He's the producer who inspired a generation of winemakers. A pioneer in introducing single-vineyard bottlings of Barolo and Barbaresco. And a man who's not afraid to say no to a vintage if he thinks the grapes are not good enough.
Born into the family wine firm, Bruno Giacosa started his career at the tender age of 15 as a grape buyer, sourcing fruit for his father and grandfather, and then for many of Barolo's large houses. In 1960, he started his own company and soon became famous for both his golden palate and his ability to recognize the best vineyards in the Langhe.
Thanks to his vast hands-on experience with growers – and his years spent seeking out the best grapes – he was among the first producers in the area to bottle single-vineyard wines. They included the now legendary Barolo Collina Rionda.
According to Franco Massolino, of the eponymous family winery, “Giacosa’s Barolo Collina Rionda was phenomenal, and demonstrated to the world just what this vineyard was capable of."
Though Giacosa produced his last Barolo Collina Rionda in 1993 because the grower he bought the grapes from began to make his own wine, it still has a cult following and commands high prices.
While Bruno was one of the first in the region to fully understand the importance of site selection – and began bottling his crus separately in 1967 – he didn't own any property until the early 1980s. For years Bruno wanted to buy his own vineyards but would only settle for certain parcels that sometimes took decades to acquire; the main object of his desire was Falletto.
“I’d been purchasing grapes from Falletto since 1967, and had always wanted to buy it. In 1982, I finally realized my dream,” Bruno recalls. Located in Serralunga – perhaps the most prestigious of all the Barolo villages – Falletto has perfect southwest exposure that allows the grapes to mature slowly but fully while its calcareous soil adds complexity and structure.
In 1996, Bruno also acquired a parcel of vineyards on the top of the notable Asili hillside in Barbaresco and readily admits that this is the vineyard closest to his heart.
“No other vineyard in the Langhe yields a bouquet as elegant or possesses such finesse and balance as Asili,” says the veteran producer, who attributes the vineyard’s performance to its sandy, almost silty, soil, full southern exposure and high altitude.
Despite his land acquisitions in the past 30 years, the firm still heavily relies on buying grapes from a network of trusted growers for its Casa Vinicola Bruno Giacosa range.
Wines destined for Azienda Agricola Falletto di Bruno Giacosa are produced solely from his own vineyards in the parishes of Serralunga, La Morra and Barbaresco.
Even Santo Stefano – widely considered the best cru in the village of Neive if not the entire Barbaresco appellation – is not exempt from his estate-only strategy. The wine became famous after Bruno began bottling it from the 1967 vintage. But Santo Stefano is produced from grapes grown by Italo Stupino at Castello di Neive, rather than on the Giacosa estate, so Bruno has decided he will no longer make it.
At the same time, estate-grown grapes are not guaranteed to make the grade. Giacosa recently debuted the 2004 Barolo Vigna Croera from La Morra, a vineyard acquired in 1998, but he has since decided to use the fruit for the firm's straight Barolo rather than produce a single vineyard bottling.
It's clear, then, that the firm's reputation has been bolstered by some tough decisions. While much appreciated by the multitude of loyal Giacosa customers around the world, they're often criticized by other local producers and questioned by the media. If a wine is not good enough, it is not going to be bottled – a normal practice for any reputable winery. But the definition of “good” must be matched with Bruno's extraordinarily demanding palate. In 2009, he created an uproar when he publicly announced that he would not be bottling his 2006 Barolos and Barbarescos, even though the vintage was widely viewed as being excellent in the Langhe.
“The 2006 growing season was unbalanced, and this is reflected in the wines," says Bruno. "Although it wasn’t at the level of the dismal 1992s or 2002s, which I also did not bottle, I don’t consider 2006 to be an exceptional vintage. In no way was it as good as the 2004s, 2005s or the 2007s."
Recently it was revealed that there will be no 2010 Barolos or Barbaresco from the estate – confirming Bruno's reputation for some of the strictest quality standards in all of Italian winemaking, despite the related economic sacrifice.
In the last few years, the winery has faced obstacles and changes, starting with Bruno’s devastating stroke in 2006, which kept him away from the cellars for an extended period while he recovered. During his long convalescence, all eyes turned to in-house winemaker Dante Scaglione, who had been working closely by Bruno’s side since 1992. By 2008, however, Dante was feeling the effects of the immense pressure placed on him, and Bruno and his daughter Bruna realized it was time for a parting of the ways. However, the separation was short-lived. In May 2011, the Giacosas backtracked, asking Dante – by then a consultant to various firms in Piedmont – to come back.
Perhaps the decision was made after realizing that the 2010 Barolo and Barbaresco vintage, which underwent the crucial fermentation and maceration stages before Dante's comeback, was not up to the winery's high standards. On his return, Dante started collaborating as an external consultant, tasked with grooming Francesco Versio, the young cellar master Bruno hired in 2010.
In recognition of his achievements, the University of Gastronomic Sciences of Bra in Piedmont gave Bruno Giacosa an honorary degree in 2012. In his acceptance speech, he told the audience: “Unfortunately, I never held back bottles from various vintages and this was a mistake, because I can't demonstrate the history of my cellar or organize verticals back to old vintages."
Thankfully, Giacosa's devoted followers from around the world have picked up the slack as they collect, sell, and (one hopes) drink Bruno's masterpieces from previous vintages.
Prices worldwide on Wine-Searcher (US$, ex-tax, per 750-ml bottle):