When you go to Africa, where I lived on and off for years as a photographer and foreign correspondent, I often hired a guide to go on safari.
I figured the same might be required on my recent trip to Piemonte, Italy’s glorious Eden of wine and truffles, so I contacted Josh Eisenhauer, a bright, focused, engaging, wine guru, who has moved from America to Italy. And who just happens to know more about the wines of Piemonte than anyone I know.
I use the word “focused” because I don’t know any other term to describe the career path of someone like Josh who is a self-taught wine expert; at age 18, he worked in the wine cellar of Mario Batali’s iconic New York restaurant Babbo; at age 19, before he was even of legal drinking age, Josh was serving wine there; and before long, following his head and heart, Josh became a full-fledged sommelier at Il Buco (one of my favorite restaurants in NY, by the way).
Josh traded up and became a sommelier at another one of my all-time favorite New York restaurants, the 1-star Michelin, Del Posto, owned by Mario Batali.
And that’s where Josh met Sara, a gorgeous, demur, delightful Italian working at the restaurant and last year, the couple moved to Piemonte to amplify their respective hospitality careers.
Sara Marchese and Josh Eisenhauer at dinner with napaman in Piemonte.
Today, at 26, Josh is head sommelier at one of the most prestigious luxury hotels and restaurants in all of Italy - he is responsible for a cellar of 30,000 bottles at Guido da Costigliole d’Asti, a 1-star Michelin restaurant that is part of the ultra-luxe resort and spa Relais San Maurizio, in Santo Stefano Belbo. At 26 years of age!
Josh in the cellar at Guido, where he is cellar master, sommelier and guardian of 30,000 bottles, the bulk of which are Italian.
THIS is the guy I wanted to steward me through the most beautiful wine region in the world. (Sorry Napa Valley, Burgundy and Bordeaux… but you all take second place to the astounding vineyard settings around Barolo, La Morra, Castiglione Falletto…)
Josh had no idea when he grew up in Berwick, PA, that he would become a fully fluent, Italian-speaking, sommelier at a top-tier, Italian restaurant.
Josh, by gosh…
I contacted Josh and Sara, now his wife. I knew Josh from his Del Posto days; we spent part of a week together, swirling and sipping wines at numerous wineries to which Josh introduced me.
More than once we found wines that we could NOT spit out. Like all the wines poured for us by Roberto Conterno, who operates the lionized winery Giacomo Conterno.
“Roberto makes the best wine in Italy, hands down,” says Josh, who scored us an appointment with God, er, I mean Roberto, who hosted us for nearly two hours and who poured three of the best wines I tasted in Italy in two weeks of travel. But more about this in a minute.
Steep hills with planted vineyards are the landmark feature of Piemonte. This image, of vineyards just outside Barbaresco, reminds me of an urban work by Wayne Thiebaud (California’s greatest living landscape painter).
Piemonte, for the uninitiated, is the home, in Italy, of two of the world’s best-known wines – Barolo and Barbaresco (each made from the Nebbiolo grape) and Barbera, the best of which comes from Alba or Asti.
“Giacomo Conterno’s wines are in a league of their own in Italy,” says Josh. “Among other favorites, year in and year out, regardless of the merits of a vintage, I like the Barolos and Barberas of Vajra (pronounced VIE-rah), Giuseppe Mascarello, Bruno Giacosa and Luigi Pira.”
If you are looking for a primer on Italian wines, because you aren’t familiar with them, scribble these names on your palm in indelible ink and remember to look at your palm the next time you are in a premium wine store.
What you need to know about Nebbiolo, the grape, which makes both Barolos and Barberescos, is that it is a relative minor player in Italy in terms of quantity. In Piemonte alone, it accounts for less than five percent of all the grape production. That’s nothing.
But in reverence, Nebbiolo scores high marks. Nothing else in Italy, except perhaps for Tuscany’s brilliant Sangiovese-based wines, will command such stately prices.
Nebbiolo, by the way, was likely named for nebbia, or fog, which is a hallmark of harvest time in Piemonte – the hills and vineyards here are invisible most mornings in October, as they are bathed in a blanket of fog.
I ate and drank, and then drank some more, with Josh and Sara across the hilly countryside of Piemonte; I attended the annual truffle festival in Alba (and regret to inform truffleheads that the price of this year’s white tubers has been set at $4500 per kilo).
In order to optimize my learning from Josh... and have nuggets of Truth for napaman readers, I want to encapsulate a few of Josh’s qualified observations:
+ The BEST recent vintages in Piemonte for Barolo and Barbaresco wines:
+ The WORST recent vintages (not to totally avoid, but you need to know producers in these vintages well):
Barolo and Barbaresco are both made from the Nebbiolo grape. They get their names from the respective delimited areas in which they are grown.
