Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Tastes of the Langhe Hills chez Vajra

The Langhe Hills

Aldo and his daughter

I thought I knew all about acidity in young wines, as someone hardened in the school of Champagne vins clairs tasted each February in glacial Marnais cellars. But I wasn't quite prepared for the dense impenetrable acids and tannins of 2008 Grand Barolos and Barbarescos  at this month's Nebbiolo Prima in Alba. It was, nevertheless,  a fascinating new learning curve;  five days and 300 wines + later, an impression formed in my mind of the different tastes of the Albese, village by village,  parcel by parcel, every 500 metres. I began to feel at home- this was the same wine ethos as the Cote d'Or.

There is though a problem of perception for these potentially great wines: sadly, fewer and fewer wine consumers have the patience or the inclination to wait 10 to 12 years for an uncompromising classic Barolo to shed  its sinewy character and reach its prime. Fortunately, Piedmont in general and the Albese in particular has one of  the most varied wine cultures in Italy. So I made my way to a benchmark domaine, where as elegant and distinguished a Barolo as anyone's is made by the gentlemanly Aldo Vajra - in manner and gentle courtesy, he reminds me of Aubert de Villaine of the Domaine de la Romanee Conti. Like Aubert, Aldo is a thinking man with the same broadness of vision to know that his homeland has so much more to offer than one great wine from one great grape in a priviledged Grand Cru site." here we don't makes wines for competitions but to be drunk with the greatest pleasure at the right moment in their lives," says Aldo.

This year will be Aldo's fortieth harvest since he returned from university to the family vineyards, centered on the hamlet of Vergne, on higher slopes above the commune of Barolo in the lee of the Alps. The great strengths of these privileged sites are the deep roots of soils, formed a million years ago as a mosaic of white calcareous marls called Sant'Agata . "They bind our family to this land." comments Aldo, with quiet conviction. The decision of which vines to plant where absorbs him as keenly now as when he started in 1972. Barolo, Barbera, Dolcetto,and the ancient cepage Langa Freisa - all have their natural nursery and home in ideally chosen  plots.

After the robust tannins of the morning's prima tastings in Alba, it was an invigorating delight to taste Vajra's Rhine Riesling ("so much better than its Italico cousin") from a small vineyard that is a tribute and commitment to the great German grape: all peaches and apricots  shaped by the Albese soils, which also give the wine an added touch of minerality. I was also taken by the very classy Barbera d'Alba Superiore from Aldo's top vineyard,  Bricco della Viole  ( 'the hill of violets') in 2008. with its exceptional soft gentleness and a texture like cashmere. If you want a taste of junior Barolo that is friendly on the purse and palate try Vajra's Langhe Nebbiolo from young vines in the communes of Sino and Barolo itself; and for the real thing at a realistic price, Barolo Albese from a blend of La Volta, Fossati and Coste de Vergne vineyards gives exemplary balance and early drinking pleasure for a plate of homemade taglionini with mushrooms. These last two wines are also 2008s, but such is the light touch in the winemaking that they are absolutely ready. Vajra's top vineyard wine, the 2007 Barolo Bricco delle Viole needed that extra time to show its  paces but will develop further complexities over the next decade, in a filigreed finely textured style that is inimitably "Aldo Vajra." Bravo!

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