There is something irresistibly bucolic about the sight of Oddero’s 19th-century winemaking house near Barolo, Italy. For one, it is the color of lemon cream, and baskets of magenta petunias line its upper floor like a painter’s embellishment. The home and winery complex is an L-shape facing open to the south. It is a typical layout from the time period, and highly practical: the configuration took advantage of the sun’s trajectory as it crossed the sky, warming rooms one-by-one from dawn to dusk.
To one side of the winery rises the town of La Morra. On the other side, a stately parish church stands above an apron of Nebbiolo vines. “That is the Bricco Chiesa cru,” Isabella Oddero tells me and my wife shortly after our arrival. “The church used to sell us the grapes from the vineyard, until we bought the vineyard from them.” Then she adds, “it is also the church where I got married.”
The Family Way of Doing Things
Isabella is part of the seventh generation at Oddero. She and her cousin, Pietro, are the future, learning the ins and outs of viticulture, eonology, exporting, marketing and distribution. Isabella once pursued a degree and possible career in literary-economics in Milan, but the pull of the Langhe, the culture of wine, and the legacy of her family brought her back.
A similar story can be found with her aunt, Cristina Oddero. Now the sixth-generation winemaker at Oddero, Cristina also pursued a different passion when she was younger — fashion and interior design — only to find that the patterns, textures and structures she wanted to create were back home in the wine cellar. Since 1997, her careful attention to detail in the vineyard — as well as a devotion to traditional techniques in the winery — have not only preserved the family legacy, but advanced it. (More on that later).
However, the heart and soul of Oddero seems to be 91-year-old Giacomo, Cristina’s father. For years, he channeled his passion for the Langhe not only into winemaking, but spearheading preservation efforts for the region’s gastronomical treasures. Upon his retirement from winemaking in 1997, he established the Centro Nazionale Studi sul Tartufo d’Alba (National Center for Alba Truffle Studies) to promote the prized white truffles that grow in the area, and research ways to preserve their future.
But Giacomo’s lasting legacy will be Oddero’s wine. When it comes to Nebbiolo, he has been an ardent traditionalist, insisting on longer macerations to extract as much character as possible from the grape, and then élevage in large casks with minimal oak influence. This had always been, and continues to be, the house style at Oddero for their Barolo and Barbaresco.
But perhaps his bigger impact* came from expanding the family’s vineyard holdings in the 1960s and 1970s when the land was affordable. Today, their 35 hectares — including vineyard plots in the Brunate, Vignarionda, Bussia, Rocche di Castiglione, Villero and Gallina cru — makes them one of the largest land-owners in the region.
“We are very proud and very lucky to own very important, very historic vineyards,” Isabella told me. “To realize what they did in the past, to do it now? It is impossible for the local families because the prices are crazy.”
Interest in the area’s wines continues to grow, and a recent UNESCO World Heritage Site designation for all of the Langhe Hills — coupled with foreign investment — has meant sky-rocketing land values.
“The difference then is that — maybe in the 1970s, 1980s — if a young Piedmontese man or family wanted to start a production, they could achieve getting some land. Today, it is very hard.”
Giacomo wasn’t at the winery during my visit, but at many turns, Isabella mentioned him with clear adoration and respect. “To my grandfather,” she says, describing the weathered, 40-year-old oak casks lined in rows deep in the cellar “they are like his children.”
The Dimensions of Barolo
Wine publications often distill the magic of Barolo’s wines into technical terms: how the Helvetian soil of this vineyard, plus the intense heat of that vintage, as well as the stylistic approach of such-and-such winemaker resulted in a bottle of 94 points.
But these wines frequently have another powerful force influencing their outcome: the family tree. Decisions large and small — both in the vineyard and in the cellar — often come down to how the previous generation saw things. What would dad do in this situation? How do we handle this vintage and still preserve the family style?
That’s not to say there haven’t been significant advancements from one generation to the next. Nor is it to say that today’s winemakers are afraid to change their approach. But they know what’s at stake when they make their wine: the family name on the label means everything.
This is clearly the case at Oddero, and you can see it in how they approach their six different bottlings of Barolo.
In addition to rejecting the modernist vinification processes for Barolo and Barbaresco that arose in the 1980s and 1990s, Giacomo was also hesitant to produce single-vineyard bottlings, which had become — and continue to be — fashionable. It took the near-perfect 1982 vintage to convince him it was time to release a single-vineyard Barolo, but even then it was from just one vineyard: Rocche di Castligione. Three years later, he bottled the Vignarionda and Bussia separately, but all of his holdings in Brunate and Villero — by then famous vineyards in their own right — went into the blend.
“Still today, I think, in his mind, in his heart, my grandfather thinks the true expression of Barolo is the classico Barolo,” Isabella told me.
