2016 Barolo: Right Place, Right Time


In so many ways, 2016 is all about being in the right place at the right time for Barolo. An ideal growing season with all the prerequisites for a great vintage comes at a time when so many winemakers are in their primes, past the stage of experimentation and settled into their own personal styles. The result is a vintage full of truly spectacular, breathtaking wines that captures all the pedigree that Nebbiolo and Barolo are capable of.

The 2016 Growing Season and Wines… 

This chart shows 2016 rainfall and heat summation versus historic averages, by month. Rainfall for 2016 was lower than the historical ten-year average, while temperatures were cooler as well. Reprinted from Alessandro Masnaghetti’s Barolo MGA Vol. II: Vintages, Recent History, Rarities and Much More, ©Alessandro Masnaghetti. Used with permission.

Two thousand sixteen is a classic, late-ripening year characterized by a leisurely October harvest and no real shock events to speak of. The year got off to a slow start. Only April saw temperatures above the ten-year average, while the first part of the year was also quite dry. July, August and September all saw above average temperatures, but without excessive heat. What I remember most about that summer was the unusually low humidity and incredible purity of the light, which combined to give spectacular views that are typically only seen in the winter. Well-timed rains in July and August helped keep things in balance. Most importantly of all, evening temperatures began to drop in September, creating the perfect conditions for a late harvest. The chart below shows the average start of the harvest over the last ten years (green dot) compared to 2016 (red dot). In other words, in 2016, harvest began about 5 days later than the average. Many producers extended their macerations always a sign of healthy grapes and a high-quality year. 

The graph above shows the start of the 2016 harvest (red ball) as compared to the historical ten year average (green ball). Reprinted from Alessandro Masnaghetti’s Barolo MGA Vol. II: Vintages, Recent History, Rarities and Much More, ©Alessandro Masnaghetti. Used with permission.

In tasting, what stands out most about the 2016s is their extraordinary balance and harmony. Independently of what the numbers show on paper, in vintages like 2006, 2010, 2013 and 2014, the perception of acidity and tannin is higher, because those attributes are prominent. But in 2016, especially among the best wines, nothing really stands out because they are so impeccably balanced. Many wines remind me of 2008, with a bit more body and structure, but very much along the same lines. Some wines show a sense of classical austerity that is reminiscent of 1996 or 2006, but they are the exception rather than the norm.

Chiara Boschis with her brother, Giorgio, and niece Beatrice made some of the most brilliant wines of her illustrious career.

For many growers, the 2016s are not just epic, they are career-defining wines. Chiara and Giorgio Boschis at E. Pira, Maria Teresa Mascarello, Fabio Alessandria at Burlotto and Luca and Elena Currado at Vietti are among the producers who made breathtaking wines of the very highest level. But 2016 has a ton of depth from top to bottom. So many of the entry-level bottlings are fabulous, always a sign of a an important vintage. Examples include wines from Gianfranco Alessandria, Azelia, Burlotto, Barale, Elvio Cogno, Renato Corino, Poderi e Cantine Oddero, Carlo Revello and Vietti. Lastly, the 2016s are incredibly expressive of site, which is one of the most fundamental qualitative attributes shared by all great Piedmont vintages. 

Piedmont’s Golden Age

Yes, I know terms like ‘golden age’ are used and overused, but as I consider the current scene and look back at the last decade, the vintages spanning 2007 through 2016, there really is no better way to describe Piedmont today. A quick glance reveals four to five classic, possibly epic, vintages. These are 2008, 2010, 2013, 2014 and 2016, with only 2014 a slight question mark because of widespread hail. That is just remarkable, for any region. Then we have 2007, 2009 and 2011, all warm vintages that yielded forward rich wines. Lastly, 2012 and 2015 fall in the middle, the former because the style of the wines is so variable and the latter because it has some elements of both warm and cool years. All of that got me thinking: “What makes a great Barolo/Barbaresco vintage?”

Fabio Alessandria at Burlotto presented a dazzling range of 2016 Barolos.

What Makes a Great Barolo Vintage: Establishing a Framework 

Unlike Bordeaux, Piedmont does not have an established framework for what constitutes a great vintage. Clearly many people have views, but I have never seen them codified. What follows is my framework of objective criteria that are necessary in order for a Barolo (or Barbaresco) vintage to be considered truly great. It is inspired by the late Denis Dubourdieu and the model he developed for assessing Bordeaux vintages. To that, I add my 20+ years of visiting the region and all of the data I have collected in speaking with winemakers, agronomists and other professionals over that time, plus drinking more than my fair share of the wines. As with Dubourdieu’s model, this framework addresses the growing season, and does not venture into an assessment of the wines. 

