Focus on Barolo and Barbaresco

It wasn't much more than a generation ago that it was fairly easy to buy Barolo and Barbaresco--or at least the universe of serious choices for collectors was extremely limited.  The number of estates bottling their own wines was small, and the roster of producers who kept their barrels reasonably clean and their wines fresh was smaller still.  Single-vineyard bottlings, all the rage since the '80s, had not yet proliferated, and this vastly reduced the number of possible bottlings in the marketplace.  And most consumers could safely ignore five or six vintages every decade for the simple reason that the nebbiolo grapes didn't ripen sufficiently.

Times have changed.  Each year there are new producers bottling high-quality, cleanly made wines.  The number of single-vineyard wines has exploded over the last 15 to 20 years.  And climate change has drastically changed the shape of the growing season.  During the past 15 years or so, producers in the Langhe hills have experienced very early flowering in some growing seasons, more persistent heat spells during several summers, and earlier harvesting, on average, than previously, with producers today more likely to pick in 70-degree sunshine at the beginning of October than in fog and cold rain at the beginning of November.

If those factors alone weren't enough to result in a bewildering array of choices for consumers, consider the vintages since 2004.  Including 2011, there have now been eight consecutive years in which it was possible to make very good to outstanding wines in Barbaresco and Barolo.  Back in the 1960s the odds of that happening would have been lower than the chance of a comet hitting the Cannubi vineyard.

Due to the sheer diversity of sites, altitudes and exposures, not to mention differences in farming practices and harvesting strategies, it's harder today to generalize about vintages.  That won't stop me from giving it a try, though.  The easiest rule of thumb is that recent even-numbered vintages have produced more classically styled wines.  Vintages 2010 and 2008 featured relatively cool growing seasons with late harvests; 2006 was warmer, but without extremes of heat, and produced more powerful wines but still in a classic style that's appreciated by the region's traditionalists.  (Similarly, 2004 is viewed by most producers as a classic year for their big nebbiolo wines.)

In contrast, 2007 and 2009 were warmer years with earlier harvests, generally producing fleshier wines that will offer earlier appeal.  Traditional producers are genetically suspicious of this style, but many consumers will be thrilled. 

By the way, 2011 will be much trickier to describe in a few words.  Following a very early flowering, the first half of the summer was fairly miserable.  Then extreme heat during the second half of August and first half of September toughened up the grape skins and sucked out part of the juice through dehydration.  The weather turned beautiful during the second half of September and into October, with a few sprinkles and cooler nights allowing the grapes to achieve fuller ripeness without significant further loss of acidity.  It was a difficult year for early-picked varieties like dolcetto, but many producers are very happy with their nebbiolo.  Still, even if the serious heat of summer lasted barely a month, it was enough in many vineyards to leave its mark on the vintage.

I enjoyed my first in-depth look at the 2008s from Barbaresco and Barolo during my tour of the region's best addresses in September.  And I liked what I found.  As with so many red wine regions in France, the cooler, later 2008 growing season in the Piedmont has produced some splendid, structured wines in which terroir character comes through loud and clear.  The 2008s are not generally outsized wines but they are dense, fresh and complex, with superb inner-palate definition and energy, and captivating complexity to their fruit, floral, mineral, balsamic and earth tones.  Most of the better wines will improve with five to ten years of bottle aging and have the spine and energy to evolve gracefully.  The majority of the Barolo producers I visited in September prefer 2008 to 2007 simply because it is more typical.

Following a snowy winter, April was rainy and quite cool.  May was much more pleasant but then the first half of June was again cool and wet, setting the stage for a later harvest.  Sporadic rains continued to fall until the beginning of August, after which the weather dried out but temperatures remained moderate.  The harvest was late, but in line with classic years like 2004 and 1999, and took place under favorable conditions.  Sugar levels were not quite as high as those of 2007, but acidity levels were healthier, and the wines have more supporting mid-palate flesh, say, than the 2008 red Burgundies.

In contract, 2007 witnessed a distinctly warmer growing season that began with an extremely early flowering.  But there was none of the extreme heat that had caused so many problems in 2003 (according to Angelo Gaja, there were nine hot weeks in 2003 but just five in 2007). The wines are generally sweet, fleshy and round, with substantial but fully ripe tannins.  Here are just a few comments from producers I visited who expressed reservations about this vintage: "modern in style," "not classic,"  "perfect for early drinking," "a hot year in which it was difficult to preserve flowers and fruit in the wines," "flashy but somewhat lacking in depth."  A minority of growers maintained that the vintage was outstanding.

Indeed, according to my tastings of the finished wines, many of which are in the market right now, 2007 offers a wide range of style and quality.  While relatively few wines are distinctly roasted in character, many are nonetheless marked by the vintage.  Numerous wines resemble the 2000s, or the 1997s, and appear to be best suited for relatively early drinking.  Some of these wines lack the ineffable perfume of Barolos from cooler years, not to mention their thrust and grip.  They can be a bit blurry on the nose and palate.

The best 2007s, though, offer a splendid harmony of elements, superb depth and enough natural acidity to give them freshness and definition.  These wines have high levels of dry extract and plenty of ripe tannins for aging.  (One of the distinctive attributes of nebbiolo is that it can produce great wines in cool, late years but also do well under much warmer conditions.)

The 2009 growing season was also preceded by substantial winter snowfall, and April remained cold and wet.  May and June were much better months, permitting a smooth flowering and a mostly moderate crop set owing to the poor early spring weather.  The summer was consistently warm, but relatively high nighttime temperatures tended to bring down acidity levels in the grapes.  Some rain marred the first part of the harvest in Barbaresco, and most fruit here was picked during the last week of September and first week of October, with high potential alcohol levels and moderate acidity.  Most of the Barbaresco producers I visited describe the 2009s as rather powerful wines made from small grapes; others say they're more internationally styled wines in the 2007 mold.

I will try to add more Barolos and Barbarescos to this annual report over the coming weeks as I am able to track down additional wines.  Incidentally, this article also includes many dolcettos and barberas I tasted during my producer visits in September.  (I will publish an additional report on dolcetto and barbera by late winter.)  Vintage 2009 yielded some very impressive, if perhaps atypically outsized, examples of both varieties, often with excellent acidity, depth and balance.  The cooler 2010 season was trickier.  The wines are generally leaner but where they they are adequately ripe, they can be excellent examples of these two categories, which, after all, have traditionally been juicy, brisk wines with moderate alcohol and easy gulpability, not musclebound weight-lifters with 14.5% alcohol.