Different styles of Barolo have emerged over the last several decades. One is based on swift maceration and aging in small oak barrels, creating a richer, oakier wine. Another is based on long maceration and elevage in large local oak and chestnut barrels. Bartolo Mascarello (c.1927-2005) stuck to the second, "traditional," style of Barolo-- learned from his father and continued by his daughter. Mascarello owned some great single vineyards in Barolo, but rather than sell them as such, he always blended together for consistency and complexity.
As I was doing research to write this post, I kept coming across this word "tradition."
There are possibly no wines on the planet more linked to the concept of "tradition" than Bartolo Mascarello's bottlings. But what exactly is "tradition"? This is a charged and loaded word that is frequently used in the wine business. But unlike the wine business' use of the word, a major premise from the fields of anthropology and ethnography (those who study and analyze "traditions") states that tradition is dynamic and fluid. It's a perceived consistency more than an actual consistency, and "traditions" will persist under certain conditions and change under others. There are endless articles that challenge a stagnant notion of tradition by analyzing traditions that change and modify to accommodate new circumstances.
There is the theory of peripheral culture: culture "at the periphery" will cling to its traditions as a method of maintaining and preserving a sense of identity so far from the epicenter of the culture. It's easy to find this idea in music: Yoruban rhythms from West Africa were carefully preserved and passed down in diaspora cultures spread apart by slavery. Meanwhile, rhythms in Yorubaland changed and morphed according to cultural needs. But in Brasil, you can hear rhythms that were played 300 years ago in West Africa, because there was an urgency to protect those sonic remnants of culture among people living so far from their homes. Displaced with no cultural items, an unchanging rhythm becomes a "tradition" because it is the sole connection with your roots.
You can see the concept of peripheral culture at work in the Barossa Valley. Descendants of Silesians who left their homeland and settled in the Barossa in the 1840s have been slower to change recipes, grape varieties, and folksongs than their counterparts in Eastern Europe, mostly because to change them means to lose their legacy.
But even this view of cultural periphery-- a view that expects and allows for cultural dynamics-- tends to simplify the fluid contributions of contemporary societies.
There has been a recent anthropological emphasis on "cultural flow," or, infrastructure between catalysts that might influence the changing or unchanging of culture through traditions. If a small cultural change happens, a tradition might change to accommodate the cultural flow; but if the tradition remains the same, it has still been influenced by cultural flow.
If anthropologists can view culture as flowing, as a set of relationships along a network of infrastructure from one "tradition" to another rather than the traditions themselves, wouldn't it be helpful for us to think about the culture of wine in this way too?
Language is just as dynamic as culture, and language has its own flows and infrastructures. Language can be seen as both a cultural infrastructure and a massive dynamic tradition. Language is so powerful that it creates its own cultural infrastructures, then sets cultural ideas and traditions transmitted by language in play through linguistic channels. Language is a set of symbols linked to meanings-- but there are many layers of language, with meta-symbols and meta-meanings built one upon the other. Linguistic ideas can flow through these meta-levels and have multiple meanings on simultaneous parallel levels. Language is both a tradition and a means through which culture and tradition may flow, through many layers of meaning.
Thus, language is very powerful tool that can and does change the world on a daily basis.
So it's very important that we use language to the best of our ability to create the right kinds of ideas about abstract concepts in the world of wine.
I'd like to point out that there are "traditions," which can sometimes be situationally definable, and then there is this word "traditional," which carries no inherent meaning. If a concept or thing is "traditional" we accept it to be something that has been done more than once and has become a "tradition" to someone, somewhere. It's a word that implies oldness and a tried-and-trueness. This means that any repeated act can become a tradition and can therefore be described as "traditional." So to describe a type of winemaking as "traditional" really doesn't tell you much at all, other than the fact that it has been repeated several times.
As sommeliers/wine writers, we have a linguistic "tradition" to describe certain winemaking styles as "traditional," and we often juxtapose these methods by describing differing winemaking styles as "modern." But this is a slippery slope, since every tradition was at one time modern, and since modernity as an idea has already waned into a something that could be described as traditional.
I hope that we can work together as wine writers and sommeliers to constantly improve and update the way in which we use language to transmit important ideas and concepts within our field, starting with a very careful use of the words "tradition" and "traditional." Ultimately, I want to tease out the fact that the language we currently use to describe winemaking styles is not-so-concrete, and that to identify Bartolo Mascarello as a "traditional" producer, in a way, may downplay his subtly complex contributions to winemaking, which may have been made simply by not making changes at all (which isn't necessarily "traditional"). To me, by not jumping on the bandwagon, Bartolo was revolutionary because he had the courage not to change when so many around him encouraged different methods.
Here are the tasting notes from the vertical. A few bottles were bad, so I didn't bother writing a tasting note for those. I put asterisks next to my personal favorites of the group.
**Bartolo Mascarello Barolo, 1979 (Piedmonte, Italy)
loved this- earthy, meaty, dried flower petals, dried plums
Bartolo Mascarello Barolo, 1982 (Piedmonte, Italy)
dusty, earthy, dark fruits
**Bartolo Mascarello Barolo, 1988 (Piedmonte, Italy)
mushrooms, earth, meat, alpine forest
Bartolo Mascarello Barolo, 1990 (Piedmonte, Italy)
cherry fruit, hint of slight oxidation, a rich texture that went well with the food.
**Bartolo Mascarello Barolo, 1991 (Piedmonte, Italy)
at first this one smelled closed, but a great, meaty nose emerged after a while-- plum skin, purple flowers, rich mouthfeel, bright acidity
Bartolo Mascarello Barolo, 1993 (Piedmonte, Italy)
technically very nice. light touch of oak, dried beef aroma, lavender/thyme/sage- dried herbs de Provence, perfumes. light on the palate- higher acid.
**Bartolo Mascarello Barolo, 1995 (Piedmonte, Italy)
pretty & sprightly. soft integrated tannins, lavender/violet soaps, dried orange peel, cherries, earth, dried leaves, dried roses-- pretty complex aromas going here.
Bartolo Mascarello Barolo, 1996 (Piedmonte, Italy)
green herbs, oak/tannin texture is well integrated, raw meat aroma, acidity seems to jump out at you.
Bartolo Mascarello Barolo, 2003 (Piedmonte, Italy)
powerful and rich, soft fruit
Bartolo Mascarello Barolo, 2004 (Piedmonte, Italy)
dark fruit, blackberries, plums
**Bartolo Mascarello Barolo, 2005 (Piedmonte, Italy)
soft & rich
2005 was the year Bartolo Mascarello passed away, so this wine really marks the end of an era.
<--- This was a fun little surprise that was thrown in blind at the very end. No one guessed even close to dolcetto, or to the 80s.
Handler, Richard and Jocelyn Linnekin. (1984) "Tradition, Genuine or Spurious." Journal of American Folklore. Vol. 97. No. 385.
Hannerz, Ulf. (1989) "Culture Between Center and Periphery: Toward a macroanthropology." Journal of Anthropology. Vol. 54. Issue 3-4. Pp. 200-216.