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Fontanafredda: Awakening of a Sleeping Giant?
By Michael Franz
May 21, 2013
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Fontanafredda is a marvelously-situated property in the Barolo commune of Serralunga, initially purchased in 1858 by the King of Italy for a favored mistress named Rosa.  As we know, Kings don’t pass on the best portions when serving themselves, and Fontanafredda’s amazing swath of continuous south-facing vineyards has been a source of deep envy in the broader region for a century and a half.  The same cannot quite be said for the wines, however, as the estate slipped into commercial predictability during a decades-long period of ownership by absentee bankers who are reputed, shockingly enough, to have favored quick returns over long-term attention to quality.

Promise of a renaissance was kindled when the estate was purchased in 2008 by Oscar Farinetti, an Italian businessman who is also the brains and bucks behind Eataly in New York.  Although 2008 doesn’t seem like the best year in which to make a giant real estate purchase, there’s no doubting the long-term value of what he purchased.  Fontanafredda is surely among Europe’s top ten estates in terms of latent potential, and at some point in the future, it seems almost inevitable that all of that potential will be actualized.

The only question is, how long will that take?  I’d say the possible range runs from as few as 5 years to as many as 50, and there are some interesting factors behind that long and uncertain span.

On one hand, the property has aspects that make it look like a supertanker at the outset of a very slow turnaround, making one wonder if Farinetti is aware of economist John Maynard Keynes’ grim reflection that “everyone is dead in the long run.”  Barolo is a very compact, intensively planted wine region, so by Barolo standards,  Fontanafredda’s size at 145 hectares (or 358 acres) is huge.  The estate has vines planted on 110 of them (271 acres), which is likewise supertanker-ish in the context of Barolo production averages.

Tellingly, however, all of those acres are still not enough to supply what Fontanafredda chooses to produce, and fruit is also purchased from roughly 300 growers.  Perhaps I should write, “still chooses to produce,” as the use of all that purchased fruit raises the question of how much Fontanafredda may have changed--or not changed--since the 2008 purchase.

This is an open question in the minds of other vintners in Barolo.  For example, when driving past the estate with another producer, I asked whether local opinion regards Fontanafredda as being on the rise.  His response was, “Everybody knows that it could be our Château Margaux, but it remains geared mostly for supermarkets.”

Undoubtedly a lot of the purchased fruit is bought not solely to increase Barolo production, but rather to supply production of Moscato and Spumante from Asti, which comprise 3 million of the 7.5 millions bottles sold annually.  Nevertheless, the fact that Fontanafredda is still churning out those 3 million bottles underlines--rather than dissolves--the question regarding the depth or superficiality of change at the estate.

On the other hand, it would be badly misleading to suggest that complacent commercialism remains the rule at Fontanafredda.  At the risk of mixing metaphors, the place shows aspects that make it seem it seems more like a thoroughbred being unbridled than a plow horse on a familiar slog.

Case in point:  They claim now to engage only in “sustainable” farming.  Although “sustainable” is a potentially slippery term, Enologist Danilo Drocco was clear enough when explaining what it means at Fontanafredda:  They don’t use chemical fertilizers or pesticides or herbicides or--unless compelled by weather conditions--fungicides.  “Sustainable” is not as dramatic a claim as “organic,” but Drocco was quick to note that some purportedly organic producers also resort to chemical fungicides when confronted with the threat of bunch rot, and that he can find the damning residues of this practice when conducting analyses of their wines in his laboratory.

Moreover, to place this in context, it is more than just proportionally more difficult for large producers to farm sustainably or organically than for small ones.  Additonally, farming sustainably is an expensive practice that one simply wouldn’t bother with--whether large or small--if supermarket sales were the extent of one’s ambitions.

And there’s more.  The house has launched a new line of wines tagged (literally, with tags attached to the neck capsules) “Vino Libero” that are not only produced sustainably, but made with very low sulfur.  In some cases, the wines are totally sulfite free, which is difficult in technical terms.  Those of you with sulfite allergies need to be a bit careful before diving into these wines, since some of them (e.g., 2012 Langhe Rosso “GiÀ,” a blend of Dolcetto, Barbera and Nebbiolo) are sulfite-free in Italy but not in the USA, on account of stability concerns connected with shipping.  Nevertheless, we can say again:  This is simply not a direction taken by a producer without lofty aspirations.

Finally, I should emphasize two other findings from last week’s visit.  First, excellence at Fontanfredda is not merely a possibility to be speculated upon in the future tense.  Some of the current releases are outstanding accomplishments as things stand, and those who may have dismissed the house would do well to reconsider.  For example, Gavi di Gavi 2012 is extremely impressive, and Roero Arneis “Pradalupo” 2012 is nearly as good.  The aforementioned blend “GiÀ” is very convincing, and the bottle I tasted was the sulfite-free rendition for the Italian market.  It is no mere publicity stunt.  Fontanafredda has taken sulfite levels in all of their wines down to below 50% of what the law would allow them to use, and “GiÀ” shows them continuing to push the envelope with an innovative technique using dry ice during vinification to displace air and prevent oxidation.

As for the Barolo wines, 2009 Barolo Serralunga is a very well made wine from a difficult vintage, one that can hold its own against much more expensive 2009s made in much smaller quantities.  The 2008 single vinyard Barolo “La Rosa” is downright gorgeous, showing lovely floral and savory aromas, beautiful balance, fresh acidity and soft tannins, and an admirably persistent finish.  Scored at 93 in the middle of a week when I tasted more than 250 young wines from Barolo, I may have underscored it, and look forward to trying it again soon.

The second thing I should say in closing is based on older wines tasted during my visit.  Fontanfredda’s extraordinary potential is demonstrated quite clearly by the currently striking performance of wines made from the estate’s lustrous vineyards under the former, lackluster regime.  The 1999 Barolo “La Rosa” (94) is fantastic, showing soaring aromas of saddle leather, fresh flowers and dried cherries, with wonderful savory accents and sturdy primary fruit that still lends a touch of sweetness to the finish.  The 1996 “La Rosa” (94+) is even better, and is still not fully developed, showing the potential to improve for another full decade.

The Riserva from 2000 (a good but not great vintage) scored abreast of these at 94, with superb aromas recalling both fresh and cured meat, along with floral and savory accents and a delectably sweet finish.  The 1982 Riserva (97) was an indisputably great wine--the best bottle of anything I’ve tasted to date this year, and one of the two best 30+ year-old Barolos I’ve ever been fortunate enough to try.  Believe it or not, Fontanafredda still has this wine to sell.  A bottle of it was sitting in the shop adjacent to the tasting room, which was remarkable enough, but they just sold 600 bottles of it to the Swedish Monopoly, and they’ve still got commercial quantities left to sell.

That should tell you something about the coiled power--both qualitative and commercial--that is stored up in this remarkable estate.  Truly blessed vineyards have a way of asserting themselves…even when they aren’t fully respected.  Now that there are signs of renewed seriousness at Fontanafredda, I suspect it is only a matter of time before its top wines claim their place at the pinnacle of Barolo excellence.