The Domenico Clerico estate, named for its winemaker of the same name, has been producing wines in Barolo's Monforte d’Alba since 1976 with a focus on Dolcetto, Barbera and Nebbiolo. Starting out with just four hectares, today the winery consists of 21 hectares of top vineyard sites. Clerico was a proponent of a modern style of Barolo and always looked towards the future by experimenting with the latest technology and winemaking techniques to showcase the uniqueness of Monforte D'Alba. With Domenico's passing in 2017, the estate was left to his wife Giuliana and his niece. Together with winemaker Oscar Arrivabene, the Domenico Clerico winery continues his legacy by producing pure, terroir-driven wines that are a beautiful expression of the land.
Grape Collective talks with Oscar Arrivabene about the history of the estate and the impact of the Barolo Boys with regard to traditional versus modern styles of Barolo.
Christopher Barnes: Oscar, tell us a little bit about the history of the Domenico Clerico estate.

Oscar Arrivabene: Domenico started with his wife, Giuliana, in 1976 in Monforte D'Alba, focusing on just three varieties—Dolcetto, Barbera, and Nebbiolo, nothing else. So no compromises. So he started already with a pretty strong identity about what the idea of a winemaker in Barolo was for himself, and not just in Barolo, but in Monforte D'Alba. After so many years trying to make, not something that is just a wine, but the best wine in the world, that was the real ambition that moved his entire life, it was not just to create something good, but something special. And that is actually the same ambition that we are still following right now, and the same way that we are still working. Unfortunately, Domenico passed away in 2017, but we are still carrying his dream to the next step.

And what is your background, Oscar, as a winemaker?

I studied winemaking at school. Then I worked at Valtellina. It's a tiny place, close to the Alps that makes mostly Nebbiolo. Then I left for Australia. I worked for other companies in Italy, and then I met Domenico. It was a long time that I was looking for a family-owned company just focused on quality. And so in the moment that we met each other, we clicked. And so I'm still here after eight years, something like that. So it's a pretty good story.

Absolutely. And Oscar, talk a little bit about the terroir here in the Barolo area, and then more specifically, talk a little bit about the terroir in your individual vineyards. 

Barolo in general is a tiny place, but the reason why it's probably so popular is because we have so many differences inside of a tiny place like Barolo. So think about that if you have to drive from the extreme north to the extreme south of the appellation, you need 20 minutes. And it's exactly what I do because I live in the extreme north and I work in the extreme south. So it's 20 minutes every day driving, I mean, if you drive fast, it's 20 minutes.

Inside of this appellation that looks so tiny, we have many differences so it's not actually that easy to say the terroir of Barolo is something specific. The terroir of Monforte D'Alba, specifically the southern part, is based on marl. In general, all the terroir in Barolo comes from sediments from the sea. There used to be water. Everything here used to be covered by water until 13 or 14 million years ago. So that kind of layer after layer after layer that the seaside left us, made our terroir. Especially in Monforte. It's a pretty tough kind of soil for the vines, so I can't say that they grow lush. It's a kind of soil that tends to contain the vigorosity of Nebbiolo, which is usually pretty vigorous. And this kind of terroir, it's perfect for that.

If you have a blind tasting, then I'm probably not the best one to describe that because I'm not great in the blind. But people who are able to do that, usually describe Monforte D'Alba like the one with more fruitiness, fresh fruit specifically, richer, and based mostly on tannins, soft tannins, but we are the one with the shoulder, usually. During a blind tasting, if you taste something with shoulder, rich and a little bit tannic with strawberry and cherry at the nose, usually it's Monforte D'Alba.

And how does that compare to Serralunga?

