Celebrating the virtues of Barolo, king of Italian wines

A bottle of Italian wine, Barolo Montfortino Riserva 1999, Giacomo Conterno.
A bottle of Italian wine, Barolo Montfortino Riserva 1999, Giacomo Conterno.PHOTO: N.K. YONG

(THE BUSINESS TIMES) - There is one Italian wine which sadly is not as seen on local dinner tables as often it deserves, and that is Barolo, the "King of Italian wines".

Barolo, from the northernmost wine region of Italy, is a wine famously needing decades to reach full maturity. Perhaps this accounts for its infrequent appearance. Its dense, full-bodied palate can be "off-putting" and takes some patience even in the glass.

I owe my relative familiarity with Barolo due to the opportune presence of the wines of Pio Cesare, one of Barolo's oldest families in local wine shops as early as 1986, and to the almost annual visit in the 1990s of Pio Boffa, the fifth-generation member of the Pio Cesare family.

Indeed, I retain to this day a vivid memory of touring the Pio Cesare vineyards, which began with my standing on top of the hill slope bearing his Cascina Francia vineyard in Serralunga (the origin of his Barolo Ornato) early in the morning of Jan 1, 1986, with a temperature of 0 deg C, looking down on the naked branches of the vines.

Ten minutes was more than enough and it was back to the warmth of his house in Alba. His parents were most gracious and insisted that we stay in their home which, thankfully, had central heating.

Pio's wines have changed to a more modern (and more early-maturing) style making them much easier and more attractive to drink.

Barolo Montfortino Riserva 1999, Giacomo Conterno 

At Chinese dinner, Singapore, March 2016

Medium-dark garnet-red, very fine bouquet, fresh perfectly ripe fruit, beautiful taste, very long delicate, smooth, finish. Good for another 10-15 years.

This winery, Cantine Giacomo Conterno, is possibly the most renowned in Barolo, its winery on top of the hill in the hill-top town of Monforte d'Alba, commanding a splendid view of its surrounding vineyards.

Its Barolo Riserva DOCG Montfortino is deservedly the finest of all Barolos while the second wine, Barolo Cascina Francia, is every bit as good as most other growers' Barolo Normale.

It was always a treat to visit the winery so whenever we visited Italy, I tried to include a stopover in Alba to visit Giacomo Conterno. We had the good fortune to be very graciously and generously received by Signor Giovanni Conterno himself on our first ever visit to Alba in the mid-1980s.

A tour of the winery was invariably followed by a tasting of the most recent vintage which was completed by a tasting of a reasonably older vintage. The visit usually ended with the gift of a bottle of the most recent vintage of the Riserva on the market - a most generous gesture and most gratefully received.

Our most recent visit was in 2016 when we were warmly welcomed by Giacomo's son Roberto Conterno, as his father had died in 2004. It was a most enjoyable visit, as always. However, it is not possible to purchase their wines direct from the winery, which therefore means trawling through the wine sale lists of foreign wine merchants, which for us in Singapore means those in the United Kingdom.

What does the Montfortino Barolo Riserva taste like? First, it is a deeply coloured red, almost black-red, a very densely-concentrated wine, full of ripe fruit, with a broad base, finely-textured and well-balanced, with a long lingering finish, which tempts you to reach for the glass even before the flavours completely disappear from your palate.

It reminds me of Bordeaux's First Growth Chateau Latour as it has the same richness of concentrated ripe fruit. For its superb quality, it is not expensive, certainly not as expensive Chateau Latour. Its only drawback is its scarcity. At a current price of around $1,600 a bottle of the current vintage, it is not cheap. On the other hand, it is not over-priced considering its scarcity.

And just in case the price of the Riserva puts too much of a strain on the budget, Giacomo Conterno's Barolo Cascina Francia would be a reasonable stand-in.