Map Man

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Italian cartographer Alessandro Masnaghetti charts vineyards from Barolo to Bordeaux

By Robert Camuto -- Wine Spectator June 15, 2014

When Alessandro Masnaghetti looks at vineyards, he sees things most of us don't.

Standing atop a hill in the middle of the Barolo appellation at noon on a late winter day, he faces some of Italy's most renowned vine-planted hillsides. He analyzes the way the sun and shadows fall on every contour, considers each exposition and notes the grade of each slope. Then he melds this information into his knowledge of where Nebbiolo grapes ripen to produce the deepest, most complex wines.

At 52, Masnaghetti is Italy's leading vineyard cartographer and a meticulous student of geography's influence on wine. Sturdily built with a trimmed, white Hemingway beard, he points to the long ridge that forms Cannubi, less than a mile away.

"Historically, Cannubi was the high central part of the hill," he says. "But if you look closely on the hill, you see there are several amphitheaters—it is not homogeneous. Then you see the flat part at the bottom—that too is Cannubi and it is not so great." ?In contrast, Masnaghetti points farther in the distance to a pair of uniform, smooth, rounded hillsides resembling two fingers. These are the Brunate and Cerequio vineyards.

"They are fantastic," he says of the sites. "They are south-facing, but not completely—they face to the southeast. So it gets hot, but on the hottest days they are not ovens."

The Barolo DOCG contains a dizzying 170 such vineyard crus in total—and Masnaghetti can tell you about every one. He can describe not only the terroir itself but also the kind of wine each site produces, often from similar limestone-rich marl soils.

"There the wines are elegant and spicy," he says, pointing north to the vineyards around Verduno. "There in Brunate they are tannic and powerful—but it's the same soil," he continues. "When wine lovers talk to me they ask me about soil, soil, soil. But I say, ‘If you want to understand terroir, first look at the hills.' "

Masnaghetti has spent more than 20 years looking at the hills of Italy's Piedmont region—trudging, observing and tasting, vineyard by vineyard. In the past decade, he has used the information he's gathered to produce some of the wine world's most attractively designed and painstakingly detailed maps. Read the full article in the Wine Spectator