Canonica: a Piemontese 'discovery'

4/30/11 -

(Paiagallo, April 3, 2011. Vines planted in 1987. No herbicides in use here!)

A couple of trips each year to Piedmont have given me the chance to taste a great many wines there – and to taste them a number of times. Combine those trips with Nebbiolo Prima, the annual event staged by the producers association called Albeisa (500 to 600 current vintage wines in 5 days), and one begins to feel pretty well informed about the state of affairs in Barolo and Barbaresco. A lot of perfectly good and competent wine is made every year, but it’s not every day, or every year – or every five years – that we find a ‘new’ Barolo producer who we think may be in the same class as our short list of greats (the Mascarellos, G. Conterno, G. Rinaldi, Cappellano, Roagna, etc).

We’d heard for several years from trusted friends about Giovanni Canonica’s wine, but there were two stumbling blocks: tiny quantities, and politics; Canonica seems to share Bartolo Mascarello’s views, but going so far as refusing to send his wine to the US while our foreign policy was so – ‘Disastrous”. Fortunately, our friend Kevin McKenna (Joe Dressner and Denise Louis’ business partner) was able to persuade Canonica to meet with us, and even to make some wine available (Berlusconi’s current shenanigans being a reasonable balancing argument, apparently).

The facts: Paiagallo is a fairly small hillside vineyard at 300-400 meters – fairly high on the slope above the town of Barolo. Canonica has about 4 acres of vines, including some planted with Barbera (“for the family only”, but another great wine). So far as we can tell the only other producer to bottle a Paiagallo is Fontanafredda.

Canonica’s work is super old-fashioned in the vines, with no chemicals used aside from Bordeaux mix (copper and sulphur). In the winery the same approach: foot-pressed grapes; indigenous yeast fermentation; no temperature control; very long fermentation in wood; 2-3 rackings at first, and then just one per year after malo; aging in botte (very large old wood barrels); very minimal sulphur used throughout.

The subjective: the Barolo Paiagallo has great energy, transparency, and focus, which connect it to some of the best wines we have tasted from the region. On paper, and in the glass, it reads as true traditional Nebbiolo. In some specifics it reminds us of particular wines – the haunting black cherry fruit of Cascina Francia, the ripe but intense tannin of Bartolo Mascarello, the dance between elegance and rusticity of G. Rinaldi, the purity and energy of Cappellano. Yesterday we tasted the wines again, by coincidence in sequence with the traditional wines from a very well-regarded producer from Serralunga; those wines were good, but the Canonica was in an entirely different class and breed. The salesperson showing us the Serralunga wines was the first to acknowledge that his wares were in an unfair match-up (and today he called to say that he was “haunted by the wines”). It’s true that we don’t have a tasting history to refer to, but the wines we’ve tried have shown so well that we’re very excited - and optimistic, at least.

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