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Some Great Barolos, Thanks to Mother Nature
By Ed McCarthy
May 25, 2010
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I just returned from the Langhe region around the town of Alba in Piedmont, Italy, and am thrilled to report that I have tasted a number of super Barolo wines, some of which will be arriving on our shores shortly, but many of which are here already.  I tasted mainly the Langhe’s four top red wines, Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera, and Dolcetto, but concentrated on Barolo and Dolcetto (I’ll report on Dolcetto in an upcoming column).    

The so-called global warming--or at the least the extended period of very warm vintages Europe has been experiencing in the last 15 years--has actually been a blessing for Piedmont’s Nebbiolo-based wines, according to Mario Cordero, Commercial Director of Vietti--a winery in Piedmont which is equally famous for its Barbera wines as it is its Barolos.  While cool-climate wine regions such as Chablis, Champagne, Burgundy, and the Mosel have rightfully expressed concern over the effect excessively warm vintages have had on their wines, the Piedmontese are loving the warmth. 

Barbera, Piedmont’s most widely-planted grape variety, thrives on hot weather.  Even more importantly, the difficult-to-ripen Nebbiolo variety, the only grape allowed by law in both Barolo and Barbaresco wines, is finally getting enough sun and heat to ripen fully every vintage since 1995 (with the exception of the very rainy 2002).  Nebbiolo requires an extended, warm autumn; in the past, Nebbiolo typically didn’t ripen in the Langhe until at least the third week in October, and sometimes as late as mid-November.  And if the rains came too soon, as they often did, the vintage for Nebbiolo was mediocre at best.  Hail is another season-long problem producers have had to cope with in some vintages in the Langhe; it can often wipe out entire crops. 

Lately, Nebbiolo has been ripening in the Langhe in late September and early October, a crucial difference for avoiding the rains.  (By the way, Nebbiolo’s need for a long-ripening season is one of the main reasons this variety has not performed well in California and other wine regions.) 

In the years before the current warm period, Barolo and Barbaresco used to have two or three really good vintages per decade: the 1950s had one! (1958); the 1960s had two or three (1961, 1964, possibly 1967); the 1970s had two (1971, 1978); and the 1980s started with the same pattern (1982, 1985).  But then, as a harbinger of things to come, the Langhe experienced three good vintages at the end of the 1980s--1988, 1989, and 1990.  Oldtimers in the Langhe swore that they had never seen three good vintages in a row in their lifetimes!  Then it was back to normal for a while after 1990: all the vintages from 1991 through 1994 suffered because of the weather, with ’91 and ’92 downright awful, and ‘93/’94 mediocre.

But now wine producers in the Langhe feel blessed; they’ve never made so many good Barolos and Barbarescos, vintage after vintage.  Here is my brief summary of the last 15 vintages, followed by my report on actual wines I have just tasted during the week of May 10th:

1995--a good, if not great vintage; the best ’95 Barolos are perfect now.  In a restaurant  in the neighboring region to the north, Valle d’Aosta, I drank a ’95 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo which was outstanding; exceptionally balanced.

1996--the longest-lived Barolo vintage of our generation; most ’96 Barolos are still very firm, and need more aging; will be magnificent.

1997--Too warm, even for the Langhe.  The ‘97s showed well at first, but this precocious vintage is fading fast.

1998--A good vintage that for the most part, is ready to drink now. Medium-weight; well-balanced; slightly better in Barbaresco.

1999--A great vintage whose wines are drinking beautifully now.  Highly recommended.

2000--Another warm vintage, like 1997, that showed well at first, but now is considered slightly better than average.  Overrated by a few critics.

2001--A very fine vintage, on the level of the 1999.  Many 2001s are beginning to show their stuff, but some of the best ’01 Barolos still need two or three more years of aging to reach their peak.

2002--Lots of rain and hail; almost no one dared to make Barolo or Barbaresco, except for Giacomo Conterno (more about that, later).

2003--Notoriously warm vintage throughout Europe, but not that bad in Piedmont.  Still, an average vintage, at best.  Wines are maturing rapidly.

2004--The best of the currently available vintages, and certainly the best vintage since 1999 in the Langhe.  2004 Barolos, with exquisite balance, have been beautiful since their release in 2007.  But they’ll even get better with another four or five years of aging.

2005--A bit too warm; the wines are fairly light; some can be consumed even now; others are imbalanced.  This will not be a great vintage.

2006--The ’06 Barolos have been released this year.  Considerably better than ’05, but not on the level of the 2004s.  This will be a good, long-lasting vintage.

2007 (barrel samples)--A good vintage, but too warm to warrant greatness.  Better than ’05 and ’03, but will not be as good as ’04 and ’06.

2008 (barrel samples)--Perhaps a bit too cool.  It’s too early to say, of course, but my guess is that ’08 will be an erratic vintage in the Langhe.  Some of the best producers will make excellent Barolos and Barbarescos, but it will not be a great vintage across the board, like 2004.

