Auction Spectators: Asta del Barolo

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This account of a wet afternoon at the Asta del Barolo 2011 was first published by Langton’s. I doubt that things have changed much in the Langhe since this visit…

It rained heavily in Barolo on 13th March but over 200 guests braved the weather to attend the “XII Edizione” of the “Asta del Barolo” (“Barolo auction”), held in the WineMuseum Castello di Barolo and simulcast to H One Restaurant in Hong Kong and Ristorante Garibaldi in Singapore.

The chief auctioneer was Giancarlo Montaldo, the former President of the Enoteca Regionale del Barbaresco. He was accompanied by three “personalities” (as the Italian writer and blogger Franco Ziliani witheringly referred to them): Federico Quaranta, a food and wine broadcaster; Edoardo Raspelli, the best-known food critic in Italy; and the American wine critic James Suckling – always called “Giacomino” (“Jimmy”) by Ziliani – who has continued to live in Italy since his departure from Wine Spectator.

The Asta is run under the auspices of the “Accademia del Barolo”, an association founded in September 2010 by eleven Barolo producers who, says Ziliani, “have always been very well-treated, I would say with velvet gloves, by the still-influential magazine ­– though much less than in the past – Wine Spectator and its former editor and deux ex machina for Italy, James Suckling.”

The 36-lot auction took three and a half hours to complete. Of course, this being Italy meant that auction rules and conventions were soon abandoned. The PA system was raised to jackhammer volume to counter the chattering Italian voices and the bidding increments were largely ignored.

Lot 36 – “I 150 anni dell’Unità d’Italia”, a 12-bottle collection of Barolo from the 2006 vintage with each bottle signed by its producer to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy – was intended as the final “showpiece” lot of the auction but was actually sold between lots 21 and 22. Suckling took the gavel for this and, although the published estimate was €1,200, started the bidding at €2,000 and eventually sold it for €4,000. Its market value would be approximately €600.

The auction totalled €39,320 against an estimate (or “starting price”) of €15,580. The average lot price was €1,092.22 against an average estimate of €432.78. Room bidders in Barolo paid €16,510 for 15 lots. Hong Kong bought 11 lots for €11,560. Ten lots went to Singapore for a total of €11,250, giving it an average of €1,125 per lot, higher than either Barolo or Hong Kong.

Suckling bid successfully for two lots – lot 5, three magnums of Azelia San Rocco 2001, and lot 27, two bottles each of Paolo Scavino’s Cannubi, Bric del Fiasc and Rocche delle Annunziata of the 2000 vintage, which Suckling called (notoriously, in some people’s opinion), Barolo’s “greatest vintage ever… a year I rate a perfect 100 points”. Suckling generously (or, depending on your point of view, ostentatiously) took the bidding from €500 to €800 in one go when the bidding increment was €50. He paid €1,300 for this lot.

The proceeds of the auction were donated to the Don Bosco Hotel and School at Sihanouk Ville in Cambodia. Brother Roberto Panetto of the Catholic order of The Salesians of Don Bosco formed it in 2006 to help “Cambodia’s youth to find work with dignity in society, and thus to lift them out of poverty with its accompanying threats to a worthwhile and fulfilled existence.”

The auction’s fundraising is very worthy; its wines are good and the food excellent. But its politics are not to everybody’s taste. Ziliani wrote before the auction, “Given the certain entertainment assured by the Raspelli-Quaranta-Suckling trio, this ‘edition’ of the Asta del Barolo can be followed live on large screens positioned in Alba under the porticos of Piazza Savona, where we are certain that there will be the municipal police to contain the overflowing enthusiasm of the crowds that cannot be admitted to the Falletti Castle in Barolo…”

There were no large screens or police (or Ziliani, for that matter). The Asta del Barolo’s style might not please everybody but it supports a worthy cause and turns ostentatious self-indulgence into moral excellence. And who can argue with that?

“I Vini dell Accademia del Barolo” tasting notes

Eleven wines of the Accademia del Barolo formed lot 36, “I 150 anni dell’Unità d’Italia”. But the lot had 12 bottles: Pio Cesare contributed its “Classico” 2006 to the case but this was not available to taste because the producer is not a member of the Accademia del Barolo… Back to politics again.

The 2006 vintage in the Langhe became controversial when the distinguished winemaker Bruno Giacosa chose not to bottle any Barbaresco or Barolo. Other producers were more positive. On the whole, it is a tough, tannic and – dare one say it – old-fashioned Barolo vintage. The more elegant wines will probably mature into something very worthwhile, if not of the highest class. But those wines that have been smothered in so much new oak that the wine is suffocated by its tannins do not inspire as much confidence.

Azelia Barolo Margheria 2006

A good example of this powerful and tannic Barolo vintage. This has all the necessary components but falls short of greatness. The tannins remain obdurate.

Michele Chiarlo Barolo Cerequio 2006

Darker aromas than the Azelia, with a greater balance between the acidity and tannins. The curtains have not yet opened.

Conterno Fantino Barolo Mosconi 2006

Oak tannins here are piled up like icing on a cake. Very burly and lacking the elegance of Chiarlo.

Damilano Barolo Cannubi 2006

The first wine of the day to show the unmistakeable orange tinge of Barolo. Elegant and taut, needing time to open up.

Poderi Einaudi Barolo nei Cannubi 2006

Not as impenetrable as the Conterno Fantino but this has tannins as dumb as stone.

Gianni Gagliardo Barolo Preve Riserva

Some sweetness on the finish. Pleasant and elegant Nebbiolo fruit.

Franco M. Martinetti Barolo Marasco 2006

Fleshy rather than extracted, with plenty of acidity to counter the imposing tannins. Not quite as elegant as Signor Martinetti, who is always immaculately dressed in a nice suit and brown brogues.

Cordero di Montezemolo Barolo Monfalletto 2006

Rigorously built palate, with the tannins and acidity nicely counterpoised. Some sweetness to the fruit, too.

Podere Rocche dei Manzoni Barolo Vigna Cappella di Santo Stefano 2006

Back to the bumptious style, with the fruit carpet-bombed by oak. Impossibly tough and tannic, with no charm at all.

Paolo Scavino Barolo Bric del Fiasc 2006

Similarly textured to Martinetti – the wine, that is, not the suit – with flesh rather than bone and a bit of fruit sweetness.

Vietti Barolo Castiglione 2006

As dry as sandpaper on the finish but the wood-influenced tannins are relatively well contained.

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