A tall medieval tower dominates the village of Serralunga, on the south-east edge of the Barolo appellation, giving fair warning of the character of the wines grown there: structured, substantial, uncompromising. Sergio Germano, whose winery is a few minutes walk north of Serralunga, completed six years of study at the School of Enology in Alba, then made wine for a few years at Fontanafredda, one of the larger wineries in the area, before returning to the family estate in 1993. The winery is still named after Ettore, Sergio’s father, who grew grapes, made a little wine for private customers, and was known throughout the area for his skill in grafting vines.
My ideal winemaker in a traditional appellation like Barolo has the scientific understanding of winemaking that his predecessors lacked, while still respecting the traditions that they developed. Sergio Germano is just such a winemaker, and his Serralunga Barolos will never be creamy, international-style wines. Great wine is always made in the vineyard, and Sergio does much of the fieldwork himself, with the help of his wife Elena and a small crew. Some of the wines are 100% traditional, made with long macerations and big barrels, and some are made with medium-sized barrels or barriques, but they all express the best of these local grape varieties. Sergio has vineyards in two quite different areas, which allows him to make an unusual range of wine types; in addition to the classic regional wines like Barolo, Dolcetto and Barbera he also makes one of Italy’s best Rieslings, and some excellent sparkling wines.
Germano’s Barolo and red wine vineyards are all in the commune of Serralunga, in the south-east corner of the Barolo appellation. The vineyards are at about 350 meters above sea level. The soils here are rich in limestone, clay, and sand; they tend to produce wines with more structure than those of the western half of the Barolo appellation (around the villages of Barolo and La Morra). This is particularly true of Nebbiolo, but also for the other varieties, such as Dolcetto.
The red and white grapes for Sergio Germano's Alta Langa sparkling wine, and almost all of his white grapes, come from plantings in an entirely separate area from the rest of his vineyards. Some years ago Sergio went looking for an area not too far from his vineyards in Barolo, but better suited to white and sparkling wines, and he found it just outside the village of Cigliè, at the southern tip of the Dogliani appellation. The vineyards here are at 500 meters (1,800 feet) or more above sea-level, steeply sloped, and consist of almost white limestone-rich clay with a lot of stones. He now has more than 10 acres of vineyards in Cigliè and is making vibrant and intriguing wines from grapes grown there and transported back to Serralunga, about 30 minutes away, to be vinified. (Higher altitude tends to bring cooler nights, which allows the fruit to retain more acidity, making it perfect for fresh whites and sparkling wines.)
ALTA LANGA METODO CLASSICO BRUT (CHAMPAGNE METHOD SPARKLING WINE)
The Alta Langa is an area bordering the Langa, where Barolo and Barbaresco are grown, but at higher elevation, hence 'Alta' (high). Sergio Germano decided to establish vineyards in this area in order to produce whites wines (such as Riesling and the rare local variety Nascetta), and the base wine for his first Spumante, which is made of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The area had been planted entirely to Dolcetto, which grows very well there, but Sergio has shown that the altitude (1,800 feet above sea level) and soil (limestone-rich and stoney) are also well suited to white and sparkling wine. (The sparkling wine appellation 'Alta Langa' is very recent, established only in 2002. It is defined as 'hilly, marly, and limestone-rich, at an altitude of no less than 800 feet above sea level'.)
The base wine for the Germano Alta Langa is 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay. The grapes are picked in the beginning of September into small boxes, and taken to the winery in Serralunga for pressing and fermentation (the Chardonnay is fermented in barrels, the Pinot in stainless steel). In April, after the primary fermentation, the wines are blended together, bottled, and the second fermentation begins, lasting 4-6 months. Twenty months of lees aging in the bottle follows, then the wine is disgorged (see [*]). The most famous 'classic' (ie Champagne method, Champagne varieties) sparkling wines made in Italy are from Franciacorta, in Lombardy, but I prefer the best examples from the Alta Langa, and a bottle of this will show you why. The character of the terroir is clearly present along with the flavors that come from the winemaking.