2009 (barrel samples)--Another very warm vintage. It will be precocious rather than long-lived, very much like 1997.

My list of the best vintages of the last 15 in the Langhe, in chronological order:  1996, 1999, 2001, 2004, 2006.

I visited ten wineries that produce Barolo  (with a few also making Barbaresco) on my journey.  The following are some of the top wines I tasted at each winery:

Marchesi di Barolo is one of the largest and oldest (1861) producers of Barolo, mainly traditional in style.  Its currently available 2005 Barolo Cannubi (arguably the most renowned vineyard in the region) is very elegant, and actually quite lovely to drink now, one of the better ‘05s that I’ve tasted.  But two wines really stood out for me here were the 2001 Barbaresco Riserva, which was completely evolved and perfect to drink now, and an even better 1999 Marchesi di Barolo Riserva, which was outstanding.  Marchesi di Barolo’s wines have the advantage of being moderately priced and generally available throughout the U.S.

The excellence of the 1999 vintage in Barolo was confirmed for me by a 1999 Aldo Conterno Barolo Bussia Soprana that I drank in a local restaurant, Le Torri (Castiglione Falletto) that night.  Younger-tasting than the Marchesi di Barolo ’99, and just a superb wine, approaching its peak.

A visit to Angelo Gaja’s winery in Barbaresco is always exciting, because Gaja does make great wines, although of course they are very expensive.  Even though I favor Barolos and Barbarescos made in the traditional style (with little or no barrique-aging), I must concede that the very modern-style Gaja wines are always well made.  Because he adds a small percentage of Barbera (5 to 8 percent) to his best single-vineyard wines, Gaja cannot call them Barbaresco or Barolo; instead their appellation is simply “Langhe Nebbiolo DOC.”  I tasted mainly 2006 and 2007s here, plus one 2004 Langhe Nebbiolo.  My three favorite Gaja wines were the 2006 Conteisa (from the Cerequio Vineyard in Barolo’s La Morra zone); the 2004 Sperss (from Barolo’s Serralunga zone); and the 2006 Sorì San Lorenzo (from Barbaresco).  All of Gaja’s wines, which are famously long-lived, require a good deal more aging to reach their peak.

There can be no greater contrast in the Barbaresco region than to go from the thoroughly  modern Gaja winery to the thoroughly traditional  Bruno Giacosa Winery, in the village of Neive.  Although Bruno Giacosa has a new winemaker, Giorgio Lavagna (new only to Giacosa; Giorgio has 23 years of winemaking experience), my tasting here shows that the winery has not missed a beat--even though it did skip the 2006 vintage because of Bruno Giacosa’s illness that year.  I did taste Giacosa’s currently released 2007 Barbaresco Santo Stefano, but it was so young that it was difficult to evaluate.  I can only go by the magnificent track record of the long-lasting Santo Stefano vineyard Barbarescos of Bruno Giacosa.  The one fantastic wine I could appreciate was Giacosa’s 2004 Barolo, Villero vineyard (in Castiglione Falletto).  The wine’s depth and complexity bowled me over; certainly one of the best 2004s, and best Barolos, that I’ve tasted recently.

The contrast continued, as my next visit was to Roberto Voerzio, in the beautiful village of La Morra in the Barolo zone.  Although Roberto (not to be confused with his brother Gianni Voerzio, who also has a winery in La Morra) takes the modern approach, and does quite a bit of barrique aging, he is known for making small quantities of intensely-concentrated  Barolos with great depth.  Many regard Roberto Voerzio as the best of the modern-style Barolistas, and his expensive wines sell out quickly to a loyal following.  My favorite Roberto Voerzio Barolo was his 2006 Barolo Cerequio--which fortunately is the largest in production (5,000 bottles) of his seven different Barolos.  I found the ’06 Voerzio Cerequio to be elegant, in the typical La Morra style, almost seductive.  An ’03 Voerzio Barolo, Fossati Case Nere, however, was already showing more age than I had expected.

By the way, I discovered another great Piedmontese restaurant  (there are so many!) in La Morra, Ristorante Bovio.  Not only is the food and wine superb here, but the restaurant also affords an outstanding view of La Morra’s vineyards.  

My next stop was to Luigi Einaudi in the village of Dogliani.  Luigi Einaudi is really a Dolcetto specialist, but I did taste one fine Barolo here, its 2001 Barolo Cannubi.  Again I must use the word “elegant” as the best descriptor of this perfectly mature Barolo, now at its peak.

