All in the family

I have known about the Nebbiolo grape, Barolo and Barbaresco wines and Pio Cesare winery for decades, but recently they all came into critical focus for me. I was invited to a luncheon at the Michelin-starred Ai Fiori (Among the Flowers) restaurant in The Langham hotel on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and was seated beside Pio Boffa, fourth-generation winemaker and owner of Pio Cesare. I had recently returned from a media trip to the Piedmont region of Northwest Italy so the imagery of the area was still alive and fresh.  

Pio’s great-grandfather, Cesare Pio, began making wines in 1881 for the family, his friends and a few loyal customers. He realized his home area of the Piedmont region could produce wonderful wines of structure and nuance. He trained and then handed off the operation to his son, Giuseppe Pio, who expanded the winery and extended production and handed it off to his daughter, Rosy, and her engineer husband, Giuseppe Boffa. They promoted sales worldwide and the Pio Cesare name became one of the best and most recognized wine names in all of Italy. Pio Cesare is now controlled and directed by Pio Boffa.  I asked him if he went to oenological school to learn the science and craft or if he was homeschooled.  

“I grew up in the winery and in the vineyards. My father and my grandfather saw to it that everything I needed to know was presented to me firsthand.” 

Pio has bought existing vineyards and made upgrades to the winery while maintaining some on-site ancient winery walls and infrastructure dating back to 50 BCE.  Pio Cesare now owns more than 180 acres of planted vineyards.  And he is actively training and setting up his daughter, Federica Rosy Pio Boffa, to grab the reins. At 22 years old and just out of university, her passion for the grape and her energy will propel Pio Cesare to the next level. 

Global warming has had an effect on grape production in Piedmont. This far north in Italy in the shadows of the Italian, French and Swiss Alps, proper ripening was never guaranteed and often not achieved. After bottling it could take years or decades for the wine to soften, round out and lose some of its astringency. But when these Nebbiolo wines were properly aged and decanted, they showed complexity and layers, with dark and red fruit and a spiciness for texture and accent. It was rare for the region to create single vineyard wines, as the weather demanded blends to make a more complete and balanced wine. But with warmer weather in the area, the fourth-generation Pio has made it a mission to buy  attractive vineyard sites with southerly exposures so proper ripening could happen on the vine and not by many years in the bottle. The wines of Pio Cesare are now lovely and lively and very drinkable upon release but patience will be amply rewarded.  

We began the luncheon with a Pio Cesare Chardonnay. Pio Boffa has torn out some red vines to plant Chardonnay, as grape growers in the area cannot plant new vines on virgin land. It was rather controversial to eliminate some red vines for white vines in this historical bastion of reds. But it works and the Chardonnay showed citrus, freshness and a creamy oakiness, and was a perfect wine for a meet-and-greet. At the table we found 10 red wines, all poured in Riedel glasses, gently opening up for us to taste. Pio told me, “We consider ourselves to be artisanal producers, because we make many wines but all are relatively small quantities. Our biggest-by-volume wine is only 5,000 cases, which makes us boutique producers of many fine wines”. 

The first red wine was a Pio Cesare 2015 Barbaresco. This is a blend of vineyard sites and they know which vineyard will infuse which characteristics and flavors into the subsequent wine. Some sites offer freshness, youth and longevity while others contribute fullness and body. This wine showed red fruit with a lovely spiciness and mouthfeel. 

The next Barbaresco was the Il Bricco 2015 showing spicy dark fruit with a tickly cinnamon and good tannins for structure. We went on to taste eight Barolos, some blends, some single vineyard wines. We tasted three Barolos from 2015, one from 2010, ’08, ’06, ’03, and 2000. All of these wines are wonderful and worthy throwing off delicious flavors of dark and/or red fruit, spice, licorice, with texture, mouthfeel and elegance. The 2015 Ornato Barolo, the ’06 Barolo and 2000 were my favorites but the differences were subtle, as the Pio Cesare winemaking excellence was the common thread here. 

Pio said to us, “We live in the winery. We have always felt it’s not a workplace,  but it’s our home.”  The winery does offer tours but it’s best to call first.  All of the Nebbiolo wines we tasted were red and somewhat translucent, similar to a well-made Pinot Noir. The older vintages were a bit darker. Pio finished with “Nebbiolo doesn’t have concentration and complexity. It has finesse and elegance.” Similar to a well-made Pinot Noir. Treat yourself to a special experience. Pio Cesare is great and only getting better. 

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