A Conversation with Domenico Clerico

Few producers’ wines have given me as much pleasure over the years as those of Domenico Clerico. Based in Monforte, Clerico has been turning out spectacular Barolos since the mid-1980s. I find a spirituality and character in these wines that puts them in a class with few peers. Although a visit to Clerico’s cellar is always at the top of my list of things to do when I visit Piedmont, on this evening we sat down at La Pizza Fresca in New York’s Flatiron District. I brought bottles of the1989 and 1990 Ciabot Mentin Ginestra that we tasted over several hours. Clerico is one of Piedmont’s most passionate vignerons and is blessed with a talent for telling a good story. As expected, the conversation was lively and punctuated by a healthy dose of humor.

Antonio Galloni: Thanks for taking the time to sit down and talk about the wines.

Domenico Clerico: It’s good to be back in New York, the energy in this market is so invigorating. I wasn’t sure I would make the trip because I hadn’t been feeling great, but I am glad I came. Perhaps over the years I’ve made the mistake of not coming to the US enough. I still believe in our domestic Italian market but New York really has a level of passion and enthusiasm that is its own.

AG: How did you get interested in making wine?

DC: My father had some property when I was growing up, although it was nothing special. He made a little wine, but it was for domestic consumption. Even though it wasn’t that long ago, those were very different times. The 1960s and 1970s were an incredibly depressed period in Piedmont. No one had any money and young people left the countryside in droves to work in the cities. My father tells me Monforte was hit by hail nine years in a row. I reply that if we had severe damage from hail two years in a row today we would be ruined (laughs)!  Agriculture was mixed and it was normal for growers to farm an assorted variety of crops. Times were hard but we always seemed to get by. During the 1970s a lot of Nebbiolo vines were ripped out in favor of Dolcetto, which was much easier to sell.

I started a small business selling olive oil. For a year I lived out of a truck trying to sell that oil. My father wasn’t doing so well, so in 1979 I came back home. I bought a small plot in Bussia and made my first Barolo, called Briccotto Bussia. The total production was 1,300 bottles.

In 1981 I bought 3.3 hectares in Ginestra. The property was owned by two brothers, Fiore and Mentin. Fiore was businesslike while Mentin was much more boisterous. He could always be found at the local bar telling tall tales about his heroic exploits as a fighter pilot during the war. Needless to say I found him much more agreeable (laughs). I named my Barolo after Mentin and the house that sits in the vineyard, which we call ciabot in Piedmontese dialect.

In 1982 the price of grapes shot through the roof to 1,200 lire a kilo, an unheard of sum at the time. The boom was short lived though, as 1983 was an abundant vintage and the price went all the way down to 700 lire a kilo. The market took off again in 1988 and the price of Nebbiolo fruit reached 10,000 lire a kilo. That was the turning point. A lot of people took a bath on the vintage because they couldn’t sell their wines for a profit based on what they had paid for the fruit. I give a lot of credit to the historic firms like Borgogno, Giacosa and Conterno because they had the business savvy to market and sell Barolo during a very difficult period when most growers struggled just to pay the bills. There were just a small handful of estates with that kind of commercial success, and naturally they had the power to cherry-pick the best fruit. By 1989 and 1990 demand for Nebbiolo was so high you couldn’t find decent fruit to buy no matter the price. That’s when a lot of producers realized that the only way they could survive over the long-term was by owning their own vineyards and estate-bottling wines. In 2001 I bought another 5.4 hectares in Ginestra.

Pajana came about totally by accident. In 1988 or 1989 a piece of land became available in Le Coste, which is where some of the earliest Monfortinos were made. I made an offer slightly under the asking price on the vineyard, but I waited until the next morning to hear from the owner. In the meantime a wealthy family stepped in and paid the full asking price. My father was furious, and reprimanded me for not being more assertive. To this day he reminds me that when you want something in life you have to move decisively. So my father set out to find another vineyard for me and he came back with Pajana.

In 1995 I bought a plot in Mosconi. After my daughter passed away Elio Grasso was one of the people who stayed very close to me. One day he called me up and told me that an excellent plot within Mosconi was coming up for sale, and that if I wanted it I would have to act quickly. It was now or never, he said. The only catch was that the owner did not want to sell to someone from Monforte. So I convinced Giorgio Rivetti to buy the piece of land, and the next day he signed the title over to me (laughs)!

AG: What was your approach when you started out?

DC: My early wines were made with very rudimentary tools. I had no cellar at the time, just a couple of fermentation tanks in a shack outside the house. There was a man in Monforte who sold reconditioned casks that had originally been used in Germany to make beer. I aged my first few vintages of Barolo in these medium-sized Slavonian oak casks.

In 1985 I began using 700-liter tonneaux for a portion of Ciabot Mentin Ginestra. By 1990 I had moved to using only tonneaux for Ciabot. That year I also released my first vintage of Pajana, which was the first Barolo I aged entirely in barrique. In subsequent vintages I switched to 100% barriques for all my Barolos, but that was mostly for practical purposes. The larger 700-liter tonneaux were always very difficult to keep clean so at that point the choices were to go back to casks or start using the smaller French oak barrels. Our approach in the vineyard also evolved quite a bit during those early years, but it wasn’t until1988 that we started green-harvesting to lower yields.

