Journey through the History of Fine Nebbiolo at Azienda Agricola Roagna

By | 6 February 2024

Anthony Rose enjoys a selection of the family estate’s finest Barbaresco and Barolo wines in the company of fifth-generation winemaker, Luca Roagna


Anthony Rose

After arriving from a balmy Singapore to an early winter’s morning in London, Luca Roagna barely had time to unpack the bags under his eyes before he was on duty at The River Café in London to present Justerini & Brooks’s well-heeled customers with some of his finest wines from Barolo and Barbaresco.

Luca Roagna is the fifth generation of the family, which, although it has been based in the village of Barbaresco for centuries, considers the 1880s as the turning point for the estate’s wines. In 1890, Luca’s great-grandparents Vincenzo and Rosa produced the first bottle of Barbaresco in the so-called modern—but now traditional—style.

Luca and his father Alfredo are winemakers who cultivate grapes from 15ha (37 acres) of vineyards, equally divided between Barbaresco and Barolo, with a small portion of Timorasso from a vineyard in the Colli Tortonesi. In the past, Luca’s grandfather Giovanni and father Alfredo created traditional Barbaresco from a mixture of grapes across diverse vineyards. However, they sporadically produced single-vineyard wines during superb vintages like 1971 and 1978.

Born in 1981, Luca began working in the family vineyards with his father in 2001 following graduation from the Alba School of Enology. He made the decision to make single-vineyard wines, like Asili, Montefico, Pajè, and Pira, in 2004. Between 1959 and 1994, the vintages were predominantly cold, making the cultivation of Nebbiolo challenging due to its early budding and late harvesting habits. With the gradual warming of the climate, the emphasis shifted from the orientation of the vineyards towards the composition of the soil, which Luca believes has a greater bearing on the unique character of each wine.

Luca’s father is a traditional old-school farmer who starts his day at 4am, immersing himself in daily viticultural activities. The vineyards have always been managed organically with minimal chemical use. When Luca began working in 2001, he found himself in charge of vineyards already in good health. He voices his belief on maintaining the natural balance within the vineyards and the importance of root depth for the cultivation of quality grapes. He mentions that his grandfather always insisted that the first meter of soil was only good for growing potatoes.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man… and the time to stop cutting the grass, to allow competition. As the climate has become warmer, the grass retains the moisture needed to keep the soils cool. There is no green-harvest because, with naturally low yields from pruning to five bunches per vine, it’s not necessary. “The beauty of the wines comes from the saltiness, the minerality, so we never release a top wine from young vines,” explains Luca. When the vines are less than 25 years of age, he doesn’t make Barolo or Barbaresco. When the vines are more than 25 years old, Roagna makes a single-vineyard Barolo and Barbaresco; and when they are more than 50 years old, the Roagna Vecchie Viti Barolo and Barbaresco, both introduced in 2007.

Even with climate change, the Roagna family consider themselves fortunate, thanks to a continental climate and temperatures rising to around only 86°F (30°C) on a typical summer’s day in August, moderated by proximity to the Alps. Maintaining the freshness in the soil thanks to the grass, in an average year with rainfall between 28 and 32in (700–800mm), picking normally takes place around mid-October, two months after veraison. “With the grass, we grow a cover crop of many species of plants, including mint and clover,” says Luca. “With a diverse population of vines derived from massal selection in a habitat that’s in balance, this biodiversity allows for greater complexity in the ultimate expression of the wine.”

It used to be traditional to graft unproductive ancient vines needing replacing onto American rootstock. After two years, they would plant out the vines that had taken well to the graft. It was a labor-intensive process, and the task of propagating the vines was given to the nursery, which would send them back in large numbers to be planted out. Not convinced that the results were uniformly good, however, Luca decided to revert to the traditional practice. After an initial reluctance, his father agreed to train him in the process, and despite all the extra work, he’s much happier with the results.

With 12,000 bottles of a total production of 60,000 bottles, the Barolo Pira, made from 4.88ha (12 acres) of vines, is now Roagna’s largest-volume wine. In 1989, Alfredo and Luigina Roagna bought the historic Cascina Pira near the fortress of Castiglione Falletto, initially owned by a family of aristocrats hundreds of years ago. The original label of La Rocca e La Pira was then changed to the Pira name. Southeast-facing, the soils—with their alternating layers of white limestone, gray and blue marl, and sands, with a high proportion of minerals, including iron—are some of the oldest in Barolo.

The Pira vineyard, with vine’s average age being 40 years, is partitioned into six parcels based on soil composition and age. The Pira Vecchie Viti is sourced from one of these six parcels, specifically planted in 1937, an old massal selection. In 2015, they brought in additional 0.48ha (slightly more than an acre) from the Rocche Castiglione vineyard. The soil in this region, rich in white stones and sand, lends structure, tannins, and complexity. According to Luca, the sand component imparts a tinge of additional finesse.

In the year 1953, Luca’s grandparents, Maria Candida and Giovanni purchased the historical vineyard of Cascina Pajé in Barbaresco. With a positioning facing south to southwest, the soil here contains calcareous marl and limestone, which is found majorly in the Crichët Pajé parcel. Giovanni started bottling a small selection for private consumption in 1958, which has been known from 1978 as Crichët Pajé, translating to “little hill” in the local language. They follow a long maceration process with eight years in barrel, with the final stages of the aging happening in concrete. The average production typically is around 1,800 bottles and can go as low as 700 bottles in certain vintages like 2012. Luca believes that Crichët Pajé is their vineyard exhibiting the highest complexity, structure, and aging potential.

