Twenty years ago, and no doubt for many years prior, producers in the Langhe were invariably described as modern, traditional or a combination of the two. Nicholas Belfrage’s seminal work, Barolo to Valpolicella would categorise every producer according to their style, not to be critical, mind, but to ensure the reader was able to contemplate the potential taste and feel of the wines. For what it’s worth, I would have called myself a traditionalist. As an aside, Barbaresco in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s was more consistent than Barolo and I felt producers were more certain in their stylistic direction.
Upheaval, disruption and debate usually settles itself and the stark choices become more nuanced and balanced. Today, the wines of the Langhe have never been better, cleaner or more consistent. Choices are more finessed as fashions shift and the region is attaining a more global audience. Viticulture is perhaps the new battleground, with debate about the merits of biodynamics, organics, sustainability and the narrowing of focus towards the unique expression of the cru’s.
Josetta Saffirio is one producer that defies the usual cliches, for if we are to get to the heart of the matter, their methods require a little explanation. The 2021 release is the first time we have tried their wines, and they are nothing short of captivating. The estate is run by Sara Vezza, who’s family have farmed the land for two hundred years. Sara is the wife of Roberto Massolino and curiously, the wines are made and taste, very differently. Organically farmed, the estate is carbon neutral, and the purity of fruit is very apparent. If Massolino’s wines tread the wire between traditional and modern, Sara’s are altogether hers.
Tasting the Barbera first, I was struck by the vivid brightness and width, leading me to guess on a wild, warm ferment. Not quite. Cold soaks, followed by a slow ferment, in stainless steel, where the temperature is steadily brought up to 31 degrees and then brought down again. Juicy fruit with width, but the fruit is also crunchy and bracing and melting tannins. Macerations are not long, so there is an abundance of flavour that is pretty and detailed, without aggressive structure.
You really can drink these wines upon release, though they do have the ability to age. Matured in large format oak, and then brought back to tank, a la Jean-Marie Guffens, to maintain freshness. Many great wines are made simply, but here we have a producer with the nerve, intuition and individuality to push for more transparency, tenderness, elegance, clarity, prettiness and character. The complicated nature of vinification has enhanced, rather than detracted, from the drinking experience. Nothing is forced, quite the opposite. Grounded in tradition, I sense an effortless expressionism and cloaked power that is unique and nothing short of remarkable.
Saffirio – achievement through individuality
William Tyndale in his translation of 1 Corininthians 13, from the Greek (not Latin), “Three things will last forever – faith, hope and love – and the greatest of these is love”. How often do we choose wines out of faith and hope, our own judgement subjugated to wine critics and what we think we know, as opposed to what we feel? The word love in this context was heresy according to Catholic doctrine, who believed love was a wicked substitution for charity.
Tyndale was killed for his beliefs, and the wines of Josetta Saffirio are of love. Achievement through individuality and not trapped by someone else’s idea of what Nebbiolo should be like. If these wines are heresies, then they are beautiful heresies. And where ‘modern’ wine making has attempted to embellish, stylise and slather on flavour, Sara is enhancing perceptions. Her goal is presence, to rid the wine of illusions and taste all the vividness of fruit, unshackled from conformity, tradition, fashion and worst of all, flavour for flavours sake.
Josetta Saffirio wines tasted
Josetta Saffirio 2018 Barbera d’Alba – Explosive, perfumed and pretty. How many wines are a combination of all three? Hardly any, but there’s one here with notes of blood orange, smoke, blueberry, blackberry, cassis and kirsch. Awash with juicy, vivid and vibrant flavours. Bright red fruits, spice, earth and melting tannins, leading to a squeeze of chalkiness. Pretty with guts, I cannot imagine any red wine drinker not loving this.
Josetta Safiirio 2018 Langhe Nebbiolo – Classic Nebbiolo perfume of tar, roses, blood orange and cherry. Round in flavour, voluptuous even, but the curves are perfectly measured. Medium bodied, vibrant red fruits with a savoury structure. The squeeze of tannin is perfect, placing the fruit on a podium. Glorious Nebbiolo, for lovers of Pinot.
Josetta Saffirio 2016 Barolo – Is there a more pure Barolo than this? Has the flavour of Barolo, with the finesse and lingering nuance of Barbaresco. Incredibly complex nose of clove, lavender, aniseed, roses and red fruit compote. Prettiness never had such presence. Full, supple and round in the mouth, the flavours and textures woven. Amplitude, that sings louder towards the velvet flecked finish. Beautiful wine, that demanded a rethink of what I expected from Barolo. Measured and refined finesse, and despite its assured originality, is firmly grounded in the traditions of Barolo. I am enthralled and captivated.