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Making of a 100-Point Wine: A Barolo of Rare Elegance and Energy

Thanks to near-perfect growing conditions, 2016 is without doubt one of the greatest Barolo vintages of all time. Many of the recently released Riservas from the vintage stun with a combination of grace, structure and serious aging potential. One in particular shines a light on a great producer, little-known village and unique grape.

While the core villages of Serralunga, Barolo and Castiglione Falletto excelled in 2016, one of the greatest expressions from the stellar vintage hails from Novello, once considered a minor player in the Barolo sphere. Winemaker Elvio Cogno put the village on the map when he bought the Cascina Nuova farm in the Ravera cru in 1991.

The Cogno family had been growing grapes for generations, and Elvio had a wealth of winemaking experience, having collaborated for decades with the Marcarini winery in La Morra before deciding to strike out on his own. Born in Novello, Cogno knew that the undervalued Ravera cru yielded exceptional grapes that were sold to large producers.

Cogno’s first Nebbiolo harvest was in 1991, and his first Barolo was released four years later as Barolo Ravera, marking the first time the name of this now lauded vineyard appeared on the label.

Cogno Novello Vineyards
Cogno Novello vineyards / Courtesy of Wilson Daniels

Today, the firm is run by Cogno’s daughter Nadia and her husband, Valter Fissore, the estate’s winemaker. Fissore had worked with Elvio at Marcarini in 1984 and 1985, and then rejoined his father-in-law in Novello in 1991.

“I learned everything about grape growing and making wine directly from Elvio,” says Fissore.

Also in 1991, the family began replanting the vineyards, starting with a parcel in the larger Ravera vineyard site they named Vigna Elena after Nadia and Valter’s daughter who was born that same year. They made the risky decision to plant the plot exclusively with Nebbiolo Rosé. Long considered one of the three major sub-varieties of Nebbiolo used in Barolo, Rosé has been largely abandoned due to its very pale color that many viewed as a defect. Elvio, however, loved Nebbiolo Rosé for its enticing perfume and incomparable elegance.

Cogno planted the rest of his Ravera holdings with two Nebbiolo sub-varieties traditionally used in the area, Nebbiolo Lampia and Nebbiolo Michet. For the first several years, all three grapes were used make the firm’s Barolo Ravera. But Nebbiolo Rosé clearly thrived in the Elena vineyard, encouraging Elvio and Valter to vinify it separately for the first time in 1997.

“The purity of fruit and finesse of our [Nebbiolo] Rosé on its own gives Barolo Vigna Elena a distinct identity and extreme elegance that sets it apart from other wines,” says Fissore.

In terms of the grape’s infamously pale color, Fissore explains that choosing the right rootstock, Kober 5BB, resolved the issue, allowing the grape to produce luminous, garnet-hued Barolos.

Not only is Nebbiolo Rosé extremely rare, but, in 2000, a team of famed ampelographers and experts on Italian grape varieties led by Anna Schneider shocked the wine world when they discovered that Nebbiolo Rosé was actually a distinct grape, not a sub-variety of Nebbiolo. The researchers stressed, however, that Nebbiolo Rosé is a blood relative of Nebbiolo with a first-degree relationship.

Seeing that Nebbiolo Rosé had been cultivated for centuries in Barolo and had always been considered Nebbiolo, Italy’s National Register of Grapevine Varieties has not registered Rosé as a separate grape variety, meaning producers who cultivate it are still allowed to use it in Barolo and Barbaresco production.

Elvio Cogno 2016 Ravera Vigna Elena Riserva (Barolo); $150, 100 points
This breathtaking beauty offers enticing scents of rose petal, ripe woodland berry, pipe tobacco and camphor. It’s full-bodied but elegantly structured, delivering delicious flavors of ripe red cherry, blood orange, licorice and baking spice. Taut, refined tannins provide the framework while bright acidity gives it wonderful balance, energy and tension. Drink 2026–2046. Cellar Selection.

It’s not just the grape that sets Vigna Elena apart. The terroir is exceptional. Situated inside the larger Ravera cru at 1,247 feet above sea level, the site enjoys calcareous-clay soils and southeast exposure. Fissore, and Cogno before him, has never used chemical herbicides or pesticides.

In the cellars, Fissore uses only indigenous yeasts for fermentation. For the 2016 Vigna Elena Riserva, fermentation and post-maceration fermentation on the skins lasted 40 days, followed by aging in large Slavonian casks for 36 months then 24 months of bottle aging before release.

Barolo Vigna Elena Riserva has long been one of my top-scoring Barolos, but the 2016 is magnificent. As I wrote in my notes accompanying the perfect score, “This breathtaking beauty offers enticing scents of rose petal, ripe woodland berry, pipe tobacco and camphor.” Besides being downright delicious, “full-bodied and elegantly structured,” it also has “wonderful balance, energy and tension.”

It’s already showing beautifully but will continue to evolve for decades.