It was our friend Gianluca Grasso of Azienda Agricola Elio Grasso who told me I should make time to visit the estate of Guiseppe Cortese in neighbouring Barbaresco – and what a great tip that has proved to be! Good news for us and good news for you as the Cortese wines still remain somewhere under the radar, despite being firmly placed on one of Barbaresco’s great vineyards, Rabaja.
The Cortese estate backs onto the slopes of Rabaja where they own a stunning four-hectare plot with the vines approaching 70 years of age. This is a beautiful spot providing enviable views over two other notable Crus of Martinenga and Asili. It is largely based on calcareous clay soils, which, combined with an altitude of 900 feet, produce wines that combine both structure and elegance. The vineyard size may not sound particularly noteworthy, but when you consider that Giacosa, a much more famous name in Barbaresco, owns just 0.6 of a hectare, you rapidly understand the potential and opportunity.
The late Guiseppe Cortese’s work is being carried forward by a close-knit team led by his son Pier Carlo and his daughter Tiziana. Similar to many small Italian estates, Guiseppe started bottling his own wine in 1971, rather than simply selling off the production from his vineyards. Guiseppe has achieved so much on these few hectares of vines, and the family remains dedicated to preserving his legacy; that intention remains at the heart of the estate. The approach here is traditional, by which I mean the wines benefit from long macerations and are aged in large oak foudres or botti, as they are termed in Italy; no new oak, no French oak barriques. Antonio Galloni once commented: ‘as always the Guiseppe Cortese Barbarescos are classically inspired and built.’
I am pleased to offer two wines here, firstly the 2017 Barbaresco Rabaja – to call this an entry level Barbaresco is a joke as this is invariably made from the fruit of vines with 30 to 35 years of age from one of the three of four finest Cru of Barbaresco! It spends eighteen to twenty-two months in large oak casks before bottling. However, in 2017 Cortese didn’t opt to make their flagship Riserva from their oldest vines, which they make in only great vintages; instead all the old-vine fruit went into this wine. This means fruit from vines of up to 60 years in a comparatively humble Barbaresco, offered here at £195 per 6 in bond. I really rated the 2017; certainly, it has a more accessible accent than the 2016, but such pure fruit, with bright cherry, raspberry and spice. The key to the success of this wine is the rounded, unobtrusive tannins, which will allow the wine to be broached relatively early in its life. Though 100% Nebbiolo, it is worth remembering that many Barbaresco show softer-natured tannins than neighbouring Barolo.
I am also delighted to be able to offer a good allocation of the flagship Rabaja Riserva in the outstanding 2013 vintage, offered here at £375 per 6 in bond. This wine is from the oldest vines of the estate, ranging from 45 to 60 years of age. It is aged for forty months in large old oak casks and then aged for a further three years in bottle before release. The complexity that it already showed was fascinating; I noted aromas of rose, leather and spice allied to a full, rich palate offering dusky cherry fruit, with further notes of spice and tobacco. Frankly, this Riserva blew me away – I thought it was truly outstanding when I tasted late last year.
While I have only had one tasting at the estate, Antonio Galloni has tasted this Riserva on four occasions. His most recent note is below, but on various occasions, he hasn’t been shy in his praise.
95 points in November 2019 – the note is below.
95+ points in October 2018, commenting that it was ‘a super-classic wine in the making’
94+ points in October 2017, commenting that it was ‘tremendously promising’
94 point in December 2015, commenting that it had ‘the grace of a ballerina and the punch of a prize-fighter’
It is not often that critics get the chance to evaluate wines on multiple occasions, but Riservas do permit re-tasting given their extended ageing. It is intriguing to see such a set of plaudits and such consistent scores.
2017 Barbaresco, Rabaja, Guiseppe Cortese
92 points, Antonio Galloni, vinous.com
£195 per 6 bottle case in bond
The 2017 Barbaresco Rabajà is a very pretty and expressive wine. Blood orange, cedar, mint, sweet red cherry and licorice are all layered together. Medium in body, with terrific depth as well as nuance, the 2017 is understated, classy and polished to the core. In 2017, Cortese did not bottle their flagship Riserva, instead all of the best fruit went into the straight Barbaresco Rabajà. I won't be surprised if the 2017 eventually turns out even better than this note suggests. Today, it is really quite lovely. Pier Carlo Cortese gave the 2017 22 months in cask. Drink 2022-2032
2013 Barbaresco, Rabaja Riserva, Guiseppe Cortese
95 points, Antonio Galloni, vinous.com
£375 per 6 bottle case in bond
The 2013 Barbaresco Rabajà Riserva is a dense, brooding wine endowed with serious depth and intensity, Graphite, smoke, cured meats, spice, leather and licorice give the Riserva its decidedly sombre, virile personality. Readers should be prepared to cellar the 2013 for at least a few years. Today, the 2013 is in an awkward stage where it is not young, but it is also not mature, and in periods like this, patience is key, as there is not much pleasure to be had. The 2013 won't be released until at least Spring 2020, so there is plenty of time. Drink 2023-2038
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All the best,