"I made a mistake," Aldo Conterno growled. After a lifetime of winemaking, Mr. Conterno, 75, is not used to making mistakes. Indeed, he has made very few, which explains why he is recognized as one of Barolo's greatest winemakers. His Barolos routinely fetch triple-digit prices and are collected with the same obsessive attention lavished on Bordeaux and Burgundy.
Barolo — made 100% from the nebbiolo grape variety — is universally recognized as Italy's greatest red wine. But it's not an easy grape to make into wine unlike, say, cabernet sauvignon. Nebbiolo is both tannic and acidic, neither of which features are considered desirable in today's drink-now world.
To wrestle with nebbiolo is a winemaking task like no other. Creating Barolos with the elegance and finesse achieved by Mr. Conterno is as improbable as a smooth ride on a motocross circuit. Yet this is precisely what Mr. Conterno routinely accomplishes. His five different Barolos brim with character, all the while delivering their respective messages as elegantly as a professional courtier.
This helps explain why it was so shocking, during a recent visit to the winery, to hear Mr. Conterno submit that he made a mistake. "It was the 2003 vintage," he explained." As you know, it was very hot. It was a very difficult vintage."
In the tricky 2003 vintage, where the grapes were often scorched by the excessive heat of the hot summer, Mr. Conterno made a fateful decision.
"I didn't like it after one month," he said. "I thought it didn't have the balance. I was wrong. But we had to declare to the authorities whether we were making Barolo or declassifying it into basic nebbiolo. My sons said, "Dad, give the wine some time. You'll see. It's really good.'
"I'm ashamed to say that not only did I disagree with them, but I even suggested that they didn't know what they were doing." Mr. Conterno looked remorseful as he recalled his harsh paternal words.
"Anyway, about a month after we had decided not to make any wine labeled Barolo in 2003 and instead eventually sell all the wine under our nebbiolo label called Il Favot, one of my sons came to me with a glass of wine in hand.‘Try this,' he said. He didn't tell me what it was. So I tasted it and I said, ‘This is very great wine.' And my son said, ‘Well, Dad, it's the 2003 Il Favot.'"
HERE'S THE (RAREST) DEAL
IL FAVOT 2003, PODERI ALDO CONTERNO As the preceding story explains, the 2003 Il Favot (a Piedmontese dialect word pronounced fah-vuht) is both unique and unprecedented. It contains all of the grapes normally used for the five Barolo bottlings, each of which sells for between $125 and $200 a bottle.
"After I tasted that glass of wine, I realized my mistake," Mr. Conterno said. "Normally, we put the nebbiolo for Il Favot into small oak barrels. But I refuse to put my Barolo wines into small oak barrels because I personally don't like the taste of oak. So I said to my boys, ‘Let's get this wine out of the small barrels and into the big casks like we use for Barolo. Because this wine is really Barolo.'"
So the 2003 Il Favot has no oak influence, which is unusual for that label and most welcome. An exceptionally rich, dense, magnificently structured nebbiolo, the 2003 Il Favot has a deep blackish garnet color and offers an intense, penetrating perfuminess and a remarkable textural density on the palate.
Although technically a "Langhe Nebbiolo," the 2003 Il Favot is really a very great Barolo. And it will age, as great Barolos do, for upward of 20 years. Poderi Aldo Conterno winery has never made an Il Favot quite like this and very likely never will again.
If this same wine had been labeled Barolo — as it could have been — it would sell for $125 bottle. But because it appears under the Il Favot name, the price is $50. That's hardly cheap, to be sure, but for a "Barolo" of this extraordinary quality with this kind of pedigree, it's a flat-out steal. Any Barolo fan will tell you that you can't get an Aldo Conterno Barolo today for 50 bucks. Except, this once, you can.