Gone Vajra in Piemonte

Stained Glass Window by Padre Costantino Ruggeri and Vajra’s Inox Tanks

Head west from the village of Barolo, climb the SP3 up to 400 metres above sea level and you will arrive in Vergne, the highest village of the regal Piedmontese appellation. This is where the most forward thinking, visionary and traditionally romantic estate of G. D. Vajra is found. Vajra is the house that Aldo and Milena Vaira built, are in the continued process of building (literally) and produce wines along with their children, Francesca, Giuseppe and Isidoro. On a recent December 2019 trip to Piemonte I drove down the A33 from Asti through Alba, skirted Barolo up the SP3 to spend a few hours with Isidoro and Francesca Vaira on a soggy Sunday morning. Vajra’s wines have been trending big time, gaining ground, rising in prominence and spreading fast. I knew it was time to find out why things have gone Vajra.

Family, roots and vineyards. Having talked and tasted with Francesca and Isidoro @vajra_barolo there can be no doubt many words and feelings will follow. Their’s is a story of resilience and constant renewal.

If you engage in obsessive study or even share a casual interest in religious iconography and emblematic ordnance then the term Vajra will no doubt be recognizable. Vajra, a symbolic ritual tool or object used in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism to represent the unyielding power of spirit. Vajra, the symbol of the Vajrayāna school of Buddhism, a type of club with a ribbed spherical head, the “diamond thunderbolt.” The family may not adhere to the far eastern credo or for that matter even mention any possibility of connection, but a listen to their story and a study of their life’s work can be looked at in the emblematic light of ideals relating to indestructibility and irresistible force. An explanation is forthcoming and in due course.

Dude’s getting married next week. No wonder Isidoro Vaira is a happy man.

It’s only one week before his wedding and Isidoro generously takes the time to meet. He begins with a winter’s tale, extolling the virtues of snow cover, which incidentally arrived to the slopes in December and early January, then subsequently disappeared for the remainder of the mild 2020 winter. The Piedmontese saying goes like this. Sotto la neve, il pane, orunder the snow, the bread.” Snow is better than water because it holds more oxygen and encourages the plants to draw more nutrients from the soil. This is an example of generational knowledge because as Isidoro reminds us, when you spend time with your father and the elders “you learn the importance of nature.”

sotto la neve, il pane

under the snow, the bread

Aldo Vaira began this six decades old journey in 1970 with a 0.3 hectare plot at Bricco Viole. The first vintage was 1972, of no ripeness and fruit sold away. He thought “with this money I don’t pay for my work,” and so began to bottle for himself. By 1986 Aldo was farming seven hectares but on the 29th of May the storm of the century killed everything, save for 300 bottles worth of fruit. He was in his mid-30s, with one child already born and two more to come over the next four years. It was what we call the point of calling it quits or forging ahead with no turning back. Milena stepped up, in fortitude, conviction and an ultimatum issued to her husband. Aldo responded, made a life decision and ploughed ahead.

The Vairas began anew, hailstorms occurring five to seven times each decade be damned and dug their heels into the Vergne terra firma.  With experience as a teacher and having built a winery Aldo became affectionately known as Dutur, a dialectical Piedmontese term of endearment which could allude to the word doctor but also as a part of the Italian word for producer, or produttore. Francesca tells me that 1986 is the vintage form which “you could have (or begin) your dream, by being resilient, persistent and move forward.” She shrugs. “It had to be a priority.” And so from 1986 on the Viaras completely changed direction and course.

Thirty-three years have beget great success. Francesca explains the impetuses for how her family goes about their lives. “What we have learned from our parents is not just life and to make wine but a social motivation to have the life of the people. Imagine a life without these things; music, art, books and wine. It’s not possible.” The goal is to make connections. “We need to make wine to make people happy. Our prices are very democratic.” There are always new considerations, like the “diversification of risk” and it has become the ingrained philosophy, in terms of wines and varieties but also the idea of a two-month long picking time. Always diversity, all the time. One step inside the winery and the light shines in. The stained glass windows that adorn the fermentation room are a reflection of everything that is embodied by the Vajra oeuvre.

