Pio Cesare: 140 years of benchmark Barolo and Barbaresco

This was a tasting to celebrate 140 years of this important Piedmont producer, whose production is split almost equally between Barolo and Barbaresco.

Sadly, earlier this year, long-term proprietor Pio Boffa died. Pio had been involved in the family firm since 1973 (he was the fourth generation of the family) had run things since the death of his father Guiseppe Boffa in 2000. Now Pio Cesare is in the hands of the fifth generation: Pio’s daughter Federica Boffa, and her cousin Cesare Benevenuto, Pio’s nephew. They hosted this tasting.

So let’s go back to the beginning. Pio Cesare was a local businessman in Alba, who used to make wine for his friends. His passion became his business, and he began the winery in 1881, in the same cellar that it occupies today. ‘When Pio Cesare began in 1881 there were four or five producers of local wines,’ explained Cesare. ‘Now there are over 600 producers in Barolo and Barbaresco,’ he says, ‘but Pio Cesare is the only one in the city centre of Alba.’ The underground cellars are delimited by walls built by the Romans, dating back to 50 BCE.

One of the big changes in the company was the decision to start acquiring vineyards. ‘In the 1970s my grandfather and father started buying vineyards,’ says Federica. ‘It was a big change.’ She says that the strategy they employed was to buy vineyards where they were already getting grapes from, which kept a continuity in the wines. They now own 75 hectares in Barolo and Barbaresco, which is a lot for this region. Production is a sizeable 400 000 bottles a year from these two communes.

Farming has also changed in step with changing sentiments about vineyard practice. ‘We have moved away from chemicals in the vineyard,’ says Federica. ‘We consider ourselves almost organic, but my father didn’t want any certification: he didn’t believe in certification as marketing.’ They monitor the conditions in the vineyards with a network of small weather stations, and this allows them to target any interventions to when they are needed.

In the cellar, the approach isn’t easily pigeonholed. It’s a sort of fusion between traditional approaches and more modern winemaking. There’s a strong reliance on large format neutral oak (botti), but most of the top wines also have a portion that goes through small oak for part of their elevage. The results are very impressive.

THE WINES

[These were all small bottle samples]

Pio Cesare Piodilei Chardonnay 2018 Langhe, Italy
Made since 1985, fermented in French oak barriques, one-third new. Two vineyards (but this will change from 2019 vintage), one in Barbaresco and one in Barolo. This is bright and fresh with a powerful lemon and lime core supported by subtle, spicy oak and good acidity. It’s a bright, refined Chardonnay with some limestone structure and brightness. 93/100

Pio Cesare Barolo 2017 Piedmont, Italy
14.5% alcohol. This is the classic Barolo, made from five different communes, each of which bring something to the blend. Serralunga d’Alba brings structure and longevity, Grinzane Cavour brings finesse and body, La Morra brings elegance and immediacy, and Monforte d’Alba brings power and structure. Winemaking involves a long post-ferment maceration, and then ageing in a mix of large and small oak casks. It’s quite classically styled, with nice balance between the sweet, pure raspberry and cherry fruit, and the more savoury notes, with grippy tannins clamping down on the fruit, and notes of chalk, fine herbs and minerals. It’s a fine, pure, structured wine – not too fleshy or rich, despite the 14.5% alcohol, and showing a coolness to the red fruits, with plenty of potential for development. Lovely balance here. 94/100 (the 2016 is listed at £59 by Waitrose)

Pio Cesare Barbaresco 2017 Piedmont
14.5% alcohol. From two communes: Treiso (for freshness, youth and longevity) and San Rocco Seno d’Elvio (for fullness and body). Winemaking involves a long post-ferment maceration, and then ageing in a mix of large and small oak casks. Fine floral nose with some sweet strawberry and red cherry notes, with dried herbs and a hint of pepper. The palate is pure, silky and well balanced with lovely elegance. There’s certainly some grainy, stony tannin here giving structural underpinnings, but also exquisite tapering red fruits with a mineral quality and some spicy detail. This is a really lovely wine, and although it has a good future ahead of it, it’s quite lovely now. 95/100 (the 2016 is listed for £49.99 by Majestic)

Pio Cesare Barbaresco Il Bricco 2017 Piedmont
14.5% alcohol. From three different plots in the Il Bricco vineyard in Treiso, which has the coolest climate and the highest elevation (390 m) in Barbaresco. Mainly limestone soils. 30 days maceration in stainless steel then 30 months maceration in botti (large format oak) as well as a small portion that spends its first year in barrique. Slightly muted nose with fine red fruits, as well as some sweet black cherries. The palate has harmony, elegance and freshness, as well as considerable power. There’s a sleekness to the fruit, as well as some brightness, with the formidable tannins cloaked in the silky fruit. This is quite beautiful, bridging modern and traditional in style, and with a good life ahead of it. 96/100 (UK retail c £90)

Pio Cesare Barolo Ornato 2017 Piedmont
14.5% alcohol. From plots in Cascina Ornato in Serralunga d’Alba. This was the first single-vineyard wine released by Pio Cesare back in 1985. The vineyard is an amphitheatre facing south and south east at 380 m. Limestone and clay soils with a bit of sandstone. It has 30 days maceration then it’s aged in large oak botti for 30 months, with a small portion spending a year in barrique. This is compact and structured, with some firm, bright, chalky tannins under the fresh red cherry and raspberry fruit. There’s a sense of purity, focus and precision here with real clarity to the red fruits. Has bright fine red fruits and a real tension: this will go the distance. A thrilling wine. 97/100 (UK retail c £95)

Pio Cesare Barolo Mosconi 2017 Piedmont
14.5% alcohol. First made in 2015, this is from a 10 hectare plot purchased in 2014 by Pio Boffa as a 60th birthday present to himself, in Monforte d’Alba. 30 days maceration then matured for 30 months in botti, with a portion spending a year in small French oak. This is fresh, fine and juicy with a lovely supple personality. There’s a herbal edge to the fine red cherry fruit, with some dried leaves and rose petals, and some hints of tar and spice framing the sweet mid-weight fruit on the palate. This has a lovely sweetness of fruit and is approachable now, but will repay cellaring. Fine-grained tannins, with good acidity. Has a little warmth, too. 93/100 (UK retail c £95)

Pio Cesare Comune di Serralunga d’Alba 2017 Piedmont
14.6% alcohol. A special wine released for the 140th anniversary, this is a one-off bottling from four Serralunga vineyards: Ornato (the first one they bought in the 1970s), La Briccolina, La Serra and Colombaro. 1881 bottles produced to commemorate the founding year. This is firm, compact and structured with a lot of tannin. Nice density of red cherry and berry fruits with notes of tar and spice, as well as some dried herbs. Firm and quite dense, with a brightness on the finish. This needs a lot of time: it’s really dense and tight at the moment. Potentially very long lived. 94/100

Pio Cesare Barolo 2000 Piedmont
14% alcohol. This is a small library release of 500 bottles. The first from Pio Cesare, but not the last. It has a really sweet, aromatic herbal nose with some stewed red fruits and hints of earth and spice. The palate is evolved with some warm forest floor notes, as well as a bit of cherry fruit and some spices. Tannins are soft and resolved, and there’s a slightly baked note to the fruit on the soft palate. Now fully mature, with some appeal, but it is a little too soft and developed for me – has this wine suffered from being decanted to a small bottle? 90/100

Pio Cesare Vermouth
A new development from the fifth generation, this has a mix of 26 different botanicals and involves different Pio Cesare white wines. It’s richly aromatic with some marmalade and orange peel notes as well as an array of spices. This is really exotic and delicious with lovely sweet, spicy complexity.

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