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Stars Align for Piedmont
By Michael Franz
Jun 8, 2010
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In a time when the news is pretty grim on many fronts, it is especially pleasant to point to something wonderful that is suddenly the best it has ever been:  Nebbiolo from Piedmont.

The great wines of Barolo and Barbaresco have recently enjoyed an extended streak of excellent vintages that is simply unprecedented.  With the sole exception of 2002, every year since 1996 has provided winemakers with extraordinary fruit.  Craftsmanship in cellars has likewise improved since the early 1990s, and the string of strong vintages has conspired with the economic downturn to keep a lid on prices.

For long-time lovers of Barolo and Barbaresco--or for those newly curious about Italy’s most fascinating reds--the upshot is clear:  If you have a piggy bank, grab a hammer.

The News Gets Even Better

Although you should keep your hammer in hand, the news from Piedmont is so good these days that you shouldn’t feel pressured to do anything about it right now.  If you don’t have sufficient funds to do some buying at this moment, you should take comfort in the fact that many excellent wines from 2007, 2008 and 2009 are already in the pipeline awaiting release in coming years.

However, if you are currently in a position to take a position, a host of amazing wines is being released right now.  I’ve just returned from four days of blind tastings in Alba during which I evaluated 324 new releases, and can report that well over 100 truly remarkable wines are now becoming available.  And I’m ready to name names.

The best of the best are from Barolo, which has just released the terrific 2006 vintage as well as the Riserva wines from 2004, which is at least as great a year.  The current releases from Barbaresco are nearly as strong, with many excellent 2007s and 2005 Riservas now coming on line.

It may be wise to buy right now if you want to cherry-pick the very best wines or grab new releases from a favorite producer.  That is what I intend to do, but again, there are so many attractive options available at the moment that nobody should feel pressured.  Wines that show classically restrained ripeness are forthcoming from 2008, and softer, more opulent wines from 2009 are in the offing as well.

Looking backward may make even more sense than keeping your powder dry for the future, as wines are still available from some terrific older vintages.  These wines are closer than new releases to their peak of maturity, of course, but are also surprisingly affordable, since retailers bought some of them with a dollar that was stronger than it is now.  Although I returned to the USA from Alba in an extremely excited state about the wines that I recommend below, my first move was actually to dip into existing retail stocks to buy some wines from 1996 and 1999, my two favorite vintages from the past 14 years.

With so many great options at your disposal, constructing an optimal buying strategy requires a comprehensive consideration of recent vintages, and my colleague Ed McCarthy offered an excellent one in a column published here on WRO two weeks ago.  You can get to it by clicking on his photo at the bottom of the WRO home page, which will take you to an archive of his columns.  We agree almost entirely in our evaluation of recent vintages, though I think more highly than Ed does of the 2006s, and I’m a little more optimistic about 2009.  I’d love to argue this out with Ed over a great glass of Barolo, but sadly there’s not much to argue about, as most of our differences are minor shadings of opinion.

Advice for Those Feeling Strapped

Given the current economic climate, nobody could blame you for being disinclined to invest in Barolo or Barbaresco right now.  However, you would indeed be blameworthy if you were to conclude that Piedmont is currently irrelevant because all of its wines are expensive.  The same streak of great weather that produced the current Barolo Bounty has also helped Piedmont winemakers crank out millions of bottles of delicious Dolcetto and Barbera during the past decade.  I’m tasting these wines right now in droves, and will review dozens of them during the next month, so please don’t feel left out if you can’t afford the wines recommended below.

Admittedly, almost everyone in Piedmont thinks that Nebbiolo--rather than Barbera or Dolcetto--is their greatest grape variety.  Yet, you should still not feel left out if you can’t pony up for Barolo or Barbaresco, as the region is turning out scores of ever-more-impressive Nebbiolo-based wines from the Roero and Nebbiolo d’Alba appellations.  These often cost less than half what you’d pay for Barolo or Barbaresco, but the best of them are far better than half as good.