They hang in their stark and prolate ways as a severe yet arrant contrast to the line of steel tanks below. When Aldo and Milena went to visit the artist at Canepanova Convent in Pavia he answered the door dressed as a Franciscan Monk with a blue hat. A crazy man in a crazy beautiful studio. Padre Costantino Ruggeri was in fact a real monk, ordained a priest in 1951 by Cardinal Schuster in the Cathedral of Milan. That meeting yielded no conclusion for a commission, or so thought the Vairas, that is until the Father showed up with the first installation, in 1989. He was given no instruction or direction. The rest as they say is history and the works are nothing short of magnificent. They succeed, in Ruggeri’s words, “in that moment of light and mystery the stained glass window captures (the infinite) and introduces it naturally into the temple, as a total dimension that is divine as well as human.” The metal that holds the glass is effected a piombo, aplomb, vertical, exact. No two pieces are the same.

What congruence links a Ruggeri stained glass to other masterpieces of art? Gazing upon the padre’s windows elicits a feeling of consonance and beauty is easy to find. They are arranged exactly as they should be, that much is clear. Their power is felt because of their interaction with their cold and utilitarian surroundings. They hold our gaze and work together with us, inexplicably and without reservation. Their universal appeal transfers energy, pivots, solicits our personal and singular nature so that we share in their consonant form.

On June 24th 2007, his last sculptural work representing “Franciacorta’s Facets” was presented in Adro, his birthplace. On the following day, June 25th 2007, Costantino died at the hospital of Merate, near the convent of Sabbianello, where he had spent the last weeks of his life. The spirit of his work carries on at Vajra where 160 different fermentations are carried out because explains Francesca “harvest is the only time of year when you can really learn. If you have to ask for permission then you are not a true artist.” Just like Father Costantino who created without asking.

“Always think of the cherry. The grapes will follow,” reminds Isidoro. Organics. Methodologies. Patience. Picking decisions are made day by day, by brother Giuseppe and by Aldo. For them 2018 was a great nebbiolo vintage, of cold nights and warm days with humidity. The high risk of rainstorms at harvest made for some sleepless nights and the weather was tough on the skins of the grapes. So 100 pickers were employed, to ensure quality but Vajra’s altitude and attitude makes them one of the last to pick so the harvesters were available. They finished on October 22nd and in 2019 on the 23rd. 

On that day in December Francesca poured seven of her family’s wines, including riesling, dolcetto, freisa, barbera and nebbiolo. These are my notes.

G.D. Vajra Riesling Pétracine 2018, Langhe DOC ($55.95)

The law changed to be able to plant in 1985 and a new opportunity arose in 2018 for a vineyard with sandy soil beneath the clay. Going back the first planting came from a Geisenheim clonal selection and planted at the top of the hill above the cru Fossati. The second vineyard is from Marcel Deiss clonal selection material, just outside the Barolo production area. Here a combination of the two, and the first wine that got together was 2011. There’s weight, energy and balance to this riesling and it is so very real. Remarkable verve and youthful freshness and the impression of great aridity. It is in fact quite dry. Drink 2021-2029.  Tasted December 2019

G.D. Vajra Coste & Fossati 2018, Dolcetto d’Alba DOC ($31.95)

From two old cru Barolo vineyards, Coste di Vergne and Fossati, close by to one another at the top of their shared hill. De-stemmed and crushed separately, of vines 40 years in age. If there is dolcetto that carries the structure to age you best believe this is the one. Tannic in its youth, a house with the potential to grow roses in one year and then violets in another. Modern and grounded, better with fresh eggs and delicate proteins, certainly the romantic tartufo Piemondtese. Already teasing something floral but still in a shell and cast under a spell. Wait two years or more. Drink 2021-2027.  Tasted December 2019

G.D. Vajra Barbera d’Alba DOC 2017 ($31.95)

Like the dolcetto, barbera is drawn off of two vineyards with tow soil types, from Bricco delle Viole and in Serralunga d’Alba, Bricco Bertone. An east-west expression, at once rich and luxurious and then inward, implosive and almost intolerant. Could only be barbera with its sweet fruit and dark berry compote but it’s a variety that needs time, it needs the bottle and then, the glass. Somehow bright through all the dark fruit, like the singular stained glass that allows light to shine in.  Drink 2022-2028.  Tasted December 2019

