Fontantafredda: The Third Wave of Barolo

An Interview with Fontanafredda’s Roberto Bruno

The modernist versus traditionalist movement in Barolo all made for some great drama. There were the small traditional fastidious farmers on one side battling to save their traditions in the face of young upstarts seeking to bring a historical wine region into a modern age, even if it meant pushing boundaries and buttons.  The story was played out in the 2014 documentary “Barolo Boys” with the rebellious protagonists played by producers such as Elio Altare, Chiara Boschis, and others who went to great lengths in the 1980s and 1990s to change the way Barolo is made. Their rebellious nature dramatically emphasized when Elio Altare uses a chain saw to halve his father’s botti (large wine barrel).  It was a simple but effective way to punctuate the differences between the modernist versus traditionalists, albeit simplifying the conflict to the use of large oak barrels, known as botti (traditionalist), versus barrique (modernist).

Fontanafredda’s Roberto Bruno has witnessed it all. Bruno grew up around wine, although his family is from the Roero – better known for its white wines – rather than the Langhe, home to the legendary Nebbiolo based reds of Barolo and Barbaresco.  I spoke with him about Fontanafredda’s role in the movement and the current state of the business, which by all accounts has transitioned significantly since the majority stake of the estate was purchased by two successful Piedmontese entrepreneurs, Oscar Farinetti, of Eataly fame, and Baffigo Filangieri. Fontanafredda was even recognized in 2017 as Wine Enthusiast’s “European Winery of the Year.”

Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers (CAPS): You’ve been with company for many years. Can you enlighten us on how Fontanafredda has fit into the broader Barolo community over those years?

Roberto: I joined Fontanafredda in 1991. Previously I had worked for another company that is now part of Gruppo Campari. When I started the company was owned by the Monte dei Paschi di Siena bank which had acquired the estate from the Savoy Royal family in the 1930s during a period of financial difficulty. The bank managed the winery for the next 77 years. As you can imagine, having Tuscan owners of a historic Piedmont estate, provides an interesting situation.

This ownership created a bit of distance between Fontanafredda and the Barolo community, especially the new generation of Barolo producers who emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. Fontanafredda, at the time, was not integrated in that community so it was quite easy for them to create a wall between themselves and us.

CAPS: How do you think Fontanafredda was perceived at the time?

Roberto: At the time we were considered to be a traditional winery, making wines in the traditional style of Barolo. This is when there was a big conflict between the traditionalists and the modernists. To their credit the new group of Barolo producers did invest a lot in vineyards and in the cellar. They felt they needed to change the style of Barolo, to make the wines more approachable to drink.  Every decision they were making was with the goal of making wines that could be enjoyed at the time of release.

Fontantafredda, and others, were not open to changing their practices to conform to consumer tastes. Admittedly Fontanafredda was slow to adapt to the new strategies and the new situation. But actually, had we not been owned by a bank at the time, managed by bankers without experience operating wineries, we would have probably adapted to new techniques.
While these circumstances kept us on the traditional side of the fence, I can also say that Fontanafredda and others should be credited for keeping the direction of Barolo stable. We refused to agree to any changes that could destroy the identity and authenticity of Barolo, which is not simply related to the use of barrique. A big request at the time was to allow other varieties, other than Nebbiolo, to be blended into Barolo. We were very adamant and strong about refusing to change the regulations.

CAPS: Are you glad those changes weren’t made?

Roberto: Looking back, the request was understandable. When I think back of this new generation, there was a great need for them to produce a new more approachable style. Nebbiolo does not make it easy to produce wines in an international model. Other varieties could have given producers the opportunity to more easily produce approachable wines, but Fontanafredda and others were steadfast in the exclusive use of Nebbiolo in Barolo.  We can now thank Fontanafredda, and the others, for protecting Barolo’s identity.
CAPS:  Jump ahead a decade or two, do you feel like there is still a modernist versus traditionalist battle?

Roberto: There isn’t this conflict in the region anymore. Terroir is the new protagonist. We as an industry are now in what can be termed as the ‘third wave’, which in many ways is a compromise between the modern movement and the best of the traditional movement. In this case, the idea is not about what you do in your cellar, but how you express your sense of place.

In terms of Fontanafredda, we are very lucky to be leaders in this movement. If in the past, our size and ownership hindered us, it is now our size and ownership structure that supports us. Our size gives us the advantage of finding a perfect balance in our wines. We have traditional large concrete tanks, and we continue to use large oak casks but we also have tonno and barrique. This mix of old and new barrels, big and small barrels, European and American barrels, give us the ability to constantly adapt. Nebbiolo is finicky. You can’t rely on a single formula to make a great wine from it. If you have many options you are given better opportunity to craft a balanced wine.

