giuseppe Cappellano—a pharmacist by trade—developing the recipe in the late 19th century as a digestive aid. The still-top-secret, carefully guarded recipe was passed down from Giuseppe to his son Francesco, then to his son Teobaldo, and finally to Augusto. The recipe has remained unchanged since the earliest days, transferred ceremoniously via handwritten letter during each generational shift. Augusto still crushes the herbs and spices by hand with the family’s old cast-iron mortar and pestle, and the steps to creating the perfect mixture are complex and difficult—Augusto told us it took him years, beginning as a young child, to master the technique. Happily, the results of this arcane process are nothing short of sublime, as Cappellano’s Chinato blitzes the senses with overwhelming complexity—the nose of the stuff alone is worth the price of admission. On the palate, the Chinato’s marked sweetness is buffered by its sheer depth—after all, 50% of the blend is traditionally vinified and aged single-vintage Barolo. A heady mélange of herbs and spices, coupled with the elixir’s rich, chocolatey depths, pull both mouth and mind in infinite directions, but the whole experience is still balanced, composed, and just flat-out delicious. Those granted the privilege of accessing the Cappellano family’s sublime wines are strongly urged to explore the Chinato as well, as it is a vital constituent of the estate’s overall production.