The Royal Enologist of Barolo
- Scritto da Diana Zahuranec
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The August Blogging Piemonte topic is Royalty in Piemonte. I immediately thought of the royal Savoy family, one of oldest monarchies in the world: the house was founded in 1003, and they ruled northwestern Italy up until Unification in 1861; and unified Italy until 1946. In several of their many royal hunting lodges and castles, they produced wine, and I wanted to compile a list of noble residences that still produced wine (or held, like enoteche) today.
But as I looked up more information, one name kept stubbornly reappearing: General Paolo Francesco Staglieno (1773-1850), royal enologist.
The General caught my eye. His insistent, bold personality showed through even on paper. He demanded that I write about him and about his influence in the heritage of Piemonte winemaking. His story was so interesting, I couldn’t resist!
Staglieno began his successful career in the military. Born to a family of marquis in Genova, he was promoted through various stages of cadet, commander, and general until 1831, when he became governor of the Fort of Bard in Piemonte. He was cultured and well learned, studying economics, arboriculture, and enology with passion. He could have retired a successful man, satisfied with his life and occupations. But that was not him.
King Carlo Alberto of the Savoy family named him enologist and manager of the wine production of the royal Pollenzo residence upon the general’s retirement in the mid-1800s.
King Carlo Alberto. Photo from returnable, Creative Commons
Today, Pollenzo houses the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences, as well as keeping a Wine Bank in its royal cellars. In the 1800s, Carlo Alberto had purchased the residence and many surrounding acres as a summer home and hunting lodge (one of many for the Savoy family) and to make the wine he loved from this area. He was especially taken with “Nebiolin,” Nebbiolo.
Pollenzo. Photo from www.albergoagenzia.it
The General was not a man to retire quietly. His influence on winemaking in Piemonte is undeniable, as he contributed to avant-garde winemaking techniques that helped propel this once-backwards little region (when it came to winemaking philosophies and practices) forward, neck to neck with the famous wine regions of the day.
Luckily for local producers and the history of Piemontese wine, the king wasn’t jealous of his royal enologist, but allowed others to seek his advice. Staglieno was also hired by Count Camillo Benso of Cavour (of the Castle of Grinzane Cavour, the first Regional Enoteca of Piemonte), and oversaw wine production in the Castle of Verduno, also purchased by Carlo Alberto. According to the Verduno Castle’s website, Staglieno took winemaking council from the famous Giulia Falletti Colbert, thereby laying down the basis for modern-day Barolo. Count Camillo Benso also contributed in great part to modern wine when he hired French enologist Count Louis Oudart, who likely influenced Staglieno with his winemaking techniques, similar to that of Bourdeaux. In fact, at least for a time, the two enologists probably took counsel from each other.
Count Camillo Benso of Cavour and Grinzane Cavour. Photos from Fabrizio Monti & Ivan Maenza, respectively. Creative Commons
Staglieno was progressive in many ways when it came to wine production, which was not always accepted by other producers in the area. Obviously, he didn’t care. He was known for refuting negative Nancies point-by-point, using his extensive first-hand knowledge in the cellar to back up his practices and claims.
In an age where wines were made in open vats side by side with animals in the barn, he was strict about cleanliness in the cellar. His managing style, as Mainardi says, was in line with the staunch, decisive character of a general. Strictly controlling temperature, purity, and fermentation, he was also a major proponent of the French Gervais method: Grape grower Elisabeth Gervais tested the results of wine fermented in partially covered vats in 1820, noting the improved wine quality. Not everyone supported Staglieno when he insisted on using her vats.
He was inflexible about market release, too. Wine, he insisted, should never be served before it is ready, especially not to the king. “Fine wines need the patience to wait.” It was yet another unpopular sentiment at the time. Undeterred, he put his foot down and was the first enologist to declare a minimal aging period for Langhe Nebbiolo. “Wines made from [Nebbiolo] are not perfectly good if they have not yet reached four years of age.”
