“We are – and always will be – only Piemonte,” says Michele Chiarlo.
We are standing in the cellars at Chiarlo’s Calamandrana winery and the still sprightly 83 year-old is telling his audience of worldwide distributors where his priorities lie. We are the lucky ones who have been invited to his annual symposium, and Michele, who still visits the winery every day, is proudly showing us around the barrel room. The Alliers oak tonneaux are gleaming, but as Michele explains; “I want to capture exactly the terroir and not the oak. These here are merely to prepare the wine for release.”
This terroir-driven focus has always been at the heart of the Chiarlo philosophy, further proof of which is Michele’s insistence on producing single-varietals rather than blends and only using indigenous grape varieties. This philosophy has been infused into his sons, winemaker Stefano and Alberto, who takes care of sales and marketing. The focus is rooted in an exceptional collection of vineyards in the Barolo and Barbera appellations.
But it wasn’t always like this. Michele chuckles; “fifty years ago, when I started making Barbera, people thought I was crazy.” But the proud owner of La Court has had the last laugh. “We have made our reputation with Barbera.” It continues to this day: the first vintage of Cipressi Nizza was immediately hailed as Wine of the Year by Wine Enthusiast.
And while the Cerequio and Cannubi Barolos are world class, the Barberas are world WORLD class, and you have to think this is where his heart ultimately lies. We decide immediately to christen him the Father of Barbera. Michele laughs sheepishly. A lifetime of accolades has not changed an essential humility.
But when Stefano takes us into the vineyards, he is keen to emphasise the family’s Barolo heritage. “Every Barolo producer wants to have a piece of Cannubi,” he says, scrambling over the unique terraces which characterise the vineyard. And from where he is standing he can point upwards a couple of hundred metres to where the ultimate Barolo vineyard, Cerequio, lies – the extra altitude the defining nature.
So, this then, is Michele Chiarlo. Exceptional vineyards; exceptional wines. A sixth generation wine family rooted in Piemonte’s terroir which has built up a worldwide reputation, underlined by a stunning collection of 90-plus points from Parker, Suckling and the Wine Enthusiast.
This only tells half the story.
So far, we could be talking about any number of winemakers. There is something else, and it is difficult to put a finger on it. But then you walk around the amazing Chiarlo Art Park at the La Court vineyard. This diverse selection of world-class modern art dotted incongruously around the vineyard may help explain the attraction of Chiarlo. This modernity also finds reference in the stunning series of labels which adorn the great wines. Has there ever been a more eclectic, stylish and individual set of labels? And maybe it also finds reference in the style of the wines, which, in the Classico selection, allow the consumer to enjoy at a relatively early age – key for the restaurant trade, but in the individual Cru, also remain true to the ageing tradition.
It is this fascinating juxtaposition between tradition and modernity which lies at the heart of the Chiarlo appeal.
Looking at the art selections, I pipe up: “Michele is the Picasso of the wine world.”
“Yes,” says another distributor. “He even looks a little bit little Picasso!”