The history of a wine encapsulates many fascinating facts when its treasured bottles are poured in succession of glasses spanning six different decades.
The climatic conditions, winemaking philosophy, styles of winemaker and even his personality leave an indelible mark on the final wine. For Pio Cesare, the historic winery located in the heart of Alba in Piedmont, as it celebrates its 140th anniversary, its treasured Barolos from 1961 vintage to the most recent anniversary release of 2017 capture the winery’s essence – and the reason for its longevity – its tradition-rooted blend.
Blend v.s. single vineyard
Founded in 1881 by Cesare Pio, the great grandfather of the fourth-generation leader Pio Boffa, the winery is among the most storied houses that till today still locates in the city center of Alba in Piedmont, the spiritual home of Italy’s revered Barolo and Barbaresco.
2021 would mark the winery’s 140th anniversary. The sudden passing of Boffa earlier this year inevitably looms over the winery’s milestone, but its fifth generation family members led by Boffa’s daughter Federica and nephew Cesare Benvenuto look poised to take over the reins.
For Benvenuto, who had worked side by side with his uncle for over 20 years since 2000, said self-effacingly, “we are stubborn people,” referring to his uncle and family who had stood by their family tradition by blending single vineyards into making classic Barolo and Barbaresco.
Up till the concept of cru or single vineyard became fashionable, for more than a century, Barolo was about blending fruits from different sites.
“This is the recipe for our family since 1881 and we have continued to use our money and time to continue this tradition despite the fact that 95% other producers are making single vineyard,” he told me during an interview.
Being one of the oldest wineries in Alba, the old guards in Barolo including Pio Cesare in 1960s and 1970s were somewhat overlooked by the market and media with the emergence of single vineyard producers, a new crop of wineries focusing on crus instead of blend.
In 1980s, Pio incorporated single vineyard in his range as well. Its most treasured site is a 6.6 ha Ornato in Serralunga, which gave birth to its first-ever single vineyard Barolo of the eponymous name in 1985. In 2019, the family released another single vineyard Barolo made from the 10 ha Mosconi vineyard in Monforte starting with the 2015 vintage. The winery also makes a single vineyard Barbaresco from Il Bricco site in Treiso.
Despite that his single vineyard wines were often showered with praises and awards, the Barolo custodian never thought his single vineyards are better than blends as long as both pride quality first. He believes a classic blended Barolo is a like an orchestra, it brings layers and complexity to a wine. Serralunga gives structure and intensity, while La Morra brings finesse and elegance, and a touch of Monforte adds suppleness.
Boffa, a relentless advocate for traditional and classic Barolos and Barbarescos, went so far as to rectify the single vineyard trend by declaring on Pio Cesare’s classic Barolo label “Please don’t call it regular” (2012-2016 vintages), a resounding rebuttal to public perception that blended Barolos are somehow inferior to single vineyards.
“Marketing was not his best quality,” Benvenuto admitted while speaking of his uncle’s legacy. But he fondly recalls his uncle’s teaching to him, preaching humility and patience. He says, “He used to tell us, ‘Don’t show you to the other people, let other people look at you’.
Starting from 2017 vintage, the winery decided to add “Barolo Pio” and “Barbaresco Pio” to its labels, coining the style that the charismatic patriarch had so long championed and defended.
Rooted in tradition, the winery is not averse to innovation, he insisted. “But,” he quickly paused, changing his pace, “if you ask me what’s the most important wine at Pio Cesare, I would never tell you it’s the single vineyard, but Barolo and Barbaresco classico.”
Anniversary wine dinner
It makes sense that in order to celebrate the winery’s 140th anniversary and its traditional style, six flights of Pio Cesare Barolos spanning six decades were uncorked and poured at an exclusive wine dinner hosted by Boffa’s long-time friend and wine critic James Suckling and his Hong Kong importer Jebsen Beverage Company.
The Barolos came directly from the winery and Suckling’s own cellar, who first met Pio in 1980s when he was working as an editor for Wine Spectator. “I had a lot of Pio bottles in my cellar and I was a big believer in Pio wines,” he said at the beginning of the dinner. “For some reason, people underestimated him. I never did and the wines today are still incredible,” the wine critic lauded.
With age, the wines from 1960s have softened, showing incredible structure and elegance and what classic Barolo was about.
“The 1967 acidity was a bit high, but when you judge Barolos you can’t judge them right away, you need to give them time to metamorphosize and you will see how Barolos change into these incredible wines,” says Suckling.
The wines were tasted in flights from 1960s, 1970s to 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and all the way to the latest 2017 vintage to demonstrate the wine’s evolution.
“It’s heart-breaking, but at the same time, it’s amazing to see Federica there. Pio was so proud of her,” he added. Federica, a graduate of business management from University of Turin, had been working alongside her father for the past few years. She now along with her cousin Benvenuto runs the family business.
To commemorate the 140-year milestone, the family is releasing a 2017 Barolo del Commune di Serralunga d’Alba, a blend of family vineyards from Ornato, La Briccolina, Serra and Lirano. Only 1881 numbered bottles will be available. Additionally, 500 bottles of limited edition Barolo Riserva 2000 will be released.
“It has been a great honour working with Pio Cesare over the last two decades and I admire their dedication towards quality. A real gem of Piedmont,” says Donny Ho, General Manager of Jebsen Fine Wines. The company has been importing Pio Cesare wines for Hong Kong and Macau market since 2001.
Pio Cesare has 75 hectares under vine today, with vineyards in Barolo’s Serralunga d’Alba, Monforte, Novello, La Morra and Grinzane Cavour, and Barbaresco’s Treiso and San Rocco Seno d’Elvio. The winery also makes Barbera, white wines of Gavi and Chardonnay.
Speaking of the future, Benvenuto says, the priority is to continue with what Pio has done. The winery will be releasing a few new wines, but above all, it will carry on with family style.
Without missing a beat, he affirmed, “the day you see a change in our style, we will close our winery doors.”