I’ll publish reviews of some top bottlings of Nebbiolo d’Alba here in the next few weeks, and you’ll find reviews below of some exemplary Roero wines below, as they were included in the recent “Nebbiolo Prima” blind tastings in Italy.  Why are these wines getting so much better recently?  First, because advancements in viticulture and winemaking have boosted these wines as much or more than their big-ticket brethren.  Second, because these wines are rarely exposed to the excesses of new oak that have sometimes afflicted Barolo and Barbaresco during the innovation process.  And third, warm growing seasons like most years since 1996 are even more beneficial for second-string wines than first string ones, just as warm years in Bordeaux or Burgundy have the biggest impact on Petit Château wines and straight Bourgogne Rouge.

Reviews from the Nebbiolo Prima Tastings

This month’s column includes all of the top wines that I tasted from Roero and Barbaresco, including DOCG wines from the 2007 vintage and Riserva bottlings from 2006 in Roero and 2005 in Barbaresco.  Next month, I’ll be back with reviews of 2006 DOCG Barolos and 2004 Riservas.

To provide a bit of background on process, I tasted all of the wines below, blind, in four carefully conducted peer-group tastings.  Every recommended wine was tasted at least twice, with a second evaluation performed before the identity of the wine was known to assure the accuracy of my score (since order of presentation can have a distorting effect).  They are set forth below in order of excellence, with the highest-scoring wines topping the list, and wines with identical scores listed in the order in which they were tasted.

This last aspect of the listing is possibly important, and warrants further explanation.  To be clear, all the wines that were scored at, say, 92 points are grouped together and are listed in the order in which they were shown and tasted.  Since the organizers of the tastings poured wines from communes reputed for more delicate wines earlier and ones from communes noted for more robust wines later, the position of any particular wine among all of those scored at 92 points is likely to convey something about the wine’s style.  There are exceptions, of course, but the 92-point wines listed first are likely to be more elegant, whereas those down the list are likely to be richer and more powerful.

When the producer’s name includes both a family and a given name, the family name usually appears first in order.  This is a convention followed by the organizers of the Nebbiolo Prima tastings, though it is not one that was followed with perfect consistency.  In a few instances I have taken the liberty of making corrections, but generally I have simply conveyed the producer names as designated in the tastings.

Names of particular vineyards and/or proprietary names of wines appear in quotation marks.  The final element in the entries is the name of the commune (or village) from which the wine was sourced, which may be of interest to serious students of these wines and which rarely appears on labels.

Roero DOCG 2007:

Monchiero Carbone “Sru,” Canale:  Dark, dense and serious, with dark fruit tones and very appealing meaty/spicy character.  91

Ponchione Maurizio “Monfrini,” Govone:  Exotic spicy nose, very interesting.  Lighter body than some, but with nice hint of sweetness and very sweet, delicate tannin.  Impressively refined and nuanced.  91

Bel Colle “Monvijè,” Canale-Cornelino:  Soft and sweet, with a lovely floral note on nose followed by soft texture and very nice tannin that doesn’t foreclose the flavors or compromise the delicacy of the fruit.  90

Marsaglia Emilio “Brich d’America,” Castellinaldo:  Sweet and charming, with nice open aromas and very fine balance of acidity and sweetness; harmonious and classy.  90

Giovanni Almondo “Bric Valdiana,” Montà:  Nice open, sweetly fruity nose, with notes of dried cherry and plum.  The feel is soft on palate and tannins arrive very late in the succession of sensations.  Delicate in flavor but still substantial, with very good structural balance.  90

Bricco del Prete “Betlemme,” Priocca:  Complex and classy, with some sweetness and very subtle oak; nice soft midpalate and very good tannin balance.  90

Roero Riserva 2006:

Monchiero Carbone “Printi,” Canale:  Beautiful sweet nose, with ripe fruit and an appealing floral topnote.  With impressive richness and soft texture, this is relatively low in acidity and very rounded in mouthfeel, but still adequately structured.  Perhaps this could use a little more lift and definition in the finish, but this is a mere quibble about a manifestly outstanding wine.  92

Matteo Correggia “Roche d’Ampsej,” Canale:  An excellent wine that is meaty and subtly complex, with restrained wood notes atop fruit that seems fresh but still fully ripe and pleasantly sweet.  Expressive but subtle at once, with impressive integration.  92

Cascina Chicco “Valmaggiore,” Vezza:  Sweet and soft but with good underlying structure.  Impressive integration and very good balance of structure to fruity sweetness.  91