When Cristina Oddero took over winemaking responsibilities from her father, things began to shift, but only slightly. In 2004, she released single-vineyard Barolo from the Villero and Brunate cru, and in 2008, she began the steady conversion of their Nebbiolo vineyards to organic viticulture. Transitions to organics for the Barbera, Dolcetto and Moscato vineyards are currently underway.
The Long View
“To be organic here in Piedmont is a little more complicated than it is in other areas of Italy because we generally have a lot of rains,” Isabella noted. “With humidity we have more diseases.”
The region as a whole has largely avoided the mistakes of chemically reliant practices, but given the nature of the vineyards — where cru are subdivided between several different families — being organic for your dedicated rows is often not enough. This is especially true when it comes to pest control.
In recent years, Cristina has found ways to collaborate with other winemakers for the benefit of the larger ecosystem. For example, in the Brunate and Cerequio cru, they’ve found a way to eliminate the pesky Tignola moth without chemicals.
“Instead of spraying against the moths, what you do is you put a stripe with pheromones on it, and the pheromones in the air confuse the insects,” Isabella elaborated for us. “They do not recognize female or male, and so they do not reproduce. They die naturally.”
But can you taste an improvement in the wine because of organic practices? Perhaps that’s debatable (my palate certainly cannot), but when your perspective is generational, like it is at Oddero, that question is beside the point. Organic practices in the vineyard are a step toward preserving the integrity of an ecosystem. It’s a holistic approach that nicely mirrors a family estate aiming to produce excellent Barolo for generations to come.
During our tasting at Oddero, I was struck by the clear identity of these wines. They are detailed, aromatic and highly controlled wines. Some are beautiful now, some are keeping their secrets for another day. All of them are fine, and that extends to their Dolcetto and Barbera as well, which to me are equally important. Three of the seven wines earned my upper echelon rating (★★★★★).
2016 Oddero Dolcetto d’Alba
The Langhe’s beloved everyday grape is Dolcetto. If everyday ended with a glass of Oddero’s version (★★★★ 3/4), I’d count myself lucky indeed. This wine is a moving target from nose to palate to finish, speaking to the variety’s inherent — but often overlooked — complexity. It started as sour cherry on the nose, but then snapped to sweet raspberry as it lingered. Traces of licorice kept things interesting, and on the palate the wine was fun yet graceful. An exceptional Dolcetto, and a great start to the tasting.
Grapes for this wine are sourced from Oddero’s holdings in La Morra as well as the small Brunella cru in Castiglione Falleto. Wedged between the famous Villero and Bricco Fiasco vineyards, Brunella is more often associated with Barolo.
2014 Oddero Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza
I’m an unapologetic fanboy for Barbera, particularly those from Barbera d’Asti. Winemakers have steadily been making a name for the subregion of Nizza, and the recent designation of Barbera d’Asti Nizza Superiore DOCG seems to suggest that the finest Barbera’s may come from there. Michele Chiarlo’s “La Court” and Vietti’s “La Crena” are two of the more famous bottlings (and rightly so), but Oddero’s version (★★★★★) is every bit as good.
This is an upper echelon Barbera, which may be a reflection of the difficult 2014 vintage. That year, it was extraordinarily cool and rainy. Isabella noted that while it was a challenging vintage for Nebbiolo, it was especially difficult for Barbera. That’s because Barbera ripens earlier, and as a result, the late-autumn warmth that saved the Nebbiolo vintage, failed to do anything for Barbera because it had already been harvested.
Just last year, I reviewed Oddero’s 2012 bottling of this wine (sans the “Superiore Nizza” designation, which was codified between the vintages), and I found it to be delicious, but a bit overshadowed by the other wines we sampled that night. The lean 2014 vintage, however, is a big improvement, with tidal-wave acidity and just the right amount of oakiness to give the wine texture and grip on the palate. This is a clear indicator that winemaker Cristina Oddero put a great deal of care into turning a dud vintage into something gorgeous. The wine shows rich balsamic and leather character with elusive and dark forest fruits.
2015 Oddero Langhe Nebbiolo
The first of four Nebbiolo wines sampled, the Oddero Langhe Nebbiolo (★★★★ 1/2) comes from younger vines in two Barolo eligible cru — the pyramid hill of Bricco San Biagio beneath La Morra, and the esteemed, south-facing Villero vineyard of Castiglione Falleto. Because of this, you could call it a “baby Barolo” and not sound ridiculous.
I found two elements of this wine to be surprisingly complex and expressive, given the youth of this wine. For one, the nose was a wild swirl of tart cherries, game, smoke and pepper, with hardly a suggestion of Nebbiolo’s signature floral aromatics. Then, on the palate, the tannins seemed to have various layers to them, from first impression to finish. A really intriguing Langhe Nebbiolo.
2014 Oddero Barbaresco “Gallina”
With Oddero’s lone Barbaresco — a single-vineyard beauty from the Gallina vineyard — we returned to that pesky 2014 vintage. Yet, if this Barbaresco is any indication, the 2014 vintage could prove to be magical for Nebbiolo. At least, in the right hands.