1.     A Long Growing Season – A long growing season, which is defined as the period from budbreak to harvest, is essential for achieving full physiological ripening of the fruit, skins and seeds. Since Nebbiolo is already a very tannic grape, less than full physiological ripeness is heavily penalizing.

2.     Diurnal Shifts – The final phase of ripening must be accompanied by diurnal shifts, which are the swings in temperature from warm days to cool nights. Diurnal shifts create aromatic complexity and color.

3.     The Absence of Shock Weather Events – Frost and hail can severely and irreparably damage the crop. Similarly, periods of uninterrupted elevated heat can block maturation.

4.     Stable Weather During the Last Month – The last month of the growing season makes the quality of the vintage. Stable weather without prolonged rain episodes is essential for harvesting a healthy crop.

5.     A Late Harvest – Harvest must take place in October (possibly late September in some areas), with the final phase of ripening occurring during the shorter days of late September and October, as opposed to the longer, hotter days of August.

In using this framework 2008, 2010, 2013 and 2016 all meet the criteria for a great vintage. Two thousand-fourteen meets the criteria in Barbaresco and comes close in Barolo, where generally speaking, hail was just too big of a challenge for producers, the presence of a number of monumental wines notwithstanding. Clearly, this model is created in the present day. It won’t apply as well to vintages from previous eras, especially vintages from the 1950s-1970s. At that time, warm weather was considered ideal because grapes struggled to ripen. The warmest vineyards, those that were due south-facing, the famous sorís, were the most coveted. Today, in our climate change-challenged world, you would be hard pressed to find a producer who believes that south-facing vineyards are the most ideal.

Tasting a number of 2017s and 2016s at Gaja, where the new generation led by siblings Gaia, Rossana and Giovanni Gaja build on their family’s past track record of successes. 

There’s Nothing New Under The Sun?

“People always obsesses about the same estates and wines. It gets tiring after a while,” a Vinous reader told me recently. Sure, in any region the top wineries command a disproportionate mindshare. But look a bit farther and you will find an incredibly dynamic scene with so many producers and wines that merit attention. At the same time, we are witnessing a period of incredible transformation.

Several historic estates are in the midst of significantly redefining their house styles. These include Domenico Clerico, Einaudi and Gaja. At other wineries, the stylistic shift has been more gradual and has taken place over a period of years, but it is equally evident. Luciano Sandrone and Vietti are good examples. Other established producers have completely upped their game in a meangingful way, making improvements that are more qualitative than stylistic. These include Barale, Castello di Verduno, Poderi e Cantine Oddero, Francesco Rinaldi and Elio Sandri. Alongside them, a new generation of estates has been created just within the last few years as young growers take back vineyards that had previously been contracted out to other wineries. Trediberri, Diego Conterno and Burzi are examples. Some, like Diego Conterno, have roots that go back several generations. All of these families have deep connections to the land. But none of them have more than a handful of vintages under their belts in their current incarnations. A number of well-known wineries have improved quality so dramatically that they have made the jump from the ranks of the outstanding to the elite. Azelia and Burlotto come to mind. As if that were not enough, many estates have added wines to their lineups, including Ceretto, Giacomo Conterno, Einaudi, Giuseppe Rinaldi, Scavino and Vietti. I have never seen a richer and more varied landscape in Piedmont.

Paola Rinaldi among her botti in the solemn Francesco Rinaldi winery, Barolo.

A Time to Kill the MGAs

What is an MGA? A food additive? A Russian fighter jet? Well, no. An MGA is a Menzione Geografica Aggiuntiva, the designation cooked up to distinguish places with unique attributes. At least that’s what I think it means. Let’s break it down. Menzione means a mention. So far so good. Geografica means geographically delimited. Okay, that makes sense. Aggiuntiva means added. That’s pretty intuitive. But what does it really mean? The answer is that three long words – thirteen syllables in all – mean absolutely nothing. For starters, there is no distinction, or even inference, of quality in this albatross of a term. Moreover, while Vinous readers and Piedmont fans probably know what the MGAs are by now, the newer consumer, the consumer of tomorrow, has no idea, and won’t be helped by this needlessly complicated terminology. This is hardly the way to attract the younger consumers that Piedmont, like all regions, needs to thrive in the future.

