Global warming appears to be actually benefiting Italy's Piedmont wine region, at least for now. Never in the region's history have so many fine vintages occurred within such a short period. Two decades ago, locals were astounded when three vintages in a row, 1988, 1989, and 1990, all turned out fine; they said that this had never happened before in the Langhe (the local name for the area where Barolo and Barbaresco is made). Then came four poor vintages in a row, 1991 through 1994. Quite normal in the Langhe--an area notorious for inconsistent weather, including summer hailstorms. But can you imagine the astonishment of the Piedmontese now? From 1995 through 2004, every vintage except 2002 is at least a good one, and some are truly great.
I've attended three tastings of the newly-released 2004 Barolos in New York this year. I was not surprised by the good showing of these wines, because I have been tasting '04 Barolo barrel samples in Piedmont since 2005; plus 2004 Barbarescos have been available since last year. Barbaresco has only a two-year aging requirement rather than the minimum three-year requirement of Barolo. Both wine districts are within 10 to 15 miles of each other, and so you can generally treat them as one region, vintage-wise.
What did take me by surprise was the easy drinkability of the '04 Barolos. The 2004 Barolos and Barbarescos have the best of both worlds, enjoyment-wise: they have the structure (tannin, acidity, fruit, balance) to age well, and yet most of them are enjoyable even now. The tannins of the 2004s are quite soft; they offer a velvety mouthfeel, rather then the harsh, austere taste that is often the case with young Barolos and Barbarescos. I do not believe that they will age as long as some of the classic Langhe vintages, such as 1989 and 1996, but the 2004s will offer more short-term enjoyment than these rather austere vintages.
Luca Currado, winemaker of Vietti and son of the owners, introduced the family's four 2004 Barolo wines earlier this year. Currado was enthusiastic about his '04s. Tasting these young Barolos was quite a different Barolo experience for me. I first tried the 'Castiglione,' a blend from three Vietti vineyards and the readiest to drink now; then the three single-vineyard Vietti Barolos, the 'Brunate' from La Morra village, the 'Lazzarito' from Serralunga, and the 'Rocche' from Vietti's home village, Castiglione Falletto.
Vietti's '04 Castiglione would be a good bet to order if you see it on a restaurant wine list. You really can appreciate its Barolo flavors now, tar and roses in a somewhat subdued form. The '04 Lazzarito is surprisingly forward, absolutely delicious even now. The '04 Vietti Brunate is a bit more backward than the Lazzarito at this point, and the '04 Rocche, typically, is the biggest and most austere of the group, although it still is more drinkable than usual at this stage.
As an added treat, Currado introduced the Vietti Reserve Barolo, the 2001 Villero, produced only in exceptional years (of which there have been many, lately). The Vietti '01 Reserve is indeed magnificent, powerful and concentrated, with complex flavors, and yes, drinkable now. (But it is retailing for $250 per bottle. Ouch!)
I believe that 2004 is a vintage that will please most Barolo lovers--fans of traditionally-styled Barolo such as myself, but also those who prefer the more modern, less tannic, readier-to-drink style of Barolo. I asked Currado why his 2004s are so drinkable now. Currado replied, 'I look for ripeness in the tannins before we pick; Barolos today have better balance than in the past. Tannins were too aggressive and green in the old Barolos. That's why you had to wait so long to drink them.'
The one problem with Vietti's 2004s is the price: thanks in part to the weakness of our dollar against the euro, the three Vietti 2004 single-vineyard Barolos will retail for $100 and up per bottle. The '04 Lazzarito, which might be the finest wine from this vineyard that I've tasted, is the bargain of the three at $100; the '04 Brunate and Rocche are about $110. Vietti's '04 Castiglione, at $45 to $50, is a particularly good value. The Lazzarito and Brunate have been aged partially in barriques; the Castiglione and Rocche are aged in used Slavonian bottes (very large oak barrels).
