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His father’s son: Pietro Ratti on Renato Ratti’s legacy in Barolo

I recently sat down with Pietro Ratti, winemaker of the historic Renato Ratti Estate in Italy’s Piedmont region to taste his 2004 Renato Ratti Rocche Marcenasco Barolo, and to talk about Barolo and his late father’s contributions to the region’s history.

Renato Ratti started producing wines in Piedmont almost 50 years ago, and led a modernist movement in the 1970s that strove to identify and delineate the best vineyard areas and update winemaking techniques that changed the wines as we see them today.

Barolo is a wine that has been produced for centuries. It was favored by nobility and has now become coveted by collectors. In great vintages, it has incredible aging potential because the Nebbiolo grape from which Barolo is made is naturally high in acidity and tannin.

Tannin is a phenolic component found in grape skins and seeds and is extracted during the winemaking process — mainly in red wines — by the maceration of grapes. Tannins create a drying sensation on your palate, and if not carefully managed, for example by proper ripening of the fruit, pressing and maceration techniques,the resulting wine can be quite astringent. Because Nebbiolo needs ideal conditions to fully ripen, it was traditionally picked slightly under-ripe and macerated in the winery for extended periods to extract enough color from the skins.

As a result, the Barolo made prior to the 1950s required extensive aging to soften the tannins and make the wine palatable. Through this method, however, most of the beautiful fruit components would fade or die off by the time it was opened, leaving a wine that was interesting, but partly oxidized.

Renato Ratti and several of his like-minded peers wanted to make a more modern style of Barolo.  Ratti  set out to classify the best vineyards for Nebbiolo in the region and adapt winemaking techniques to make more elegant and fruit-driven Barolo that could be enjoyed at a younger age.

NN: Tell me about ‘The Ratti Map’ and the major contributions your father made to the vineyard classifications in Barolo.

PR:  My father was a very important innovator in the Barolo area because in 1965, he made the first single vineyard Barolo called Marcenasco, with the idea of announcing the characteristics of a single sub-zone, which in this case was the in the Annunziata area in La Morra. Later on he conducted an extensive study and mapped out sub-zones and individual vineyard plots based on their quality potential—like the French do in Burgundy with designation of Premier Cru and Grand Cru. This map is still referred to by many producers today.

NN: He also elevated Barolo’s status within Italy’s appellation classification system.

Yes, in the 1970s he introduced the DOCG for Barolo, or Garantita, which is the top of the pyramid for quality designations of all the appellations of Italy.  Appellations that qualify mark their DOCG designation with a pink strip on the neck of every bottle.

NN:  Modern Barolo is a style born out of the Barolo Wars of the ‘70s and ‘80s, a stylistic shift brought on by up and coming producers who challenged the traditional techniques used for centuries by established one.   Your father was among the four main producers that led this philosophical shift.  What new practices did they implement?    

They introduced the concept of shortening the length of maceration or skin contact to days instead of weeks. They also shortened the time the wines aged in wood in order to make the wines more fruity and elegant -less oxidized.  This was a big change that was not accepted widely at first but today the market wants to be able to drink their wine when it is younger and so it has become more common practice.

NN: You went to oenology school and took over your father’s estate after his death in 1988.  What changes did you make to imprint your own winemaking style and philosophies?

Well of course I always try to keep in line with the principles of my father and the single vineyard concept.  When I first started making wine we purchased 80 percent of our grapes – which was very common back then.  But I was able to buy some quality vineyards and now we only purchase 20 percent of our grapes. I always say that 70 percent of winemaking starts in the vineyard because you need quality ingredients to make good wine.  But the cellar is also important to be able to transfer that quality into the wine.  So I built a new cellar that would give maximum respect for the grape using gravity flow.   We also put grass on the roof to integrate the building into the landscape and control temperature and humidity in the cellar.  It was the first winery of its kind to be built in the area so I am very proud that I was able to continue my father’s philosophy to be an innovator for Barolo in that way.