An update from Barolo...

By Antonio Galloni

Market Trends

The market for Barolo worldwide continues to be soft although on my most recent trip producers told me that demand is beginning to pick up in the US while they still face difficulties in the continental European markets, especially Germany. I found the mood among producers to be fairly optimistic even though some are worried about the ability of the US market to absorb the 2001 wines after all of the hype and interest surrounding 2000. Estates have the benefit of being able to be patient with their 2001s as many will have little, if any, 2002 Barolo to offer. Quite a few wineries will deliberately hold off on releasing some of their 2001s in order to smooth their revenues over the next few years. Recent weakness in the euro should benefit producers and US consumers alike.

Overproduction Rears its Ugly Head

As has been well documented, Piedmont experienced a tremendous economic boom which started in the early 1990s, when the great 1989 and 1990 vintages first brought the region to the attention of a global public. After the troubled 1991-1994 harvests, Piedmont saw an unprecedented string of outstanding vintages from 1996 to 2001. With their newfound prosperity, producers engaged in massive construction and renovation projects of their cellars and bid prices for choice vineyards to astronomical levels. Consumers saw prices increase dramatically, notwithstanding the relative strength of the US dollar during most of this period.

One of the positive results of this economic boom was the growth of the number of small producers bottling their own wines rather than selling their fruit or wines in bulk. Within a few years, ambitious, quality minded producers exploded onto the global market with first class wines.

Unfortunately the newly-found cachet of the wine business continues to attract those driven not by passion but rather by purely financial goals. Some newcomers seem to have taken the attitude than they can simply slap the name of any vineyard on a wine bottle, and voila, they have a “cru” Barolo which can command top dollar. Nothing could be further from the truth. On my most recent trip I tasted far too many insipid, not to mention poorly made wines, which threaten to tarnish the reputation of the entire area.

The Barolo region, once rich in forests and fruit trees has
now been almost completely taken over by vines. As
veteran producer Tino Colla told me “back in the 1960s
there was no significant price difference between various
grapes, so landowners planted each varietal in the areas
that gave the best results. Today we have planted Nebbiolo everywhere, in places our ancestors would have never dreamed of.” Not even the name of a first-rate vineyard on a bottle is a guarantee anymore, as even in top crus Nebbiolo has been planted in what are frankly horrible exposures, ill-suited to the cultivation of Nebbiolo.

As recently as 1999 there were 1,300 hectares planted with Nebbiolo. During the five year period spanning 1995- 1999 the average number of bottles produced was 6.9 million. Today, hectares planted with Nebbiolo have reached 1,700, an increase of over 23%, and the number of bottles produced has surpassed 10 million, an increase of over 30% over the 1995-1999 average. Locals estimate that when all the newly planted vineyards come into production over the next few years, the total production of Barolo will be between 11 and 12 million bottles per year.

For consumers this means that there will be an increasing number of wines to choose from, but the proportion of the total production that can be considered high quality will actually decline. Therefore, it is critical to pick wisely and taste before buying whenever possible.

The Future of Cork

Although I have been trravelling to Piedmont regularly for many years, I have never seen such a high level of concern regarding cork. At virtually every estate I visited the subject of closures was a central theme of discussion. The problem of tainted wines is becoming a greater and greater issue. Part of the concern is that most of the highest- quality wines are produced with a bare minimum of additives and preservatives, leaving the wines especially vulnerable to even the slightest defects in cork. Even though quality minded producers routinely spend upwards of one euro per cork for their top wines, most echoed the sentiment expressed by Domenico Clerico who told me “I would gladly pay double what I pay now for my corks if I could be assured of reliable quality.” In fact, Clerico has begun to experiment with a crown seal for some of his wines, one of which I was able to taste. (See the Clerico profile for more details.)