If you want to compare it to Serralunga during those blind tastings, I pick Serralunga because it's a little bit more austere than the Monforte D'Alba. In Monforte, we have a little bit more of a medium palate. Serralunga, it's a little bit more straight. The soils are really different from here to there. And then also in the moment that you think about just one village, it's not that the entire village is only made with one soil, because we put the borders on the villages, and we are human, but nature made something different before. So also when we are talking about Serralunga, Serralunga is a rainbow of different shades just like Monforte is. But if we have to generalize, and generalization usually doesn't fit with the reality, but if we try to generalize, Monforte is about shoulder, Serralunga is about austerity.

Now let's talk a little bit about the Barolo Boys. So the Barolo Boys was a film that came out, and it highlighted a group of producers of which Domenico was one of them, who were breaking away from the traditions of Barolo. Maybe give us a little bit of history on that group and why it happened and what the philosophy was and what the reaction was.

It's a huge story, talking about what was the movement. It was a movement first of all. It's not just a boom or marketing. Think about the situation. We are talking about the '70s. And during the '70 in Barolo, Domenico used to tell me that Barolo was absolutely not as Barolo is right now. Barolo was much poorer than right now. There were some families who were making wine, established and famous if you can say, that were already making good wines and good Barolos. But it was just a bunch of families. In Monforte D'Alba, for example, we had Conterno, Aldo Conterno.

And then there were a bunch of young guys, 25 years old roughly, some were a little bit more, some a little bit less, who used to have one hectare, the other one five hectares from the father. So they were trying to make their own farm a winery. So changing a little bit, or making a winery that was already present something better. And the first thing that they had to do was speak with the customer. That was not something usual. So they had to understand what were the neeeds of the customer, why people were not drinking so much Barolo. And they suddenly understood that Barolo was famous in the area, famous in some places in the world, but not as famous as the wine deserved.

So they started to approach the winemaking with new techniques that were just normal techniques that were used, for example, in France. We are, for example, talking about barrique, we are talking about green harvest, higher ripening. So a different approach in general, trying to make something a little bit bigger and a little bit smoother in tannins. But it's not about the winemaking that was the real philosophy of the Barolo Boys. It's the philosophy. It's the mentality. It's not to assume something that was done by your grandfather is better than what you are doing just because you want to hide it under the name of tradition. Tradition is something good that you are able to do again, because it's good, not because it's part of the tradition. You want to preserve it because it's good. And some of the things that come from your grandfather are great. And some others are not. In the moment that you understand that, you try to evolve, you try to do something of different.

Sometimes you have to break some rules. That is the reason why it was called revolution. And that is why we are not using so much barrique anymore. We still consider ourselves modernists because we are not satisfied. We think that what we are doing right now, I'm 100% secure that what we are making right now will be different in 20 years. And that is still the modernism, still the Barolo Boys spirit that is alive in our winery. Because my taste is different from the taste that I used to have 10 years ago, and yours probably is too.

And the people who drink wine evolve. The wine evolves. The food that we eat every day is different from 10 years ago. Vegetarian was not something normal for my mother. And it's something pretty accepted and most of the young guys wants to be right now. So it means that the dish that my mother used to serve to me will be different from the dish that I'm going to serve to my child, and the wine that we are going to pair with those two dishes must be different. Because with some vegetables, you have a certain kind of tannins, with a piece of meat, you have another kind of tannins. So everything moves.

And to refuse it because you are scared about the future, it is about yourself. It's not about the future. The world is still twisting, and will be different tomorrow. It's about yourself; if you want to change with the world and accept it and keep some things and throw away others, or if you want to rest and stay in your comfort zone. And we are the former. 

So let's talk a little bit about traditional versus modern. At the time when the Barolo Boys started, and correct me and say this in your own words, there was a backlash. There was a certain part of the community that looked at it as sort of sacrilege. And over time, opinions have changed. Talk a little bit about the reaction at the beginning and how thoughts have changed over this divide between modern and traditional.

