Focus on Barolo and Barbaresco
When I left Italy Piedmont region in late September with the nebbiolo harvest imminent, producers of Barolo and Barbaresco were looking forward to their fourth consecutive highly successful vintage a streak without precedent in the Langhe hills around Alba. And with strong vintages has come soaring worldwide demand. Despite a good sized crop in '97 and the expectation of healthy quantities in '98, prices for nebbiolo grapes were expected to rocket to new records this fall. As the 1995 Barolos and 1996 Barbarescos are released in 1999, consumers around the world will face sticker shock. And the next round of releases are likely to be another 20% more expensive. Happily, however, there will be no faulting the quality of wine offered by the best producers of the region, which is more consistently high today than ever before.
In just the two years since my last visit to the region, it has become clear that the ideological war between strict nebbiolo tradionalists and modernists is no longer much of a contest. One by one the oldtimers are adopting new fermentation equipment and techniques that enable them to radically shorten the time their wines remain on their skins. And each year another handful of former traditionalists begin aging their wines at least partly in small French oak barrels, and reducing the amount of time the wines spend in wood. And yet the shrinking band of remaining conservatives contend that the new wave wines are not the "real" Barolo and Barbaresco.
Giuseppe Rinaldi, for example, maintains that nebbiolo is not a "full fruited variety like cabernet." To him, Barolo is about tertiary aromas like truffle and leather and marzipan and underbrush. These aromas, he argues, are what is most distinctive about Barolo. And they do not develop until the third or fourth year in the barrel. But Rinaldi is quick to admit that in order to make great, balanced wine in the "classic" style, a grower must begin with a superior site and low crop levels. That is, strong raw materials are essential if the wine is to survive long maceration on its skins and extended aging in large old barrels.
But the Florence based superbroker Marc de Grazia, who works with many of the zone most revolutionary winemakers, completely disagrees with Rinaldi's vision of Barolo. "By the time wines begin to show tertiary aromas, they are more alike than they are different," says de Grazia. "Bordeaux, Burgundies and Barolos start to intersect." De Grazia believes that nebbiolo is about fruit in much the same way that pinot noir is about fruit, and that the old winemaking methods compromise fruit. "My producers' wines will show more interesting aromas after ten years than the so called classic wines," he claims, "because the classic wines are bottled too late in their evolution."
As a wine critic, I appreciate the best examples of both styles. But as a wine consumer and collector, I like the idea of purchasing a wine that has gone into the bottle with its primary fruit aromas and flavors intact and then being able to watch that wine evolve over a period of years in my cellar on its way to becoming fully mature. And yet . . . When I taste the greatest bottles from old masters like Giovanni Conterno and Bruno Giacosa, I can't help but feel that one of the world's greatest wines is well on its way to extinction.
Recent Piedmont vintages.
On my tour of the region's best addresses in September, I tasted the '95s, '96s and '97s, three vintages sure to please all lovers of Barolo and Barbaresco. I begin my report with a few observations on these three very different years.
This is a very good but variable vintage, especially in Barolo, which was hit by two August hailstorms three days apart. The first storm did damage in the Monforte area, while the latter, a very rare storm from the south, affected the normally more sheltered commune of La Morra. The hail affected the ripening process in some vineyards, and many quality conscious growers eliminated as much as half of their fruit. But a brilliant October provided excellent harvest conditions, and the best fruit came in with higher sugars and more extract than in '93. The most successful '95s should be classic, rather elegant wines for medium to long term aging, but overall crop levels are 20% to 50% below normal. However, many '95s finish with a dry edge, either because they lack the middle palate flesh to support their tannins (some fruit had to be picked early because of the hail) or due to more direct effects of the hail.