The problem is much more serious than it might appear on the surface. Some bottles are obviously “corked” and the flaws of such bottles can be relatively easily identified by consumers and professionals alike. The much more insidious and larger problem is wines that are modified by a less than perfect cork, but that don’t show obvious sign of corkiness or taint. Such wines can appear dead, lifeless and/or exceedingly short on the palate. Unless a consumer is very familiar with a given wine, the likelihood of detecting such flaws is small, and therein lies the problem. A consumer may conclude that a highly praised bottle is really not that great, without realizing that the wine in question has actually been altered. For this reason I insist whenever possible on tasting as many of the region’s top wines at least twice, once with the producer, and a second time in blind tastings.

Some Thoughts on Current Vintages


The vintage featured warm days and cool nights in the critical late summer and early fall period, considered to be ideal conditions, especially with regards to Nebbiolo. It was a year that tended towards overproduction and quality minded producers told me they were obligated to do two and sometimes three green harvests so as not to overburden the vines and risk not achieving maturity. Where producers were diligent, it is a superb year for all varietals. It is really hard to go wrong with Dolcetto in 2004, virtually all top estates made beautiful wines. The 2004 Dolcettos are fresher and more aromatic than they were in 2003, and are very classic by all accounts. These are superb wines for the dinner table. Barbera was also quite successful in 2004, with the wines retaining greater freshness, if less richness, than in the very hot 2003 vintage. As with the Dolcettos, consumers who like more fruit forward, extracted wines will prefer the 2003s while those looking for more subtle, classically proportioned wines will likely gravitate to the 2004s. In any event, there are a lot of top-notch wines to choose among in both vintages. While it is still too soon to make conclusive judgements about the quality of the 2004 Barolos, the wines I have tasted so far, including those of Altare, Clerico, Roberto Voerzio, Giacosa, Sandrone, Corino and Vietti show tremendous potential in an elegant, refined style similar to the 2001s.


Record breaking temperatures tested the mettle of the most experienced producers during this challenging vintage. In general I find the 2003 Dolcettos to be overly alcoholic and lacking the varietal character and freshness that the 2004s have. The wines will appeal to consumers who like atypically rich and extracted Dolcettos, although there are some beautifully balanced wines which I have attempted to highlight. 2003 is however, an excellent vintage for Barbera. The best 2003 Barberas are and supple wines with massive levels of extraction (but without heaviness) that are sure to attract much attention.

The vintage remains difficult at best for Nebbiolo. The wines lack color and freshness. It is tempting to lump 2003 together with other recent hot vintages such as 1997 and 2000, but that would be a mistake. The scorching heat caused the vines in many areas to shut down, and while the grapes burned, the seeds did not fully mature, leaving many wines with harsh and hard tannins. So, the critical decision in 2003 was when to harvest. Producers who panicked and harvested early risked having wines with excessively hard tannins while those who were patient made more harmonius wines. The jury is still out on the quality of the vintage. Some producers such as Aldo Conterno will not produce their single vineyard wines. There will be no Monfortino from Giacomo Conterno. Gaja and Giacosa have still not made a final decision as to which, if any, of their single vineyard wines they will bottle. Other producers, such as Roberto Voerzio love the vintage. After tasting all of Voerzio’s 2003s from cask, I can say I share his enthusiasm over his wines....they are magnificent.


Without question 2002 is the recent vintage that arouses the most heated discussions in conversations with producers today. Most estates are due to bottle their 2002 Barolos this summer, although many winemakers I spoke to are still undecided as to whether they will bottle these wines at all. But, I am getting ahead of myself...some perspective is in order.

The wet and cool summer was most damaging to Dolcetto and Barbera, both of which are harvested before Nebbiolo. In early September a violent hailstorm wreaked havoc in several famous Barolo and La Morra crus, destroying vineyards and causing the local press to declare the entire vintage a disaster, a label that has remained to this day, even though the areas of Castiglione, Monforte, and Serralunga were largely spared. Oddly, the weather then suddenly turned serene, and the rest of September and October saw ideal weather conditions. By then, the quality of the Dolcetto and Barbera crops had obviously been compromised, although the improved conditions allowed what was left of the Nebbiolo crop to mature normally.