Initially we used equal amounts of new and used French oak barrels after which we took the percentage of new oak up to 100%. Looking back, we may have exaggerated a bit. We were also very young at the beginning. I doubt we were being sold the finest oak available, but we didn’t know any better. With my 2005 Barolos I have brought the amount of new barrels down to 35-40% as I don’t want to taste oak in my wines. Ultimately I don’t think the size of barrel is as important as is commonly believed.  After ten or so years of bottle age it is often difficult to tell wines that have been aged in cask from those that have been aged in barrique. I think toast levels, and most importantly, the quality and seasoning of the oak are far more determinant factors. From 1995 to 1998 Percristina was aged in smaller barrels called “cigarillos” but beginning in 1999 it is aged in barrique.

Over the years I have also gradually lengthened maceration times from the 5-8 days I used to do when I started working with rotary fermenters in 1993. In 2006 my Barolos saw 18 days of maceration. In 2006 I also have a new Barolo I am making from purchased fruit in Serralunga that saw 23 days of maceration. I am very curious to see how that wine develops.

AG: What was the mood like in the early days?

DC: I remember when we just starting out in the 1980s. It was a beautiful time. There was much less competition among producers, we were all starting from nothing and learning from each other. Sandrone had the benefit of working at Marchesi di Barolo and Scavino knew a little, but that was about it. We all had so much ambition and energy. We were a tight-knit group of producers that also included Guido Fantino, Elio Altare, Roberto Voerzio, Marco Parusso and Giorgio Rivetti. 1989 was a great vintage for Marco (Parusso), and of course Sandrone’s 1990s remain among his finest wines. Looking back, if we made a mistake it’s that we tended to taste mostly each other’s wines as opposed to including those of more traditional producers like Bruno Giacosa.

AG: Have you had any wines recently that made an impression?

DC: A group of us had a magnum of the 1999 Monfortino recently, and it was spectacular. I remember the night when Aldo and Giovanni divided the estate, I was waiting tables at Felicin. Giovanni was a great man, and his son Roberto has just as much character, if not more. He has made his estate even more famous, and he’s done it by focusing on just three wines. That is a sign of greatness.

Giovanni (Conterno) had a great heart. I used to take people to visit his winery and he never let his guests leave without a bottle of wine, and I’m not talking about Dolcetto. It was either Cascina Francia or Monfortino. He loved having people in the cellar. Giovanni treated everyone the same, and could often be found in the piazza chatting with the locals. He was a huge source of inspiration to us younger producers.

AG: Who do you think is especially promising among today’s younger generation?

DC: I think Luca Roagna is doing wonderful things at his family’s estate and that he is going to bring the winery back to the high level of prestige it deserves.

AG: What’s your take on recent vintages?

DC: It is virtually impossible to predict how Nebbiolo will evolve. If you look at 1996, it was a fairly cool growing season. The grapes didn’t have the high sugar readings that we had in 1997 and 1998. It wasn’t until we started fermenting the fruit and saw the richness of the color that we started to understand the potential that these wines might have. Of course today everyone knows 1996 is a great vintage, but that wasn’t the case back then. In many ways I believe that with Nebbiolo the maturation of the tannins is more important than the maturation of the sugars. I find that 2001 is more elegant than the larger-scaled 1999s, but ultimately it is the vineyard that gives birth to those qualities. What we do in the cellar can only help to a very limited extent. In terms of current vintages, 2003 was certainly not ideal for Nebbiolo. The youngest plants suffered the most under the intense heat, but if you looked at the older plants, they held up pretty well. At the same time, I am pleasantly surprised because I didn’t think the wines would turn out to have the balance they have. The wines are likely to age a little faster and they will probably always have a firmer tannic structure. I am very excited about 2004. The weather was ideal and gave us the cool nights that are so critical to insure the gradual ripening that is essential for balanced wines. The wines have great color, beautiful aromatics and the structure to develop and gain complexity for many years.

AG: What do you think about the 1989 and 1990 Ciabot Mentin Ginestras?

DC: I have a preference for the 1990. I find licorice notes in my 1989 that I tend to associate with more oxidized and advanced wines. 1989 was a great vintage, but we harvested very late and the fruit was slightly over-ripe. That’s why the 1989 doesn’t quite have as much brilliance of color as the 1990. Yields were very low and the skins were so thick they were almost crunchy. In 1990 the fruit wasn’t as beautiful as 1989 but we probably timed the harvest better and today the wine is still fresh and vibrant, with very healthy color. If I could have all of my wines turn out like the 1990 Ciabot I would be thrilled!

Editors Note: I thought both wines were stunning. The 1990 was completely seductive in its soaring aromatics and rich expression of fruit. Still very primary, well-stored bottles of the 1990 Ciabot Mentin Ginestra will provide highly pleasurable drinking for many years to come. The 1989 was also very beautiful in a more linear and nuanced style, although it didn’t quite have the balance or freshness of the 1990. It was fascinating to follow the evolution of these great Barolos over the course of several hours. I scored the wines 96 and 95 points respectively.

—Antonio Galloni