The king of wines, the wine of kings
Often referred to as “the king of wines, the wine of kings”, Barolo is one of Italy’s finest wines. Pio Boffa of the legendary Pio Cesare tells chek wong about his family’s interpretation of the classic red
in a packed tasting room, an audience member asks Pio Boffa which wine receives higher priority during harvest: The “basic” Barolo blend or the single vineyard bottling? “Basic?” roars Boffa, eyebrows raised dramatically. “You say basic again and I shoot you!” Boffa’s anger is feigned of course, but the exasperation is real. As the fourth generation of legendary Piedmont producer Pio Cesare, he has staked the reputation of the company on the classic Barolo that bears his great-grandfather’s name. It is a masterpiece of blending, weaving disparate notes together to create a harmony of flavours. To call it basic or regular is an affront to what the wine represents. To underscore this, Boffa even added a line to the wine label (starting from the 2012 vintage), stating: “Please, don’t call it regular”.
Boffa has been with the company for an impressive 45 years. As the youngest child of Rosy (Cesare’s granddaughter) and Giuseppe Boffa, he says there was no pressure for him to take over the business. Nonetheless he learnt a lot about wine by listening to his father and grandfather talk shop during mealtimes. He was surprised when, after finishing high school, his father told him he would not be spending his holidays relaxing at the Italian Riviera as expected, but rather learning about winemaking with Napa-based Robert Mondavi. “It was a great experience for me because I had the chance to talk to a different world. The Mondavi winery at that time had a lot of technology and money, and in Piedmont there was very little of both.” After university, Boffa joined his father at the winery, working up from a desk job in finance
to eventually head the company, “still with the same passion, love and dedication that I had at day number one”.
Pio Cesare was established in 1881 in the town of Alba. Today it exports to over 50 countries. Rather than hiring brand ambassadors, promotional activities are done almost exclusively by family members, a strategy decided on from the outset by Boffa’s great-grandfather. “We are a family-owned company and have always been run by a generation in charge,” says Pio. “We believe that in the artisanal way of conducting the wine business, it is important to associate the brand and the person. It is one thing to stand up and say my name is Pio and I am the fourth generation of the Pio Cesare family, and something else to say I am the ambassador of Pio Cesare — it makes a completely different impression. I’m not saying anything against brand ambassadors but they do not have the blood of the Pio family.”
This hands-on approach extends to every aspect of winemaking, from grape-growing and harvesting to the fermenting and ageing processes. Since the 2015 vintage, the winery has used only estategrown fruit, having successfully bought over the remaining vineyard parcels it did not previously own.
Barolo has always been a wine with unique attributes. Its forceful tannins, combined with a floral aroma and delicate red berry flavours, has earned it a reputation as “iron fist in a velvet glove”. Traditional Barolo was a wine that required extensive ageing before it was ready to be drunk. (Boffa’s own grandmother drank only Barolos that had been cellared for more than 10 years, he reveals).
In the 1970s and 1980s
however, producers went through a period of self-reflection brought on by changes in consumer preferences towards fruit-forward and less tannic wines. A great debate erupted, with modernists championing the use of new oak barrels and shorter fermentations which resulted in the wines being more approachable when young. During this time Pio Cesare stuck to its own formula, which involves fermenting the must for eight to nine days followed by 40 days of maceration, then ageing in a combination of small barrels and large casks (or “botti”).
Boffa explains, “We did not belong to the traditional or innovative group — we have always been known for the Pio Cesare style. We continued to use our own philosophy up until the moment when the war between the innovators and traditionalists came to an end. Right now, everybody has gone back to the classical style, even the most innovative guys.”
Yet as a consequence of climate change, Boffa states the Barolos of today do not require the long ageing of the past. “Now we pick the grapes one month earlier, with new clones we can have better physiological ripening of the grapes, we can make Barolo with riper tannins — they are not that astringent and green. So we can now enjoy a Barolo that is three-, four- or five-yearsold much better than 40 years ago, when it was not even drinkable.”
Pio Cesare’s vineyard holdings cover a respectable 80 hectares in Piedmont. This is no mean feat, as the price of land throughout the region has been steadily increasing. Earlier this year, a buyer set a new record in Barolo at a price of €4.5 million per hectare, “which is insane,” says Boffa. “It doesn’t allow anybody to buy a piece of land and still make money, but this is how precious the soil of Barolo has become.” Single-vineyard wines, modelled on the cru system of Burgundy, command the highest prices, but Boffa argues it is the classic blend that is a more faithful representation of Barolo.
“What makes our Barolo different from others is our concept of blending different locations instead of just concentrating on single vineyard locations. If you have a property nobody else has because it is your own property, the wine you make from that property is of course unique, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be the best simply because it is unique,” he explains.
The mosaic of soil types of different sub-regions in Barolo results in different styles. Wines from La Morra and Barolo are said to be lighter while wines from Serralunga d’Alba, Monforte d’Alba and Castiglione Falletto are more structured and powerful. “In order to be a great wine,” explains Boffa, “it is not only about power and muscles but also finesse, elegance and the bouquet... each of these characters lies in a specific terroir. Only by blending can we make a Barolo that is the epitome of the entire area.”
The merits of Barolo have long been appreciated by the Italians, but it took the rest of the world a little longer to catch on. The Nebbiolo grape variety used to make Barolo is notoriously finicky, and plantings elsewhere around the world have failed to capture the divine perfume and ageability of Barolo.
Which leads Boffa to conclude: “It is very rewarding for us that our 137 years of experience are finally recognised by the majority of wine consumers. In previous years, Barolo was mainly in the Italian section of the markets or Italian restaurants. Now, Barolo is available in the cellars of collectors the world over, and considered to be quite unique.”
THE BAROLO WINE REGION IS ARGUABLYTHE MOST FAMOUS IN PIEDMONT, AND PIO CESARE IS ITS STAR PRODUCER
A GOOD BAROLO COMES TO THOSE WHO WAIT. AND AT PIO CESARE, FAMILY MEMBERS(FROM LEFT) CESARE BENVENUTO, PIO BOFFA, FEDERICA BOFFA AND AUGUSTO BOFFA KEEP THE WINERY’S 137-YEAR LEGACY ALIVE