So...back to the wines. Many estates will not offer Barolo in 2002 and those that do will release a single normale that is a blend of the best fruit producers were able to salvage. The wines are fresh and aromatic and many have very beautiful qualities on the nose. The shortfalls of the wines are most felt on the palate, where there is a lack of fruit and length which becomes dramatically noticeable when the fierce young Nebbiolo tannins kick in. The 2002s are wines that will offer whatever qualities they have fairly quickly and it should be a relatively early maturing vintage.

Producers themselves are conflicted, they rate 2002 as a better vintage than 1991, 1992, 1994, and in some cases even 1993, all of which they were able to sell, so why shouldn’t they be able to sell the 2002s, the reasoning goes. I am not so sure. The market is much more competitive today and there is plenty of unsold wine in the pipeline from outstanding vintages, most notably 1998 and 1999, not to mention the very bad reputation the 2002 vintage has, deserved or not. Others say that the reduced prices of the 2002s (prices are down at least 30%) will attract a more price-sensitive, younger consumer who will then graduate to the more expensive top-vintage wines. This is a dubious claim. I can think of no better way to turn off a potential customer than to offer them a complex wine, which Barolo already is, from a poor vintage, which expresses very little of what Barolo is all about. A much better way to attract a new audience would seem to be through a great Langhe Nebbiolo. The real cynics take a different tack...the wines may be a tough sell as 2002s, but we consumers will pay to drink them anyway, they say,....when the wines are blended into the hot, alcoholic 2003s to give those wines ‘balance’! (Which is allowed up to 15%)

On the positive side, however, experienced consumers will know that even in lesser vintages wines from the very best producers can often be surprising. The wines will never be great wines, but they can be quite good. A recent bottle of Elio Altare’s 1991 Barolo showed lively color and terrific aromatics. It could not hide the shortcomings of the vintage, but was still in great shape after nearly 15 years. Oftentimes it is a producer’s wine from a weak vintage that reveals much more about their level of mastery than does a wine from a great vintage.

On a closing note, 2002 appears to be more successful in Barolo than in Barbaresco. The Barolo zones typically begin their harvest about 10 days later than in Barbaresco and the fruit no doubt benefited from the extra hang time. In Barolo, it is possible to talk about 2002 as a ‘piccola annata’ i.e. a small vintage, in Barbaresco it is something less than that, which I will discuss in more detail in Issue 5.


As I write this the first pre-arrival offers for the 2001 Barolos have begun to arrive in the US. Consumers who have enjoyed the 2001 Dolcettos and Barberas will have already formed some idea of what this great vintage offers. Nebbiolo is a varietal with a very long vegetative cycle, it is the first to flower and the last to reach maturity. To reach the maximum level of expression, Nebbiolo needs to mature slowly, especially in the critical month of September. 2001 saw ideal conditions of hot days and cool nights which allowed the grapes to mature gradually, achieving both phenolic and alcoholic ripeness at the same time, with the harvest taking place in October.

Readers will notice that the wines are richly colored and intensely aromatic, with great delineation of aromas. The best wines show plenty of ripe fruit, superb length, and a gorgeous, layered quality that defines classic Barolo at its very best. Compared to 1999, which is similar in style, the 2001s feature finer and more elegant tannins... these are wines to really marvel over. Lastly, the 2001s are structured wines that will reward aging. Consumers who have milestones to celebrate in 2001 are very fortunate!

As I tasted through the 2001 Barolos I couldn’t help noticing that many producers seem to have settled down into fairly well-defined styles. The era of experimentation that reached its zenith in mid-1990s seems to have passed. While much has changed here over the last 10-15 years, today producers are more experienced and their use of new techniques in the vineyards and the cellars is much more measured than in the past.