When I first started drinking the two great Piedmontese wines, Barolo and Barbaresco, in the 1970s, I can recall that there were two great vintages, 1971 and 1978, and one pretty good one, 1974. That was about par for the course. In the 1960s, the 1961 and 1964--especially the '64--were standouts, with the 1967 pretty good, while only 1958 really stood out in the previous decade. Much of the 1980s continued the same pattern, with only 1982 and 1985 solid vintages in the 1980-1987 era.
And so, we Piedmontese wine lovers hoarded the great vintages, just as Bordeaux and Burgundy lovers do, because you never knew when another good vintage would arrive. The first sign of change occurred in the late '80s, when Piedmont enjoyed three good vintages in a row: 1988, 1989, and 1990, with the 1989 being especially long-lived. Old-time Piedmontese Barolistas (as they are known) were marveling, exclaiming that they never saw three good vintages one after another in their lifetimes. Can you imagine what they're saying now, with seven (!) good vintages in a row: 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2001!
As much as global warming can be disastrous in some parts of the wine world, as well as in the rest of the environment (if that is what it is)--hey, who wants to drink a fat, blowsy Chablis?--the increasingly warm weather has been somewhat of a blessing in Piedmont. When 2002 proved to be a washout in Piedmont, I for one was relieved. How many Barolos can I drink, anyway? 2003 was just too hot in Piedmont, as it was in much of Europe, but 2004 looks promising (Here we go again!).
But I want to concentrate on the 1995 to 2001 vintages for a moment. The seven vintages vary in quality and style. For me, the 1996 and 1999, in that order, are the two truly great Piedmontese vintages of the seven: classic, full-bodied, long-lived, with great nervosity. The 1998 and 2001 vintages are also very good, but are not as classic nor will they be as long-lived as '96 and '99--especially the '98. The much ballyhooed 1997 and 2000 vintages are both precocious, particularly the '97s. In other words, they are drinking well even now, but they will not be great, long-lived vintages. Their precocity has caused a few wine critics to overrate both vintages, in my opinion. The 1995 is a good, sturdy vintage, similar to 1988--good, but not great. (We must bear in mind, of course, that all vintage ratings are just rough guides, at best, and that in the long run, the individual merit of the wine producer is far more important information to know than the general merits of the vintage).
(Skip this section if you know these wines well; on the other hand, it might be beneficial as a brief refresher course.)
What Barolo and Barbaresco Are: Barolo and Barbaresco are two powerful, dry red wines from the Piedmont region in Northwest Italy. Both wines are made 100 percent from an unusual red grape variety, Nebbiolo. Due to the unique climate and soil in the Langhe foothills of the Alps in southeast Piedmont, Nebbiolo thrives there. Nebbiolo only grows well in Piedmont and in a small zone in neighboring Lombardy (the Valtellina). All other attempts to grow Nebbiolo around the world have been unsuccessful. The secret of Nebbiolo's success in the Langhe region is at least partially due to its climate; the area typically has a long, mild fall, when the vineyards are often covered with the nebbia (fog). The very slow ripening Nebbiolo grapes need extra-long hang time to fully ripen, with the harvest usually taking place in mid- or late October, sometimes even November! The soil in the Langhe foothills has also proven to be remarkably suitable for Nebbiolo.
Both Barolo and Barbaresco are also unusual red wines because they have both lots of tannin and acidity. These wines benefit from both aeration and decanting, which helps to soften their awesome tannins. They are often not at an optimal drinking stage until at least eight or ten years after the vintage, and occasionally need even more time in great vintages. They are difficult to appreciate when consumed on their own, but improve remarkably when accompanied with food.
Both wines have been granted the highest appellation for Italian wines: DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllada e Garantita), which translates as "controlled and guaranteed place name." More importantly, both Barolo and Barbaresco, along with Brunello di Montalcino and a few Super Tuscan wines, such as Sassicaia and Ornellaia, are considered by wine critics as the finest wines of Italy and among the great red wines in the world.
Differences between Barolo and Barbaresco: The two wines have far more attributes in common than differences. Only the most experienced tasters can distinguish between the twoand then not on every occasion. Barolo tends to be slightly fuller-bodied than Barbaresco, and usually needs a couple of years more to developbut exceptions abound, depending upon the producer. Barbaresco, on the other hand, with fewer producers, is generally more consistently fine, without the "highs" and "lows" in quality you can find among Barolo producers.
