There is something irresistibly bucolic about the sight of Oddero’s 19th-century winemaking house near Barolo, Italy. For one, it is the color of lemon cream, and baskets of magenta petunias line its upper floor like a painter’s embellishment. The home and winery complex is an L-shape facing open to the south. It is a typical layout from the time period, and highly practical: the configuration took advantage of the sun’s trajectory as it crossed the sky, warming rooms one-by-one from dawn to dusk.
To one side of the winery rises the town of La Morra. On the other side, a stately parish church stands above an apron of Nebbiolo vines. “That is the Bricco Chiesa cru,” Isabella Oddero tells me and my wife shortly after our arrival. “The church used to sell us the grapes from the vineyard, until we bought the vineyard from them.” Then she adds, “it is also the church where I got married.”
The Family Way of Doing Things
Isabella is part of the seventh generation at Oddero. She and her cousin, Pietro, are the future, learning the ins and outs of viticulture, eonology, exporting, marketing and distribution. Isabella once pursued a degree and possible career in literary-economics in Milan, but the pull of the Langhe, the culture of wine, and the legacy of her family brought her back.
A similar story can be found with her aunt, Cristina Oddero. Now the sixth-generation winemaker at Oddero, Cristina also pursued a different passion when she was younger — fashion and interior design — only to find that the patterns, textures and structures she wanted to create were back home in the wine cellar. Since 1997, her careful attention to detail in the vineyard — as well as a devotion to traditional techniques in the winery — have not only preserved the family legacy, but advanced it. (More on that later).
However, the heart and soul of Oddero seems to be 91-year-old Giacomo, Cristina’s father. For years, he channeled his passion for the Langhe not only into winemaking, but spearheading preservation efforts for the region’s gastronomical treasures. Upon his retirement from winemaking in 1997, he established the Centro Nazionale Studi sul Tartufo d’Alba (National Center for Alba Truffle Studies) to promote the prized white truffles that grow in the area, and research ways to preserve their future.
But Giacomo’s lasting legacy will be Oddero’s wine. When it comes to Nebbiolo, he has been an ardent traditionalist, insisting on longer macerations to extract as much character as possible from the grape, and then élevage in large casks with minimal oak influence. This had always been, and continues to be, the house style at Oddero for their Barolo and Barbaresco.
But perhaps his bigger impact* came from expanding the family’s vineyard holdings in the 1960s and 1970s when the land was affordable. Today, the family is one of the largest land-owners in the region with 35 hectares, including vineyard plots in the Brunate, Vignarionda, Bussia, Rocche di Castiglione, Villero and Gallina cru.
“We are very proud and very lucky to own very important, very historic vineyards,” Isabella told me. “To realize what they did in the past, to do it now? It is impossible for the local families because the prices are crazy.”
Interest in the area’s wines continues to grow, and a recent UNESCO World Heritage Site designation for all of the Langhe Hills — coupled with foreign investment — has meant sky-rocketing land values.
“The difference then is that — maybe in the 1970s, 1980s — if a young Piedmontese man or family wanted to start a production, they could achieve getting some land. Today, it is very hard.”
Giacomo wasn’t at the winery during my visit, but at many turns, Isabella mentioned him with clear adoration and respect. “To my grandfather,” she says, describing the weathered, 40-year-old oak casks lined in rows deep in the cellar “they are like his children.”
The Dimensions of Barolo
Wine publications often distill the magic of Barolo’s wines into technical terms: how the Helvetian soil of this vineyard, plus the intense heat of that vintage, as well as the stylistic approach of such-and-such winemaker resulted in a bottle of 94 points.
But these wines frequently have another powerful force influencing their outcome: the family tree. Decisions large and small — both in the vineyard and in the cellar — often come down to how the previous generation saw things. What would dad do in this situation? How do we handle this vintage and still preserve the family style?
That’s not to say there haven’t been significant advancements from one generation to the next. Nor is it to say that today’s winemakers are afraid to change their approach. But they know what’s at stake when they make their wine: the family name on the label means everything.
This is clearly the case at Oddero, and you can see it in how they approach their six different bottlings of Barolo.
In addition to rejecting the modernist vinification processes for Barolo and Barbaresco that arose in the 1980s and 1990s, Giacomo was also hesitant to produce single-vineyard bottlings, which had become — and continue to be — fashionable. It took the near-perfect 1982 vintage to convince him it was time to release a single-vineyard Barolo, but even then it was from just one vineyard: Rocche di Castligione. Three years later, he bottled the Vignarionda and Bussia separately, but all of his holdings in Brunate and Villero — by then famous vineyards in their own right — went into the blend.
“Still today, I think, in his mind, in his heart, my grandfather thinks the true expression of Barolo is the classico Barolo,” Isabella told me.
When Cristina Oddero took over winemaking responsibilities from her father, things began to shift, but only slightly. In 2004, she released single-vineyard Barolo from the Villero and Brunate cru, and in 2008, she began the steady conversion of their Nebbiolo vineyards to organic viticulture. Transitions to organics for the Barbera, Dolcetto and Moscato vineyards are currently underway.
The Long View
“To be organic here in Piedmont is a little more complicated than it is in other areas of Italy because we generally have a lot of rains,” Isabella noted. “With humidity we have more diseases.”
The region as a whole has largely avoided the mistakes of chemically reliant practices, but given the nature of the vineyards — where cru are subdivided between several different families — being organic for your dedicated rows is often not enough. This is especially true when it comes to pest control.
In recent years, Cristina has found ways to collaborate with other winemakers for the benefit of the larger ecosystem. For example, in the Brunate and Cerequio cru, they’ve found a way to eliminate the pesky Tignola moth without chemicals.
“Instead of spraying against the moths, what you do is you put a stripe with pheromones on it, and the pheromones in the air confuse the insects,” Isabella elaborated for us. “They do not recognize female or male, and so they do not reproduce. They die naturally.”
But can you taste an improvement in the wine because of organic practices? Perhaps that’s debatable (my palate certainly cannot), but when your perspective is generational, like it is at Oddero, that question is beside the point. Organic practices in the vineyard are a step toward preserving the integrity of an ecosystem. It’s a holistic approach that nicely mirrors a family estate aiming to produce excellent Barolo for generations to come.
Tasting Report: Oddero Wines, October 2017
Up next, take a deep dive into the portfolio of Oddero wines with this tasting report from my visit.
If You Go
Oddero welcomes visitors by appointment only. A typical tasting either gives you a sampling from around the Langhe, or you can upgrade for a taste of the Barolo cru.
We visited in the morning and then followed our visit with lunch at Osteria More + Macine in La Morra, one of my favorite restaurants in the Langhe (and in a region with a lot of formal restaurants, this one is quite casual).
After this story published, Suzanne Hoffman — author of Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piedmont — noted the following to me on Facebook:
“These purchases were made possible through the hard work of Isabella’s late nonna, Carla Scanavino, as a pharmacist in her own pharmacy. Together with her beloved husband, Giacomo, they were able to put together a tapestry of crus the family so beautifully farms today. She and Giacomo’s mother Maria and nonna Luigia are three of the unsung heroines of the Oddero story. So many of the wine families have similar stories of sacrifice, hard work, and vision that made success today possible. Their stories are aching to be told.”
Thanks for the added dimension to the story, Suzanne!
My pleasure, Kevin. Thank YOU for your lovely piece on a beautiful family. Your description of the house is so lovely and gave me goosebumps. You have highlighted what so many journalists and bloggers miss — the family component to the industry. Piemonte is the land of land and the wine families are all connected through their lives on it and the lifeblood of wine that flows through them. Their stories must be told. So many more stories left to tell.