Cascina Ca’ Rossa “Monpissano,” Canale:  Open fruit with lovely softness but also balanced structure from fresh acidity and ripe tannin.  Some complexity at every stage from aroma to midpalate to finish, with exemplary texture.  90

Deltetto “Braja,” Santo Stefano:  Firm and serious, with good structure and lots of acidic cut but no tartness or excessive drying.  Balanced, impressive, and capable of further development with age.  90

Barbaresco DOCG 2007

Poderi Colla “Roncaglie,” Barbaresco:  A clear standout, with intricate aromas leading into a tender, open midpalate with surprisingly deep flavors for a wine of such refinement and delicacy.  An impressively complete wine that is convincing at every stage of the sensory experience.  93

Ca’ Rome’ “Söri Rio Sordo,” Barbaresco:  Gorgeous, tender fruit following on the heels of complex aromas with floral notes and a delicate spiciness.  Broad texture and deep, persistent flavors.  Balance of oak to fruit is essentially perfect.  93

Cascina Saria, Nieve:  Lovely smoky/sweet aroma; impressively deep color and softly sweet fruit that shows beautifully well into the wine’s finish.  A rather traditional wine in style, with spice cake and floral aromas.  Outstanding in complexity, but still very satisfying despite its intricacy.  93

Ressia “Canova,” Nieve:  A modern-style Barbaresco at the very top level, this shows relatively deep color followed by a meaty, succulent midpalate with excellent balance.  Wood and tannins are very nicely weighted in relation to the fruit.  93

Piazzo Armando “Fratin,” Alba:  Ripe and round in feel, with excellent depth of flavor and breadth on the palate.  Lovely fruit is tender in texture and open in flavor, with impressive integration of fruit and structural components.  92

Orlando Abrigo “Vigna Rongalio Meruzzano,” Treiso:  This shows lovely aromas with lots of little nuances that lead into a flavorful core of perfectly ripened fruit.  Acidity and tannins are abundant but the fruit easily holds its own and rides through the persistent finish.  92

Eredi Lodali “Lorens,” Treiso:  Very ripe and almost jammy in character, but lot lacking for structure.  The texture is soft and the flavors sweet, with some tannic grip showing up very late in the finish.  This doesn’t seem to be holding much back for the future, but then again, any bottles in my possession wouldn’t have much of a future anyway.  92

Montaribladi “Sori Montaribaldi,” Barbaresco:  Very pleasant aromas with floral and spice notes lead to ripe, soft fruit that retains its sweetness and charm deep into the persistent finish.  92

La Ca’ Nova “Montestefano,” Barbaresco:  The seductive aromas and deep, sweet flavors are very enticing in this wine, which is so modern as to seem New World-ish in style, but proves very convincing.  The fruit is very ripe, but still pure in flavor.  92

Filippino Elio “San Cristoforo,” Nieve:  With complex aromas and impressive density, this is a serious wine that offers intense, driving flavors without veering toward either over-ripeness or excessive hardness.  Very well made.  92

Cascina Luisin “Söri Paolin,” Nieve:  Among the best of the clearly modern-style wines in the tastings, this showed deliciously sweet fruit counterbalanced by a notable but not excessive dose of spicy oak.  Built to last, but already very tasty.  92

Adriano Marco e Vittorio “Sanadaive,” Alba:  A charming wine with open aromas and lots of soft, sweet fruit, this also shows fine underlying structure, with acidity and tannin that will permit it to develop over time, but which are effectively buffered by lots of ripe fruit notes.  91

Molino “Ausario,” Treiso:  Very nicely ripened, with good proportionality between sweet fruit notes and structure.  Some nascent aromatic complexities are starting to show.  91

Grasso Fratelli “Vallegrande,” Treiso:  Ripe and soft, but not just simply fruity, this shows interesting aromatic accents including a subtle floral note and once recalling carpaccio.  An impressive combination of power and subtlety.  91

Orlando Abrigo “Montersino,” Treiso:  Dark in color as well as fruit tone, with sweet fruit on the nose leading smoothly into comparable flavors.  Full of body and flavor, this is very accessible but still adequately structured.  91

