The terrace of Relais San Maurizio, where I am the guest of Michele Chiarlo and family, overlooks a mélange of straight lines, curves, solids, and vaporous outlines that rises and dips toward the distant town of Alba. At once ancient and modern, the 17th-century monastery-turned-hotel provides an ideal spot from which to contemplate the northern Italian region of Piedmont, which has always bridged past and present. During the Roman age, the region served as a portal to the critical provinces of Gaul; and in the wake of the 19th-century uprising known as the Risorgimento, the house of Savoy, which ruled Piedmont from the 11th century, unified all of Italy under Victor Emmanuel II. Today, its three largest cities—Turin, Genoa, and Milan—remain vital centers of Italian industry, culture, and politics. This legacy of history, tradition, and innovation resonates especially with my host, winemaker Michele Chiarlo.
“My father’s families were growers here for seven generations,” he muses. “He was a very important grower who received several awards for his work in viticulture. I started my own small winery in 1956, on my father’s farm in Barbera d’Asti. I learned a lot from my father—he knew the different areas, what would grow and where. But when I went to oenology school in Alba, I began to gradually change our philosophy of making wine.”
A forward-thinking man—but conscious, too, of the past—Chiarlo reflects the Piedmontese taste for the modern and reverence for heritage, qualities that also inform the region’s wines. Measured by the standards of Tuscany to the south, fine winemaking as a commercial concern in Piedmont is of relatively recent origin: The oldest firms, such as Pio Cesare, founded in 1881, are essentially parvenus when compared to the Frescobaldi and Antinori families, whose winemaking careers began in the 1300s. Still, Piedmont has emerged in the last several decades as Italy’s most admired wine-producing area, and the best of the Nebbiolo-based reds from the Barolo and Barbaresco appellations rank among the world’s finest wines. A second red varietal, Barbera—high in acid and low in the tannins required for long-term aging—has received fewer accolades: Until recent years, serious imbibers have classed the Barberas as somewhat unrefined bulk wines.
Michele Chiarlo and his son, winemaker Stefano, have done much to effect the risorgimento of the once-ignored Barbera grape by applying modern methods to the tradition-bound practices of the craft. “To reduce the acidity of the Barbera,” recalls Michele, “we started to gradually introduce malolactic fermentation to our winemaking. It was a great evolution for the grape, producing a wine with more finesse, more balance.”
This evolution occurred in the vineyard as well. “When I began to work with my father in 1990,” says Stefano, “our Barbera had not reached its full potential. It is very important as a winemaker to spend 12 hours a day in the vineyard. Only this way can you understand every meter of our terroir, because the soils are very different.”
The 2001 Barbera d’Asti La Court ($35) exhibits the characteristics of Michele’s native soil, near Calamandrana. Known affectionately by the family as madre di caffè (mother of coffee), its rich vanilla and cherry nose belies its heavily structured flavors of black fruit, cocoa, and coffee.
The Chiarlo family’s Barbarescos and Barolos also showcase their innovative approach to winemaking, halving the traditional maceration time of their Nebbiolo grapes. “For 100 years, we used the French system,” explains Michele. “This required long maceration with the skin, because we believed that in this way we could achieve great longevity. But much of the tannin was of the bitter type, rather than the soft type. So we have reduced the contact.”
Among the numerous Barolos in the family’s portfolio, the wine from the Cerequio vineyard stands out. The massive 1990 vintage should not be missed, nor should the superb 1997 and 1998 vintages. The newly released 2000 Barolo Cerequio ($90) offers ink-dark color, a floral nose laced with spice, and a long, complex palate that runs the gamut from pomegranate to tobacco and bouillon to hints of cumin on the finish. The 2000 Barbaresco Asili ($75) is a particular favorite: Beneath a cool, earthy coating, powerful cherry pulsates, mingling with traces of cocoa, mint, and coffee over a tannic structure that will preserve this wine well into the Chiarlo family’s next generation.