Livia Fontana: Heart and Soul in Barolo Country
August 21, 2011, by: Lisa Duff Khajavi
One of the most rewarding aspects of working directly with small producers to source the very best wines for our clients is the privilege of getting to know the winemakers, the talent and conduits of inspiration behind great wines. One of our favorites of all time is Livia Fontana—who we have worked with since 1997—a sixth generation winemaker and matriarch of the 180 year-old Cascina Fontanin in the heart of Barolo country.
Picture yourself perched high on a majestic hillside, overlooking lush steep vineyards to the point where the ancient villages of Barolo, La Morra and Monforte meet below. It is here, atop the famous tiny commune (population 637) of Castiglione Falletto, that Livia and her two sons Michele and Lorenzo tend to every detail of making wines at the family’s estate —from working in the vineyard to bottling and labeling and everything in between!
The family’s vineyard holdings include 20 acres devoted to Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto, and Arneis, including some plantings in the famous Villero, Mariondino and Bussia sites which are among the region’s finest and most historical. Livia is completely devoted, and it shows, with her wines displaying intense expression of character along with seamless finesse.
Everyone simply adores her wines—Livia has quite the passionate following. Have you ever wondered what it is about certain wines that makes them so special? Many would argue this quality is a matter of terroir, a wine with a sense of place due to particular, soil, climate, and topography. We would agree, but expand the definition to include the interaction, techniques and vision of the people involved who are making key decisions in the vineyard and the cellar.
We have been fortunate to experience first hand what gives Livia’s wines that “special something”. During one of our visits in 2008 to Cascina Fontanin we became even more impressed with this small family operation, how passionate and totally involved they all are. It didn’t take long to see that Livia and her sons put their heart and soul into all they do!
It is not hard to see why. Livia was raised here, growing up running through the vines as a child, knowing each turn of the vineyards, the slope, the soil, every corner. Imagine her hearing stories over family meals, going back generations. The knowledge being told an re-told, lived and re-lived as the seasons and vintages passed, intimately experiencing the harvest and winemaking with family and the tight-knit community. It is no wonder that Livia blossomed in this environment—her desire and affinity for winemaking, paired with complete immersion, it naturally became integral to the very fiber of her being.
This ‘steeping’ in familial wine culture is perfectly illustrated by the story of her segue officially into the family business. Although Livia had helped with various duties for quite some time, in 1995 Livia assisted her father, Ettore, for the first time making the wines. In 1996 he went to Switzerland for meetings and even though the trip was only three days, the weather was very hot in Barolo and Livia made the decision in her father’s absence to pick the Dolcetto and begin fermentation. When he returned, he found the Dolcetto well on its way and in excellent condition—fresh and balanced, a particularly lovely wine. Ettore decided right then to hand over the reigns of the winemaking completely to Livia, confident that not only was she very talented, but ready to take on all the winemaking, including the Barbera and the flagship Barolo as well.
Father and daughter worked side-by-side for fifteen years, her focus on the winemaking and his on the vineyard, until very recently. Sadly Ettore passed away earlier this year, and will be greatly missed. Thankfully his passion and knowledge lives on through his daughter and grandsons as they carry on with the treasured Fontana family traditions.
Livia’s youngest son Lorenzo is outgoing and perfectly suited for the commercial side of the business, so as soon as he finished school in 2008, he assumed responsibilities for overseeing marketing and the tasting room. Livia’s oldest son Michele has shown the same drive and talent as his mother, and has been Livia’s “right hand” in the vineyard and cellar since 2003.
Our winemaker Hélène Mingot, who is also an integral member of our buying team, is a huge fan. She is completely impressed with the Fontana operation, sharing, “Livia is so incredibly knowledgeable, so meticulous in her approach. She knows every detail in the vineyard and cellar. Her wealth of experience through six generations shining through what is some of the finest terroir in the world is a magical combination.”
Hélène went on to explain that even though the family deeply honors tradition, they are constantly evolving, embracing new technology with a balanced approach. Livia collaborates with enologist Donato Lanati, Professor of Oenology and Viticulture at the University of Turin, to bring out the best of every vintage. “His research is famous, he is a the very top of his field. Livia’s choice to work with Donato is excellent,” Hélène enthused.
Our team was graciously hosted by Livia, and although she speaks some English, she arranged for a translator to ensure we had the most meaningful visit possible. The translator was a friend from the Cantina Comunale di Castiglione Faletto, a prominent association of local winemakers and growers. Turns out Livia is the head of this organization, and as an important and respected community member she is frequently relied upon for advice because of her vast expertise and long family history in the region.
We had a wonderful tour of the vineyards and winery, followed by an amazing lunch, with dish after dish of homemade delights made and served by Livia herself, including her special Tagliatelli. Many of her wines were served—including older vintages of ethereal Barolos (wow are they built to last!) followed by younger wines, even those not yet released on hand-written labels. The final touch to our grand day was a thrilling hot air balloon ride over the entire region—breathtaking!
Montesquieu wine brokers Jonathan Hetz and Amanda Martin recall their time with Livia and family fondly, sharing how warm she is, and completely hands on. “She was so gracious,” said Jonathan. “She took the time to show us every detail in the vineyards and cellar, and even cooked for us herself. Our lunch went on for hours!” Amanda had the chance to meet Livia for our winemakers dinner in Miami at Il Mulino the year before her visit to Piedmont, adding, “She’s incredible, so sweet and welcoming, and the perfect example of what we exemplify as a company. You can see heart and soul in everything this small family operation does together, and they do it all!”
Hélène—whose husband is Italian and also speaks the language, shared, “Livia is hooked like I am. It’s in her blood. She told me how much she loves winemaking, that every year she continues to learn and how each vintage is an exciting creation, so alive!”
It’s no wonder we enjoy Livia’s wines so much! We look forward to following the evolution of this family labor of love and sharing their wines and stories with you. For Livia and her sons, the future is very bright indeed, with their hearts deeply rooted to family and history in one of the world’s most amazing wine regions. Cheers from all of us at Montesquieu Winery!