The Barolo of Giacomo Conterno

Great Barolo and one of the World's Great Wines


It is probably not a surprise that the wines of Giacomo Conterno are among my absolute favorites. My finest wine experiences have been with his masterpieces known as Monfortino and Cascina Francia.

The wines made by Giovanni Conterno, Giacomo’s son, through the 1990s, and now made by his son Roberto, are virtually eternal monuments to everything I love about Barolo. They take decades to mature, and once there they continue to evolve for decades more. Since 1974, these wines have come from a specific plot in the Serralunga region of Barolo, and the wines show the power and elegance that Serrlaunga is capable of like no other wine.

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While Monfortino is an epic wine, and priced accordingly, the rest of the fruit from the Cascina Francia vineyard is bottled as a Barolo at a more affordable, albeit not inexpensive, price. Typically the Monfortino has been about triple the price of the Cascina Francia.  While drinking Monfortino is a singular experience, drinking Cascina Francia is not exactly slumming. I was recently invited to attend an event featuring an impressive array of both Cascina Francia and Monfortino vintages at a dinner organized by my friends at the Rare Wine Company to benefit victims of the earthquake in Haiti. While both the cause and actual event were easy to support, the price of admission was not.

I was not alone in this sentiment, and in fact a complimentary tasting was quickly organized featuring a vertical of Cascina Francia at a local BYOB restaurant here in NYC. We also collected money to mirror the charity aspect of the original event, and we were off with a 15 vintage vertical of Cascina Francia!

Cascina Francia is the Conterno family’s estate in Serralunga. It’s been the exclusive source of Giacomo Conterno wines since 1978 (Barolo and Barbera these days but once even Dolcetto and Freisa). While the Conterno family has recently bought a new vineyard, a subplot within the Carretta vineyard, their fame rests as much with Cascina Francia as it does with their Iconic Monfortino Barolo.

Monfortino, since 1978 sourced from Cascina Francia, has been the premier Barolo for over 9 decades. A massive wine, still made without temperature control and only in the finest vintages, it was once sourced from only the best performing vineyards each year.  With the revitalization of the Langhe wine industry in the late 1960’s the Conterno family began to realize that with more small growers bottling their own wine it would quickly become difficult to maintain the quality that had made Monfortino famous.

The only solution was to secure a supply of fruit from a grand vineyard. While Cascina Francia was not even a vineyard in 1974 -- it had most recently been used for the cultivation of wheat -- remnants of vines remained through this south-facing slope. The fact that the property was typically one of the first to see its winter snows melt each year convinced the Conterno’s that this was to be it: The family estate.

Over the years little has changed with the Cascina Francia Barolo, even less with Monfortino. The key to these wines appears to be a dedication to quality that begins in the vineyards and ends in the famously clean cellars of Giacomo Conterno. While I do see that the wines have become a bit more approachable in their youth, they remain quintessential Barolo at their core and the marketplace has begun to recognize this.

While these wines are now quite expensive, they are produced in small quantities and are among the finest Barolo, and thus the finest wines of the world. The downside to a Barolo addiction? The requisite patience involved. As our tasting revealed, a great vintage of Cascina Francia Barolo needs about 20 years to reach its peak, though some of these more recent vintages show signs of being a bit precocious.

We began our tasting with the 1971 Barolo, which was produced from fruit sourced from some of the best fruit in this historically exceptional vintage.  We then were able to proceed with every vintage of Cascina Francia from 1988 to 2005. The wines generally performed very well. The level of consistency among the wines is truly remarkable. For my palate the 1989 and 1996 towered above the rest of the wines with their haunting combination of power and elegance.

One of the true tests of a producer however is not how they perform in the greatest of vintages, but rather how they make wine in the most difficult years. Among the toughest years in our tasting were 1994 and 2003. Both of these vintages of Cascina Francia performed well, offering relatively balanced wines with good depth, but they also showed the inescapable effects of their respective vintages, which is of course one of the great traits of a great wine. It is not simply about a grape and a winemaker. The greatest wines tell you so much more: They speak of a place and a time, and with Cascina Francia that message comes through in a remarkably clear and obvious way.

These are great wines and I encourage you to try them if and when you can.

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  • I have in my cellar an empty bottle of 1967 Monfortino, bought probably in the early 1980's, when I didn't have a lot of money but back then even Monfortinos could be bought for a not outrageous price. Alas, I drank it during a time when I tended not to take notes, I'm guessing around 10 years or less ago, and it must not have been that memorable because I don't remember it (and I do remember other wines drunk well before then). But I did save the bottle, something done relatively rarely.

    Apr 20, 2010 at 12:43 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 238,748

    Interesting story James. Do you think you saved it because of its rarity?

    Where did you buy the bottle. One issue with older Barolo, and Italian wines in general, is that no one really treated them like the great wines they were decades ago. A lot of wines I've purchased in the US have shown quite poorly when compared to bottles sourced in Italy.

    Apr 20, 2010 at 2:24 PM

  • If I had to guess, I may have gotten it at the wonderful event of the early '80s in the DC area, the A&A Liquor going out of business sale. People still talk about it. Tom Hanna at A&A had collected some wonderful Italians (he's still at MacArthur doing his thing), and we snapped them up.

    Interesting point about Italian wine treatment back then. I'm hitting Piemonte next month, and it will be interesting to see how much better the wines sourced there will be, if older ones are available. (Thanks for your tips as to good wineries to visit, by the way.)

    And yeah, I saved it because it was a Monfortino, and I was not likely to have one again.

    Apr 20, 2010 at 2:56 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 238,748

    When will you be there?
    I'll be there from the 13 - 21st.
    Have you planned your winery visits already?

    Apr 20, 2010 at 3:03 PM

  • Snooth User: ksimback
    226880 33

    A great place to find Conterno in NYC is a boutique wine shop in the West Village called Le Vigne (corner of Greenwich Ave and Charles St) - they almost always have bottles of Conterno around, including some slightly older vintages from 2000s and 1990s.

    Apr 20, 2010 at 5:17 PM

  • Darn, I'll just miss you. I'll be there from the 21st to the 24th, landing in Rome on the 20th (the God Vulcan being cooperative). In the process of planning winery visits, reservations will be made from Rome before I arrive.

    Apr 20, 2010 at 5:33 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 238,748

    Hey Ksimback, My sister in law mentioned the place once. I totally forgot about it. Thanks for mentioning it!

    Apr 20, 2010 at 5:38 PM

  • Since you've been around in Piemonte, the fellow I'm going with wanted to visit the Conternos. I'm interested in Domenico Clerico. Are those good winery visit experiences?

    Apr 21, 2010 at 10:10 AM

  • Snooth User: Eric Guido
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    92549 196,391

    Wow, sorry it took so long for me to tone in here. This was a monumental tasting and a big thanks to Greg for organizing the entire thing. I will remember this evening for a very long time and it will always be a reference point for these wines, which I love so much, when tasting them again through the years.

    Really great notes, as always Greg. Your palate is amazing.

    I'm happy to say that I secured a '90 from RWC. Now we just have to find those darn '96's. Still on the hunt.

    Thanks Greg

    Apr 23, 2010 at 9:17 PM

  • Snooth User: fredonly
    235537 1

    Jameson951 - I went to some Piemonte wineries last August. My favorite Barolo was Virna.

    Small production winery, excellent value. It's cool when the winemaker sits down and tastes the wine with you, as she did.

    One interesting, and pleasant surprise to me: whereas U.S. wineries give you a small taste of wine, I was being poured around a 3rd of a glass in Italy - they REALLY let you taste.

    May 06, 2010 at 10:37 PM

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