Last Thursday Luciano Sandrone of the eponymous Barolo estate died at the age of 76. Above he is flanked by Luca, Barbara and Alessia.
Upon hearing the news from a friend in Barolo, I recalled that on my visit to the estate only a month ago, I was met by his daughter Barbara, his brother Luca and the estate’s agronomist as well as his granddaughter Alessia, who had just begun working at his and Luca’s side. There was no Luciano. On all my past visits he would at some point rush in, always with an apron on, to sit down and chat a little. This was the moment I always asked him which past vintage the new one reminded him of. Luciano could hark back to the 1950s without any hesitation. This last time, although I noticed his absence, something held me back from inquiring where he was.
My first-ever encounter with Sandrone's wines was back in the early 2000s when I was working as a sommelier in London. The restaurant, Le Pont de la Tour, used to stock both his Cannubi Boschis and Le Vigne (a blend from vineyards in their holdings in Serralunga d’Alba, Castiglione Falletto, Barolo and Novello) with their strikingly simple but sophisticated labels. I only ever tasted sips of these wines from dregs left in bottles after service, and even that very rarely because in those days Barolo was not nearly as much on the UK radar as it is today and few customers would order the wines of their own volition.
I remember arriving at the estate on the road separating Cannubi and Barolo from Monforte d’Alba to find an imposing, obviously noble farm building with huge, forbidding oak doors and a copper doorbell. An assistant opened an inset in one of the massive doors, led me into an antechamber and brought me water in a crystal pitcher on a silver plate. The whole thing made me think of the reception I once experienced at Château Margaux.
The tone changed radically as soon as Luciano and his daughter Barbara arrived. Warm and down-to earth, Sandrone immediately told me to drop the ‘Signor Sandrone’ and call him Luciano instead. Barbara gave me a book on Barolo when I left. At that time I was a complete nobody, a young sommelier the Sandrones had never even heard of, but both Luciano and Barbara treated me like a friend.
Despite the estate’s grandeur, Luciano Sandrone came from a humble background but built his estate up to the very top of Barolo’s ranking. It all began with a small piece of the Cannubi hill that he acquired in 1978, before prices began to spiral out of control. This particular plot, called Cannubi Boschis, was not particularly revered at the time, but in Sandrone’s hands it revealed its cru quality. While the first 1981 vintage was a success, Sandrone kept on working at Marchesi di Barolo as its cellarmaster.
I always considered Sandrone the link between what was once dubbed the modernists and the traditionalists, the former firmly in favour of modern technology and short maceration times and new oak, the latter continuing age-old methods of prolonged maceration and ageing in large oak casks. Sandrone embraced technology and new oak not for stylistic reasons, but because he felt it would bring out the best of Nebbiolo – his only aim.
The clearest proof of his total devotion to Nebbiolo rather than a marketable style are not his exceptional Barolos but Valmaggiore, a Nebbiolo d’Alba he produced from his own holdings in Roero. The finesse and potential of this wine are astonishing, a fact he wanted to underline by making it part of the estate’s Sibi et Paucis range comprising limited quantities of Sandrone’s Barolos aged for 10 years and Valmaggiore for six.
His obsession with the grape variety led to him scrutinise his vines and he stumbled across an old vine producing outstanding grapes year after year. Propagating this vine until enough critical mass was reached, he planted a plot with what could be considered a new Nebbiolo clone (research is still ongoing), but equally could be a virus-ridden Lampia clone known as Michet. It delivers low yields of exceptional grapes which is why many producers are so keen on it even though it is not officially sanctioned. Having identified this outstanding vine 25 years earlier, in 2019 Sandrone released 2013 Barolo Vite Talin in honour of the previous owner Natale. It is an exceptional deeply coloured and powerful wine but with Sandrone’s signature elegance etched into it.
Being very much his own man, with the 2013 vintage Sandrone changed the Cannubi Boschis label to Aleste, a combination of his grandchildren’s names Alessia and Stefano, completely contrary to the current trend of using the single-vineyard names that are now so much in demand on international markets. Speculation was rife about his motivation, when in hindsight it looks as though he was simply aware of handing over the reins to the next generation.
There can be not a shred of doubt that the estate is the very best of hands, but I will miss this unassuming man in his apron rushing into the elegant, expensively decorated tasting room every time I visited the estate.