G.D. Vajra Kyè 2015, Freisa Langhe DOC ($60.95)

Like the French “C’est qui?” this dialectical freisa is actually two syllables, key-eh, and you cannot define this wine with anything or any other freisa. Darker, woolly and a bit of wild, feral and animale beauty. Like somewhere between red Sancerre and Faugères but bigger, more power and also more control. Herbaceous, iron-clad and hematic. Mimics blood-red preparations of proteins; duck breasts, rack of lamb, venison. Also Rhône-ish and laying somewhere between barbera and nebbiolo. Make your head spin with comparisons when none are correct. There is evidence of climatic cut and biodynamic preparations. Earthy, rich and poignant. Drink 2022-2029.  Tasted December 2019

G.D. Vajra Langhe Nebbiolo DOC 2018 ($34.95)

The Baroli are made from vines minimum 10 years old and the younger vines are used for this Langhe, which includes fruit from Bricco Bertone just outside the territory. Creeps up with its structure, nothing powerful or demanding but nebbiolo architecture nonetheless. Cherries, pencil lead and mountain herbs. Keeps the vineyard faith and accumulates even as it opens which tells us it is also youthfully closed. The potential is two years and thence forth. Tasted from two bottles opened a day apart, the first ready and willing, the second yes at first and then making a request for time. Drink 2022-2030.  Tasted December 2019

G.D. Vajra Barolo DOCG Coste Di Rose 2015 ($101.95)

A very sandy decomposed peculiar site and soil type rich in Arenaria (sandstone) with the presence of sandstone rocks of quite decent size. The first vintage is this 2015 and from vines 30 years old going up the hill from Bussia. Delivers very pretty fruit of sneaky structure and intent. The rose floral gift of a vineyard, part apposite and part complimentary to Bricco delle Viole. It’s a ventilated place translating to a great freshness in the wine. Drink 2021-2029.  Tasted December 2019

G.D. Vajra Barolo DOCG Bricco delle Viole 2015 ($113.95)

An about face in style and character with more dimensions accessed and so many aromatics acquiesced. Vines are 40-80 years old and the handling involves a diversification of treatments; longer maceration and fermentation, up to 45-60 days. A tight, compact and fine-grained construct with so much taken from the beneficial skins and the assistance of a submerged cap (a merso) during that fermentation (in stainless steel), followed by at least 24 months in large casks, some 25hL and some 50 hL. Some tonneaux but just as an addendum. Such a tactile nebbiolo, fruit of presence and intricacy out of a Cru that is felt as much as it is nosed or tasted. It’s not just a matter of nebbiolo and Barolo but a thing of great importance, mainly tradition and family. Drink 2023-2034.  Tasted December 2019

Good to go!

godello

Stained Glass and Inox Tanks

Twitter: @mgodello

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A Sordo affair

Sordo – I Fantastici 8 Crus di Barolo 2013

On Thursday, July 13, 2017 an event dedicated to  the “Fantastic 8 cru of Barolo 2013” was held at the farm of Giorgio Sordo. The program included a guided visit to the historic part of the 1912 cellar, the modern 2016 cellar and a tasting of Sordo’s eight Crus di Barolo, attended by experts, opinion leaders, sommeliers, influencers and journalists from all over the world. Senior Sordo Enologist Ernesto Minasso introduced the Sordo terroir and then Ian D’Agata took over, Scientific Director of Vinitaly and the Wine Project of the Collisioni Festival. The teachings of (Armando) Cordero were invoked, in discussion of respect for what each site can deliver, in working them exactly the same way, so that what you are left with is a true sense of each site, to recall an Ontario “climat” terminology, a Barolo somewhereness if you will, tells Mr. D’Agata. Sitting there, listening to these introductions and pronouncements, self says to self  “let’s see about these things.” A dinner followed, prepared at the hands of Chef Danilo Lorusso of La Crota di Roddi.

