I don't want to condemn the currently available 2003 Barolo vintage with faint praise. But after tasting other 2003s from various wine regions in Europe, I really was not looking forward to the '03 Barolos. It was just too damn hot throughout Europe that summer, as many of you can recall.
That kind of heat produces roasted grapes and high alcohol, not a good formula for a good vintage. You also get underripe tannins, because grapes ripen too quickly to permit tannin development.
But Nebbiolo, the grape variety used to make Barolo and Barbaresco, has an advantage. It takes such a long time to ripen -- about a month more than most red varieties -- that by harvest, things had cooled down a bit in Piedmont.
Also, Nebbiolo always has a great amount of natural acidity -- a protection against flabby, soft wines. In short, the 2003 Barolos are quite good; not as great as the incredible 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2001s -- and the upcoming 2004 will be better -- but probably on the same level as the 1997s and 2000s, both good but overrated vintages.
The biggest surprise for me with the 2003 Barolos is that they are surprisingly approachable. Barolo is normally such an austere, tannic wine that I typically wait at least seven or eight years before opening a bottle.
I'm not saying that now is the best time to open them; most will definitely evolve into a better-drinking stage with a few more years of aging. But if you're in a restaurant, and 2003 Barolo is the only vintage listed -- or older vintages are available but too expensive -- you will find enjoyment in the 2003. Just make sure that it's decanted, and ask for large, wide-mouth glasses to give the wine as much aeration as possible.
In general 2003 Barolos exhibit a purity of fruit character, and an absence of the baked fruit or over-ripeness that you might expect in a torrid vintage. Tannins are not over the top, and the wines are approachable, but there's more fleshiness than usual -- not surprising, considering the nature of the vintage.
Should you buy 2003 Barolos to put away? They won't have the longevity curve of the 1996 Barolos, which should age for 25 years or more, but I'm sure most will age and improve for 10 to 15 years. Some vintages in Barolo take too long; I'm still waiting for some of my 1978 Barolos to soften. Enjoy a young Barolo such as 2003 with a beef dish or some hard cheeses; these foods will help absorb the wine's tannins.
I recently tasted six 2003 Barolos from Neil Empson, an importer who specializes in Italian wines. I added four other '03s to my reviews, three Vietti Barolos that I tasted in Piedmont last November, and an '03 Luciano Sandrone, which I tasted a few days ago in New York.
Ca' Romé, Piedmont (Italy), Barolo Vigna Ceretta 2003 ($65, Empson USA): Lovely, traditionally made Barolo with aromas of tar and ripe strawberries. Tannic and lean; not a powerful Barolo, but has a concentration of pure fruit on the finish. Ca' Romé's winery is in the village of Barbaresco and this producer is more known for his Barbaresco wines, but he also owns two vineyards in the Barolo village of Serralunga d'Alba, including this Vigna Cerreta. As you might expect with a traditional Barolo, the Ceretta tasted better the second day. 92
Conterno-Fantino, Piedmont (Italy), Barolo Vigna del Gris 2003 ($89, Empson USA): Conterno-Fantino, in the Barolo village of Monforte d'Alba, is definitely in the modern camp. Its Barolos, such as this '03 Vigna del Gris, emphasize ripe fruit (strawberries) and soft tannins. It is easier to drink this wine than a traditional Barolo, and it will appeal to those who can't tolerate austere, tannic Barolos. You can actually drink this wine now; very approachable. 90
Conterno-Fantino, Piedmont (Italy), Barolo Sorì Ginestra 2003 ($89, Empson USA): Conterno-Fantino's '03 Sorì Ginestra Barolo apparently received more sun/warmth than its Vigna del Gris, because it's higher in alcohol (14.5 percent as opposed to 14) and has riper, sweeter flavors. A hedonistic wine; cries for a steak or a cut of rare roast beef. This is the type of Barolo one might expect in a very warm vintage. 89
