Hipster dining chic doesn’t come much snazzier than at Belon in Macau, its sleek decor my vestibule into the work of winemaker Claudio Viberti, whose array of wines hail from vineyards some 400 to 500 metres above sea level in his native Piedmont. Our conversation leans towards the philosophical, partly because Father’s Day in June looms large and we’re drinking his flagship wine Buon Padre (“good father”), named after the restaurant his family still owns on the estate founded by his grandfather Antonio Giuseppe Viberti in 1923.
Among his own wines, Buon Padre is Viberti’s own personal favourite, made from a blend of Nebbiolo grapes sourced from key sites around the village of Barolo, the centre of a region of 11 villages known for exceptional (and often exceptionally expensive) wines. Well worth savouring, too, are his three single vineyard wines named after their respective locations – Bricco Delle Viole, La Volta and San Pietro, the 2007 version of the latter charming me in particular with its savoury palate and subtle tannins. All three Riserva wines are 100-percent Nebbiolo, made only after great harvests, with just nine such vintages in the past 28 years.
Viberti’s father Giovanni took over the family business in 1967 and Viberti himself joined in 2004, and today Azienda Agricola Viberti Giovanni also produces Barbera, Dolcetto, Moscato and Chardonnay, total production at some 120,000 bottles a year. The Barolos remain top of the heap, however, traditionally produced through ageing in 5,000-litre untoasted wooden casks (rather than the more modern method using smaller, toasted oak barrels) and, like wines of their stature, often requiring cellaring for a decade before drinking. Viberti, who looks no worse for wear at the tail end of a 10-day whirlwind Asian tour, engages me with his views on such winemaking finesse, while entertaining me with the saga of his family history.
I’m intrigued by how your family business began as a restaurant.
Yes, we were restaurateurs before becoming winemakers, and our history began in 1896 with the purchase of an inn in the upper part of the
village of Barolo by our family’s first generation in the area. The name of the locanda, in Italian a name that identifies a local restaurant, was Buon Padre, “good father”, due to the fact that that first generation was well known for its generosity to its guests. The restaurant was
located on the road that linked the Barolo village with the valley around it and there are 10 other villages now, but the name Barolo itself became associated with the best wine produced in the area, which is why we are called Barolo di Barolo. The commitment and passion that my family put into the restaurant convinced my grandfather Antonio Viberti in 1923 to start making a house wine for his restaurant.
And this wine was the ancestor of the wine we now know as your Buon Padre?
Yes. This house wine became the favourite among patrons of our restaurant. My grandfather decided to make his own house wine because
he disliked how patrons would complain about the house wine as if it was made by the restaurant when it was not. He felt that the restaurant could be held responsible only if it made its own house wine, and he could also better control its quality. He felt he understood what people were looking for in the glass and, with each successive vintage, he improved the wine to meet people’s expectations. My father went one step further and planted more vineyards to make even better wines and eventually our Barolo was supported by other wines, such
as Dolcetto d’Alba and Barbera d’Alba. After we began exporting overseas in the early 1970s, my family began to look ahead beyond
the classico of our Buon Padre and, in 1988, we had the first releases of our single-vineyard Barolo wines from our oldest and best parcels, and these became Bricco Delle Viole, San Pietro and La Volta. The main idea is the same today: these Riserva wines are the pure expressions of their terroir, bottled only when there’s a great vintage.
I understand your mother is still the chef at Buon Padre and you made a special wine for her.
My mother Maria has been the chef for more than 40 years and she is still the only chef in the Langhe area who every morning cuts by hand the famous tajarin egg noodles. She still serves this signature pasta to thousands of visitors at our restaurant every year and is the real driving force behind the Viberti family and its wines. For that reason, I decided to dedicate to her a big project. She is a big fan of the Barbera grape, so I committed myself as the third generation of our wine making family to create a wine for her, a Barbera d’Alba called La Gemella – “the twins”, since my mother has a twin sister – done in the style that she likes, a juicy wine with bright notes of blueberry.
Barolo wines often make me think about the notion of “wine anxiety” and how some critics say wine should be “remystified”, so that people can see that stylistic differences are actually fascinating and they can then be less intimidated by wine.
Sometimes I think there’s too much of that behind a bottle of wine, when it can be so nice sitting with a winemaker, just trying to understand in a more casual way how he makes his wine, like why he does a certain number of days of maceration, or why he blends or uses single vineyards. I think that’s part of the beauty of it all, the sense of combining know-how with a bit of poetry. You learn when you start to drink more and these stylistic differences are then a procedure, a way to talk about the wine.
What would you say if I tell you I’ve tried many wines from different Barolo producers and found them vastly different, meaning I don’t have a single considered opinion on Barolo?
I would say that you are right. I agree that there are so many styles of Barolo, more and more so in the past 20 years like it has never happened before. It’s now at the point where it’s really about the imprint of the winemaker who creates the Barolo in his own style. There are now Barolos made with barriques for a more modern approach, with more hard tannins, and then you will find Barolos like ours which offer a cleaner and brighter, even purer expression with softer tannins, made in a more traditional way. You can find now in Barolo more compromised wines with the use of new oak, none of them made in big barrels, and so I would say that the Barolo producer nowadays speaks for himself and not for the category. That might sound negative, but it’s also a good point in the sense that if you do a blind tasting you will always be able to recognise the producer’s style.
But now, tasting your Bricco Della Viole and La Volta, I’m not sure I could say they were from the same producer. Bricco is more “feminine” and La Volta more “masculine,” wouldn’t you agree?
People have said so. I would say that, in terms of style, you could at least recognise that they are traditional Barolo wines. The vineyards and the geography of this region, even the microclimates you can experience from one hill to another, can be very different. For an extreme example, in the wines from Barolo di Barolo you can experience tannins that are stronger and the wine is more full-bodied, with a colour that’s a dark ruby red, but if you move further north to Verduno you can find Barolo wines that are a very light ruby red – you can get confused by the colour and think they are Pinot Noir. I feel that I know enough about all the Barolos to tell you from just looking at the glass that that’s from Verduno and it’s not ours. I can even identify them from their villages, like, “Ah yes, that austere tannin, that’s a wine from Serralunga.” Of course, it’s a question of personal opinion, since I might like an older style of Barolo, so you can choose the one that’s right for you.