It's one of the things that most impressed me. And it's not super easy to translate in English, but I'll try to do my best. Domenico told me about this story. For me it was something really interesting, the way that he started. We talk about the history of the territory and how society was different in the moment that they started from the society that we have right now. Because right now, if you want to make a wine that is funky, sparkling, you do whatever you want. It's just winemaking. It's not something that's your life. For the community that Domenico was describing, it was completely a different story, because the community was tiny. Monforte D'Alba was like it is, it's a village. It's a village in the countryside. But obviously in the '70, it was much more isolated than right now, where we have streets, we have trains, planes, and internet, obviously.

So the opinions were different about, for example, green harvest. Domenico told me that he and Giuliana, his wife, they used to do the green harvest in the moment that the father was on vacation with the church because for the community, it was considered a sin. In the community during the '70s the most important person in the village was not the mayor, it was the priest. We are a Catholic country and the church was much more important than everything else at that time. And if you are doing the green harvest, you are technically in a poor condition. For the priest, you were throwing away food. So you are a sinner. Think about this. Because if you are a sinner, the only one that can clean you and rehabilitate you is God. If you do something wrong within society, you go to jail. And then in the moment that you are out of jail, you are clean. So if you're a sinner, you are never, never, never ... you're a bad person. And a bad person is not something that you're going to clean so fast or actually so well.

So those were the kinds of problems that they had to face. It was not just about winemaking. It was about the winemaking and the perception of yourself in the community of your village. That is, or you do what the others are doing. Or if you are doing something different, you are bad. You are the black sheep. The black sheep or you are part of that or you are the enemy. So they used to do the green harvest during the vacation of their own families.

And this talk is a lot about that and is not just the winemaking. It was a revolution because of that, because there was something on the other side that they were risking. They were losing something in order to create their own dreams. And it was risky because there was your own reputation on the table to risk, not just a wine that is good or bad, and then you remove the label from your range and you make another label and that's it, and you can forget it in one year. That was about your own personal image reflected in the eyes of the other. So it was big. It used to be big.

Right now, obviously we are more open-minded and we can experiment. But we can experiment because they have done that before us. And so they opened the minds of the people. And right now we can do ... I don't want to say what we want because in a certain sense, we are more traditional right now that we ever been. But it's normal. Every good revolution finishes in a state of peace. And we are in the peace right now.

So everyone is merging to the same line and everyone is thinking less about the style and about change, change, change, change, change, change, but it's mostly about the vineyard, the vineyard that you have. But in order right now to talk about the vineyard that you have and promote your own vineyard, it was necessary in that moment to change something, to make something different and to prove to the world that Barolo was existing and make some noise.

And is it fair to say that the changes that the Barolo Boys put into effect had a major economic impact on the region? That the attention that they got with Parker and the scores helped elevate Piedmont as a whole internationally, in terms of the reputation of the area?

I think, yes. I think that that moment made Barolo different. I'm not here to say if we are improved or not. So if Barolo is better right now, or Barolo used to be better 13 years ago, I don't have the age to talk about this argument, this topic. But for sure, Barolo, it's like it is, it's famous. If you can use famous like a positive word. Barolo is famous also because of them. What Domenico did was talk about Monforte D'Alba for his entire life. He was in Hong Kong, New York, San Francisco, what else, talking about Monforte D'Alba. Monforte D'Alba is 2,000 people. So we don't have actually so many occasions to talk about ourselves around the world. And he made it. He made it so many times.

So if someone around the world knows Monforte, it's also because of Domenico. And that's important because if you know Monforte in the moment that you have a Barolo from Monforte D'Alba, you connect it to a place and there is nothing more important than this. Because a wine is a wine. The moment that you connect the wine with a person and with a place and with a memory, then you make the click. And that is the reason why you are probably really loving and having some emotion, because it is opening your brain. It's not just about your mouth. It's about something mysterious. And Domenico was able to create that kind of situation. So yes, I think that this is in the end, the point.