Barolo is known as the king of wines and the wine of kings. Today, there are essentially two styles of Barolo - a traditional wine fermented in cement and aged in very large, old oak casks and a modern version, aged in small barriques. As it happens, there is a place for both in your cellar and on your table.
This column would go on to devour the internet if I listed ALL the great wines I tasted with Josh in a week… so I will summarize a few of the more spectacular wines we tasted. Anything listed here is worth seeking out.
Aldo and Melina Vaira, pictured above, and their children run a fastidious winery. I spent half-a-day with the family, mostly with son Giuseppe, and I like the family as much as I like their wines. Which is to say, A LOT.
(The family spells its name with an “i,” but the winery is spelled with a “j” for a whole lot of legal reasons – don’t ask.)
Son, Giuseppe Vaira
Aldo just completed his 40th harvest, so he’s finally getting to learn which grapes grow best where… and how to vinify them.
“My wines are not made to blow your mind,” says Aldo. “They are made to be harmonious and make you happy.”
His MO certainly worked on me. I left the winery with a happy face and a big smile.
Approximately 20 to 25% of the winery’s offerings are exported to the U.S., so napaman readers should find these wines in fine wine stores and available from online etailers.
Everything Vajra makes is from estate-farmed fruit and while the family let its organic status lapse to avoid bureaucratic nightmares, it continues to make mostly organic wine – Vajra just doesn’t seek official certification. Which is what happens to a lot of wine produced in Napa Valley, too.
Restrictions in Italy and the EU on what can be said on a label are so frighteningly obtuse that Barolo producers may not even identify the vineyards from which they source grapes on the back label on a bottle. Organic certification rules are even more restrictive and arcane.
2013 Vajra Barbera d’Alba Superiore
Though not classically farmed as “biodynamic,” this wine is still produced with some “bio” discipline, such as being bottled in conjunction with particular phases of the moon.
Whatever the family is doing to make this exceptional Barbera, they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams; glorious flavor, bursts of fresh fruit and a wonderful, rich, complex finish make this a stand-out Barbera.
As this wine is aged in used, large Slavonian oak casks, there are no splinter-y young tannins, often present in wines aged in smaller, new-world, barriques.
I liked this Barbera so much that I bought a case. 94 points.
2011 Vajra Barolo, Bricco delle Viole
(Oh My God, What a Wine!)
A beautiful, balanced, harmonious wine, which will need years to assemble, integrate and quiet down. But all the components are here to encourage this.
2011 Vajra Barolo, Luigi Baudana, Cerretta Vineyard
An equally impressive effort, possibly richer on the palate than the wine above. Exhibits a gorgeous mouthfeel, unusual for young Barolo. From the Cerretta block; only 250 cases produced for worldwide consumption.
Think of Bricco delle Viole, the previous wine, sent to a plush toy farm, where it is coated in velours, then bottled. That’s what Luigi Baudana resembles. 96 points.
The family winery is run today by a son, Roberto Conterno, who produces 5,000 cases of liquid gold, soon to be augmented by fruit from a just-purchased vineyard, which will add 1,600 additional cases to the total output.
I tasted dozens of Barolos and Barberas during my week with Josh, but nothing was in the league of Conterno’s wines. They are as DRC is to everything else is in Burgundy; plain and simple, ethereal.
2013 Giacomo Conterno Barbera d’Alba, Vigna Franca
“This is consistently, year in and out, the best Barbera in Italy,” according to Josh.
I can’t disagree from this limited sampling of one bottle; gorgeous, complex, deep flavors, Asian spices, and a hint of soy in the middle palate. 96 points.
2011 Giacomo Conterno Barolo, Francia
Did someone drop a pound of truffles in the room? The wine has a nose of freshly shaved white truffles with a follow-up of red berry fruit. On the palate, this has the weight of a Burgundy Pinot Noir with very fine tannins on the finish. An exceptional Barolo. 98 points.
2008 Giacomo Conterno Barolo, Monfortino
This is the single best wine I tasted in two weeks in Italy.
If you could have a Tesla... or a few cases of this wine… you’d have a hard choice to make.
Like a Tesla, this wine is a head-snapping, jaw-dropping, eye-opening experience, demanding your full attention.
Just released in Italy, the 2008 will soon be found in U.S. wine stores but even though it runs north of $650 a bottle, it won’t stay on shelves very long.
