The rising fortunes of Barolo
Author: Issariya Morgan
Alessandro Veglio joined his family winery in 2017. Since then, his influence has seen the Veglio estate return to more traditionalist values, building on his uncle’s modernist foundations laid in the 1980s and ’90s. Veglio’s story is a portrait of a family – and of Barolo as a whole.
In 1960, Barolo was an impoverished region. It was commonplace for those who grew up there to migrate to the city in search of work. Many of the families who stayed local were farmers – like Angelo Veglio, who purchased his first vineyard that year.
“Winemakers today are something different, but in those days, they were farmers – and our family was one of those families,” says his grandson Alessandro. “My grandfather grew fruits, mostly peaches, to sell in the market in Alba. Then he decided to invest in vineyards.”
Alessandro has joined us in London on a rainy March day, ahead of the 2018 Barolo release. We sit in the Parlour at No.3 St James’s Street. Rain taps the windowpanes, the walls cast in dull grey light, as he begins to tell his family tale.
NO VALUE IN THE COUNTRY
Angelo’s first vineyard was named “Gattera” after a farmhouse in the area. This was followed by the acquisition of Cascina Nuova in 1978 – then a shabby farmhouse barely held together by nails – which came with the crus Arborina and Rocche dell’Annunziata.
Today, these are among Barolo’s most prestigious sites – but it would take a few more decades before they were recognised as such. Initially, Angelo grew grapes to sell to big wineries, and the value of the grapes was “very low” – one of the great pities of the past, says Alessandro.
“The economy was different then,” he reflects. “At the end of the year, there were many debts to pay. It wasn’t easy. We weren’t particularly poor – we were just a normal family, but our area was one of the poorest in the north of Italy. In the ’60s and ’70s, people were running away from Barolo. They left the vineyards and the country behind to work in factories in the city.”
Although it seems unimaginable now, considering the value of Barolo’s land today, it was little wonder. “No one really wanted to buy the grapes,” he explains.
“The brokers would arrive on the final day, just when the grapes needed to be picked. They’d say they’d found someone to buy the fruit, but if you questioned them about the money, they’d say ‘no, no, we’ll see’. That’s why no one wanted to work in the country – there was no value in it.”
THE BEGINNING OF A MOVEMENT
Fast forward to the ’90s. Alessandro’s uncle Mauro – Angelo’s youngest son – is now at the helm. With his wife Daniela, he had moved to Cascina Nuova and renovated the old farmhouse and winery, just a stone’s throw from the estate of Elio Altare.
“Elio was one of the producers who started the revolution in the ’80s to make a new kind of wine, introducing the first small barrels in the area and shorter maceration,” Alessandro recounts. “Elio told Mauro, ‘There’s potential in the area. You can follow me and I’ll teach you something, then you can do things your way.’ He was sure there was a market for these wines.”
Mauro began making wine in this more modernist approach in ’92. Then, four years later, the family acquired their Castelletto cru – a gift from Daniela’s father, who also owned vineyards. In ’96, Mauro was the first to release a wine with the name “Castelletto” on the label.
Alessandro eventually joined his uncle in 2017. Had he always known he was destined for the family business?
“Not really,” he answers pensively. “When I was 14, I had to decide which school to go to, and I opted for oenology school. It was the mid ’90s, my parents had vineyards and we were in the middle of an economic boom in Barolo.”
He initially worked for a big cooperative: “I had never worked in a winery, so it was important for me to learn that”. He then began bottling wines under his own label in 2005. It was an independent project, made with the fruit from his parents’ vineyards.
There was a lot to learn when he joined his uncle. “As it was for Mauro with Elio, I had a lot of help from producers in the area,” he reflects. “Many people shared their knowledge and gave me tools to use for free. Cooperation is very important for our area. My uncle has always said that Barolo grew in reputation so quickly because everyone worked together.”
Is a strong sense of community, then, the key to Barolo’s rising fortunes? Alessandro agrees without hesitation.
“I’d be wrong if I said this wasn’t a competitive line of work – the market is what it is,” he concedes. “But the market is also big. It was difficult for me to understand when I was younger, but now I know that there’s space for everyone.”
A SHIFT IN STYLE
Today, Barolo is encountering something of a golden age; demand continues to grow, and the region’s reputation with it.
It’s a great period,” says Alessandro. “But we are here today because 35 or 40 years ago, some very smart people decided to start something. They wanted to improve their situation, but they wanted to raise the region too.”
“It’s a great period,” says Alessandro. “But we are here today because 35 or 40 years ago, some very smart people decided to start something. They wanted to improve their situation, but they wanted to raise the region too.”
Alessandro’s influence has seen Veglio return to more traditionalist principles – but in the beginning, a more modernist approach was required.
“My uncle started in a period of renovation,” he explains. At that time, the new represented a welcome departure from tradition. “Renovation was necessary. Our families didn’t like tradition, because tradition had given them nothing. When they finally had the chance to do something different, they did – to improve their situation.”
From the ’90s to the mid 2000s, there was a big opposition between traditionalist and modernist principles: the choice between longer and shorter macerations, choices of barrels. These shifting styles reflect the push and pull of the market; today, traditionally-styled wines are more fashionable. But, Alessandro explains, many winemakers are now looking beyond this simplistic binary.
“In this current period, many producers are building their own style,” he says. “No more black and white – something more in the middle. This has been our approach for the last six or seven years, too.” It’s a gentle evolution from the building blocks that Mauro established in the late ’80s and ’90s.
“If you speak to my uncle, he’s always very proud to have started out in this way,” Alessandro says fondly. “He will say, ‘I will never regret to be considered a modernist, because being a modernist changed our lives.’”
Veglio’s story is a reflection of Barolo’s rising fortunes, as it assumes its place on the world stage.
Discover the 2018 vintage from Barolo here