After Vietti's '04 tasting, I visited Ceretto, who was also showing his 2004 wines. Ceretto is a Piedmontese producer who, like Bruno Giacosa, is equally famous for Barbaresco as well as Barolo. Federico Ceretto has taken over his father Bruno Ceretto's position as head of sales and marketing, and speaks for the winery. Federico's cousin, Alessandro Ceretto, is now the winemaker, succeeding his father, Marcello. Federico Ceretto poured his three single-vineyard 2004 Barolos: Brunate, Prapó (from Serralunga), and his star, Bricco Rocche (from Castiglione Falletto)
The three of them were fabulous, and like Vietti's, all quite accessible now, considering the strength of the 2004 vintage. Ceretto's 2004 Bricco Rocche is destined to become one of the great Barolos of the vintage, but it's always expensive. Prices of Ceretto's 2004s are not yet available, but the Bricco Rocche probably will retail for $180-$200 a bottle, while the Brunate and Prapó should be about $75. For me, Prapó, always very long-lived, is the one to buy, considering its price versus the Bricco Rocche. I recently tasted Ceretto's 1978 Prapó, and it was magnificent. But of course, 1978, one of the all-time great Piedmontese vintages--and one of the last made in the old style--is destined to live forever, it seems.
The one 2004 that really impressed me at the Ceretto tasting was its single-vineyard Barbaresco, Asili. It reminded me of Wonder Woman, voluptuous and powerful at the same time. In short, it's an exciting wine. Again, the price of the '04 Asili was not available at the time because Ceretto is just releasing this wine in the U.S. now, but judging by the cost of the '03 Asili, I'd estimate its retail price at $125.
I also tasted the importer Neil Empson's fine line of 2004 Barolos, and was particularly impressed with the Barolos of Marcarini and Poderi Colla. Both of these producers have kept their prices remarkably reasonable: the '04 Marcarini 'Brunate' retails for $55-$60, while Colla's 'Bussia' (from Monforte village) is $65-$70. Both are excellent values.
How does 2004 compare with previous Barolo/Barbaresco vintages? It's closest to the 1998 vintage, also very good and a bit precocious. Since the Barolo and Barbaresco districts are so close to each other and share similar soils and climate, there is usually only slight, if any, difference in the vintages in each district. But local winemakers will split hairs and say, for instance, that 1998 was somewhat better in Barbaresco than Barolo, while 1999 was slightly better in Barolo. The larger district, Barolo, has three times as many producers as Barbaresco--about 200 to 70.
I can recall drinking the 1996 and 1989 Barolos when they were young; a challenging experience! It took a while for my taste buds to recover from the harsh tannins. For me, the 1989 and 1996 vintages are the two finest Barolo vintages in the past two decades; the 1989s have only recently softened and become enjoyable, while the 1996s still need a few years more to develop.
The greatest Barolo/Barbaresco vintages of the past 20 years, in my rating system, have been
• 1996, 1989, and 1999, in that order; then
• 2001, 2004, 1998, 1988, and 1995.
Time might prove the 2004 better than the 2001, although I doubt it; there are critics who prefer the 2001 to the 1999.
The other vintages?
• 1982, a very good vintage, is at its peak now.
• 1985, a good but precocious vintage, is now in decline.
• 1990, ballyhooed at the time of its release as a 'great' vintage, faded with time and is well past its peak (while the '88s and '89s are still going strong).
• 1991 through 1994 were all mediocre, '93 being the best of them.
• Another 'famous' vintage, the precocious 1997, is already fading.
• The over-hyped 2000 was never better than average to good, and does not possess longevity.
• Practically no one made 2002; too much hail and rain (although Roberto Conterno of Winery Giacomo Conterno, an outstanding Barolo producer, promises that his 2002 Monfortino Reserve from 'carefully selected grapes,' due to be released in 2009, will be one of his greatest Barolos; I concur, having tasted barrel samples twice).
• The very warm 2003 vintage actually was better in Piedmont than in other parts of Europe, but why buy the average 2003s when the much better 2004s are now available?
The future? It looks as if 2005 is a so-so vintage in Piedmont for Barolo and Barbaresco, but 2006 looks promising. The jury is still out on 2007; it's too soon to make a judgment.
Should you buy 2004 Barolos and Barbarescos, taking into account the current economic scene? There are a number of good 2004 Barolos and Barbarescos available in the $45 to $65 range; true, that is still not inexpensive, but if you compare these prices to comparable-quality Bordeaux, Burgundy, or Napa Cabernets, Barolos and Barbarescos are fairly priced.
If you like the taste of Nebbiolo (the grape variety of Barolo and Barbaresco), but want to spend less than the cost of the two 'Big B' wines of Piedmont, buy Nebbiolo delle Langhe, Nebbiolo d'Alba, or Roero, the latter two made from grapes grown outside the Barolo/Barbaresco zones. These three wines retail in the $20 to $30 price range.
I plan to buy some reasonably priced 2004 Barolos and Barbarescos. Meanwhile, I am buying any good 2001 or 1999 Barolos or Barbarescos that I can still find.