The growing regions for the two wines are very close: the Barbaresco zone lies just northeast of the town of Alba, and consists of three villages: Barbaresco, Neive and Treiso. The Barolo zone lies directly south of Alba, about 10 miles from Barbaresco. Although 11 villages make up the Barolo zone, five are important: La Morra, Barolo, Serralunga d'Alba, Monforte d'Alba and Castiglione Falletto.
Barolo is required to be aged a minimum of three years, Barbaresco a minimum of two years, before being released by the winery. Production of both wines is quite small: about 2.5 million bottles of Barbaresco are produced annually, about 35 percent of Barolo's 7 million plus. Compare this to Bordeaux, which produces about 660 million bottles per year!
Traditional versus Modern Styles: Just as in other wine regions, changes in technology and winemaking techniques have occurred in Piedmont. Winemakers such as Angelo Gaja and Elio Altare introduced new techniques such as shorter fermentation of the must and aging the wine in barriques (small French barrels). Traditionally minded producers, such as Giacomo Conterno and Bartolo Mascarello, continued to produce Barolos in basically the same way their fathers and grandfathers made the wine, while many other producers have combined modern and traditional methods. Although some consumers may favor one style more than the other, the good producers are making good wines no matter what winemaking method they employ.
Serving Temperature: Both Barolos and Barbarescos are at their best when they are served slightly cool, about 62° to 64° F. Large, wide-mouthed glasses, such as those used for red Burgundy, are best for both wines.
Food Pairings: Both Barolo and Barbaresco are excellent with beef, especially when braised in red wine. Roast pork, rabbit, venison, game birds and aged hard cheeses are also very good accompaniments with these wines.
At this point, just about all 1996 Barolos and Barbarescos have disappeared from the market; you might find a few selections on some wine lists in the better Italian restaurants. You can still buy quite a few 1999s, however; one of the fortunate consequences of the 2000 vintage receiving so much attention is that many consumers purchased the 2000s and ignored the '99s.
During the past year, I have tasted 18 '99 Barolos (plus one '98; explained below). Here are my tasting notes, with the wines listed alphabetically, and my ratings:
Tenuta Carretta, Barolo (Piedmont, Italy) "Cannubi" 1999 ($66, House of Burgundy): Carretta used to be one of the more traditional Barolo producers, but has switched to a very modern style within the past decade. The Cannubi vineyard in the village of Barolo is one of the best sites; the '99 Carretta is medium-bodied and rather precocious, with soft tannins. Drink over the next four years. 88
Ceretto, Barolo (Piedmont, Italy) "Bricco Rocche" 1999 ($160, Clicquot, Inc.): Wow, is this a great Barolo! Bricco Rocche, Ceretto's best and most expensive Barolo, is from a vineyard above the Rocche vineyard in Castiglione Falletto; this wine has typically been among the best Barolos ever since its debut in 1982, but in 1999 it has reached superstar status. Explosive fruit, power, and grip; classic tar, eucalyptus, and wild strawberry aromas and flavors; lots of tannin; not nearly ready to drink. Hold on to this wine for another eight to ten years. 98
Michele Chiarlo, Barolo (Piedmont (Italy) "Cannubi" 1999 ($65, Kobrand): Michele Chiarlo's Barolos stress elegance rather than power, and have the advantage of being ready to drink sooner than most Barolos. Chiarlo's '99 "Cannubi," which is not aged in barriques (his "Cerequio" Barolo gets barrique aging) is for me his best Barolo; it's spicy, fresh, with red fruit flavors, and is delicious even now. Drink over the next four years. 90