In 2014, the Roagna family decided to acquire a minor 0.8ha (2-acre) vineyard of Timorasso. Located at an altitude of nearly 1,500ft (450m), one parcel here is around 50 years old, and the other is more recent. The yield usually is between 20 and 30hl/ha. In their endeavor to create a white wine with freshness and aging potential, they allow an oxidation of the must, press without using sulfur, remove the gross lees after 24 hours, ferment in oak using natural yeasts, and keep the wines in a barrel for two years. “We like to play with the oxidation of the must and reduction of the lees,” mentions Luca.

For Luca, as long as the grapes are perfectly ripe, the vinification should lean more towards infusion than maceration. “Too much working on extract the tannins can yield aggressive tannins—which is precisely what we strive to avoid.” Following a long, gentle extraction ranging between 60 and 100 days, employing a submerged cap and only wild yeasts, he emphasizes on the significance of the type of oak vessels used—essentially, conical French oak vats varying in size up to 5,000 liters.

The cooper is instructed to supply superior oak barrels for avoiding strong wood flavors. The barrels’ staves are left to weather outdoors for a decade and subsequently steam-heated to maintain the wood’s neutrality. Thanks to their thick staves, they allow slow oxygenation for perfect tannin polymerization. Initially, the Dolcetto, Barbera, and the white wines are fermented in these. Later on, the Nebbiolo wines are processed, which last in the cask for not less than five years. The detailed information about the process can be found here.

Luca noticed that the vintages of 2012, 2015, 2017, 2018, and 2022 were unusually sunny and warm due to climate change. To preserve freshness, he has started incorporating a small ratio of whole-bunch, ranging between 5% and 8%. Even though 2011 was sunnier compared to the ideal 2010, the late spring and summer heat weren’t as troubling as the scorching 2003 and 2022 vintages. Luca is of the view that the vines have now better adapted to the heightened temperatures as were in the early 2000s. Also, the experience of dealing with the vines both at the vineyard and winery, precisely identifying the right time for harvest, have ushered further advancements.

The conversation concluded at The River Café, London, on February 7, 2023.

In the end, Roagna Montemarzino Timorasso 2019 was served (13.4% ABV).

Yellow gold. Peachy aromas, but with a freshness as well as a depth to the wine, showing lovely fruit purity, with an almost austere, refreshing character and fine-textured quality. Medium- to full-bodied at 13.4% ABV, this dry white is rich yet savory, and with a mouthwatering lemon-citrus and mineral feel, it fleshes out and becomes sweeter with food. 2023–28. 93

Roagna 2016 Barolo Pira (14% ABV)

Bottled in August 2021, this is a deep, youthful ruby, with an overt sweetness and spiciness of fragrance; floral, too. When you taste it, that voluptuous richness of cherry-fruit purity spreads across the tongue, with a savory element building, and the tannins, while initially adding to that savory character, gradually melt away even as they hold the fruit together in a light, sinewy grip. Real melt-in-the-mouth stuff to accompany The River Café’s gnocchi alla romagna, with nutmeg, Parmesan, and sage. 2023–35. 94

Roagna 2016 Barolo Rocche di Castiglione (14% ABV)

Considerably lighter than Pira, the shade tilts more towards garnet, coupled with a more enthralling, savory aroma. It lays out an initial pleasant cherry sweetness, underlined by an intense cherry-fruit that has a slightly drier and more textured finish. Yet the dryness subtly fades into a softer aftertaste as the first hint of fruit richness transitions to a more savory note. The finish leans towards more mineral flavors rather than fruity ones, especially when paired with gnocchi; overall making it a sophisticated red wine. Best consumed between 2023–40. Score: 95

Roagna 2011 Barolo Pira Vecchie Viti (Alcohol by Volume: 13%)

As the color gradually shifts into garnet, demonstrating some maturity, this old-vine Barolo releases a fragrant, floral aroma intertwined with a cherry/strawberry bouquet. The rich maturing fruit core indicates a hearty combination of mid-palate strawberry and cherry richness along with an old-vine concentration. This expressive Nebbiolo is gently transitioning into a pleasantly aged stage, maintaining a balance of finesse and intensity. Although it still holds onto its youthful vitality with hardly a sign of age, it can be a real treat, though slightly drier than the Pajè mentioned below. Best consumed between 2023–35. Score: 95

Roagna 2011 Barbaresco Pajè Vecchie Viti (Alcohol by Volume: 13%)

Still youthful in color. The fine bouquet shows complexity, with fragrant, light spice and sweetly ripe cherry notes. The aromas are followed by an intense richness of cherryish fruit in a cocoon of silky soft tannins; seamless, yet structured by an underlying spine of minerally acidity. There’s a beautiful balance and effortless concentration, as the texture feels so gentle and rounded, with no hint of wood other than the suppleness of the wine itself. 2023–33. 96

Roagna 2013 Barbaresco Crichët Pajé Vecchie Viti (14% ABV)

A youthful ruby, holding its color well; an alluring bouquet mingles kirsch cherry and spice, while the richly concentrated dark cherry fruit is opulently rich on the mid-palate, with a textural quality that’s beautifully resolved. Halfway through comes a structure of firm, sinewy tannins and classic acidity, which kick in to underpin all that voluptuous fruit with a mineral support system that ensures a decade or more of further aging. 2023–35. 97

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