Olek Bondonio

Olek Bondonio doesn’t especially want us to write a profile about him. If you visit his cellar, within the first ten minutes, he’ll say: “Guys, you have to ask me questions about the wines. Otherwise I’ll just talk about skateboarding the whole time.” It’s only a half-joke: a decorated champion snowboarder, having spent his youth kicking around the grungy, irreverent underground of Torino in the ’90s, Bondonio got into making wine as a way to transition out of that first career and into another where he could continue to be himself: farm as he chooses, ferment as he chooses, answer to no one, never have a website.

 

It’s an understatement to say that Bondonio is pretty different than much of the viticultural scene in the Piedmont, especially in the town of Barbaresco—no tasting room, no elaborate metal sculptures at the gates, no name emblazoned on the facility. Instead, he makes wines and lives at his family’s 200 year-old farmhouse called ‘La Berchialla,’ where old rural custom has new life breathed in: his botti for aging live in the bottom floor where cattle used to be kept; the family lived on the floor above. There is a surprising pedigree here, however: Bondonio’s wines hail from three lauded vineyards, some of which have been in his family those same 200 years. (One of Olek’s ancestors from La Berchialla, General Guglielmo Como, was a key founder of ‘Barbaresco’s Corporate Wine Cellar,’ today known as ‘Produttori del Barbaresco.’)

Despite Bondonio’s ancestry and highly-regarded vines—including his holding of Roncagliette, just down his driveway, immediately abutting Gaja’s famous Sorì Tildin—Olek only began his foray into wine with encouragement from his Polish mother, who told him if he was interested in making wine off the family vineyards, he should do it. This encouragement contrasted the bullish attitude of Bondonio’s male forebears—‘there’s no way you can do this’—who were lawyers by trade and accustomed to selling their storied fruit for many years. Bondonio began first to tend the family vines, getting to know the character of each vineyard for a few years before taking a stab at wine itself, then undertook his first small vintage in 2005.

After 15 years and more laboring at the wines, Bondonio’s distinctive practices are clear: a committed believer in no chemical inputs in the vines, with some biodynamic practices applied, very minimal intervention in the cellar. He’s interested in the vineyards themselves, working them personally, as well as having acquired further pieces of special sites like Starderi and Altavilla—some of those from old folks in nearby villages who normally wouldn’t open the door if a stranger came knocking to see about their vineyard holdings.

 

 

Bondonio has a reputation as an outsider, despite being so genuinely from the place. (Olek says it’s his mother’s influence.) But the wines speak for themselves: pure as can be, with no fear of ripeness of fruit, but also no sense of the acidity and liveliness having been bludgeoned out of them by machines, additives, or new wood. They are some of the only Piedmontese wines we’ve encountered that taste delicious straight out of the barrel: proof that mouth-annihilating tannin isn’t the whole story of Nebbiolo or Barbaresco or the Piedmont at all, nor is makeup, big scores, power. The wines are something like punks snowboarding in Torino before the practice sold out to the Olympics and sports drinks: what does it feel like to move well and freely; what does it mean to be in tune? Bondonio captures the heart of thing. But he doesn’t want us to talk about it.

 


Wines

Barbaresco ‘Starderi’

Varietal: Nebbiolo

Color: Red

Farming Practice: Certified organic, with biodynamic principles

Organic, some biodynamic practices. 100% Nebbiolo from Starderi, from the northernmost commune of Neive: a small parcel of 40 year-old vines Olek is lucky enough to rent from an older couple who can no longer tend its steep slopes. Fermented in concrete with two months on the skins (submerged cap), then pressed off and moved to large botti for longer élevage (usually two years). Unfined, unfiltered, with moderate amounts of SO2 (10-20ppm max) added just before bottling. The soils in Starderi are a little softer, more clay, less intense marl; the site is also less exposed than elsewhere in the region. As a result this is a wine that’s expressive in its youth, with refreshing acidity and gentler tannins. Don’t let its aromatic openness fool you, though: it has a long life ahead.

Barbaresco Roncagliette

Varietal: Nebbiolo

Color: Red

Farming Practice: Certified organic, with biodynamic principles

Organic, some biodynamic practices. 100% Nebbiolo from Roncagliette: 50 year-old vines, planted on very heavy clay on top of blue marl, 350m elevation. Fermented in concrete with two months on the skins (submerged cap), then pressed off and moved to large botti for longer élevage (usually two years). Unfined, unfiltered, with moderate amounts of SO2 (10-20ppm max) added just before bottling. This is the powerhouse wine of the domaine, with a palate saturated in black fruit and a highly mineral core, but it never loses its sense of freshness or drinkability.

Barbera d’Alba

Varietal: Barbera

Color: Red

Farming Practice: Certified organic, with biodynamic principles

Organic, some biodynamic practices. 100% Barbera from 40-45 year-old vines in the Altavilla vineyard, a prized vineyard in which many of the other icons in the region have Nebbiolo holdings, high in the hills above town of Alba. Fermented in steel tanks with a month on the skins, very lightly pressed in a basket press, then completes malolactic fermentation in steel. Afterward, the wine is moved by gravity into 1600L botti for 8-10 months. Unfined, unfiltered, with moderate amounts of SO2 (10-20ppm max) added just before bottling. Barbera with none of the displeasure: elegant palate of blue and black fruit, herbs, wet earth—no punishing tannin or new wood.

Barbera d’Asti 1L

Varietal: Barbera

Color: Red

Farming Practice: Sustainable, Organic

Sustainable/Practicing Organic. 100% Barbera. This is the only négoce cuvée; Olek purchases Barbera from vineyards in the drier part of Asti, only contracting with several older-school growers who can farm these drier parcels with far lower chemical inputs compared to others. Some of the vineyards are sustainable, some organic. Fermented in concrete tanks, bottled unfined, with a very light filtering. The idea is to make a super fresh table wine meant for everyday drinking of which there actually is wine available, as the 6ha estate vineyards Bondonio farms always results in extremely limited quantities. Low tannic structure compared to most others in the region, great expression of fruit.

Langhe Nebbiolo

Varietal: Nebbiolo

Color: Red

Farming Practice: Certified organic, with biodynamic principles

Organic, some biodynamic practices. 100% Barbera from 40-45 year-old vines in the Altavilla vineyard, a prized vineyard in which many of the other icons in the region have Nebbiolo holdings, high in the hills above town of Alba. Fermented in steel tanks with a month on the skins, very lightly pressed in a basket press, then completes malolactic fermentation in steel. Afterward, the wine is moved by gravity into 1600L botti for 8-10 months. Unfined, unfiltered, with moderate amounts of SO2 (10-20ppm max) added just before bottling. Barbera with none of the displeasure: elegant palate of blue and black fruit, herbs, wet earth—no punishing tannin or new wood.

Langhe Rosso ‘Giulietta’

Varietal: Pelaverga Piccolo

Color: Red

Farming Practice: Certified organic, with biodynamic principles

Organic, some biodynamic practices. 100% Pelaverga Piccolo. Bondonio has the only plantation of Pelaverga Piccolo, considered the highest-quality iteration of this variety, outside of the commune of Verduno, whence it hails—and it happens to be planted in the Roncagliette vineyard, by his grandfather. (You can see the hill on which Castello di Verduno sits only a stone’s throw away from this Pelaverga parcel.) Fermented in a mix of stainless steel and concrete, depending on the vintage; a short élevage is done in neutral barrels afterward. Unfined, unfiltered, with moderate amounts of SO2 (10-20ppm max) added just before bottling. This is probably the most deeply red-fruited and mineral Pelaverga we know, not nearly as rustic and peppery as many others in the region. Gorgeous.

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