Italy 5: Big is Beautiful

Before we get too far into this: all of y’all who are drinking along, break out the ice bucket and the coupes, we’re drinking Contratto Brut!

I will admit every predisposition against large wineries and established brands. Generally, the advertising needs of an internationally recognized brand do nothing for the winemaking, and the production needs can run the magic out of a cellar faster than anything I can think of. But every once in a while, wineries can make a big splash with a relatively small production. And as is so often the case, I end up pleasantly surprised with the result.

Contratto is a big name. Founded in 1867, this storied cellar has made everything from Sambuca to Passito, and anything you can imagine in between. Its massive underground cellar has long stood as a line in the sand to Champagne’s alleged hegemony in the world of fancy fizzy things. But these days, the focus is on a small selection of Metodo Classico sparkling wines, and a few very good vermouths.

Some time ago, Contratto came under the care the legendary Giorgio Rivetti. An innovator in the world of Barolo, Giorgio is one of the few wine celebrities who deserves the praise. He is also fanatical about quality. And Contratto seems to have truly found the perfect balance between modern winemaking and classical methodology.

To say that the cellars are vast and impressive feels like a bit of an understatement. If you like bubbles, this has to be something akin to heaven. Seemingly endless tunnels are packed floor to ceiling with wine. But with the exception of a thoroughly modern bottling line, there is no army of computers and workers tending to the bottles. Instead, one man and his helper have managed the cellar since 1976. And he hand turns every single bottle. 100,000 bottles per year.

After seeing the very modern bottling room, we headed into the oldest part of the cellar for a tasting. If you’ve hung around the bar before, You know that I am a big fan of these wines. I think that they are the best of both worlds when it comes to the magic of bottle fermentation and small selection, coupled with the level of refinement we’ve come to expect in modern sparkling wines. It’s almost heresy to say that one of them is my favorite, they all have their own charm, but the rose war and absolutely lovely thing. Thank god they offer it in double magnum.

After our tasting we headed upstairs and had the rare opportunity to have a glass of wine with Gorgio Rivetti. They say not to meet your heroes, but he was every bit as passionate, humble, and pleasant as anyone I’ve ever met in the business. If you’re not familiar with the work he has done for Piemontese wines, and Italian wine as a whole, I’d encourage you to look him up. This guy is the real deal.

We had the afternoon booked at La Spinetta Barbaresco (Giorgio’s fantastic winery in the heart of the Langhe), so we figured lunch was in order. We ate at Ape, the company’s excellent wine bar and restaurant. The food was fantastic, and Elisa (our guide for the day) seemed to have an inexhaustible knowledge of every minutia of the company and its wines.

Contratto, then, was a humbling reminder that not all big brands are bullshit. And that passion is the real key to great winemaking. The rest of our day was spent at Spinetta. But in the interest of brevity and keeping things tidy, I have decided to write about it along with our trip to Spinetta Casanova in Tuscany.