Crop levels were often low in '96 due to cold weather during the flowering and to some hail. The same clear, dry September days and chilly nights that produced extremely fresh wines in Burgundy and elsewhere in France in '96 extended the ripening process in the Piedmont, ultimately producing fruit with extraordinarily thorough flavor development, healthy but not excessive alcohol levels, and very sound acidity. The harvest took place in October under superb conditions. Most Barolo and Barbaresco producers I visited describe their '96s as classics, with great depth of flavor, a floral character and strong terroir notes, firm acid and tannin structure, and great potential longevity. This vintage yielded nebbiolo fruit with very high levels of extract due in part to the quantity of tannins, although many growers maintain that 1997 was just as high in extract. The fresh acidity of the year also resulted in dolcettos with rare aromatic purity and intensity of flavor.
This vintage featured the driest and warmest fall season in the Piedmont since 1990. Following an earlier than normal flowering that ensured a good healthy crop load, June was a rainy month. Veraison was nearly two weeks ahead of normal, and the most conscientious growers carried out a green harvest. September was very warm and sunny: grape sugars soared, in many cases reaching levels by mid September that they don't usually attain until early October. Many estates began the harvest extremely early, in late September, and the Italian press immediately hailed 1997 as a great year. The '97 Barolos and Barbarescos tend to be higher in alcohol (often in the neighborhood of 14.5%, vs. about 13.5% for the typical '96) and lower in acidity than the '96s. Thanks to the thick grape skins of the year, measurable tannins are typically as high as those of '96. Tannins are sweet and dusty, and, at this early stage at least, more noticeable than those of the '96s, which are strong and firm but perhaps more thoroughly embedded in the wines. Although the wines are still very young, most producers consider 1997 to be excellent, if not outstanding, though a majority believe the '96s are more classic. Some describe their '97s as somewhat disjointed today, even a bit unruly. Many compare '97 to '90: two years of fruit driven, "warmer" wines. If the sound acids of '96 favored dolcetto, the heat of September '97 resulted in unusually rich barbera, with a more pleasing balance of flesh to backbone.
A digression on barbera. Until relatively recently, the Piedmontese considered barbera a perfect everyday drink to serve with robust local fare while saving Barolos and Barberas for special occasions. It was the grape picked between the dolcetto and the nebbiolo, and it often had to be quickly racked off its skins to make room for the far more important nebbiolo. But during the '80s, many growers began to age their barberas partly or mostly in barriques, in some cases new. This technique introduced a spicy character and more texture to their wines, as well as more tannins from the wood (barbera grapes stubbornly retain their acidity but have very little tannin). The best of these growers simultaneously reduced yields to ensure that their raw materials could withstand this treatment.
In recent years, more and more estates are viewing barbera as a serious wine a wine that can offer aromatic complexity, mouthfilling texture, and the potential to evolve in an interesting way in the bottle. Increasingly, they are picking barbera later for more thorough ripeness and somewhat lower acidity. More than one grower I tasted with in September mentioned harvesting barbera even later than nebbiolo in '97, and most agree that the warm autumn of 1997 has produced the strongest crop of barberas yet from the Piedmont wines with a fleshiness and depth of flavor that will shock those who always thought of barbera as a lean, sharp red wine best suited for washing down fatty meats and pizza.
My coverage of Barolo and Barbaresco is presented in two sections. First I have briefly profiled 18 of the region's top producers, and offered notes on their '97, '96 and '95 Barolos and Barbarescos (as well as current dolcettos and barberas, in many cases). The wines are covered in the order in which they were presented to me. As always, precise scores are provided for finished wines, and ranges for wines still in barrel. Following these profiles I have included tasting notes on scores of additional Barolos and Barbarescos sampled during my September visit. Many of these are from smaller Barolo and Barbaresco estates represented in the U.S. and other export markets by Marc de Grazia. In addition to working with such established luminaries as Elio Altare, Domenico Clerico, Luciano Sandrone, Paulo Scavino and Angelo Rocca, de Grazia continues to add new names to his already large portfolio; some of these will be the new stars of tomorrow.