March 11, 2012

1969 Berteletti Sizzano

Last November, Chambers Street Wine in New York City emailed a unique offer of Nebbiolo Vecchio, or old Nebbiolo from mostly lesser known regions of northern Italy. There were a few things from Barolo and Barbaresco, or maybe they just had some old bottles in stock. The real show was a broad assortment of vintages from the 1950s through 1970s from DOCs like Carema, Ghemme, Spanna and Sizzano, mostly from producers I'd never heard of.

Oddly, the internets seemed to lack much detail on the producers or vintages. The Italian wine bible, Wasserman's Noble Wines of Italy, predictably had more to offer. There was a good deal of information on these otherwise obscure growing regions, certainly some nice detail on the old vintages, occasionally a note on the producers involved and even a specific bottling or two in the offer. But everything I saw suggested nothing from these regions was really made to last for decades. And the producers involved were largely not the few notable ones that serious Italian wine geeks would know.

Nevertheless, I couldn't resist putting together a collection of bottles, all from the 1960s with the exception of a single bottle from the year 1970. Chambers is as good as wine shops come, the prices were surprisingly reasonable for wines of this age, and though many of my initial selections had quickly sold out, I felt confident that anything I purchased would at least be interesting, certainly educational, and perhaps wonderful.

 I followed Chambers' instructions to let the wines rest after their journey to Oregon. These were fragile wines, they said, that, whenever one opened them, might need some patience and coaxing to reveal themselves. I have no problem with that. I'm patient. But I couldn't help noticing the color of the wines through the green glass bottles (most are darker brown). Ruby, quite translucent and certainly not brown, promising.

Already these wines have fallen into the "when do I open them?" trap. They've been here for three months, and only now did I take one out to the Oregon coast for a bit of a retreat with my partners in Guild Winemakers. Surely were would cook nice food and pull corks on some variety of bottles. What better time than to see about the 1969 Berteletti Sizzano? If it was dead, and the vintage by all accounts was awful, we'd have other things to take its place. If it was even remotely drinkable, who isn't interested in trying a wine as old or older than oneself?

I needn't have worries. Out came a stubby, plain cork and into the glass went the wine. One sniff and I knew it was marvelous nebbiolo vecchio from the commune of Sizzano. Look at that color above. Not young, but far younger looking than most 43-year-old wines have any business being. One partner, who makes nebbiolo locally, simply said, "it's nebbiolo." If there's an Italian red grape that should stand up to the decades, it's nebbiolo.

This wine was astonishing. Much better than I expected, more youthful but so mature, full of bottle sweetness and meaty, earthy notes of age. There was some nice cherry fruit in there, a bit any way, and the texture was so good. Tannin resolved but still present, the finish pretty long, soft and yet focused at once. More than just holding up, this was excellent wine.

Alas, we didn't quite finish the bottle, what with many other things to try and, admittedly, lots of seafood on the table. I was determined to try this wine in this company, so I opened it anyway, food match be damned. I was also determined to save the rest for tonight, to see if it survived.

The picture above shows how the color browned overnight. Still, the wine resisted oxidation and held together fantastically, the meaty boullion character from last night showing a bit more pronounced, the texture and length intact so that I couldn't let that last glass go to waste.

Drink a wine like this and one is transported somewhere else, some time else, in a way nothing but wine can do. Back when wine was made more simply (even if Berteletti wasn't a tiny producer - numbers on the bottle suggest there were are least a few thousand cases of this wine - I can only imagine their grape growing and wine making techniques were quite simple compared to norms today). Back when walking on the moon was something new and one's life had hardly begun.

Needless to say, my expectations for the rest of my purchases has risen considerably. I know, I know, there are not great wines, just great bottles. This one may not have been great exactly, whatever that means, but it was very, very good and incredibly memorable and thought provoking. Almost perfect if you ask me.

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