The French have a wonderful word for what an MGA is trying to express. It is a beautiful word: Cru. Short, one syllable, evocative and full of meaning. When I was younger, I used to think languages needed to have their own words. Living in Italy in the early 2000s, I saw Italian slang totally overrun with anglicisms. To me that felt like a loss of identity, a loss of culture. But some words just have that magical ability to immediately convey meaning. My thinking started to change when I saw French chefs using words like “ravioli” and “risotto” in their menus. There are no words in French that can convey the essence of those foods like the Italian words can. So, it’s Time to Kill the MGAs of Barolo (and Barbaresco) and call these sites The Crus of Barolo. It’s as simple as that. Well, sort of. Something else has to happen.

When the MGAs were created, each town was left to their own devices to set the boundaries of their MGAs, with no coordination whatsoever or consistency of standards. In some villages, like Serralunga, the MGAs are roughly equivalent to crus or single vineyards. Sure, some are a bit large, but mostly the MGAs there have some meaning, some real value. The exact opposite is true of Monforte, where the MGAs are more accurately described as districts. Bussia incorporates a number of famous and historically significant farms, including Pianpolvere Soprano, Dardi, Cicala and Romirasco. The same is true of Ginestra, which gobbled up Pajana and Gavarini. These two MGAs are absolutely meaningless, except to owners on the margins who petitioned for broader designations so they could be included. The loss of identity of Barolo’s historic cascine is a tremendous loss of cultural, history and economic value. Some producers might grumble about being left out of a more prestigious sub-zone of Barolo. For them, all I can say is: Cros Parantoux. In other words, if your wine is good enough, no one will care about where it came from.

Gianfranco Alessandria flanked by his daughters Vittoria and Marta as the estate enters its second generation.

Personal Observations

I was fortunate to be exposed to the wines of Piedmont at a very early age. One of my most vivid childhood memories is watching my dad taste wine. He extolled the virtues of Barolo and Barbaresco to me from a very early age. My parents gave me many books to read as my curiosity picked up in high school and then college. Two were especially influential. The first was Burton Anderson’s The Wine Atlas of Italy, which sparked my interest in travel and wanting to experience places firsthand. The second was an early edition of Robert Parker’s Wine Buyers’ Guide, which introduced me to many producers I had never heard of. Bob’s writing made these producers and their wines literally jump off the page.

When I first visited Piedmont, in 1997, it was nothing like it is today. It was a sleepy region frequented only by a small number of wine and food lovers. Tourism was limited to truffle season and a few weeks in the spring. In wine, discussions centered around the modern versus traditional debate, which frankly became pretty tiring after a while. There were a handful of established producers, a closely-knit clique of newcomers, many families that struggled to make ends meet, and that was pretty much it.

Fast forward to today. Fueled by world-class wines, extraordinary cuisine, UNESCO World Heritage status and an extended truffle fair, Piedmont is now a hot tourist destination year-round for both consumers and the trade alike. It is not uncommon to see producers from other regions visiting these bucolic hillside towns, something that rarely happened 20-25 years ago. The entire region is much more dynamic and varied for the reasons I outlined above. In short, this is such an exciting time to be following Piedmont and its wines. 

In Closing….This Note’s For You

In 1988, Neil Young released his album “This Note’s For You,” a spoof on Budweiser beer’s “This Bud’s For You” campaign that was popular at the time. In the title track of the same name, Young decried what he viewed as mass commercialism and sponsorship rampant in the music industry. “What does that have to do with the 2016 Barolos?” you ask. You will no doubt be reading more about these wines in the coming weeks and months. Sadly, though, there is very little truly independent wine criticism left these days. 

Vinous does not accept press junkets or paid press trips of any kind. We do not take advertising or publish sponsored content. We do not accept hospitality from any winery, sponsor, trade group or producers’ consortium. We do not sell wine or engage in consulting for any winery, importer or distributor.

I tasted all of the wines in this article during a trip to Piedmont in November 2019, with a few follow up tastings in the weeks that followed. As always, this first set of 2016 Barolo reviews focuses on wines that are in bottle, except that this year I added a few reviews of wines tasted from barrel from estates that have historically been of interest to Vinous readers. A second report with late-release 2016s will follow later this year. In addition to current Barolo releases, I added a number of Barbarescos I tasted recently.

The immaculate cellars at Elio Grasso, Monforte d’Alba.

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