The two soil epochs of Barolo are divided by a diagonal line that runs from the northeast down to the southwest, drawn between Roddi and Grinzane through Castiglione Falletto down through Barolo and to Novello. The appellation’s two soil types are Tortonian and Serravallian (or Helvetian), both of which were formed millions of years ago and each are responsible for producing different styles of nebbiolo. La Morra and Barolo to the west are lands less compact and more fertile and the general consensus puts these nebbioli in the realms of the elegant and more (relatively) amenable. In and around Serralunga d’Alba, Monforte and Castiglione Falletto, the Serravallian is marked by dense, compact marl and the Barolo there tends to greater body and alcohol, ideal for a potential to longer aging.

La Morra’s famous cru include Arborina, Brunate, Cerequio, Gattera, Gianchi, Marcenasco and Rocche dell’Annunziata. Barolo’s are Bricco Viole, Brunate, Cannubi, Cannubi Boschis, Sarmassa, Via Nuova, Rue and San Lorenz0. In Castiglione Falletto there are Bricco Rocche, Villero, Monprivato, Fiasc, Mariondino, Pira and Ravera. In Serralunga d’Alba the Cru include Falletto, Francia, Marenca, Vigna Rionda, Marenca-Rivette, La Serra, Margheria, Ornato and Parafada. Monforte d’Alba holds the vineyards of Bussia, Cicala, Colonnello, Dardi, Ginestra, Mosconi, Munie, Romirasco and Santo Stefano.

The official recognition of the DOC Barolo happened in 1966 and the DOCG followed, in 1980. The grape variety is 100 per cent nebbiolo in a production zone covering the entire township of three villages; Barolo, Serralunga d’Alba and Castiglione Falletto, plus part of the territory of eight other small townships.  Sordo’s excellent eight are what the parlance of Barolo times would refer to as “sorì”, or Menzione Geografica Aggiuntiva (MGA), or individual vineyard names. There are more than 100 officially recognized MGAs in Barolo.

Sordo’s eight cru are spread across 53 hectares, 80 per cent cultivated to nebbiolo, plus dolcetto, barbera, arneis, chardonnay, viognier and sauvignon blanc. The total production is 350,000 bottles, with vineyards subsidized by grass and ground cover between the rows. No chemicals though sulphur is used, with stainless steel ferments, élevage in large Slavonian oak casks, further time in bottle of six months, 36 for riserva. The vintage 2013 saw a warm, dry winter, above average in that regard, a cold March, rainy spring, warm summer and dry fall. A 15 day harvest was executed across October. Here are the notes on the eight 2013 cru plus three extras poured with dinner.

Sordo Barolo Monvigliero 2013, DOCG Piemonte, Italy (459677, $47.95, WineAlign)

Monvigliero might very well be considered the “Grand Cru” of Verduno village, facing south/south east at 280-320 metres above sea level. The soils are loose, fine and dry marls and in 2013 the harvest happened on the 12th of October. The first vintage was 2005, from a cru set on the west side of the diagonal line drawn between Roddi and Grinzane through Castiglione Falletto down south west through Barolo and to Novello. Here the make up is more (relatively) fertile Tortonian epoch soils, facilitator of earlier developing Baroli. The comparison might be to Paulliac and Saint-Estèphe, to nebbiolo needing four to six years before entering the drinking window. Every producer that owns parcels in Monvigliero ends up with a top three Barolo portfolio cru from within. Here the Sordo ’13 is so very perfumed, of violet and rose petal, certainly an aromatic potpourri, light in hue and transparent, with texture, sour acidity as of cherry, not yet into the tar. The pearls of magnesium rich marly liquid rubies run amok in the mouth. Returning after tasting the last three (Rocche, Villero and Monprivato) musketeers this now shows how lithe, lovely and accessible (relatively speaking of course) this Monvigliero really is. There are 12,900 bottles made. Drink 2020-2029.  Tasted July 2017  sordowine  collisioni  @sordo_wine  @Collisioni  @SordoVini  @CollisioniFestival

Sordo Barolo Ravera 2013, DOCG Piemonte, Italy (AgentWineAlign)

