Domenico Clerico's courage to dream at high altitudes
- Written by Pietro Ramunno
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Domenico Clerico has sparkling eyes, and in his glance there is a touch of mischeviousness. He’s both easygoing and restless, cheerful and melancholy. Watching his eyes, bright with emotion, you can grasp the meaning behind the nickname his father gave him, aeroplanservaj, or “wild airplane:” his dreams fly high. By encouraging the flights of fancy of this Monforte wine producer, his unrest turns to genius.
Clerico, do you still feel like a “wild airplane?”
Not exactly, although I’ve retained my impatient character. With the years I’ve calmed down...but I still travel a lot, doing my 45,000 km (28,000 mi) a year to promote our wines.
Your adventure in the world of wine began in 1976, when your father passed you the reins of the family company, which at the time dealt just with grapes, not winemaking. You had a great intuition...
I was a commercial agent, when – together with my wife Giuliana – I decided to return to the country life. My father passed me the baton, and I decided to ferment the grapes for wine. Up until that point, we had been giving our grapes to the Community Winery of the Barolo Territory (Cantina Sociale Terre del Barolo). We began with 5 hectares (12 acres) of Dolcetto vineyards, which gained pieces of other cru over the years until we had 21 hectares (52 acres) of property: Bussia in 1976, Ginestra in 1981, Pajana in 1990, Mosconi in 1995, and the last challenge was in 2006 with the rental of Badarina of Serralungo d’Alba.
We always work to arrive at the best possible harvest, first on the vine and then in the cellars, every year trying to experiment with something new. The key word is “evolution,” because what used to change slowly before is decidedly faster today.
You have excellent territories for producing Barolo, even though your repertoire includes other wines, as well.
Yes, but only reds: Langhe DOC Dolcetto “Visadì,” Barbera d’Alba DOC “Trevigne,” Langhe DOC Nebbiolo “Capisme-e,” and Langhe DOC Rosso “Arte” Vino. As for Barolo, we’ve gone a long way from the beginning, when we began by purchasing used beer barrels that arrived from Germany already dismantled at the Monchiero train station, which hasn’t even existed for the past 20 years! An agri-mechanic delivered them to us in his old FIAT 142. This is all we could allow ourselves to do with the money we had; and at the time, wineries were full of wines based in Nebbiolo, such as Barolo, Roero, Gattinara, Ghemme...until, with the advent of modern production technology, the market for Barolo picked up. It was in the first half of the ‘90s. The promoters of this movement were historical wineries: Conterno, Bruno Giacosa, Pio Cesare, Rinaldi, Gaja, Ceretto…vinifying Nebbiolo and holding it for three years in the cellars was somewhat of a sacrifice, but it was worth it.
Modernist versus traditionalist are terms that have been used forever. Is it past time for this juxtaposition?
In reality, this division was a journalistic invention that made its fortune in our zone. In every way, the exasperation of the concepts “new wood” and “barrique” are far from what our diverse approaches really mean. The message that “modern” wines taste like wood because of aging in small barrels compared to a “traditional” wine is not completely correct. What modern meant, at the time, were the innovations that today all producers share: first on the vine with shoot thinning, to focus on the quality instead of the quantity; and then in the winery, with the “wine cleaning,” or filtering. Up until now, wines stunk; the great intuition was to decant the wine more often, something done too little in the past because there weren’t the correct instruments to do it, and so it wasn’t easy. Today, “traditionalists” thin the vines and use a maceration tank, and the “modernists” leave the maceration for a longer period of time compared to what they did in the past, and choose the wood toasting with more care… In conclusion, this difference doesn’t exist anymore. And whether you consider a small or a big barrel, I think of wood as an instrument that any producer can use to make a great wine, always following his own, personal interpretation.
Let’s talk about the market.
We produce 110 thousand bottles, and export in 43 countries all over the world, even though our primary market remains Italy, which absorbs over 50% of our production. Outside of national borders, we sell a lot to the United States, where we can count on a network of 15 importers in as many states. We also have good numbers in Japan and Hong Kong, and the Scandinavian market remains constant, as opposed to the “older” markets, which fluctuate. In any case, we never follow the tastes of the market, as we never base ourselves on the marks of reviews. It’s too unstable, like fashion. Here today, gone tomorrow. We always work to arrive at the best possible harvest, first on the vine and then in the cellars, every year trying to experiment with something new. The key word is “evolution,” because what used to change slowly before is decidedly faster today.
The difference between "modernist" and "traditionalist" doesn't exist anymore. And whether you consider a small or a big barrel, I think of wood as an instrument that any producer can use to make a great wine, always following his own, personal interpretation.
Speaking of cellars and progress, let’s spend two minutes talking about the project signed by the surveyor Francesco Roman and architect Marco Gini, a real cathedral of wine in the heart of the Langhe, a treasure trove that safeguards the precious pearl of the modern cellar.
It’s not a cathedral of wine, it’s a winery. I asked the architect to create something original, while maintaining its functionality apart from its aesthetic factor, and that it would be built into the countryside naturally. There were only weeds there. Now there’s a modern structure, a sign of my love of these hills. Because a person who doesn’t love his work has wasted his life. As long as I’m here, I’ll continue to work in the cellar, and then I’ll leave it to my nephews and the people of the Langhe.
If you had to choose your favorite label, what would it be?
Percristina. Exceptional in its vintages of 2004, 2001, and 1999. The more recent ones promise to be good vintages, but they’re not ready yet. The vineyards from the Moscones of Monforte bought it in 1995 from an elderly lady, Cristina, who strongly insisted on not surrendering it to me. It was an old vineyard planted in the ‘50s, and qualitatively important to my eyes because it was healthy and well taken care of, with the Rupestris du Lôt vine, clones that were nearly abandoned in Piedmont in the ‘70s and ‘80s when they started planting new vines everywhere. These vines are very delicate and need more care compared to the younger vines. But in exchange, they produce a grape of extremely high quality that gives me a Barolo that has to be aged for a longer period of time than normal. I keep it in wood for five years. But it’s worth it. The Percristina isn’t like any other Barolo. It’s Percristina and that’s it!
Shall we close with an anecdote about the life of a wine producer?
It was winter of 1993. We’d planned a vacation with the producers Roagna and Altare in the Loir to drink good wine and discover the secrets of French producers, who we still have quite a lot to learn from, even for the simple fact that we have more or less a century of viticultural history behind us while they have at least three. Anyway, we showed up at the spot, reserved two months before for noon on the dot. A robust, middle-aged woman received us, and asked us to return an hour and a half later because the manager wasn’t there. Rather annoyed, we ate two panini and around 1:30 we came back. And there he was, big and fat with a huge, bushy beard. He welcomed us, asking us what we did. “We’re wine producers,” I said. “Don’t you have work to do in the vineyards?” he replied. Same question, same response, identical retort for Altare and Roagna. “The vineyards need me more than you do,” he rebuked us, and dismissed himself. “If you’d like, we’ll see each other at 9:00 pm this evening.” We watched him go away, perplexed, disconcerted, angry. But we persevered, and went back in the evening. He gave us stupendous treatment. We were there until three in the morning tasting bottles of excellent wine; at that hour, the vineyards were resting. He was Dider Dagueneau. How much we still have to learn...