NEBBIOLO ROSATO METODO CLASSICO BRUT 'ROSANNA'
Several years ago Sergio Germano made an experimental batch of 'classic method' sparkling wine from early harvested Nebbiolo, and it was delicious. Red berries, bright acidity, beautiful pink color, I was smitten. Now we have enough to actually sell the wine (once my crew has had a crack at it), and we are very happy. The 'Rosanna' is named after Sergio's mother; it's made of young-vine Nebbiolo from around his winery (all Barolo vineyards), picked in early September as part of the ‘green harvest’ process, pressed carefully for a pale pink color, fermented as white wine (80% in stainless steel, 20% in used barriques for complexity), and bottled for the second fermentation in March following the vintage. After about 16 months of time on the lees the wine is disgorged and topped up only with the same wine, no 'liqueur.' The result is dry, delicious and complex, perfect as an aperitif but I think it would be great with salmon, too. Italy's most interesting sparkling wines are made of indigenous varieties, and this is one of them. The result is dry, delicious and complex (only about 3g/L of residual sweetness, depending on the vintage).
Grown in Sergio's vineyards in the south of the Dogliani appellation, at between 350 and 450 meters (1,150 to 1,500 feet); limestoney soil, eastern exposure, a very good place to grow white wine. The fruit is picked in small boxes, then pressed and fermented in stainless steel. Roughly half of the wine is put through ML to round out the acidity somewhat (the rest of this is used as base wine for Sergio's Alta Langa sparkling wine, and has excellent acidity), and the wine is aged in stainless steel, then bottled in the summer following the vintage. Fresh appley bright Chardonnay, very useful food wine, reminds me of some of the best wines from the Maconnais. Bottled with a screw-cap for freshness, I love screw-caps.
LANGHE RIESLING 'HERZÙ'
Sergio caught the Riesling bug during work trips to Germany . Serious Riesling is a fairly new thing in Italy, and when Germano planted the grape in the hills south of Dogliani, about half an hour from his home in Serralunga, he had no idea how well it would do. He just knew he loved the variety and wanted to see how it would come out. The experiment worked: the soils are limestone-rich, the altitude provides excellent fresh acidity, and year by year the 'Herzù' ('steep' in the dialect of the village where it's grown) shows more and more clear Riesling character, and more and more class. The wine shows hints of lime-peel, wet stones, and flowers, with a faint hint of the gasoline aroma that is so varietally typical. All stainless-steel fermentation and aging. It drinks well young but I will certainly be cellaring this for a few years. I love indigenous Italian white wine varieties but I am delighted to see that Riesling is doing so well here. John Winthrop Haeger, in his excellent book about dry Riesling called ‘Riesling Rediscovered’, described the Herzù as ‘a classy wine with strong flavors and bright acidity.’ It drinks well on release but I am cellaring the wine to see how it evolves, too. Bottled with a screw-cap for freshness, I love screw-caps.
LANGHE BIANCO ‘NAS-CETTA’
'Nas-cetta' is a white grape indigenous to the Barolo village of Novello, about not far from Sergio Germano's vineyards near Cigliè. These vineyards, south-east-facing rich in limestone and high in altitude (1,800 feet above sea level), seem to suit the variety; although the vines are still young (they were planted in 2004), the wine shows very distinctive character (aromas and flavors of Mediterranean herbs and lemon) and structure. The grapes are picked in the beginning of October; the structure of the wine is bolstered by including the skins for the first 3 or 4 days of fermentation, which adds breadth and aromatic complexity to the wine. Very interesting and singular indigenous Piedmontese white grape, said to be ageworthy (for more on the variety, see http://dobianchi.com/2010/08/24/nascetta/). Ian d’Agata, in a typically precise note, describes wine made from Nascetta as ‘delicious, straw yellow-golden, with aromas of aromatic herbs, orange, ginger, and star fruit, complicated by sage, rosemary, and balsamic mint.’ Bottled with a screw-cap for freshness, I love screw-caps.
Some Barolo producers use their Dolcetto as a simple cash-flow wine, which is understandable given the dreadful cash-flow of Barolo itself (more than three years from vintage to release). Not Germano. This wine is purple in color; on the nose it shows blueberry with tar and a hint of flowers, classic dolcetto; on the palate it is big, full-bodied, high in both fruit and tannins. Lorenzino is made entirely in stainless steel tanks. (See general Piedmont notes for more about Dolcetto.) Dolcetto is said to run in the veins of these winemakers, and now it runs in mine too, I drink a lot of it.
