Vajra Barolo DOCG – Part Two, Red Roses for Me
Part One of this article on G.D. Vajra introduced their estate and focused on their Langhe varietal red wines: Dolcetto, Barbera and Freisa. In Part Two, the focus shifts to feature three Vajra Barolo Cru wines. Each is a different expression of this famous DOCG from the 2019 vintage. As the wine growing is similar for each wine, the differences between the wines are only explicable by the differences in the individual vineyard sites, aka terroir.
Barolo DOCG and its MGAs
Neither Barolo DOCG nor Nebbiolo needs a lengthy introduction or explanation. In any case, each could easily have an entire book dedicated to it, and you could devote your whole life to the wines and still discover new things at the end, which sounds daunting but certainly has its merits! However, these wines do deserve some explanatory context.
Barolo is one of the most prestigious and sought-after Italian red wines, being robust, full-bodied and ideal for long ageing. Barolo DOCG is relatively small (2,057 hectares), with many rather small producers, and the wine must be made solely with Nebbiolo. It first became a DOC in 1966 and then a DOCG in 1980 (where it was one of the first three, all awarded on the first day of DOCG). The DOCG appellation is subdivided into eleven communities (Barolo, Castiglione Faletto, Cherasco, Diano d’Alba, Grinzane Cavour, La Morra, Monforte, Novello, Roddi, Serralunga and Verduno).
The rise of Cru wines
Until the seventies, Barolo wasn’t a Cru (single vineyard) wine. Instead, it was a blend, not of grape varieties or years, but of vineyard sites. There is nothing to prevent wine from one Barolo vineyard from being blended with wines from any other, each complementing and compensating for the others in colour, scent and flavour. This is helpful in years of vintage variation and, in theory, means that an individual producer (or negociant) style can be consistently achieved.
While these “generic” Barolo blends are still commonplace, the top echelon wines became single vineyard expressions, or “Cru”, revealing a sense of place and celebrating their differences.
Furthermore, from the 2010 vintage, these informal Crus were formalised by adding 170 official MGAs to those eleven communities, subdividing the DOCG into 181 MGAs*. Note there is no formal hierarchy to these MGAs, though inevitably, some are better known and enjoy a higher historical reputation than others, even though the producer name is a better (and easier) guarantee of wine excellence. Regardless, these MGA names can be shown on the label. The official Barolo MGA map is shown here by way of illustration. A high-quality official copy of this map is available directly from the Consorzio Barolo Barbaresco Alba Langhe e Dogliani and by downloading it here.
Cru wines became established because of a better understanding of terroir (then formalised by MGAs) and improved wine-growing techniques and equipment. Economically, high demand and limited supply offer scope for developing premium wines.
Ageing is a critical (and expensive) element of Barolo winemaking, as Nebbiolo isn’t short of tannins and acidity and must be tamed by time. The Barolo DOCG rule is at least 38 months, including 18 months in barrel. For a Riserva, it’s much more – a minimum of 62 months, including 18 months in barrel.
Years ago, battle lines were drawn between traditional makers featuring long ageing in large wooden Botti and modernists employing shorter times with French Oak barriques, dividing Barolo into opposing factions. Of course, hindsight makes it easy to see the merits of both sides while suggesting that there can be no hard and fast recipe. Nowadays, the most enlightened producers, such as G.D. Vajra, employ winemaking and maturation techniques best suited to their grapes and vineyard sites, each according to the year’s conditions. For example, in 2019, Vajra reduced skin contact time during vinification and maturation time in wood.
Like Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo is a grape variety with the rare ability to reveal a sense of place in the minutest detail. Still, it’s also fickle and demanding, an early budder and late ripener where the best sites realise the vine’s full potential. Altitude, south-facing aspects, and marl soils are all essential factors.
Nebbiolo is an ancient variety with many biotypes and clones and a true Piemonte native. It’s well known that Nebbiolo wines lack deep colour. I’ve heard the colour described as “pigeon’s blood” (sorry if you’re squeamish).
However, it makes up for relative paleness with abundant red rose scents and sour cherry fruit. Meanwhile, high acidity levels, alcohol and tannins demand long ageing. Only after that does exceptional grace and elegance emerge, sometimes accompanied by a tarry complexity.
These aspects mean that Barolo isn’t a wine to drink young but, on the other hand, can develop over many decades. A rough rule of thumb is to give the top wines 8-10 years after the vintage date before opening, while longevity of 60 or 70 years isn’t uncommon in outstanding vintages.
As we saw in Part 1, G.D. Vajra is organic and based in Vergne, high above the nearby town of Barolo. Hence, most of their vineyards are in the Barolo community. While Vajra makes a blended Barolo (the excellent Albe, a blend of three vineyards), the Cru wines are the most distinguished examples.
Hence, the three wines below each represent a different MGA: Coste de Rose (in Barolo), Ravera (in nearby Novello) and Bricco del Viole (in Barolo). Each wine briefly introduces the MGA, with a technical note on how Vajra makes the wine and my tasting note. Please be aware that these wines are still very young and need further ageing. Each was decanted for four hours before tasting, and all tasted better the following day. The tasting note should, therefore, be seen as a provisional snapshot; there’s much more to come.
U.K. availability is excellent. Note that prices differ according to whether In Bond or Duty Paid and the number of bottles bought. Hence, the prices mentioned below are for single bottles, duty paid. Previous vintages are available for those who don’t want to wait for these 2019s to be ready!
