As I was saying in the last post, there was discussion at the table about the contents of the old Vallana Spanna wines we drank. Were these wines made purely of Nebbiolo? Were they reconditioned - re-bottled and perhaps topped up with some newer wine?
It's tempting to say that the answers don't matter - these are old wines that were made before there were controls that dictated what was allowed and what wasn't. There will never be a way to know for sure what's in these bottles. Why not simply drink them and enjoy them?
Well, that's what we did. But I'm not entirely satisfied with that idea because it would cost about $100 to buy one of the bottles we drank, others would be more expensive. I like to know the grapes used to make my $14 rosé - I want to know what was used here too. Maybe I feel entitled because it's expected now with food to be able to ask the provenance of the tiniest grain of salt on the plate. Should that extend to wine? I have this idea that with wine, particularly with expensive wine, I should be able to find out what's in the bottle. Of course it isn't always possible, and with the Vallana Spanna wines, there are questions and few definitive answers.
Since I know so little about this sort of thing, I'll share with you what a few knowledgeable people had to say.
Before going to the dinner I told Peter about it and showed him the list of wines we would drink, hoping that he would help me to build some context for what I would experience. Peter made sure to explain that he is an agnostic on this issue, that for him it is purely a sensory experience that forms his opinion. One of the things he said was this:
That's a fantastic Vallana lineup. Back in Portland we did a number of dinners like that, when the wines were first unearthed by the Rare Wine Company about ten years ago. They were very affordable back then (comparatively speaking), but unfortunately now they've been "discovered". The '58s are incredibly youthful, as is '61 Campi Raudii. Anyway, they're all great. Hope you enjoy them. Just between you and me (sorry Peter - ed.), you should open a Taurasi or other aglianico tonight, and then tell me if you don't find those same aromas in the Vallanas! I've long thought that those old Vallanas aren't 100% nebbiolo (or spanna), although it doesn't bother me one bit. I like to think that they were bulking it up with aglianico, and 50 years later we're discovering how noble aglianico can really be.Levi agreed that the wines are likely not to be pure Nebbiolo, and as Peter said, this doesn't bother him a bit.
If these wines were represented the way Burgundy wines are represented, as pure Pinot from one specific vineyard, that would be problematic. But they're not represented that way. The techniques used to make these wines are not those used to make traditional Barolo and Nebbiolo wines - I think these Spanna were made using dried grapes for example. so should we dismiss them? No, they're intensely expressive wines and I think they taste very much of Piedmonte, they have a cut that I recognize as Piedmontese.I asked Levi if he thinks that Aglianico was added to the Vallana Spanna wines we drank. He said it is possible, but that he doubts it.
That's pretty far to go, from Campania to Piedmonte. The roads were unpaved, there is no river to use for sending the grapes. Why use Aglianico if they had local grapes that would work the same way, like Vespolina, Bornarda, and Uva Rara? The grapes are similar - Nebbiolo and Aglianico, and people don't have the reference point to say "wow, that tastes like Uva Rara" when it might well be Uva Rara, not Aglianico. Also, Vallana was using chestnut to age the wines and that has a taste that people might identify as Aglianico - chestnut is cheaper than oak and it was used to age wine back then in Campania too. Look - we drink this and say "this doesn't really taste like Nebbiolo, it tastes like Aglianico. But there are other questions too. To what extent is this stuff made from dried grapes? Also there is the old wine sweetness, the still intact sugar that you can taste from the chaptalization. There's a lot going on here.I talked with Jeremy Parzen, who wrote a fun and informative post in 2007 that provides lots of context for Vallana Spanna. Jeremy has had several opportunities to drink Vallana Spanna and I asked him what he thinks might be in these bottles.
Remember that in the 1950's and 60's it was rare to have a very good vintage. Two great vintages in a row - forget it. It was so cold, they had trouble getting enough alcohol in the wines because the grapes rarely developed enough sugar. Now it's easy - it's much warmer, there are many more good vintages today than in the past. A wine maker recently told me that global warming has made him rich. Anyway, that was a time when you needed to be able to sell a lot of wine to people who were going to put it on the table and open it. If the vintage was bad, you better get creative and figure out how to sell wine or else you might lose your clients. Aglianico from the south was riper and could help raise alcohol levels. I have no doubt that Aglianico regularly made it into Nebbiolo wines during those times.I asked Jeremy how this would have actually worked. What about the bad roads, the costs of transporting grapes if other grapes were available locally that might have helped - Bornarda, Vespolina, Uva Rara.
It's true, the roads were bad, but Italy had a very well developed canal system, the vestiges of which can still be seen today. Almost all of Italy was navigable by canal in those days. It would have been possible to get the grapes to Piedmonte that way. And if the vintage was bad, Bornarda, Vespolina, and Uva Rara wouldn't have been much help if they also came from a thin vintage. I don't taste Aglianico in those wines, I taste Nebbiolo. but 1955 and 1958 were very good vintages and maybe they didn't need to bulk up the wines. I agree, though, that the wines clearly have been reconditioned. They are just so fresh - more so than Giacomo Conterno wines that I've had from those same years, for example.I asked Jeremy if he feels that Vallana Spanna are wines that express terroir, or are they wines of blending and conditioning.
My concept of terroir includes people and tradition - it's not just place. These are distinct wines that taste like Nebbiolo from east Piedmonte - a little lighter and not quite as tannic as Langhe wines. In the 1950's and 60's, east Piedmont and Lombardy were where fine Nebbiolo came from. It wasn't until the early 70's that Barolo and Barbaresco emerged as the place for the finest Nebbiolo and the single vineyard as terroir idea only began there at that same time. Personally, I think that the greatest Barolo and Barbaresco are not single vineyard wines, but that's another story. In the 50's and 60's, people making Spanna traditionally blended their wines - they had to in order to make a living. They weren't making wines so that some one could age them for decades. They needed to sell wine, good wine, to their clients. Some say that Syrah might have made it into Spanna at times. I wouldn't doubt it. Part of the terroir concept regarding Spanna involves blending and perhaps grapes from far away. Still, though, these wines to me taste like Nebbiolo from east Piedmonte.I've heard similar stories about Burgundy too, by the way. That Syrah was used to fortify the wines at times. It goes to show that the sensibility that real wines should be purely of one place and that demands an exactitude with regard to blending - this is a purely modern phenomenon. In the good old days, it was far less clear than now what was in the bottle.