Elio Altare

By Sunny Brown on August 1, 2006

Category: Winery of the Month

Barolo. One of the greatest places on earth for a wine lover. This is one of the family homes of Italian wine, and certainly a birthplace for the modern successes. You can smell it in the air, feel it in the soil, and even taste it in the local cuisine. When viewing the green hills that roil and roll with vineyards and tiny hamlets a sense of belonging wells up within my throat. Not that I belong here, but that these hills, and these people and these wines belong to this place. We live in a time when the Crus of Barolo are as well known as those of Burgundy. When the wines can command high prices, praise and ratings from all the usual suspects. When serving a bottle of Barolo means something.

But it was not always so. In the 1970s lowly Dolcetto fetched a higher price than Barolo. The magic of the wines were lost in a system that paid by weight, not quality. Vineyards were plowed by oxen. Fertilizers and chemicals were used with reckless abandon. Everything felt old- The barrels, the techniques, the wines.

Since then we have witnessed a revolution.

So how does one reach such amazing heights within such a short time? Innovation and hard work. No one producer in Piedmont symbolizes this more than Elio Altare. His wines are some of the best in Barolo, though his efforts to modernize a distinctly old world region have brought both inspiration and heartache. No one has ever claimed that revolution was easy.

Cut into the hills just below the town of La Morra lays the courtyard of Elio Altare, one that the family shares with Mauro Veglio. It is not the easiest place in the world to find, but the effort is supremely rewarded with spectacular views of Barolo. It is amazing how some of the most famous vineyards in the world can be spotted, as casually as if you were discussing the next block over in your neighborhood. “Over there is Bricco Boschis, then Brunate, and over there past Serralunga d’Alba is…”

We were met by Elena, younger of the two daughters Altare. She began our tour but was quickly ushered back to her studies by her older sister Silvia. Vibrant and energetic, Silvia practically buzzed about the winery and her love for the whole of Piedmont. She described the region as a landscape of farmers and small winemakers (700 families farming just 1750 acres) and that unlike many other regions in Italy, all the money made here goes back into vines and wineries in an effort to improve the already fantastic products. “The standard for Barolo is very high,” she said. ”If you don’t make good wines you don’t sell.”

The winery is lovely. Centered in the heart of the vines below the hilltop town of La Morra but above the town of Annunziata, the terra cotta and brick walls lead into a smartly adorned tasting room. We were given a tour of the facilities, and the reoccurring theme was modernity. Shining stainless steel tanks gave way to bright and clean barriques. I could almost smell the charring of the barrels, they seemed that new. This is a testament to the style and philosophy of Elio Altare.

Elio took a trip in the 1970’s to France, where he discovered an entirely new way of thinking in regards to wine. “My father was very young and active,” as Silvia described it. “He traveled to Burgundy where he saw shorter fermentation times. He saw the importance that was placed on the soil and in the vineyard. He saw green harvests. He drew much inspiration from this.” These ideas were a far cry from the traditional methods that Elio had been taught by his father Giovanni. Change did not come easy. Many of the old ways of farming had been handed down from one generation to the next.

The tension between father and son reached a crescendo when Elio used a chainsaw to remove all of the old barrels from the cellars of Cascina Nuova, the name of the winery at that time. Elio was stripped of his inheritance, and it was not until Giovanni’s death in 1985 that Elio was allowed back to the winery.

He had spent the time in between studying and working amongst the vines, learning their secrets and formulating a plan for when he would be allowed to make his own wines. This plan involved rigorous pruning of the vines, green harvests that lasted from July through August, and an overall approach that places emphasis on organic methods. A serious case of pesticide poisoning in 1982 only hardened his resolve.

There are many legends that speak of Elio’s dedication to the vine. While sleeping in the cellar to “listen” to his wines or eating the tartrate crystals to get potassium may be more quaint, my favorite is of his diary in which he recorded daily observations on the weather, his technical approach to the wines and what worked and what did not. This diary became the blueprint for the successes that followed.

In the winery the approach is just as cutting edge. Rotary fermenters, short fermentations in stainless steel followed by micro-oxygenation and aging the wines sur lie in small oak barriques are just a few of the daring innovations that Altare has brought to Barolo. Other techniques such as using only indigenous yeasts and allowing malolactic fermentation to occur naturally may not be quite so uncommon, but they certainly speak volumes about their commitment to quality. All of the wines of Altare are bottled without fining or filtration.

While the wines of Altare remain faithful to the elegant and plush style of wine produced in the sand, marl and tufa soils found in the commune of La Morra, they contain a freshness and concentration that is a notch above the rest. They were as a whole more juicy and approachable than many of their brethren at that stage. The Barolos are amazing and lovely, with an excellent balance of tannins and acid, their fragrance a haunting reminder of what it means to be Barolo- Soil, perfume and elegance. The charming Dolcetto was big enough to pass for California Pinot Noir, at once a fresh, fruity and friendly version of the grape.

Also in the line-up is the L’Insieme, a wine that is one of eight different versions produced under the same label by some of the finest names in Barolo- Corino, Grasso, Molino and Revello just to name a few. Each producer crafts their own wine, but they all sell as L'Insieme. Started as a joint project amongst friends intended to raise funds to restore local historical treasures, five euro from each bottle is set aside and now L’Insieme raises over $120,000 each year for charitable causes that are located in all parts of the world, from South Africa to South America. The name means “together” in Italian, and refers both to the friendship that created this wine, and also to the marriage of traditional local grapes such as Barbera and Nebbiolo to international varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The L’Insieme is an international superstar.

The success of Elio Altare rolls on, as each year the wines are celebrated by the prestigious Gambero Rosso as some of the best in all of Italy. While not everyone agrees with Altare’s approach to winemaking, no one can argue with the results. In the years since he first drew inspiration from a trip to Burgundy in which he slept in his car to save money, Altare has shifted from the role of young rogue to learned master, and spends his time now sharing his secrets with some of the best and brightest in Barolo.

In the end Altare remains a family affair. Elena studied in Enology, while Silvia focused on Economics. The future of this winery, long considered the future of Italian wine, looks incredibly bright. The Altare daughters represent the next generation of great Italian wine, though this time the concept of L’Insieme, together, will remain at the forefront of the Altare family.