Ravera is on the eastern slope of the township of Novello, also left bank of the diagonal soil epoch dividing line and like Monvigliero, facing south/southeast. Cuts more attitude and altitude, between 420-450 masl. Loose but richer, whitish marl and grey soils typify the cru. The Ravera harvest was on the 19th October, leading to 20,500 bottles and its first vintage was also 2005. It shows more austerity than Monvigliero, owing to being characterized by Serravallian soils found on the right bank, so this is the cru with an identity complex. This is compact, grippy, intense, sour wrapped up in a mystery folded into an enigma. A reticent, brooding hidden gemstone and texture of compression Sordo, but hard to get. Will unravel and work into its flesh no sooner than six plus years on. From a Ravera sweet spot but it’s not sweet now, nor are some other renditions. A return (30 minutes later) brings the unmistakeable nose of fennel. Drink 2022-2032.  Tasted July 2017

Sordo Barolo Perno 2013, DOCG Piemonte, Italy (AgentWineAlign)

Perno belongs to Monforte d’Alba and this particular single-vineyard portion (6.6 hectares of 190.96 total hectares in the large cru) is owned entirely by Sordo, though others farm the rest. Vines age from 15-35 years-old, on red soils with stones and it was the 18th of October for this harvest. The first vintage was 2000. Only Bussia and San Pietro are bigger in all of Barolo so there will be some variegation coming from the Cru. Located on the right bank, immediately to the east of the diagonal line, into Serravallian soils, of calcareous limestone and compacted sands. It’s bloody tannic, but aromatically speaking it does in fact speak its mind, of a fine porous vessel holding a sparked and stark, bitter and macerating cherry liqueur. The palate follows sharp and piercing, compressed, intense, of powerful structure and endless length. Brooding and massive but harnessed power that could run a small nation-state. That power never relents though a silk road certainly runs through that country. There were 48,000 bottles produced. Drink 2024-2036.  Tasted July 2017

Sordo Barolo Gabutti 2013, DOCG Piemonte, Italy (AgentWineAlign)

Gabutti (Serralunga d’Alba) sits at 250-300 masl, in compacted clay with 1989 being the first vintage. It ranges to the far east set into the quintessential seravalian soil and try hard to argue against the idea that it is the cru almost impossible to figure young. Sordo submits to its potential as unlimited and outrageous. There are spice aromas and acidity up front but otherwise it slams the door, locked tight. I disagree with Id’A in that the nose is not floral and accessible but do agree that it is civilized, on the first wave of palate, with soaking cherries and the idea of tar. Then the clutch sticks, it breaks down and shuts down. Wait 10 years from harvest with proof provided that 30 minutes does nothing to allow a Gabutti relent. It does indeed show some further precison when you get back to the back palate. Ultimately there can be little to say but that the jury is so fully out on Gabutti. There were 26,000 bottles made. Drink 2023-2035.  Tasted July 2017

Sordo Barolo Parussi 2013, DOCG Piemonte, Italy (AgentWineAlign)

Parussi comes from Castiglione Falletto at an elevation of 270-290 masl, with 15-40 year-old vines on loose surface soil and limestone with whitish, grey marls. The harvest was the 15th of October and the first vintage goes back to 2005. Sordo farms 1.8 of a small (13.4) hectares but the whole cru is not suited to nebbiolo, so only 83 per cent is planted to the grape. We are to understand that the idea goes beyond Parussi in that only certain portions are truly nebbiolo-Barolo cru territory. Parussi is from the crossroads of two soil epochs, between Barolo and Monforte and Serralunga to the south and east. The questions is asked whether or not it achieves a balance, of two banks on either side of a diagonal epoch line, like St. Julien, part Margaux and part Paulliac. It does but certainly resides on the brightest side, with the most fruit. The tart cherries are possessive of this striking personality so that they achieve a suspended animated moment in which they equilibrate to sweetness tempered by sour acidity moments and great fineness of demanding tannin. There are 13,000 bottles. Drink 2022-2034.  Tasted July 2017

Vitello Tonnato at Sordo

Sordo Barolo Rocche Di Castiglione 2013, DOCG Piemonte, Italy (AgentWineAlign)

