Focus on Barolo and Barbaresco

My tour of Italy’s beautiful Piedmont region in mid-September took place against a backdrop of dry, warm weather and cool nights—ideal late summer weather for barbera and nebbiolo. Even a brief rainy spell during the last week of the month could not prevent yet another potentially outstanding vintage for this region. Incredibly, for the second time in a ten-year span (2004-2007 and 1998-2001), the Piedmont has enjoyed four good to exceptional vintages in a row. What a contrast to earlier decades, when producers of Barolo and Barbaresco were lucky to harvest fully ripe nebbiolo one year out of two—and, even then, by picking virtually into November, often in rain or fog.

The focus of my tastings was Barolo and Barbaresco, although I also sampled current vintages of dolcetto and barbera—the less rigorous, less expensive and more flexible everyday drinking wines of the Piedmont—at the estates I visited. Although prices of the most in-demand Barolos and Barbarescos have escalated in lockstep with most other collectible categories from Europe in recent years, one can still find a wealth of excellent Barbaresco choices in the retail market today, and the market will be flooded with superb Barolos in 2008, when it becomes legal to ship the ‘04s.

More than on any previous tour of this region—and I’ve been visiting here regularly since 1991—the differences between so-called traditional and New Wave wines have blurred when it comes to the Piedmont’s great nebbiolo wines. For starters, the number of strict traditionalists—those who carry out very long macerations and then age their wines for several years in traditional large old Slovenian oak casks, or botti—has declined to a very small number as the older generation of makers gives way to their sons and daughters. The new kids as a rule are more aware of today’s international market’s preference for immediate gratification, and perhaps are more likely themselves to enjoy wines that don’t need a decade or more of aging in bottle to become presentable. With very few exceptions, they are updating their ancient casks, shortening their fermentation and total maceration times, and bottling earlier. They are also far more aware of the need to avoid volatile acidity and premature oxidation. And, thanks to cleaner winemaking and aging facilities, not to mention the advice of consulting enologists, their wines today are less rustic, and in that sense more modern. (How much of the “traditional” tar and leather taste of Barolo was a function of the years of gunk that accumulated on the insides of giant old casks?) And of course, with global warming, these winemakers are vinifying healthier fruit with much better phenolic maturity: their wines rarely need five or more years of aging in cask to become semi-civilized.

At the other extreme are the so-called modernists who were the first to switch to very quick, hot fermentations in rotary fermenters [or “rotofermenters,” usually stainless steel cylindrical vats in which pigeage is done by means of a propeller that rotates inside the vat; in some cases, the tank itself slowly revolves]. To stabilize the color of their quickly fermented wines, in which color was extracted more by heat than by alcohol, these folks aged their wines in small French barriques, a high percentage of which were often new, and they bottled much earlier. But the modernists too have backed away from their earlier excesses. Today, they’re drawing out the fermentations, doing gentler extraction during vinification even if they still use rotofermenters, and cutting back on their use of new wood, in some cases switching to larger tonneaux (usually holding 500 or 600 liters of wine) or even botti, which now typically hold 10 to 30 hectoliters of wine. Some are even pushing back their bottling times as they allow their wines to evolve in wood at a more leisurely pace. So while there are a few remaining strict conservatives and a few unapologetic New Wave producers, it’s rarely black or white anymore.

The vintages in question. I had my first in-depth look at the 2005 Barbarescos and Barolos, although in most cases I have decided to hold off on publishing notes for now on the latter wines, which cannot be released until 2009. The 2005s generally do not have the thoroughly ripe tannins or complexity and depth of flavor shown by the 2004s. They cannot match the earlier year for sheer mouth feel either, and they are normally lower in alcohol.