Cantina del Pino, Neive-Barbaresco:  A lovely bouquet including floral notes and carpaccio gives way to substantial flavors that prove lasting and well structured.  91

Castello di Nieve, Nieve:  An open, expressive bouquet, with soft, sweet fruit and very fine-grained tannin that allows the fruit to persist deep into the finish.  91

Punset “Campo Quadro,” Nieve:  This wine was a little shy in terms of aromatic expressiveness, but really impressed on the strength of deep flavors based on dark toned fruit and excellent balance between fruity sweetness and bracing tannin.  91

Moccagatta “Bassarin,” Nieve:  Smoky, spicy oak shows prominently on the nose and in the finish, but there’s plenty of sweet softness to the fruit that keeps the whole package proportioned and pleasing.  91

Pasquale Pelissero, “Bricco San Giuliano,” Nieve:  Notes of dried plums and cherries.  The fruit is sweet and very tasty, with nice spicy accents marking the finish.  91

Marchesi di Barolo “Serragrilli,” Nieve:  Traditional in style but still pure in overall impression, this shows complex aromas and flavors with subtle wood permitting the fruit to retain center stage.  91

Massimo Penna “Sori Sartù,” Alba:  This shows gorgeous flavors with very ripe, soft fruit that overwhelms and envelops the acidity and tannin.  Arguably a little over-ripe and a bit too soft, this nevertheless proves so appealing on hedonistic grounds that it leaves a winning impression.  90

Pertinace “Vigneto Nervo,” Treiso:  Very ripe and soft, this shows the warmth of the growing season in its accessibility and low acidity, but proves very appealing in its open sweetness.  90

Rattalino “Quarantadue42,” Barbaresco:  Nicely poised at a balance point between freshness and ripeness, this is sweet and soft but well structured.  90

Moccagatta “Bric Balin,” Barbaresco:  Meaty, spicy aromas are very interesting, with soft fruit that proves very satisfying.  90

Michele Chiarlo “Asili,” Barbaresco:  An exotic, highly expressive sweet/spice nose shows a lot of development already.  Not likely to last long, but delightful for current consumption.  90

Ca’ del Baio “Asili,” Barbaresco:  This shows a very appealing bouquet with ripe fruit accented by lots of little nuances including saddle leather and spices, with no discernable oak to obscure the interesting accents.  90

Albino Rocca “Vigneto Brich Ronchi,” Barbaresco:  Admirably balanced between sweet fruitiness and taut freshness, this is already excellent and on track to get even better over the next five years.  90

Bruno Rocca, “Rabaja,” Barbaresco:  A ripe, sweet, smoky nose is followed by flavors that echo all of these characteristics while adding a note of fresh carpaccio and some spice in the finish.  90

Barbaresco Riserva 2005

Nada Giuseppe “Casot,” Treiso:  Phenomenally complex, this is very feminine--even Burgundian--in character.  The aromas are highly intricate and the flavors are developed and open, with absolutely no astringency in the finish.  It is not clear that this can get much better, as it seems fully developed already, but its current state makes this seem a moot point.  94

Adriano Marco e Vittorio “Basarin,” Nieve:  Deep color and fresh primary fruit on the nose show that this wine is still on an upward trajectory, with years of further development still ahead of it.  Expressive aromas and dense mouthfeel confirm this impression, and fine balance between sweet fruit and spicy oak show that the wine’s proportions will keep it in form as it unwinds over time.  94

Produttori del Barbaresco “Pora,” Barbaresco:  Deep, broad aromas show that this is a wine of outstanding dimension and complexity, and the same impression is left by the wine’s flavors and finish.  Generous in every respect, but not on account of any over-ripeness or obviousness, this is fresh and balanced and capable of impressing now or developing for at least another five years.  93

Rivetti Massimo “Serraboella,” Nieve:  Impressively dark and deep in pigmentation, this shows strong fruit that is firmed but not dried by the considerable oak that marks the finish.  Still on the upswing.  92

Casetta F.Lli, Treiso:  This shows a very expressive bouquet with lots of spicy, smoky accents that seem to emerge as much from the fruit as the oak component.  Very complex already, this may not get much better over time, but it is already extremely appealing.  91

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Comments or questions?  Write to me at mfranz@winereviewonline.com