Also from Castiglione Falletto is Rocche Di Castiglione, a formidable nebbiolo from 30-60 years of vine age, including a 1960’s planting. The elevation creeps up to 300-350 masl, on white and blue marl with dry and compacted sandstone. Harvest was on the 17th of October and production goes back to 1987 in this, Sordo’s first original cru. One of the greatest vineyards in all of Barolo, the new name is now Rocche di Castiglione Falletto, a place of crooked cragges or peaks, the altitude delivering more power and structure, but also grace and refinement. This is nebbiolo of a cooler climate personality, wound so tight, with sour cherry, rose petal and so much fruitier on the nose, certainly more than Villero. There is this smooth, satiny consistency through the modernity of flavours on the oldest fruit. A great dichotomy achieved. Drink 2023-2040.  Tasted July 2017

Sordo Barolo Villero 2013, DOCG Piemonte, Italy (AgentWineAlign)

Villero is an accumulation of purchased grapes from a farmer who follows a strict regimen. The cru is composed of calcareous, grey marls and compact grey sand and in this first 2013 vintage the later harvest was the 20th of October. Almost dukes it out with Rocche, this second of three musketeers with Castiglione and Monprivato. A balanced locale submits to make for optimum equilibrium for nebbiolo cru, looking at it this early as big, brawny, stiff and strong in its austerity. Giving so little away and yet it’s all imagination, driven by time. The cru is 22 hectares large with Sordo owning 0.4 and change, very small but it’s a true nebbiolo vineyard. Villero is nothing if not erected as a wall of acidity and tannin, so intensely taut, wound and as of yet, unforgiving. There are 3,600 bottles. Drink 2024-2039.  Tasted July 2017

Sordo Barolo Monprivato 2013, DOCG Piemonte, Italy (AgentWineAlign)

Monprivato is the third of the Castiglione Falletto cru, at variegated elevations from 240-320 masl. Sordo’s are 40 year-old vines and in this inaugural 2013 it was picked earlier (than Villero) on the 17th of October. Another true representative of Serravallian epoch austerity, with formidable tannin and a get down on my knees and beg to ask for more time before delivering accessibility. One of the true great Barolo vineyards, 98 per cent planted to nebbiolo. The 7.12 hectare large site gifts somewhere between the structure of Villero and the richness of Rocche. You get spice and sour cherry right away but also some other fruit in spice format, mulled in a way, of orange rind, apricot and pomegranate. It’s as if a piece of La Tâche suddenly became available to be farmed by someone else. Such fineness and nobility of tannins, richness and fine bitters, in the end the most tonic of all. This may be the whole package, a compromise in a way but an impressive and charming nebbiolo like no other. There are 3,200 bottles. Drink 2023-2040.  Tasted July 2017

More Sordo

Sordo Roero Arneis Garblet Sué 2016, DOCG Piemonte, Italy (AgentWineAlign)

Garblet Sué is on the Bricco Fiasco, a Castiglione Falletto vineyard owing in name to the Garbelletto Superiore farm that lies below. Sordo’s roero is rich in metallurgy, orchard fruit purity sporting equal parts pear and citrus, almost but not quite savoury. The balance of fruit, soil and salty mineral melts into arneis tannin. Overall it’s simply suave and polished stuff. Drink 2017-2021.  Tasted July 2017

Sordo Barolo Rocche Di Castiglione 2011, DOCG Piemonte, Italy (AgentWineAlign)

It’s difficult to say and even harder to admit that ’11 Rocche is any further advanced than the ’13 tasted 90 minutes prior. The fruit is a bit riper and if development can be quantified it’s a matter of millimetres by cru standards. And so the sour cherry is sweetened, rendered with more baking spice caress and attention to length, elastically so and with precise action. Five years further on and it will fall effortlessly into its next perfect phase, in a place called beautiful. Drink 2021-2032.  Tasted July 2017

Sordo Riserva Barolo Gabutti Edizione Limitata 2006, DOCG Piemonte, Italy (AgentWineAlign)

Sometimes it’s just a case of instant recognition, of the transparent Barolo-nebbiolo purity, crowned by acidity read from a very particular cru vernacular, spoken without any interference. At this 11-year itch, which incidentally seems only a year or two shy of the optimum window, Gabutti runs just a touch hot. A minor distraction in bitter phenol is balanced by ripe Sordo fruit that when combined acts like a salve melting on a tongue coated with tannin. Can formidable and elegant co-exist? In Gabutti, yes they can, easily, readily and in truth. Drink 2018-2028.  Tasted July 2017

Good to go!

Godello

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