Elvio Cogno, Barolo (Piedmont, Italy) "Ravera" 1999 ($48, Vias Imports): Elvio Cogno is a traditionalist who used to be winemaker at the very good Marcarini Barolo firm before opening his own small winery in Novello (the southernmost part of the Barolo zone). Cogno's "Ravera" is not only a great Barolo, but it is also the best value in this group; to buy a great single-vineyard Barolo for less than $50 is a rarity indeed today. The '99 Ravera is a huge, complex wine, with black fruit flavors and sweet, ripe tannins; it is made for the long haul, although it is showing its potential now. It should be at its best in six to eight years. 94
Poderi Aldo Conterno, Barolo (Piedmont, Italy) "Bussia Soprana" 1999 ($70, Vias Imports): Aldo Conterno, younger brother of the late Giovanni Conterno, is one of the most well-known Barolo producers. His "Bussia Soprana" is his standard Barolo; Aldo and his sons make three other more expensive single-vineyard Barolos in their "enlightened" traditional style. The '99 Bussia Soprana combines power with finesse; it's a beauty, velvety, but firm. Aldo Conterno did very well in '99! The Bussia Soprana will only improve; keep it for up to ten years. 95
Giacomo Conterno, Barolo (Piedmont, Italy) "Cascina Francia" 1999 ($120, Polaner Selections; The Rare Wine Company): Last year, this wine was on sale at The Rare Wine Company for $70, but its usual price is $120. Giovanni Conterno passed away in 2004, but his son Roberto, who has been the winemaker for the last several years, is ably carrying on. A great traditional winemaker, Giovanni was the "king" of Barolo, respected by all of his fellow-producers. The '99 Cascina Francia has awesome power and length combined with a harmony and finesse that only great wines possess. It is not nearly ready to drink; Giacomo Conterno Barolos are always very long-lived. The '99 should be at its peak in 15 years; his greatest Barolo, "Monfortino," usually needs 20 years! 97 (potential 99)
Gaja, Langhe (Piedmont, Italy) Nebbiolo "Sperss" 1998 ($175, Paterno Imports):
Although Gaja's Sperrs, made from a vineyard in Serralunga d'Alba, used to be called Barolo, Angelo Gaja changed the appellations of his two "former" Barolos and three single-vineyard Barbarescos to "Nebbiolo Langhe" when he decided to add a little bit of Barbera to the wines. The 1999 was not available when I tasted. The '98 Sperss is a great wine in the Gaja style; it is sleek, elegant, and concentrated. The tannins are soft, belying the power of the wine. You can appreciate its greatness even now, but like all Gaja wines, it will age well--for at least another ten years. Yes, Gaja's wines are expensive, but they're so well-made! 96
Bruno Giacosa, Barolo (Piedmont, Italy) "Le Rocche del Falletto" 1999 ($125, Winebow, Inc.): Bruno Giacosa for a long time has been part of a triumverate of great Barbaresco producers--Angelo Gaja and Ceretto are the other two. Giacosa is clearly the most traditional winemaker of the three. His Barolos are almost as renowned as his Barbarescos, and certainly as long-lived. Giacosa's '99 Le Rocche del Falletto shows awesome tannins right now, and is one of the least ready-to-drink Barolos in this group. It is powerful, austere, and concentrated; try it in nine or ten years; it should be marvelous. 94 (potential 96)
Marchesi di Barolo, Barolo (Piedmont, Italy) "Cannubi" 1999 ($50, Palm Bay Imports): Marchesi di Barolo, one of the larger Barolo producers, makes two single-vineyard Barolos, Cannubi and Sarmassa; I tasted both and slightly prefer Cannubi. The '99 Cannubi is redolent of ripe strawberries and strawberry jam; it is medium-bodied, quite fruity for a Barolo, made in a modern style, but has good concentration. Excellent value. Drink over the next four or five years. 90
Giuseppe Mascarello, Barolo (Piedmont, Italy) "Monprivato" 1999 ($80, Polaner Selections): Mauro Mascarello, another one of the great traditional winemakers, produces one of the greatest of all Barolos from his excellent Monprivato vineyard in Castiglione Falletto; he is one of the two producers--the other is Giuseppe Rinaldi--who doesn't get nearly the acclaim he deserves. The '99 Monprivato is oh-so-concentrated and tannic! It is packed with both red and black fruit flavors; its acidity level is greater than most of the other Barolos.
