Domenico Clerico: The Winemaker with Dirty Shoes

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Our visits to wineries are invariably well-choreographed. Appointments are made well ahead of time and tightly scheduled to ensure that we do not unduly inconvenience our host who is usually the owner/winemaker. Our visit in October to Domenico Clerico was the exception. A visit to a winery had to be cancelled at the last minute because the winemaker was still harvesting. With the assistance of a thoughtful staff at the lovely locanda (inn) where we were staying, she squeezed us into an appointment for the afternoon.

Since it was not on our itinerary, I have not done my customary research. So apart from his reputation as one of the top winemakers of Barolo, I had scant knowledge of this estate. Armed with their address in Monforte d’Alba, we embarked on a meandering drive through undulating landscape of Langhe. The scenery is truly breathtaking and one can readily appreciate why parts of these roads which crisscross and switchback through the hills and valleys are called Strada Romantica (the Romantic Road). I was on the lookout for a sizable farmhouse and I passed many which fit the bill but did not bear the right house number. After making a couple of passes through the same roads, confusion started to set in… did I have the wrong address?

I somehow overcame my aversion to ask for directions (I understand it is a distinctively masculine, not to mention moronic, trait to refuse to ask for directions even when he is hopelessly lost) and stopped at a gate which we passed a number of times to seek help. One cannot discern from the front as to the nature and size of the building behind the gleaming metal gate. As it was built on the bluff of a hill, there are only glimpses of a modern building with a curving metal canopy camouflaged under a cover of grass. Much to my embarrassment, this was the place I was looking for all along. I could claim in my own defence that there was no house number or signs but the truth is that I was led astray by my preconceived image of the winery being housed in an aging and rustic farmhouse.

Barolo is one of the most well-known wines in the world and enjoys a rich history. There is a commune and town which bear the name Barolo and this wine is made there. However, Barolo is made in a much wider area which encompasses this commune. The Barolo zone is in the Piedmont hills with the town of Alba being its unofficial capital (less than 2 hours drive from Milan). To be labeled Barolo, the wine must be made wholly from the Nebbiolo grape grown in the designated Barolo zone.

Barolo is revered as the King of Italian wine and is recognized as a connoisseur wine. At its best, it is the ultimate expression of the Nebbiolo grape. Its characteristic light color belies its richness, power and massive structure. It combines mouth-filling acidity and tannin with an aroma and flavor of remarkable delicacy. The young Barolo has a complex aroma of cherries, plums and violets. As the tannins soften with age; tar, truffles and game comes to the fore. The transparency of flavor serves as a counterpoint to its power… like a great burgundy.

Like burgundy, it also embraces the concept of terroir and cru. Since the late 19th century, cru status has been accorded to vineyards producing the highest quality of Barolo. Many winemakers would make a single wine from grapes harvested from a cru site and label it as such, hence, the name single vineyard bottling. Although there is no official designation, many vineyards have long been recognized as being of “cru” status, if not, “grand cru” status. One such cru vineyard in Monforte d’Alba is Ginestra. From this cru, Clerico produces 2 outstanding barolos, the legendary Ciabot Mentin and Pajana.

Returning to Clerico winery, we were met by a massive structure of concrete, stainless steel and glass once we passed the gates. It was hidden in plain view because it was crafted from the side of a hill and houses several descending levels. The roof was accented by curved steel arches with protruding beams. Standing by itself, this modernity would be a bit jarring but the designer has artfully blended it into the contours of the surrounding hills. The functionality was undeniable; it was spacious, airy and infused with light. Every level offers a stunning panoramic view of the countryside. With its quotient of stainless steel, it was remarkably clean. This building surely befits Clerico’s moniker as a modernist.

In the 80s, modernist was a dirty word to many who make Barolo in the traditional fashion. The different approaches became hyped as a war between the modernist and traditionalist. Traditionalist insisted that authenticity can only be achieved by making wine in exactly the same manner as their forefathers. The modernist felt that the terroir can only be fully expressed with change. These changes included reducing yield, shortened maceration times (the time that the grapes skins remain in contact with its juice after fermentation) and the use of new technology. Symbolic of this schism is the aging of wines in botti (large Slovenian casks) by the traditionalist as opposed to the use of much smaller French barriques. Stories abound of children being disowned by their fathers for using barriques instead of botti. Clerico was firmly placed as a proponent of the modernist movement.

So what should a modernist look like? This was the question on my mind as I waited for the tour to begin. Looking around, I saw a slight and elderly gentleman. He stood apart from the others and was hunched over in a corner sneaking a quick smoke. He had a huge head of curly grey hair and I almost expected him break into a Harpo Marx routine. He obviously wasn’t a visitor because he eventually shambled into an elevator and disappeared. The tour of the facilities was led by Luciano Racca, the assistant winemaker, who looked every part the modernist with his strapping built and a full beard. I spot the elderly gentleman tailing the group and turning off lights when we left. I thought he was the caretaker. In fact, he was Domenico Clerico. This was another preconceived notion down the drain.

After the obligatory tour and tasting, which showcase its very impressive facilities and a lineup of well-crafted wine, Mr. Clerico kindly sat down with us for a conversation which eventually lasted until the sun has faded into horizon and his wife has repeatedly come in to remind him that it was time to go. It was one of the most enjoyable chats that I have come across with a heretofore stranger. I started by commenting that for a winemaker with such a clean facility, his shoes were scruffy and covered with dirt. He replied that this is how it always is because he spent the majority time working in the vineyards. To him, the vineyards were the key to making wine of distinction. He then went on to regale us with a string of fascinating tales. Fascinating because it was not just about himself but about winemakers that had shared and shaped his vision. He paid homage to 2 giants, Angelo Gaja and Aldo Conterno by saying that without them, it would not be possible to have the Barolo of today. From this conversation, I do not sense a modernist but a person who is respectful and proud of the tradition of Barolo and the great wines that it is capable of yielding. Like his wines, he is generous and I shall always cherish his parting gift, a bottle of the 2004 Percristina, his flagship Barolo which is so much in demand that he has only kept a small quantity for himself. This was a visit like no other and it shall always linger in my memory.

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