By most accounts the summer of ‘05 brought highly variable weather—alternating hot and cool periods, with less sunshine than in most of France. August was much cooler and wetter than usual—but less wet here than in other parts of Italy—and the first half of September was erratic as well, making for tricky conditions for dolcetto in some areas, as this grape does not like cool weather just prior to the harvest. But the region then enjoyed a two-week period of clement weather that lasted into the first week of October, when an extended period of significant rainfall essentially cut the nebbiolo harvest in two. Much of the fruit was already picked in Barbaresco during late September, but a good percentage of the best nebbiolo in the Barolo region was still hanging. Those producers who admitted to picking some of their fruit after this damaging rainy spell often declassified this material into their regular nebbiolo bottlings or sold it off. Crop levels in ’05 were down significantly from those of 2004, but the wines are generally less opulent and concentrated, with an emphasis on fruit. Still, many of these wines offer lovely aromatic purity and floral lift, and the best of them will give great pleasure over the medium term.

The splendid 2004 Barolos and Barbarescos were the highlight of my tour. While the peak summer months were not special in 2004, conditions here were generally better than in France. And, unlike in most of France, growers in the Piedmont were able to take full advantage of beautiful weather in September and much of October, during which warm days and cool nights allowed for slow and even ripening of the grapes. They brought in their grapes in a leisurely fashion, the fruit showing full phenolic ripeness, impressive density of material, and bright acidity. However, it was a very large crop, with large berries, so green pruning and cluster thinning were essential to making concentrated wines.

The better 2004s are scented and elegant, and at the same time structured and strong. They show many stylistic similarities to the 2001s, another warm season that benefited from fine conditions before and during the harvest. While both of these vintages can be described as “classic,” tannins are generally ripe, and although these wines are structured to evolve in bottle for a decade or two, there’s relatively little of the early austerity that characterized so many big nebbiolo wines of years past. Many producers I visited in September rate the two vintages as roughly equal. Some prefer 2004 for their suppler tannins and more immediate appeal. Others describe the 2001s as a bit more structured and clenched; for some, this means 2001 is better but others prefer the pliancy of 2004. A couple of growers even compared 2004 to 1996, but in general the earlier vintage was far more forbiddingly tannic and acidic in its youth (and still is, in many cases), and the 2004s have sweeter fruit and more flesh.

By the way, on my September tour, numerous producers were already ranking 2006 in the same quality league as 2004 and 2001, although it’s clear that this vintage differs in style from those two more classic years. Hot weather in the second half of June and through July suggested an early harvest, possibly in the style of 2003, but the weather turned cool in August, with much-needed rainfall, and these conditions slowed down the ripening process and helped to protect acidity levels in the grapes. September was then sunny and unseasonably warm, and grape sugars soared. A couple of rainy spells in the middle of the month again slowed down sugar accumulation and allowed acidity levels to moderate. Most of the top growers took full advantage of beautiful weather into October, letting their nebbiolo hang for perfect maturity of the grape skins and harvesting their best vineyards during the first half of that month.

The fruit in 2006 was mostly rich, with high levels of potential alcohol. Most growers were in agreement that these conditions were more conducive to making excellent barbera and, especially, nebbiolo. While some are also thrilled with their dark, structured dolcettos, a sizable minority of producers regard them as atypically huge (frequently 14% alcohol or even higher)—and they fear that these wines will come as a shock to those who think of dolcetto as a juicy, easy-drinking red wine to serve early in the meal. Of course, some tasters will love these wines for their richness and palate impact.

My coverage of Barolo and Barbaresco is presented in two sections. First, I have briefly profiled more than two dozen of the region's top sources, covering the gamut of styles, and I have offered notes on their current and upcoming Barolos and Barbarescos (in most instances, 2004s and 2003s for Barolo and 2005s and 2004s 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 many additional Barolos and Barbarescos sampled during my September visit and in New York in October. [Note to Internet subscribers: many notes on 2003 Barolos and Barbarescos were published on the IWC website in a special bonus feature by Ian D’Agata in early October.] For estates I visited, I have offered notes on their current barbera and dolcetto bottlings as well. I expect to offer additional coverage of barbera and dolcetto in the next print issue or on the IWC website later this fall.