We did an interview with Luca Corrado a few years ago and he said that he had tasted old back vintages of modern Barolo and traditional Barolo, and he felt that over time they came to the same place. Have you had any experience with that? I mean, how would you define the characteristics of old modern Barolo and old traditional Barolo?

The winemaking is something that's really human. So you feel it for just a short period of time. Then the vineyards come out. So if you are from a good vineyard, the wine, it's alive. If you are from an unlucky place, the wine, it's gone. And it's just that that in the end is the important part. Then the style, it's something that is about a moment. Many artists change different styles in their own careers. But then the point is not about the artist. It's about the art. And we are more like that. Being winemaker, there is a certain moment, if you are young ... I'm still young, but not so young luckily, that you think that you can change something. In the end it is secondary. You're not going to change anything. You are just pretending to.

Then the real moment that you see the light is when you are not actually so important. If you have a good vineyard, you make a good wine. And if you have a bad vineyard, you can try to, but you're never going to achieve the same goal with a bad vineyard. That is how traditional and modern wine develop with age. If they come from a good place, they will be good. If they come from a secondary place, they will be secondary. And they were making it in the middle, it's just something that is in the middle, but is not secondary.

And you touched on this before, but maybe if you could just clarify it, the traditional and modern were very far apart at the beginning and they seemed to have kind of come together much more in terms of the differences over time. Is that a correct statement?

It's a correct statement, absolutely. In the first period you feel there is a little bit more intervention. So if you try to keep everything perfect in line in the first period, you can make it. And if you try to work more in a reductive way, so you rack less, you try to keep it more close, then you feel it. So you feel both in the first period. Then the wine starts to breathe and the age passes, and the time. And so all those characters, you lose those tiny characters and the primary stuff, and then you finish in the real Barolo, that is something that ages. So everything merges.

Talk a little bit about how the winemaking has changed here at Domenico Clerico.

Well, the winemaking has not actually really changed. Because the mentality is the same. It was, for Domenico, the dogma in the middle was the wine must be clean. So it was also for the community. If you have something clean, then you can compare it. If something is not clean, someone can call it the way that they want it. But that is winemaking. So in the moment that something is not completely clean, it's because you want it in that way. And if you want it, it means that it's winemaking.

So then right now someone says you are adding, you are subtracting. So they divide, like this is more natural, the other one is less natural. It's not important. It's always winemaking, if you want to impose yourself on top of the wine, so if you feel something that is not exactly the vineyard, that is winemaking. In Clerico right now, we are avoiding that. Domenico spent his entire life trying to make Ginestra a great crew, and Ginestra was a great crew.

So right now, for us, it was lucky because Domenico was able to purchase Bussia, Ginestra, and Mosconi, some of the best crew in Monforte D'Alba. So right now, for us, it's important for the heritage of Clerico to talk about what he left, the most important part. Not the moment, not what's happened to Domenico from '91 to '99. It's what his entire life left, and it's this. He was able to establish a company that is still solid and to purchase what we consider the best plot, I can say, of Monforte D'Alba. So right now, what you want to find in the glass is our winemaking, our style, our vineyard. So you have to feel this is Ciabot Mentin from Ginestra. This is another vineyard from Ginestra called Pajana. This is Percristina from Mosconi. You have to feel that. And it's the most important part for us. That is the real heritage.

And then everything else is again about the artist. We consider ourselves artisans right now. We are just trying to give you the best expression of the vineyard every year, like the vineyard was during that vintage, without imposing ourselves and creating something that is like this or like that. It is like it is. It is like it is and it is like the vineyard is. In this moment, mentally talking, we still consider ourselves modernist, because this is right now. We don't know what will be in 20 years. But we consider this great right now and we are happy like this.

And about the kind of winemaking, to make this obviously you have to change something and to adjust. But we are not stable, because in order to show you the best possibility that the vineyard is able to give you during that vintage, every year you have to adjust something. So there is never a recipe, because otherwise you feel again, the recipe. You have to feel the vintage and the vineyard. So we adjust every year.