Focus on Barolo and Barbaresco

For the first time in years, on my latest September trip to the Piedmont, producers were not anticipating yet another superb harvest. Just two weeks prior to my biannual tour of the best Barolo and Barbaresco addresses, a ferocious 45-minute-long hailstorm swept over a wide swath of the Barolo appellation on the afternoon of September 3rd, putting an exclamation point to a fairly miserable summer. The hail caused major crop losses in numerous La Morra vineyards (Brunate, Cerequio, Conca and Rocche were all hit hard) and then clobbered parts of Cannubi before it petered out toward the southeast.

The hailstorm did not affect Barbaresco, and growers in the southern and extreme eastern parts of the Barolo zone reported little or no damage. Many producers will still be able to make decent and sometimes very good wine (the rest of September and early October remained mild and mostly dry). But 2002 clearly marked the end to an unprecedented streak of good luck for producers in the Langhe hills around Alba: vintages 1996 through 2001 all rate as very good to outstanding in the Piedmont region, and 1995 was above average as well.

Most growers (especially those insured against hail losses) were taking the disaster in stride. They realize that there are already multiple excellent vintages of Barolo and Barbaresco in the pipeline (the '99 Barolos cannot legally be released until January of 2003, along with the 2000 Barbarescos). And they are beginning to get the message that the worldwide market for premium-priced wines has slowed dramatically in the past year. Although bulk prices for Barolo and Barbaresco peaked a few years back, prices for these wines in the retail marketplace have remained high. Ironically, consumers in the U.S. and other export markets, faced with an embarrassment of riches but no obviously superior vintage to chase, often end up doing nothing at all. So most producers realize that having a small harvest of middling quality is not the end of the world in today's market, although those who lost their dolcetto crop to hail will surely miss the cash flow normally provided by these inexpensive, early-released wines.

The good news for lovers of Barolo and Barbaresco, the finest expressions of the noble, late-ripening nebbiolo grape, is that there have never been more worthy choices available. As to which vintage is best: I asked two dozen producers for their preferences among recent crops and got at least that many different takes on the recent string of vintages.

Growers' views on vintages are to a large degree a function of their location and picking dates. For example, more than one producer told me that La Morra was favored in the very warm 2000 growing season because these vineyards are frequently harvested before those of Serralunga, Castiglione Falletto and Monforte d'Alba. (On the other hand, some growers in La Morra typically harvest later than their neighbors in the same village, so you can see how generalizations can easily break down.) Similarly, early pickers were often favored in the hot 1997 harvest, in which grape sugars sometimes skyrocketed before skins were truly ripe and late harvesters often picked acid-deficient fruit. Several producers I visited are not enamored of these wines, some of which seemed almost ready to drink upon their release and are evolving rapidly.

More than one insider told me that vintage 1999 favored later harvesters, which was why the makers of normally austere Barolos from the eastern, Serralunga Valley side of the zone tend to be particularly excited about their wines, as they were about their 1996s. In '99, some rain in late August and early September caused the vines to suck up water, increasing the size of the berries and expanding the crop. In Barolo more than in Barbaresco, yields tended to be considerably higher than average in 1999. In this extended harvest, many later pickers benefitted from a concentration of grape sugars and more thoroughly ripe skins that produced less severe tannins.

A number of the producers I visited in September ventured the opinion that 1998 and 2000 have a warm season character and rather high alcohol in common. Others feel that the 2000s more closely resemble the 1997s, but with perhaps better balance and retention of acidity. While some producers told me that 1999 witnessed a slightly cooler growing season, a few described their '99s as having a more pronounced warm-season character than either '98 or '00.

My own general feeling on the recent string of vintages is that 1996 favored Barolo, 1997 Barbaresco, 1999 Barolo and 2000 Barbaresco, with 1998 and 2001 offering equally strong potential in both zones. Among my favorite wines on my recent trip were the 1999 Barolos (especially those from "enlightened traditionalists" like Aldo Conterno and Cantina Vietti), but the best of the '98s are delicious, with a sappy, captivating balance of fruit sugars and acids. And it is already clear from my early tastings of Barbaresco that the raw materials were very strong in 2001. The 2000 vintage strikes me as a somewhat fresher version of 1997, but with some wines blurry with high alcohol (or is it simply babyfat?). But vintage generalizations often lose their meaning when one is faced with the wines themselves.

The Florence-based superbroker Marc de Grazia, whose extensive work with more than two dozen topnotch estates in Barolo and Barbaresco puts him in better position than most to comment on vintages, claims that differences among the past four vintages at most of his client estates were of style more than of quality. The '98s, says de Grazia, often show high-toned, very fresh bouquets. These wines, he adds, are stylish and elegant, but also powerful and capable of remaining fresh and aging well. Technical analyses of the '98s, he says, are very similar to those of the '99s; the key difference between '98 and '97 is the higher acidity in '98. The '99s, he goes on, are more generous, fleshy wines; because they are dense and full, one is less aware of their acids. Still, de Grazia says he finds 1998 more "gentlemanly" and more classic than '99, with an exhilarating tension. But he admits that some of his client growers view the '99s as more complete.

Two thousand, de Grazia adds, resembles '98 more than '99, but the 2000s are less vigorous wines. He noted that the overwhelming majority of good producers finished harvesting in 2000 prior to a potentially damaging rainy period in mid-October. And 2001 was obviously outstanding, claims de Grazia: the grapes were superb, and the weather was fine through the harvest.

My coverage of Barolo and Barbaresco is presented in two sections. First, I have briefly profiled 25 of the region's top sources, covering the gamut of styles from ultra-traditional to unapologetically modern (some critics might describe these latter wines as excessively international), and I have offered notes on their current and upcoming Barolos and Barbarescos (in most instances the 1998 through 2000 vintages for Barolo and 1999 through 2001 for Barbaresco). Tasting notes are published in the order in which the wines were presented to me. As always, precise scores are provided for finished wines and ranges for wines not yet bottled. In the second section I have included notes on scores of additional Barolos and Barbarescos sampled during my September visit. I have included reviews of a few other, mostly nebbiolo-based wines, but have omitted mention of barbera and dolcetto; I expect to publish a separate article on these considerably less expensive, food-friendly wines in the next issue.

Many of the wines noted in the "Other Recommended Piedmont Wines" section of this issue are from Barolo and Barbaresco estates represented in the U.S. and other export markets by Marc de Grazia. As veteran IWC readers may recall, my marathon tasting of de Grazia's Barolos from '96, '97 and '98 was a highlight of my September 2000 tour of the Piedmont. This year, the same tasting was far more problematic. Many of the '98s appeared to be going through a dumb stage, in which the delicious fruit they displayed prior to bottling was difficult to find and aromas sometimes seemed dull. As a rule, it was easier to taste the mostly recently bottled '99s and the '00s from barrel. Almost predictably, I discovered afterwards that the tasting took place on the day of a full moon, which I have learned from repeated experience can yield bizarre results.) I was able to retaste several of these wines in New York, and these follow-up tastings confirmed my suspicion that the group event held in La Morra was not representative of these wines. Thus, in instances in which I was convinced that my notes on '98s are not representative, I have had no choice but simply to omit them. I believe that readers seeking buying advice would be better served by consulting my barrel notes on these wines published in Issue 93. It is also entirely possible that the '99s and '00s I sampled at this group tasting are at least slightly better than my scores indicate.