Perhaps most important to this retired soldier was something we hear from producers repeatedly, today: the quality of the wine starts with the grapes. He even divided harvests by quality. He was partial to the grapes of Roddi and Santa Vittoria (as was his king), from which he made Nebbiolo, “Dussetto,” and Barbera.
Vineyards of Santa Vittoria d'Alba. Photo from papassina, Creative Commons
He was unapologetically confident. “I not only hope, but am certain I will produce wines that will surpass those of Tokaj, the Levant, of Spain, Portugal, the Cape of Good Hope, and even Sciras, so His Majesty will be the only one to possess the best wine in the universe.” Big words, Staglieno.
But many people agreed his wines were the best. He provided for the royal court as well as nobles from all over – such as the Counts of Agliè and Monticello, and many others besides – and was met with praise from all sides. And yet, he insisted that “the price of wine is not dependent on the cost to the owner, but on its actual goodness.” As he was already in the king’s good graces and thus had a plump pocketbook, he could probably say whatever he wanted.
According to this unbending man, then, what was a high quality wine? Even this is surprising: In an age when sweet, rosé wine was preferred (yes, even Nebbiolo), he insisted good wine was dry, clear, “generous, alcoholic, and robust;” pleasant to drink, and with a fragrant aroma. A wine like this, he said, could be shipped abroad and have nothing to envy of Bordeaux and Burgundy.
I can’t help but compare Barolo, the wine itself, to this guy. He had an austere nature and bold personality, perhaps unpalatable to some if not mitigated by some light-hearted friends in the mix (or accompanied by food). More than just a soldier, he was multitalented and held various interests; in the same way, the complexity of a Barolo unfolds to reveal new layers as you drink it. And instead of fading out in comfortable retirement, Staglieno improved with age like any great Barolo, continuously evolving, learning, and growing up until the very last years of his life.
About every month, the Blogging Piemonte group will meet to talk and decide on a topic we’ll all write about, from food and drink to travel and life in Piemonte. Follow along with the hashtag #BlogPiemonte!
Read up on what the others have to say about royalty in Piemonte:
Feel Like a Royal in Torino, by A Texas Mom in Torino
Ice-Cream: The Ultimate Status Symbol, by Turin Mamma
Palazzo Chiablese: A Tour of Turin’s Royal Residence with Italian Touring Club Torino, by Tidbits on Tap
Turin Legends: Royal Alchemy, by Once Upon a Time in Italy
50 Shades of Royalty, by Uncorkventional
Are you a blogger who lives in Piemonte and writes in English?
We'd love to have you join Blogging Piemonte! Just send me an email at diana.zahuranec [at] winepassitaly.it.
It doesn't matter if you also blog in another language, as long as you post the Blogging Piemonte articles in English.
Castello di Verduno website. http://castellodiverduno.com/ita/
Creese, Mary R. S. and Thomas M. Creese. Ladies in the Laboratory 2. Scarecrow Press, 2004. Google online book. https://books.google.it/books?id=RhNl22fb5xIC&dq=what+is+the+french+gervais+method&source=gbs_navlinks_s
Mainardi, Giusi. Il Podere Reale di Pollenzo, Centro di Sperimentazione Enologica nel Piemonte dell’Ottocento. L’Attività di Paolo Francesco Staglieno, Enologo di Carlo Alberto. Pdf found here: http://www.comune.bra.cn.it/citta/pollenzo/pdf/2_05.pdf
I love Piemonte’s food and wine, the city of Turin, and my proximity to the Alps! My goal and challenge is to see as much of the region as possible using public transportation, but if you have a car I’d appreciate the ride. My intro to wine was at the Univ. of Gastronomic Sciences, and I love visiting family wineries, plus discovering Piemonte's craft beer scene. I’m hard-pressed to choose a favorite wine, but Nebbiolo never disappoints (from Barbaresco to Ghemme). As for beer, the Birrificio San Michele makes an incredible beechwood smoked brew.