Luigi Einaudi, Piedmont (Italy), Barolo Costa Grimaldi 2003 ($70, Empson USA): The Luigi Einaudi winery is in Dogliani, a village south of Barolo that is famed for its Dolcetto, and indeed Dolcetto is Einaudi's calling-card wine. But it also makes some fine Barolos. Once a very traditional winery, Luigi Einaudi is now producing more modern-style Barolos -- not as modern as Conterno-Fantino's, but somewhat more centrist. Its Costa Grimaldi vineyard is actually in the village of Barolo. The '03 Costa Grimaldi combines medium, soft, ripe tannins with ripe, red fruits. Long, concentrated finish. 91
Poderi Colla, Piedmont (Italy), Barolo Dardi Le Rose Bussia 2003 ($57, Empson USA): The Colla brothers formerly owned the much larger Prunotto winery in Alba. They sold it to Antinori and now the younger brother, Tino, runs the smaller, more manageable Poderi Colla in Alba, which he and Federica Colla purchased in 1993. Federica is the daughter of the revered older brother, Beppe Colla, who at 77 is still the wine consultant of Poderi Colla. Dardi le Rose is a vineyard in Bussia, a sub-region of Monforte d'Alba. The '03 Dardi Le Rose is my kind of Barolo, very traditional. And yet with great elegance, balance and grip. A fantastic achievement in a difficult vintage. It has aromas and flavors of herbs, tar and strawberries. Teriffic value! (my highest-rated review, and almost the lowest-priced!) 95
Marcarini, Piedmont (Italy), Barolo La Serra 2003 ($48, Empson USA): Marcarini, one of the great, traditional Barolistas, always makes one of my favorite Barolos. Ironically, the Marcarini Winery is in La Morra, the village in Barolo that has the most modern-style producers. Marcarini's two main single-vineyard Barolos, Brunate and La Serra, are traditional bastions in La Morra -- aged in old, large Slovenian bottes, not a barrique in sight. The '03 La Serra has aromas and flavors of tart red fruits, mainly raspberries and strawberries. Lots of tannin, very dense. This baby needs time. If you drink it soon, give it lots of aeration. Great value! 93
Vietti, Piedmont (Italy), Barolo Brunate 2003 ($96, Rémy USA): Vietti produces three single-vineyard Barolos in most vintages and one riserva (Villero) in great vintages. The Brunate, from La Morra, is invariably the most approachable of the four. Winemaker/proprietor Luca Currado combines a modern approach with traditional methods. For instance, he ages the Brunate and Lazzarito in barriques, but uses no barriques for Vietti's Rocche or Villero Barolos. The '03 Brunate has delightful aromas of tart red fruits along with overtones of tar. The tannins are soft and sweet. It should be ready to drink soon, but can age for at least another five years. 91
Vietti, Piedmont (Italy), Barolo Lazzarito 2003 ($96, Rémy USA): Vietti's Lazzarito Barolo is sourced from a vineyard in Serralunga d'Alba and is always a bigger, more powerful wine than the Vietti Brunate. Although the '03 Lazzarito has a huge structure, its tannins are soft and sweet, either from its barrique aging or the nature of the vintage -- or both. It has good depth, high acidity, and a fine concentration of red fruits. It will be ready to drink sooner than usual. 91
Vietti, Piedmont (Italy), Barolo Rocche 2003 ($96, Rémy USA): Vietti's Rocche and Villero are the two 'home' vineyards; both are in the village of Castiglione Falletto, close to the Vietti winery and home. For me, Rocche and Villero (when it's made) are consistently Vietti's two finest Barolos. The '03 Rocche is traditionally made, very dry, with lots of tannins, and powerful aromas of tar, with very good concentration of ripe, red fruit flavors. Quite ripe and fleshy, a characteristic of this vintage. 93
Luciano Sandrone, Piedmont (Italy), Barolo 'Le Vigne' 2003 ($120, Vintus Wines): Although Luciano Sandrone is known to be one of the great, modern-style Barolo producers, he also employs traditional methods. For example, his use of new oak is very sparing and judicious. Sandrone makes two Barolos, the single-vineyard Cannubi Boschis from Barolo village and the Le Vigne, a blend from a variety of vineyards. The '03 Le Vigne is a beauty, with the balance and depth that are Sandrone's trademarks. The tannins are well integrated; wonderful red berry aromas and flavors. Very attractive now, but it should even be better in four or five years. 93