CAPS: Can we credit the new ownership for all the changes at Fontanafredda?

Roberto: Certainly when Oscar Farinetti and Luca Baffigo Filangieri, two entrepreneurs from Alba, acquired the business it helped a lot. They are Piedmontese and very well known for promoting the character of Piedmont. But credit should also be given to winemaker Danilo Drocco who started with the company in 1999. Danilo was a young winemaker then, who had previously worked at Prunotto (Antinori).  Danilo had the knowledge of how to produce great wines even if not producing it at a small winery, like the majority of Barolo producers. He showed us you can make wine in an artisanal way even if you are big.

 At this time, we also began working in the vineyards. In 1999 we started the conversion of our vineyards to sustainability. During the last decade under the ownership of the bank, they introduced new management with experience operating wineries. This gave us the possibility to change some of our processes.

In 2011 we created Vino Libero, a certification that recognizes us wineries for not using chemical fertilizers and herbicides and also reduces the quantity of sulfite additions. Step by step we’re moving towards organic certification, which we will be from the 2018 vintage onward. Not only is this a commitment to our own estate, we are working actively with our growers. Barolo, and Piedmont in general, is very fragmented, and made up of many small growers. As the largest private buyer of grapes – we work with 500 farmers – it is our social responsibility to support them to work in a more sustainable way.  Our goals with sustainability and organic viticulture is not simply for our own vineyards but a project for the entire region.
This comes with great investment. We provide our growers monthly support from our agronomist but also support them financially in this transition.
CAPS: In the context of Barolo Fontanafredda is certainly known for its value pricing. How can you maintain this in the face of rising grape costs?

Roberto: It is challenging, especially in a market like Canada where you don’t have the opportunity to manage price issues in a flexible way. Consider the price of Nebbiolo grapes have increased by 60 per cent in the last 4 years, which means when we release our 2014 Barolos it will mark the first vintage since the dramatic increase in cost. Also, in order to support our farmers’ transition to sustainable agriculture we are paying them 25 per cent more to reward their investment and give them incentive to change. This does impact margins.  That said, we need to think of the general success of our wine in the medium to long term. We can’t be too reactionary with respect to price changes in the short term even if we will definitely have to reposition our Barolo to a more profitable level.

It’s also our responsibility to get new drinkers to try Barolo. Hence we also developed a worldwide campaign called “Fontanafredda Barolo Week.” We wanted to create a format, in order to expand the audience of Barolo to a newer generation. We needed to this because the traditional Barolo consumer is getting older, particularly in North America. We want to give this classic wine style meaning to younger audience. To do this we had recognize these new consumers can’t afford to buy a bottle of Barolo at restaurant. We’ve made it a priority to work the restaurateurs to make it more affordable to offer Barolo by the glass. We need to give the young consumer a chance to try it. 

CAPS: Are there other ways to increase profitability?

Roberto: What we have done is expand a little bit of our operations outside of the Langhe, working in other territories like Monferrato and Asti. The focus here in the Langhe and Alba region is not on the mainstream, but on the premium and ultra-premium price points.

It’s important to give other regions like these within Piedmont their own style and profile. A great example is the Alta (meaning higher) Langa. This region has become very interesting for white wine and metodo classico sparkling wine production. Alta Langa in terms of soil and climate is the perfect place for sparkling wines and mineral driven white wines made using both indigenous and international varieties such as Riesling.
The sparkling wines are a perfect complement to Barolo. The wines are made mostly from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and due to the Alta Langa DOCG appellation regulations which require aging on the lees for a minimum of 30 months produces wines with a strong sense of identity and authenticity and shared ethos with Barolo. It’s encouraging to see a lot of small Barolo producers now wanting to produce this style. To strengthen this philosophical connection between these wines and Barolo, for our Fontanafredda Contessa Rosa we added a little of our 1967 Barolo as the liqueur d’expedition.

CAPS: This all sounds enlightening. What other positive steps have been made to Barolo recently?
Roberto: An important step forward has been the recognition of the official crus under the MGA (Menzioni Geografiche Aggiuntive) banner.  MGA is a concept we should communicate. This is why we decided to release a wine under the MGA Fontanafredda. Fontanafredda is not only a brand and a winery but also it is an important sub-region of Serralunga; and has such it has been recognized as an official cru of Barolo. In fact, because we own the entire area it could be recognized as a monopole but we can’t say that in Italy. This concept of recognizing unique terroir in Barolo has been a great evolution in Barolo. We are proud to be the first appellation in Italy to do this.

CAPS: Can we say the conflicts within Barolo are over now that we have this ‘third wave’?

Roberto: I think we can say thankfully say this part of our history has a happy ending.