A classic, traditionally styled Barolo, made to last. It should be fabulous in ten years or so. 96 (potential 98)
Pio Cesare, Barolo (Piedmont, Italy) 1999 ($65, Paterno Imports): Pio Cesare, one of the older Barolo firms, is one of the few producers with his winery in the town of Alba; Pio Cesare's standard Barolo is fairly traditional in style--but its single-vineyard "Ornato" is barrique-aged. The '99 is dry, elegant, with some herbal notes, along with fresh red berry and mushroom flavors. It should be ready to drink in a few years. 90
Luigi Pira, Barolo (Piedmont, Italy) "Marenca" 1999 ($70, Michael Skurnik): The late Luigi Pira, from Serralunga, was one of the legendary Barolistas; his 1971 Barolo is regarded as one of the greatest Barolos ever made. Luigi Pira is now represented by Marco de Grazia, who is known for touting modern-styled, barrique-aged Barolos. The '99 Marenca is medium-bodied, with fairly soft tannins; it has great structure, and is well balanced, with black fruit flavors. It should be drinking well within a few years. 89
Prunotto, Barolo (Piedmont, Italy) 1999 ($55, Winebow, Inc.): Another of the old Barolo firms, now owned by Piero Antinori. Prunotto's standard '99 Barolo has firm tannins, great concentration, with aromas and flavors of tar and black, ripe fruits. Like many Barolos today, Prunotto's is more modern in style than it used to bewhen the Colla family owned it more than a decade ago. It should be completely mature in a few years. 91
Renato Ratti, Barolo (Piedmont, Italy) "Rocche" 1999 ($55, Lauber Imports): The late Renato Ratti was the first major producer to make a more "modern" style Barolo by shortening the maceration time; Ratti firmly believed that Barolos should be less tannic, and drinkable within six to eight years. Ratti's single-vineyard "Marcenasco" from La Morra is made in this manner, but "Rocche," a new Barolo for this producer, is somewhat more firm and fuller-bodied. Nevertheless, the '99 Rocche is quite delicious now, and well balanced. Drink over the next three or four years. 92
Giuseppe Rinaldi, Barolo (Piedmont, Italy) "Brunate" 1999 ($85, Vinifera Imports): Giuseppe Rinaldi, an intellectual man, is one of the great traditional Barolo producers. His '99 Brunate is powerful, concentrated, and harmonious, with aromas of tar and truffles. It will be one of the best Barolos of the vintage. It should be at its best in about ten years. 97
Luciano Sandrone, Barolo (Piedmont, Italy) "Le Vigne" 1999 ($100, Michael Skurnik): Sandrone is one of the stars in the Marco de Grazia stable of Barolo producers; Sandrone combines traditional methods with modern winemaking. His Le Vigne is sleek and velvety, but also powerful and concentrated. It should be perfect for drinking in four or five years. 94
Paolo Scavino, Barolo (Piedmont, Italy) "Carobric" 1999 ($80, Michael Skurnik): Another one of the shining lights among the Marco de Grazia producers. Paolo Scavino's Barolo production is small, and his wines could be difficult to find. Scavino's approach is a bit more modern than Sandrone's, although his wines do have the distinct tannic grip of all great Barolos. The '99 Carobric is well balanced and harmonious; it needs about three more years of aging. 93
Vietti, Barolo (Piedmont, Italy) "Rocche" 1999 ($70, Remy Amerique): Alfredo Currado, winemaker and co-proprietor along with his wife, Luciana Vietti, has just about turned over the reins to his son, Luca, but he still had a hand in making the '99 Rocche. This Barolo, always Vietti's hugest and most backward, is massive, with lots of tar, eucalyptus, and camphor, but has concentrated, rich, ripe fruit. It needs at least five years to evolve, but ten years to be at is best. 96
Roberto Voerzio, Barolo (Piedmont, Italy) "La Serra" 1999 ($150, Winebow, Inc.): Roberto Voerzio might be the best of the non-traditional producers--but he does combine tradition with modern winemaking. Roberto (his brother, Gianni Voerzio, makes his own Barolo) is a big believer in severe pruning and extremely low yields in the vineyards. This '99 La Serra is a powerhouse of a wine, with awesome concentration of fruit. It will be ready in a few years, but should age beautifully for at least ten years. 95
There you have it. Vintage 1999 Barolos: great wines, a "must-buy" for all Barolo lovers, with quite a few still available!