I passed! Time to celebrate!!!!
As you may have seen from the About Me page, I recently received my final passing mark for my last WSET Diploma class. The Diploma level is definitely a serious commitment, and I put in a ton of time and effort over the past two years into passing the 6 units. I am still waiting for the final confirmation from the WSET of my completion of all the requirements, but I would like to think that barring any serious issue I am done. And that is why the day I received my grade, it was time to celebrate.
Normally people like to celebrate a momentous occasion with Champagne, but on this day I was conflicted. Certainly the idea of popping open a nice bottle of bubbly crossed my mind when I was thinking of how to rejoice in my accomplishment. And I would bet that many WSET Diploma students choose beer or whiskey over wine since they have certainly had a lot of the latter while they were studying for the Diploma. But I chose to go a completely different route. Rather than going for the bubbles or beer, I went for a legend.
It wasn’t my intention to buy the Bartolo Mascarello 2001 Barolo when I walked into Berkeley Wine Company after getting home from work. But after talking to the owner, Dave, about both the Diploma and my new project, he steered me to the Bartolo. I wanted a wine that had some age to it since I was going to be opening the bottle later that night, so the 2001 was a nice fit. And I wanted a bottle that leaned more towards the traditional side of Barolo. As part of this project, I needed a reference point for how Barolo had been made for years and years (and decades and decades). With the Bartolo Mascarello, I was firmly in the traditional winemaking camp. I walked out of the store with a smile on my face, and a head full of excitement and expectation.
I pulled out the decanter for the Bartolo Mascarello. I wanted to give the wine some time to breathe, to let the tannins mellow and to let the wine fully open up and show its best. And I will admit, I wanted to give the tasting a little extra something by having the wine decanted rather than just pouring one glass. There is something about the pomp and circumstance of decanting a full bottle that brings an element of specialness to the experience. The wine was in the decanter for about 2 hours in my cellar before I poured the first glass (after putting the girls to sleep).
- In the glass, the wine was a medium garnet, although the color had some youth to it and could have passed for ruby.
- On the nose, the wine had a moderate intensity and was well into its developing phase. No longer youthful, the wine showed a litany of aromas, including balsamic, tar, smoke, cherry, roasted nuts and dried herbs.
- On the palate, the acidity and tannins still remained moderately high, with the tannins chewy and dense but not overpowering. The wine had a medium plus body and alcohol level. The flavors had a moderately high level of intensity, with cherry, balsamic and tar showing early. Prune, cinnamon and sweet spice came around after several minutes, and the finish was long.
I was extremely happy with how the 2001 Bartolo Mascarello was showing on its first night. The wine was clearly showing signs of development, aging nicely after the past 14 years. But there was still a youth to the wine with its fresh and lively acidity that carried all the way through the long finish. The aromas and flavors were layered and complex, and the wine was well-balanced. The 2001 Bartolo was living up to the bar that I had set in my mind, and it was delivering on its promise of traditionalism.
Bartolo Mascarello as Tradition
The name Bartolo Mascarello evokes a definitive image of traditionalism in the minds of fans of Barolo. For years, Cantina Mascarello (as the winery was formerly known) was run by Bartolo Mascarello. Along with fellow producers Giuseppe Rinaldi and Teobaldo Cappellano, Bartolo was known as one of the Last of the Mohicans for his staunch refusal to change his style of winemaking amidst the revolution that was the Modern winemaking approach in Barolo. But Bartolo’s adherence to the traditional winemaking ways were not just rooted in a refusal to embody the new. Being a traditionalist was a result of a set of core values that Bartolo brought to winemaking, and which now live on in the approach of his daughter, Maria Teresa Mascarello.
Bartolo believed that for Barolo to be a consistent product year over year, it should be a blend of several vineyard sites (unlike many newer Barolo productions, which have highlighted single vineyards and crus over the past 40+ years). The grapes are harvested from vineyards in Cannubi, San Lorenzo and Rué (some of the most famous crus in Barolo), as well as Rocce del Annunziata in La Morra. So even though the wine is a blend, it is a blend of some of the most prime vineyard real estate in Barolo. Consequently, the blending is not done to mask lesser quality grapes. Instead, it is to achieve a more balanced wine. By smoothing vintage variation across the sites, the blended wine wine achieves a certain (typically high) level of quality year over year. In this manner, Bartolo and Maria Teresa are very much like master blenders of Champagnes, although always confining themselves to a single vintage’s grapes.
But despite the principle of producing a wine of balanced and consistent character across vintages, Bartolo was still guided by a desire to produce a wine that showcased the seasonality of the time it was grown. Fermentation typically occurred (and still occurs to this day) over the course of approximately 15 days in concrete tanks with wild indigenous yeasts. The must further macerates on the skins for another 30 days (or more), before being moved to neutral chestnut botti. It was Bartolo who famously included the slogan “No Barrique No Berlusconi” on his labels, resolutely stamping his openly traditional approach to winemaking on his creations. The wine continues to be matured in the botti for 2.5 to 3 years, before being aged for another year in bottle prior to release.
The result of all of this steadfast traditonalism results in a wine that can sometimes defy expectation. The wine does not receive any benefit that more modern techniques like rotary fermenters and aging in barrique can bring, as Bartolo believed these techniques masked the true nature of the wine. Instead, a Bartolo Mascarello Barolo shows the wine for what it is, flaws and all. The wine invites reflection and mindfulness, as it proudly wears its variations on its sleeve (and sometimes, on its labels). To enjoy a Bartolo Mascarello is to accept the wine as a living object. The wine is certainly produced in a manner which holds the grapes and the wine in their highest esteem, and the quality of craftsmanship that occurs in the winery allows the wine to shine and achieve the highest of highs for a Barolo. But the wine is allowed to show the true nature of the season and the grapes from which it was produced, even if these conditions were not the equal of years prior. In this manner, a person who tastes a Bartolo Mascarello tastes exactly what the land and weather and grape provided, without artifice or consistency for consistency’s sake. And to taste these differences, to know them and to know from where they came from, is to walk down the path to being truly mindful of wine and what it can bring to life.
* I did have some of the wine left in the decanter, which I finished the next day. The decanter had a stopper, and was in my cellar for the full day since I opened the bottle. On the second day (in the afternoon), the wine was full of pine and balsamic and cherry. While the 2001 was smooth and pleasing, the long decant was probably too much for the wine and there was a good bit of fading on the second day. For this bottle, life was coming to a close. But it certainly lived a good life, and for me, it was a perfect way to celebrate a great accomplishment. The WSET Diploma courses have allowed me approach a wine like the 2001 Bartolo Mascarello in a more open and mindful way, and passing those courses has brought me to this point in my wine life. So as I reflect on the Diploma and what it brought to me, I am extremely happy with taking and completing the course. Now if only the WSET would confirm those results….