2009 Barolo: Highs and Lows

by Antonio Galloni

I have been following the 2009 Barolos for several years. Tasting patiently, first from barrel, then from bottle. Waiting. Waiting for that spark that all the truly great years have. But it has never happened with the 2009s. I suppose it is only natural. How many great vintages can a region have in a decade? The 2000s have been particularly kind to Piedmont. First the powerful 2001s, then the silky 2004s, the graceful, if a bit light 2005s, the structured 2006s, the opulent 2007s, the classic 2008s and the majestic 2010s. Well, you get the picture. In this context, it is frankly hard to get excited about the 2009 Barolos. Overall, this is a fairly average vintage with many good wines, a few superstars and a bevy of Barolos that will drink well right out of the gate. But the visceral thrill of the truly great vintages, sadly, is not there.

The year started off with a lot of moisture. Snow was abundant during the winter, usually a good thing when it comes to creating water reserves. The spring was rainy, and led to a delayed flowering, the first event that truly marks the year. Summer was dry and hot, especially for two weeks in August when temperatures soared above historical averages. Most growers picked on the early side, which means the maturation cycle was shorter than typical. Nebbiolo is a grape that is often at its most expressive when vegetative cycles are long and harvests are late. Unfortunately, vintage 2009 did not provide conditions that were ideal.

The 2009 Barolos are relatively light in both color and weight. Longtime readers know I don’t attach a ton of importance to color. Nebbiolo does not naturally yield deep, densely colored wines, but the pigment in young wines should still be relatively dark and translucent. The 2009s lack both tonality and depth. That may be the result of an accelerated final phase of maturation that did not allow for the development of color, something that require large diurnal shifts in the days and weeks leading to the harvest.

Nebbiolo is very hard to fully de stem as the jacks are quite fragile. If the grapes aren’t fully physiologically ripe, a higher amount than normal of stems can end up in vats, reducing color. Another attribute of the 2009s is that they are not particularly transparent to site, something that to my way of thinking is so essential for Nebbiolo. Lastly, some wines are penalized by excessively hard tannins, something that suggests either yields that were too high for the fruit to ripen fully and/or that some vineyards simply shut down because of hydric stress.

As a whole, the 2009s are light to medium-bodied wines, with radiant fruit but only modest concentration. Despite the warm summer, these aren’t big, opulent wines like the 2007s, as one might reasonably expect given the style of other northern European wines. I see little to suggest the 2009s will be long-lived. At their best, these are attractive Barolos to drink over the near-term while some of the more important contemporary vintages continue to develop in bottle.

Fast Forward to 2010

Now, when it comes to 2010, let me just say it is the most exciting, viscerally thrilling young vintage I have tasted since 1996. Viticulture and winemaking have come a long way since then, though, and I expect there will be many more monumental 2010s than 1996s….