The 2016 Vintage at Cappellano

Posted on Posted in Cappellano, Rosenthal Wine Merchant News, RWM Contributor

The traditionalism of the Cappellano family in Serralunga d’Alba is not one of blind adherence to the past. It is a searching, intelligent traditionalism, one which prioritizes accumulated wisdom and connectedness to the land over the allure of technology and the pressures of the market. Such an approach was justly considered radical in the 1980s and ‘90s, a time in which Barolo was struggling to overcome the relative poverty of the post-war era and attract a larger audience. In that era, the legendary Teobaldo Cappellano’s pointedly philosophical rejection of modern methods flew in the face of Barolo’s aspirationalism; at the same time, his revolutionary ardor helped galvanize an entire movement of like-minded winegrowers—one that has only gained momentum in the ensuing years.

Since his passing in 2009, Baldo’s son Augusto has helmed the family estate, tending their three-hectare morsel of the famed cru of Gabutti in Serralunga d’Alba nearly entirely by himself. Augusto, tall and wiry, with a remarkably warm countenance, approaches his work with the same spirit of revolutionary traditionalism as his father; rather than mimicking Baldo’s approach with rigid obeisance, he has made subtle alterations that serve to enhance the wines’ purity and expressiveness: slightly shortening the duration of barrel-aging due to a warming climate hastening the wines’ evolution; replacing a leaky centenarian cask here and there; pruning less aggressively to extend the lifespan of his vines. Augusto understands innately that his father was not trying to establish a how-to guide, but was seeking ever more intimate connections between wine and land, and the wines under his stewardship are as gorgeous and lively as they have ever been.

Cappellano’s methods, both in the vineyards and in the cellar, are time-tested, straightforward, and unobtrusive. Augusto farms his three hectares of Gabutti without synthetic chemicals, working the steep west-oriented face of the slope—the old heart of the cru before it was expanded—totally by hand. Plenty of cover crop is maintained; the soil teems with life. The wines ferment naturally, as they always have, in enormous open-top Slavonian casks, sometimes with a submerged cap, sometimes without, as the vintage dictates. Aging takes place in 50-hectoliter Slavonian oak, with minimal sulfur adjustments, and clarification only through gravity and patience. The Barbera—which the family refuses to rip up although they could triple their asking price by replanting it to Nebbiolo—is treated with the same dignity as the Barolo, a testament to the family’s defiant and proud traditionalism.

2016 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 aging in barrels that signify their newness without subtlety. 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 casks. 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 2015 offers brazen minerality, with scrappy tannins hanging in perfect balance with dusty black-cherry fruit and gleaming acidity. It is always worth holding this wine for a few years before opening, as time allows it to soften its edges and articulate its noble origins with greater force.

2016 Barolo “Piè Rupestris”
Since the pernicious vine disease flavescenza dorata decimated Cappellano’s small holdings in the nearby town of Novello a few vintages back, their three hectares in the cru Gabutti are all that remain. And, of those three hectares, the Nebbiolo planted on the lower third of the slope is used entirely for their fabled Barolo Chinato—meaning that this Barolo comprises only the heart of their holding, from vines planted in the late 1940s. “Pie Rupestris” combines stony power, firm structure, and pure, soaring fruit in a manner that creates wonderful tension, yet the overall impression is one of seamless harmony. [NOTE: Cappellano conspicuously excludes the word “Gabutti” from the label in protest of the expansion of the cru’s boundaries some years back.]

2016 Barolo “Piè Franco”
One of the rarest and most coveted wines in Barolo, Cappellano’s “Piè Franco” comes from a miniscule section of their Gabutti holdings which Teobaldo planted to ungrafted Nebbiolo in 1989—a gesture of “revolutionary traditionalism” if ever there was one. Fortunately, the vines have managed to survive, and the wine they produce provides an endlessly fascinating counterpart to the “Piè Rupestris” above. Although it is produced in identical fashion, “Piè Franco” is silkier in texture, more ethereal, and more complex overall—compelling one to imagine what Barolo might have been like before the ravages of phylloxera.

Barolo Chinato
The 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 family recipe has remained unchanged since the earliest days, transferred 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. The results of this arcane process are nothing short of sublime: a heady mélange of herbs and spices on the nose, with a rich, chocolatey palate that remains vibrant and balanced, and a near-dangerous level of deliciousness.

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