Thursday, June 9, 2011

Renato Ratti and single-vineyard Barolo

Pietro Ratti
Pietro Ratti's father Renato, a pioneer in Barolo, never pestered his son to work with him.

"My father always said, 'Have fun. Enjoy your life. Sooner or later you'll come to work'," Pietro said. "He didn't expect it would be so early."

Unlike almost every other Barolo producer at the time, Renato Ratti was not born into the industry, and thus didn't inherit any vineyards. His father was a veterinarian; his grandfather was a doctor.

"It was an isolated area, very traditional," Pietro Ratti said. "They were not changing anything. My father arrived here with opportunity and clear ideas. People were sleeping."

Renato Ratti followed a different Italian tradition: leaving a depressed country in 1955 for employment. He got a job at age 21 in Brazil, making Vermouth for Cinzano (see the video below). He spent the next 10 years learning about South American wine, which he needed to know well as the base for Vermouth. By age 31 he had decided he could go back home and do a better job with Barolo than his former neighbors.

Renato Ratti
"Living in a country as big as Brazil, it opened his eyes," Pietro Ratti said. "When you live in a small country like Italy, it closes your eyes."

When Renato returned, he was driving around the area when he spied a 13th century abbey in an undeveloped area. "He thought, if the monks built the abbey, it must be a nice spot," Pietro said. He bought the 1 1/2-acre Marcenasco vineyard below the abbey from an old man who lived next door, and rented the abbey from the village of Annunziata to use as his winery.

Renato's first innovation was to make a single-vineyard Barolo. Previously all Barolos had been blended.

"My father said, if I just make a Barolo, nobody will buy it," Pietro said.

Fast forward two decades to the mid-1980s, and Renato Ratti, the upstart without tradition, had become head of the Barolo Association. He was one of the most respected producers in the region. His son Pietro assumed he take over the winery one day, so he went to wine school in nearby Alba. "My father wanted me to go to (UC) Davis," he says.

Pietro Ratti turned 20 in 1988 and assumed he still had time to spend learning from his father. But he didn't. Renato died and, with no other family members ready to take over, Pietro was suddenly in charge. He never did make it to Davis.

"The good thing is, when you start young, it takes time, but you get experience," he said. "The only problem is, making wine and growing grapes is something where you need to be patient. When you're young, it's difficult to be patient."

Pietro built this winery with a "green" roof, against Barolo's rules at the time.
Whereas Renato had taught the locals some things with his new ideas about vinification -- and marketing -- Pietro had to do more listening. "Winemaking is something you learn," he says. "To learn to grow grapes, it takes generations."

Soon he would have to learn the hard way, ironically because of his father. For centuries Barolo grapegrowers sold their fruit to large producers who bottled it all together. The success of Renato Ratti's single-vineyard Barolos meant everybody wanted to do one; grape sources dried up in the '90s. With the money they inherited, Pietro and his brother went on a vineyard-buying spree.

"Today we have about 100 acres," he says. "Once you start buying vineyards it's hard to stop."

Pietro does some interesting things in the winery. He uses horizontal "roto tanks" with paddles inside to gently break up the cap of skins that form on the surface. The look more like big wine barrels resting on their side than fermentation tanks.

Pietro also has an eye on ancient practices. The grapes are picked by hand with cotton gloves so as to not touch the skins, because the winery tries to use only natural yeast. He is not biodynamic, but he bottles only on the full moon, and tries to avoid taking any major steps on the new moon.

It's impossible to compare Pietro's Barolos to those of his father; his early years most likely weren't as good, but he's been at it now for more than 20 years himself, and he has really hit his stride. It's no coincidence that Pietro, like his father, is currently serving as president of the Barolo vintners' association. When the history of Barolo is told hundreds of years from now, nobody will remember that the Rattis used to be doctors.

Tasting notes

Renato Ratti Marcenasco Barolo 2007 ($45)
Rating: 92
14.5% alcohol
Light bodied but serious, this blend of grapes from different vineyards is much more approachable than Ratti's single-vineyard wines. It's elegant, with ripe red plum fruit and floral notes that come through subtly on the finish. Nice tannic structure that is present but not assertive. There's a hint of tobacco in the aroma, along with some dried flowers. You could drink this today without regret. The 2006 vintage of this wine was Wine Enthusiast's Wine of the Year. This vintage isn't as ripe, but it's easier to find and should age beautifully. 4000 cases

Renato Ratti Conca Barolo 2007 ($65)
15% alcohol
Rating: 89
This wine needs more time. But it's promising: A light-bodied but not lightly flavored wine with fresh and dried red plum and hints of red licorice. Quite tannic on the finish. 250 cases

Renato Ratti Rocche Barolo 2007 ($80)
14.5% alcohol
Rating: 93
Intense and complex, with plenty of tannins that could use a couple of years, but the promise is evident. The aroma reminds me of Cinzano, with the spiciness and also the bitters (in the good sense). The palate also has some herbs behind the red and black plum fruit, and notes of dried flowers on the finish. I'd like to try this again in five years. There's a really pleasant dried plum aftertaste. 750 cases

Renato Ratti Rocche Barolo 2006
Rating: 91
A riper vintage leads to an already quite evolved nose: complex and pretty, with dried plum, sun-dried tomatoes, and plenty of dried flowers. Lighter bodied than the '07, and it doesn't seem tannic at first, but you notice the tannins building up on your tongue like sludge on a river delta. I could keep smelling this, but it's not ready to drink yet.

Renato Ratti Rocche Barolo 2005
Rating: 84
I loved the Marcenasco from this vintage but not the single-vineyard Rocche. I think it's bretty, and 6 tasters disagreed with me, so maybe I'm crazy. But if it's not brett, there's something on the nose that smells like dirt and dominates the dried plums that the other vintages show. The palate doesn't have such a problem: it has red plum fruit and tannins. But I can't get past a nose I don't like.

Renato Ratti Rocche Barolo 2004
Rating: 91
Drinking this feels like robbing the cradle: it's lovely on the nose, but the tannins could use at least 5 years and maybe 10. What you get right now are crushed red plum flavors with some sun-dried tomato. Let it gather some dust in your cellar.

Renato Ratti "I Cedri Di Villa Pattano" Monferrato Bianco 2009 ($24)
Rating: 94
This barrel-fermented 100% Sauvignon Blanc wine is a surprise from the Barolo region, where Cortese is the usual grape. Pietro Ratti says, "I bought Cortese for a couple vintages from a neighbor, but we didn't get interesting results. So we decided to plant some Sauvignon. It's more interesting." Agreed. The wine spend a year on its lees, and while you can tell it's barrel-fermented from the spreading mouthfeel, you would never guess that 50% of the barrels are new. "In the beginning I did just stainless steel tanks," Pietro said. "But it wasn't interesting enough. It's better to do the fermentation in barrels just to get other flavors." Notice how often he says "interesting"? And it is -- an excellent blend of crisp entry and broad finish, with dried citrus fruits and minerality and no noticeable herbaceousness. "I didn't put Sauvignon on the label because it doesn't taste like classic Sauvignon," Pietro says. "It's more Piemonte."

1 comment:

Maciek Gontarz said...

Really great story. That's a pity it's impossible to write such a story when tasting and rating particular wine:/