By Sunny Brown on October 31, 2006

Category: Winery of the Month

Family. There is just something about family. Something that moves you, and comforts you, and encourages you. Something that softens the world outside yet hardens your resolve to be successful within it. Even the word has a feel and unique quality all its own, be it used as noun, pronoun, adjective or even verb. Family is our past, present and future.

I have made the reference before (and will most likely do so again) that a bottle of wine can be the closest thing possible to inviting a family from across the world to join yours at the dinner table. There is such effort, and history, and love that goes into creating that particular bottle of wine that it may be the closest thing possible to capturing the spirit of the family that made it. Their sweat went into the harvest, their expertise went into the aging and blending, their soul went into the finished product.

Such can be said about the Cavallotto family. Theirs is not a winery run by a family. They are a family that makes wine. Five generations of Cavallottos have tended the grapes on the hills in the center of the commune of Barolo. Years ago they were tended by Giacomo Cavallotto who sold his grapes out of a cart at the Alba market. His sons Giuseppe and Marcello crafted the first bottle of Cavallotto wine in 1948, and at the time they were the first in the area to vinify and market their own wines. Their heritage was passed on through Olivio and Gildo, and now to Laura, Alfio and Giuseppe who run the winery today.

Located just on the outskirts of Castiglione di Falletto, on the great hill of Bricco Boschis, one of the most famous collections of vines in Italy and perhaps the world, the Cavallotto winery produces some of the best wines in Barolo, a region known for stunning wines. The compact clay and blue marl soil of Bricco Boschis provides the raw material for a wide array of wines that can compete with any other line-up found throughout the world.

But many of the lovely green hills of Barolo are perfectly and uniquely suited to craft fine wines. So what is it that sets the Cavallottos apart from the rest? Hard to say, as it could be their unmatched desire to combine tradition with innovation. Fermentations are long and slow, a holdover from times gone past, but the temperature is controlled through modern technology. Innovation is a necessity according to Giuseppe: “Many of the higher quality techniques used for wine making started in Piedmont due to strong competition with small producers at the forefront in changing and improving the wines.”

In the vineyards there are a host of alternative techniques such as high vine density with low yields due to crop thinning and canopy management, as well as complete ground cover of grass, grapes grown through organic methods and the re-introduction of natural insect predators to the vineyards.

Or it could be that the wines go through an extremely long aging process in traditional barrels that are as old as they are big. Slovenian oak casks that range from 10hl to 50hl (about 1,130 gallons of wine) slowly impart refinement and elegance to the Barolos as they mature for up to five years in cask. Though not cost effective to age the wine for such a long time prior to release, the ultimate goal is a great wine, or as Giuseppe put it, “A complete Barolo after three years is impossible.” Paul Masson would be proud.

I believe that the overall quality of the wines of Cavallotto stems from the family itself. Each wine must pass a family taste test before it is released for sale. Giuseppe and his brother Alfio are the closest thing you will find to professional winemakers on the property, as they use the generations of expertise and experience of their family to guide their hands in the cellar, even though hiring a consulting winemaker is a popular trend.

“With enologists the wine can be the same every year,” adds Giuseppe. “We want the wine to be different each year.”

And family seems to be what they do best, as from the moment we arrived Giuseppe could not have been a more gracious host. A quick trip to the winery ended four hours later after a marathon session of information about the winery, tours of the vines and the cellars and a ton of some of the best wines that I have ever experienced. Giuseppe’s English certainly got a workout that day. When we finally left we felt almost as though we had just witnessed what it was like to visit family in Italy, or at the very least the Cavallotto family.

And what of the wines? The Barolos have been described by more than one expert on Piemontese wines as being the “Burgundies of Piedmont.” I agree, and disagree. They certainly hold an element of finesse and elegance that is seldom found elsewhere. They are perfumed and refined in a manner that speaks of soft sophistication, of remembering their place in the world, and of unique quality produced from each individual cru. Certainly the same can be said of a great Burgundy. “For us the color is not important,” says Giuseppe. “For us what is important is the smell, and how the smell changes in the glass and over time.”

They also contain a measure of richness and strength not often found in Burgundy. Their power is not overt however, as it remains more a means of silent structure than a show of flashy strength. Everything remains in balance.

But the most impressive part of the wines of Cavallotto is their diversity. The lineup is long and ranges from the usual Piedmont suspects of Barolo, Barbera and Dolcetto to more esoteric examples such as Grignolino and even a Pinot Noir that can be found in both red and white versions.

The Pinot Nero Blanc that we tried is not imported into my home state, but believe me, I am trying to change that. It was a delicious blend of flowers, peaches and cream that would throw any lover of Pinot Noir for a loop. The Barbera hails from a single vineyard on the south slope of Bricco Boschis and is a perfect example of why there is more to Piedmont than Nebbiolo. Plush and chewy, it had plenty of dark fruit and smoky Barbera notes. The Dolcetto offered as much elegance and bright fruit that one would expect from a single-vineyard wine. The Cavallottos also produce Friesa, Chardonnay and Grignolino, all in single-vineyard bottlings.

As the owners of one of the greatest vineyards on earth, it is of no surprise that a heavy emphasis is placed upon the character of soil. The vineyards are planned and planted according to soil type and relation to the sun in an effort to ensure that the grapes are given the best chance to flourish.

But it is in the Barolos that their genius truly lies. The lineup was in a word- stunning. From the standard Barolo grown in the heavy clay of Bricco Boschis to the reserva that hails from the clay and calcareous soil of the tiny Vigna San Giuseppe to the higher percentage of limestone in the reserva Vignolo from a vineyard to the southwest, each wine offered complexity, individuality and beauty.

Keeping the quality high with so many different wines seems to me a daunting task, but in the end the total production at Cavallotto remains less than 8,500 cases a year, a mere pittance when compared to the world wine conglomerates of today. But the Cavallottos remain a family operation, so that is what they look for in terms of exports. “It is hard for us to find large markets,” says Giuseppe. “The Nebbiolo changes, it is impossible to control. That is why we have small markets.”

And therein lays the beauty of Cavallotto. Instead of making wine that can be copied and doubled in size, they make wine that is from the heart and the soil. They make wine that speaks of their heritage and of their ancestors and of their family. If they did not, how would the wines pass the taste test of Sister and Mother? I for one would not have it any other way.