G.D. Vajra, Coste di Rose, Barolo DOCG, Piemonte, Italy, 2019. 14%
A little about Coste de Rose
Coste di Rose is a distinctive small MGA notable for its cedar trees in the Barolo Comune. G.D. Vajra has a 1.61-hectare parcel facing south-southeast at the top of this steep hill. Though lower at 250-310 metres, it has good ventilation and resistance to drought. The clay marls here are unusually sandy (known as Arenaria di Diano), with the top of the hill being 50% pure sand. These elements make this a very distinctive proposition. It was planted between 1995 and 2001, and the first release of this wine was in 2015.
In 2019, the grape harvest was on 18 October. Vinification lasted 25 days. Spontaneous malolactic fermentation occurred in the following spring. The wine matured for 28 months in large Slavonian casks of 2,500 and 4,000 litres before bottling on 25 July 2022.
Light garnet colour. Explosively scented: red roses, petrichor (the smell in the air after rain), red berries and cherry. The palate is youthful but suggests it will be readier a little earlier; the tannins are firm but silken and feel less intrusive, and a tautness and tension are showing between tannins, acidity, alcohol and fruit. Flavours of cranberry alongside the sour cherry, with orange pith, cinnamon, and pepper. A long finish, slightly saline. It’s a lighter style than the other two Cru. It’s not yet ready, but not long to wait, maybe another year or so. Excellent wine.
G.D. Vajra, Ravera, Barolo DOCG, Piemonte, Italy, 2019. 14%
A little about Ravera
Ravera is one of the best MGAs in Novello Comune, in the southwest part of the DOCG (confusingly, there are MGAs called Ravera in Barolo, La Morra and Novello). The soils here have lasagne-like layers of white silicates and red iron oxide. Ravera has an amphitheatre shape, with an open exposure to the southeast that brings a risk of hail. The G.D. Vajra plot is 4.77 hectares, at 300-380 metres, with a mix of 45 to 50-year-old vines and some planting in 2000.
In 2019, the Ravera harvest was on 12 and 13 October. Vinification lasted 28 days, with spontaneous malolactic fermentation occurring the following spring. Maturation was for 28 months in large Slavonian casks of 2,500 and 5,000 litres. Bottling 25 July 2022.
Ruby colour, garnet flecked. Intensely aromatic and expansive, red fruits and orange zest, a whiff of red rose, violets and something chalky. A dry stone wall of fine-grained tannin encloses the palate at this stage. The fruit and complexity show through this, hinting at all that potential. There’s sour cherry, salinity, bergamot, and baking spices. It’s bright, juicy and fleshy – is that the iron oxide talking? The tannins reassert themselves on the long finish, leaving an impression of unreleased energy. It needs a lot more time, maybe another three years. This is an excellent wine in waiting.
G.D. Vajra, Bricco delle Viole, Barolo DOCG, Piemonte, Italy, 2019. 14%
A little about Bricco delle Viole
In the Barolo comune, Bricco delle Viole (Hill of Violets) is the highest and westernmost MGA, at 400-480 metres altitude. It’s a big, though fragmented site, occupying 46 hectares. Vajra has 9.63 ha, of which about half is of the old vines (from 1931, 1949 and 1968) for this Cru. The MGA sits above the autumn fogs and faces from southeast to southwest. That means it sees the sun from dawn to dusk. It also has proximity to the Alps, with diurnal temperature variations. The soils here are the classic Sant’Agata marls with a concentration of blue-ish manganese.
Bricco delle Viole is one of the last vineyards in the harvest. In 2019, this was between 11 and 23 October. Vinification lasted 31 days, with spontaneous malolactic fermentation the following spring. Then, maturation for 28 months in large Slavonian casks of 2,500 and 5,000 litres. Bottling was on 27 July 2022.
Ruby red, garnet rim. The aromas are delicate and ethereal, still a little closed. Violets (reprising the violets that grow here?), red roses, sour cherry, cinnamon, something like camphor. The palate is all impressions, yet to resolve, with a solidity of structure and austerity; the tannins have a silken edge but need to subside, giving it a brooding quality. There’s a balsamic undertow, sour cherry and orange zest, a stony mineral streak, a hint of bergamot, and bright acidity. It opens briefly, then snaps shut suddenly, a gemstone hidden deep in a coal mine. It could be profound. I’d leave it another four to five years. As for longevity, indeed, decades of development are possible.
These are all potent wines needing powerful food to show at their best. The classic food matches are equally rich and luxurious, such as well-hung game and beef (roast or brasato). Vegetarians needn’t miss out; Truffle risotto, Mushroom pasta or Chestnut Gnocci are always good places to start. Aged hard cheeses also work well.
Barolo can be a daunting subject. The choice can be overwhelming, never mind the expense, especially of the top Cru wines. Then there’s the waiting involved. If that seems all too much, Vajra Barolo DOCG Albe 2019 makes a terrific introduction.
Azienda Agricola G.D. Vajra
Piazza delle Vite e del Vino, 1
12060 Barolo (C.N.)
*MGA, Menzioni Geografiche Aggiuntive (Additional Geographical Mentions). This formalised single vineyard system replaced the informal and unregulated Cru system from the 2010 vintage, though the word Cru remains, perhaps as an understandable shorthand. While some advocate establishing a formal MGA hierarchy for clarity, I believe such a suggestion would result in division and a lawyer’s charter. Best leave such nonsense to Bordeaux.
I thank the Consorzio Barolo Barbaresco Alba Langhe e Dogliani for their Barolo DOCG MGA map.
And with great thanks to G.D. Vajra for details on the wines.