The Gallina is divine (★★★★★), and it is one of the few Nebbiolo wines I would recommend drinking within its first 10 years. The aromas put me in a time machine and sent me back to my first glass of Barbaresco many years ago, a potent memory that was instrumental in my transformation to fully fledged wine dork. It might not do the same for you, but the nose on this wine is just about perfect in my opinion: powerful, precise and wonderfully natural, recalling sour cherries and ripe raspberries, roses, licorice, mint and a hint of wet soil. I found it to be very approachable in its youth, with easy tannins and a kind texture. Isabella: “2014 is so surprising to everybody.”
2009 Oddero Barolo
Shifting gears from the 2014 Barbaresco Gallina to the 2009 Barolo (★★★★ 1/2) was quite the transition. Despite the additional five years, this wine was far from open: The tannins had a bit of a snarl, the body was more muscular, the aromas were more elusive. Here was a great example on why Barbaresco and Barolo are so different, and how sensitive the grape can be to a year’s weather. In this example from the 2009 vintage, I detected a few notes that reminded me of peppercorns — in addition to that classic Barolo profile of cherries, roses and licorice — so perhaps the wine is just now revealing its story. For me it was hard to tell. But a wine with interesting potential.
2009 Oddero Barolo “Brunate”
Brunate may be Barolo’s most recognizable cru, partly because of its riot-colored chapel, but also because of the wide array of producers who make a single-vineyard Barolo from its south-facing slopes. Ceretto, Roberto Voerzio, Francesco Rinaldi, Michele Chiarlo and Vietti all have holdings in Brunate. And of course, so does Oddero, but there was a time when Giacomo Oddero saw these vines as below average.
“If you talked to my grandfather 15, 20 years ago, he was not happy with our position in Brunate,” Isabella told me. “He didn’t want to produce it as a single-vineyard wine because he didn’t believe it had the potential.”
But thanks to warming trends in the climate, that is changing. Oddero’s holdings are toward the top of the cru, an area once thought to be marginal in climate.
“In 2004, my aunt wanted to try it, so she kept the grapes separate. Now, with these changes in the temperature, our position is becoming more and more interesting for Brunate. The fresh breeze keeps the temperature a little bit cooler and we are able to preserve more freshness in the aromatics.”
Oddero’s 2009 bottling from Brunate (★★★★★) is drinking beautifully right now, which often cannot be said for eight-year-old Barolo. It’s aromas were like a blast of fresh violets and cherries, mashed raspberries, and black licorice. A second whiff caught wind of earthier notes, such as porcini mushrooms and dried leaves. On the palate, a note of peppercorn — as well as lithe acidity — gave the wine movement, with a delicate touch of tannin that seems to open the door to surprising pairings. Usually, Barolo conjures visions of red meat; this one seemed to beg for vegetarian cuisine and soups. One of the best Barolo I have had in recent years.
2015 Oddero Bianco “Collaretto”
The Langhe’s white wines are completely overshadowed by the reds. Of the white grape varietals, Arneis garners the most attention because of its origins, and Nascetta can be a pleasant surprise as well. But beyond that, the Langhe’s whites are typically Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc with some Riesling mixed in. In a place that rightly champions its indigenous varieties to such an extent, who cares about the noble white varieties?
Well, increasingly, Oddero does. Their single white wine — beyond a Moscato d’Asti — is a 50/50 blend of Chardonnay and Riesling from the north-facing slope of the nearby Bricco San Biagio vineyard, and it is called “Collaretto” (★★★★ 1/2). Isabella noted that they particularly like the freshness of the Riesling grown in this vineyard, and that future vintages may skew more towards Riesling. I found the aromatics to be intense and pleasing, demonstrating a quality that brought to mind green fruits and fresh-cut grass. A killer summer wine.
If You Go
Oddero welcomes visitors by appointment only. A typical tasting either gives you a sampling from around the Langhe, or you can upgrade for a taste of the Barolo cru.
We visited in the morning and then followed our visit with lunch at Osteria More + Macine in La Morra, one of my favorite restaurants in the Langhe (and in a region with a lot of formal restaurants, this one is quite casual).
After this story published, Suzanne Hoffman — author of Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piedmont — noted the following to me on Facebook:
“These purchases were made possible through the hard work of Isabella’s late nonna, Carla Scanavino, as a pharmacist in her own pharmacy. Together with her beloved husband, Giacomo, they were able to put together a tapestry of crus the family so beautifully farms today. She and Giacomo’s mother Maria and nonna Luigia are three of the unsung heroines of the Oddero story. So many of the wine families have similar stories of sacrifice, hard work, and vision that made success today possible. Their stories are aching to be told.”
Thanks for the added dimension to the story, Suzanne!