For starters, very little is made, and there is large demand.
An extremely complex, extremely subtle, extremely memorable wine. You can’t stuff more Nebbiolo into a Barolo, you can’t make a wine more addictive, or more perfect. 100 points.
Giuseppe Cavallotto and Josh Eisenhauer
Regular readers may recognize this family name. I wrote so glowingly about their 2012 Chardonnay that napaman literally caused a stampede for this wine in America; napaman’s review sold 125 cases in the U.S. The wine was that good -- and I guess my commentary that compelling.
You can read that original story here:
On my visit last week, brothers Giuseppe and Aflio Cavallotto tasted us through all their new releases, including the brilliant, bright and, at this point, somewhat tart, 2014 Chardonnay. It will settle down, but we’ll have to wait six months to see how things integrate.
2014 Cavallotto Langhe Chardonnay
Very bright, almost aggressive acidity on entry; green flavors, youthful minerality. Not yet integrated, doesn’t yet taste like a $100 Burgundy, which the 2013 did when we discovered it last year… but this wine is still undergoing bottle shock and the wine may become another textbook Chardonnay. At this point, 90 points.
2012 Cavallotto Barbera d’Alba Superiore, Vigne del Cuculo
Great aroma on the nose, very BIG, assertive flavors, lots of extraction; from 50-year-old vines, only 1,300 cases produced, and I own one of them. 92 points.
2012 Cavallotto Langhe Nebbiolo
Made with Nebbiolo grown outside the delimited area of Barolo; this is a stunning wine, a lovely wine. Easily accessible, delicious right now, refined, has the weight of a Pinot Noir on the palate and the elegance of one too. I loved this wine. 94 points.
2011 Cavallotto Barolo, Bricco Boschis
Lots of raspberries on the palate and young, attractive fruit. A handsome wine.
2009 Cavallotto Barolo Bricco Boschis, Vigne San Giuseppe, Riserva
A rich, older, memorable Barolo from a really stunning vintage. Dark Nebbiolo flavors and long finish. What’s not to like about this beauty? 94 points.
Josh Eisenhauer sure has a lot of wisdom for a guy only 26 years old. And a striking palate. He has zigged and zagged across the hills of Piemonte (and there are a lot of them) to seek out great wine producers, big and small.
Luca Giacosa, who helps his grandfather tend the vineyards, make the wine, and then travels around the world once a year to sell it; here Luca points out his family’s vineyards and winery in Barbaresco.
Luca Giacosa is one of the small producers. He is the 21-year-old winemaker in his family’s three-generation business. Josh discovered Luca’s sublime wines and offers one of them by the glass at his 1-star Michelin restaurant. That’s a statement of how good they are.
Over lunch with Luca, I learned that several of his wines are already on the wine list at several San Francisco restaurants, including A.Q, SPQR and Water Bar, which is on the Embarcadero.
Three generations of the winemaking family; Maria Giacosa on far left, mother of Luca, who is in the middle, and on the right is Carlo Giacosa, patriarch of the family, and Luca’s grandfather.
In total, the firm, Carlo Giacosa (named after Luca’s granddad – and NOT a relation in anyway to any of the famous Giacosa wine personalities in Piemonte) produces 3,500 cases annually.
My three favorite wines of many I tasted with Luca and Josh were the following:
2012 Carlo Giacosa Barbaresco, Narin
An assemblage of three different blocks, this is an elegant, beautifully structured wine, a gorgeous achievement for the 21-year-old Luca, who, in addition to making the wine, operates the tractor in the vineyards and heads off to Denmark, Russia, Sweden, Austria and the U.S. annually to act as the firm’s sole salesman!
I loved this wine, Great going, Luca! 93 points.
2010 Carlo Giacosa Barbaresco, Luca
This black-labeled beaut is gorgeous. It has a romantic nose, a refreshing, totally charming entry on the palate, and ends with a kiss. 93 points.
2011 Carlo Giacosa Barbaresco, Luca
I tasted this from a “shiner,” a bottled sample of this wine, which has not yet been labeled. The wine will be released early next year. Look for it.
A gorgeous wine with tons of personality. It’s a bit like the 2010 Luca Barbaresco above, only amped on steroids. Call this the Lance Armstrong of Barbarescos!
92 points at this early stage of bottle development, but could score higher once labeled and officially released.
Want to learn where you can buy Carlo Giacosa wines? Contact the U.S. importer, Siena Importers, in Berkeley, at 415-285-9675.
Or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Most everything else reviewed in this story can be found at fine wine stores now and from online etailers.