BARBERA 'VIGNA DELLA MADRE'
Vigna della Madre is right below Sergio’s house, exposed to the south. The wine is 100% Barbera, macerated for 7-8 days, then aged in barriques for about a year. Beautiful deep color, very good integration of fruit and oak, typical fresh acidity, notes of pomegranate, raspberry, big wine but still very fresh, long. I drink this within the first 5 years or so but I am sure it will go longer in the cellar.
Made from the youngest vines in Germano’s Barolo vineyards (from 3-10 years old), this exalts the fresh, floral side of the Nebbiolo grape; it’s made entirely in stainless steel, with a short maceration on the skins. Perfumed (violet, tobacco-leaf, cinnamon), medium-weight in the mouth, very drinkable. Not all Langhe Nebbiolo is declassified Barolo, this one is. Bottled with a screw-cap for freshness, I love screw-caps.
'The wine is made from hand-picked fruit from young vines (10-20 years old) in the Prapò, Cerretta and Lazzarito vineyards.The wine spends about 20 days in contact with the skins during and after the alcoholic fermentation, the classic winemaking method in our area. After vinification the wine spends about two years in used medium-sized oak barrels of 700L capacity, after which the wine is aged in the bottle for 15-18 months before release.
Tasting notes:brilliant garnet red; aroma of strawberry, cherry, red fruits, pomegranate, rose, violet and licorice. The wine is elegant, powerful, precise and clear in the mouth, the aromas repeating on the palate. Serving suggestions: roast duck and leg of lamb.'
Prapò is a small vineyard, directly below Sergio’s house and cellar. It is exposed to the south and south-east, in contrast to Ceretta, which is exposed to the south-west, and it is 350-370 meters (1,150-1,225 feet) above sea level. The soils of Serralunga are ‘from the Serravallian epoch, with a higher proportion of compressed sandstone, less compact, poorer, and less fertile [than those of Barolo and La Morra]…’ (Oxford Companion to Wine). The oldest vines in Prapò were planted in 1967 by Sergio’s father, with some sections replanted more recently. The vinification is entirely traditional: maceration of at least 30 days, then aged for 24 months in large barrels, not new.
The Barolo from this vineyard is one of my favorites in the whole appellation. It shows aromas and flavors of red-currants, dark chocolate (this is not related to oak, and is a typical Serralunga note, Sergio tells me), sandalwood, true cinnamon, licorice and tar; in structure it is chewy yet still elegant, and it ages incomparably. This is not one of the most famous vineyards in the Barolo appellation but in my book it’s certainly ‘Premier Cru’ quality.
Cerretta has warm south-west exposure, at (350-370 meters (1,150-1,225 feet) above sea level. The Cerretta and Prapò vineyards are are right next to each other, but the difference between the two wines is striking; Cerretta is more structured, shows the Serralunga dark chocolate character even more strongly, with a strong sandalwood/tobacco note; it’s aged in untoasted 700 liter barrels, to allow the wine to develop. Ages superbly.
Although the Barolo region has a very well-defined geography of the best vineyards in the Burgundian model*, there is no Piedmontese classification of Premier Cru and Grand Cru the way there is in Burgundy. If there were, I think it's safe to say that both Cerretta and Prapo (the vineyards around Sergio Germano's house) would be Premier Cru, and Lazzarito, which he added in the early 2000s, would be a Grand Cru. I am happier every year with the wines Sergio makes from Cerretta and Prapò, and happier still when I drink them after ten or more years in the cellar, but Lazzarito has a combination of power, complexity and freshness that makes me weak at the knees. Fully traditional winemaking (long maceration and aging in big barrels) combined with an outstanding vineyard is a fine thing.
In Sergio's words: 'The grapes are harvested into small boxes when fully ripe, but not over-ripe. After going through the crusher-stemmer the wine is fermented for 35-40 days on the skins, then aged for 30 months in barrels of 2,000L. It is released on the market after a further two years. The vineyard is very old (planted in 1931) but still vigorous and in very good health, and it gives a very elegant wine of great power, combining the structure of an outstanding site with the extreme finesse of the Nebbiolo grape. The perfumes of small red fruit combine with the aromas of brown spices and licorice. In the mouth, the entry is fine and elegant, and the wine finishes with sweet tannins, which suggests that it would go well with various red meats or cheese, as well as being a fine accompaniment to the conversation after dinner.'
* Alessandro Masnaghetti has compiled remarkable detailed maps of the major Barolo villages, with each holding shown; I recommend them highly for Barolo geeks