Giacomo Conterno  is perhaps the great traditional Barolo winery.  One unfortunate consequence of Giacomo Conterno’s recent  recognition in the wine world is that its wines are now expensive, especially its best Barolo, Monfortino, a selection of the best grapes from its Cascina Francia  vineyard in the Serralunga  zone.  I tasted many fine Barolos at the G. Conterno  winery in Monforte, as usual, but two stood out: the 2004 and the 2002 Monfortinos.  Both are still in large casks (no barriques allowed in this winery).  The ’02 Monfortino will be released this fall, the ’04 in the autumn of 2011.  Both are absolutely sensational, as good as Barolo gets.  The ’04 Monfortino  has incredible depth, concentration, and purity of fruit; I preferred it slightly to the ’02, although a respected colleague preferred the ’02, which was definitely readier to drink, but with the same great intensity and purity of fruit.  I asked winemaker Roberto Conterno why he made a 2002 Barolo from this notoriously poor vintage.  He replied that his father, Giovanni, then still alive (he passed away in 2004), who had lots of experience with poor vintages, suggested that they select only the very best grapes and make a small percentage of Monfortino, but make none of their larger-production Barolo Cascina Francia.  How right Giovanni was, and what masters father and son are, to produce such a wine from this very poor vintage.

The Ceretto winery, with its offices on a hillside just south of Alba, is one of the larger wineries in the region, and also one of the most successful.    First, I was given a mini-tasting of four Barolos from Ceretto’s Prapò Vineyard in Serralunga, the ’03 (getting tired); ’04 (easy-drinking); ’05 (surprisingly better than the ’04); and ’06 (clearly the best Prapò, and the one to buy).  Then, I tasted a number of great Barolos at their two-star Michelin restaurant in Alba, Piazza Duomo--but one Barolo was truly off the charts.  Ceretto’s absolutely stupendous Barolo is completely new, and I was privileged to be the first wine writer to taste it--2005 Barolo Cannubi (in magnum only).  The Ceretto family recently purchased a small plot of this great vineyard, and the 2005 Cannubi is its first vintage.  It is elegant and ripe, with soft tannins, incredible depth and concentration; it tasted so good that it was difficult to stop drinking it.  Only 900 magnums of the ‘05 have been made; it will be expensive, and most of it will go to fine restaurants around the world when it is released, probably this fall.  I also tasted two other top Ceretto wines, the 2005 Barbaresco Bricco Asili (its best Barbaresco vineyard), and an amazing 1989 Barolo Bricco Rocche (its best Barolo vineyard, at least until Ceretto purchased its Cannubi plot).  As good as its ’89 Bricco Rocche was, it had to take second place to Ceretto’s ’05 Cannubi on this occasion.

I hadn’t visited my old friend, Pietro Ratti of Renato Ratti Winery in Annunciata (a hamlet of La Morra) in some time, and I was stunned by his beautiful new winery.  I tasted three vintages from Ratti’s best vineyard, Rocche of Annunciata, the ’06, ’05, and ’04, and I’m so glad that I did, because I received a clear impression of the three vintages.  Ratti’s ‘06 Rocche was powerful, yet somewhat one-dimensional; the ’05 Rocche was pretty and stylish, but rather a lightweight compared to the other two; but the ’04 Rocche was outstanding, with great depth, La Morra  Barolo at its best.  At this moment I had a clear picture of these three vintages.

Giuseppe Mascarello, in Monchiero, close to Monforte, is another great, traditional Barolo winery.  Mauro Mascarello, owner and winemaker, purchased one of the great Barolo vineyards in 1974, Monprivato (in Castiglione Falletto).  This purchase has secured his reputation among Barolo greats.  I tasted two outstanding G. Mascarello Monprivatos, the amazing 2004, with its great complexity and depth, and yet not nearly at its peak; and the outstanding 1996 Monprivato (at  Trattoria La Coccinella, a restaurant in the Alte Langhe).  The ’96 Monprivato has years to reach its peak, and will be one of the great Barolos of our time.

I finished the week with a tasting of the entire line of Vietti’s wines, including its two incredible Barberas, an ’07 Barbera d’Alba Scarrone Vineyard, Vecchia Vigna, and an ’04 Barbera d’Asti La Crena, both made from very old vines.  But the Vietti wine that jumped out of the glass was its ’04 Barolo Villero Riserva  (to be released this fall, or early next year).  This Barolo, with fantastic depth and complexity, is the best Vietti Barolo that I have tasted in a long time.  I can’t wait for its release, so that I can buy it.  The other outstanding Vietti Barolo I tasted was an old favorite, its ’96 Rocche (both Rocche and Villero are in Castiglione Falletto).  The amazing aspect of the ’96 Vietti Rocche was its youth; it still needs many years (5 or 6) of aging before it reaches its full development.

Summarizing, I believe that of the currently available Barolo (and Barbaresco) vintages, 2004 seems to be uniformly the best, and the one to buy.  Two older vintages you might find, 2001 and 1999, are also excellent; 1999 in particular is at a great stage for drinking now.