2017 Barolo: Here We Go Again…


The 2017 Barolos arrived literally as we published the last of our 2016 Barolo reviews. Time to start all over with new wines and a new vintage. In the last two decades Piedmont has become one of the most dynamic regions in the world. Keeping up with the pace of releases these days is quite a challenge, but it’s an incredibly stimulating challenge, as there is so much to discover. Interest for Barolo and Piedmont has never been higher, pandemic or not. There is plenty to like about the 2017 Barolos, as readers will see.

For Starters

No, 2017 is not a repeat of 2016. Let's be clear about that. At the same time, it seems these days the knee-jerk reaction to a hot, dry vintage is often “it’s another 2003.” Let me address that right off the bat too – 2017 is not 2003 either. Instead, 2017 is a vintage that requires a lot of tasting and re-tasting. The wines challenge preconceived ideas of what wines from hot years can be, for reasons that I will explain in the paragraphs that follow.

In tasting, the 2017s are mid-weight Barolos with the classic structure of Nebbiolo. They are often intensely aromatic. Acids and tannins are prominent in many wines. The fruit profiles are ripe, often distinctly red-toned, but not cooked or over-ripe. Perhaps most importantly, the 2017 Barolos are very true to site, which is always a concern with vintages marked by warm weather. The best 2017s are exceptionally polished, vivid and flat-out delicious. If tasted blind, my guess is that few people would identify the wines as coming from a hot and very dry year. The question is: Why?

First and foremost, growers have learned a tremendous amount about dealing with hot growing seasons since 2003. This can’t possibly be overestimated. Producers are simply better at working through these challenges than they were back then. In 2017, that meant deleafing as little as possible and leaving a bit more crop on the vine, which helps delay ripening and keep acids bright. Several growers also spoke of the positive effects of hail netting in also protecting fruit from intense sunlight. Hail netting is not widely used in Piedmont, but that will likely change going forward. 

Monthly heat summation, for vintages 2000 through 2020. Note above average temperatures in March 2017, and then again in May through August. Temperatures were below average in April (because of frost event) and September. Data from Alessandro Masnaghetti’s www.barolomga360.it, used with permission.

The 2017 Growing Season and Wines

The 2017 growing season got off to an early start. Winter was generally dry. Temperatures in March soared to well above average, leading to a precocious budbreak. Of the last 20 years, only 2012 saw a warmer March. In 2017 vines were unusually advanced and therefore in a vulnerable state when brutal frost arrived in mid-April, right after the Easter holiday. This is, of course, the same frost that affected Burgundy, Bordeaux and other regions throughout Europe. Frost was especially damaging to the lower hillsides and plains, areas that in the past were not planted to Nebbiolo, in some cases, not even to grapes at all. But things today are different, and some vineyards at lower altitudes were severely damaged. Others were shocked by very low temperatures and/or compromised by being whipped around by strong winds. In some cases vineyards were pruned again and wines were made from second shoots, although that is generally viewed as risky with Nebbiolo as it potentially compromises the following year’s crop. 

From May through to the end of August, temperatures were higher than average, while rain was far less than normal. Importantly, though, evening temperatures moderated an important element that separates 2017 from relentlessly hot years like 2003. Heat stress was a big challenge, especially in younger vineyards. Older vines, those with the deepest root systems, were able to withstand the rigors of the year better. Ultimately, quality-minded producers used the younger vine fruit for their entry-level wines rather than for their top bottlings. An example of that is Burlotto, where Fabio Alessandria used young vine Monvigliero fruit that typically would have gone into the Barolo Acclivi for his Langhe Nebbiolo.

A touch of rain in September was perfectly timed to refresh parched Nebbiolo vines. “We had a bit of rain in early September, just as we brought in the last Dolcetto,” Maria Teresa Mascarello explained. “It was the first rain we had seen in 3-4 months. The soils literally looked like powder as the rain fell. Temperatures started to drop right after that.” The average start date for harvest was September 25, a good two to three weeks earlier than normal in a more typical year. The challenge for growers was balancing sugar ripeness with phenolic maturity of the skins and seeds. In warm vintages the fear is that sugars will spike to unacceptably high levels, and that ultimately drives harvesting choices for many producers. When this happens tannins are often not fully ripe. This is very much the case with 2017. As a comparison, the 2016s, even though young and structured, benefit from tannins that are fully ripe. The textural differences between the two vintages are starkly evident.

Barolo is a highly complex region in terms of its exposures, ridges, geologies and soils, which makes generalizing in a vintage like 2017 very difficult, if not impossible. And that’s before any discussion of producer decisions in the field or cellar. There is no question that the conditions described above are highly variable from place to place. My impression, though, is that wines from La Morra struggled most. Whether that can be attributed to sandier, well-draining sites that are less water-retentive than those of Serralunga, for example, or to producer decisions, or both, is a subject that could fill an entire article. That said, I tasted a handful of exceptional La Morra Barolos, which means that level was certainly possible. 

Most producers I spoke with opted for gentle winemaking, with lower temperatures in vinification. Some traditionally minded producers who do extended submerged cap fermentation opted not do to so in 2017, although that is very much on a case by case basis. Others bottled on the early side to preserve as much freshness as possible. Two thousand seventeen is clearly a vintage that demanded a lot of attention and carefully considered decisions.

Structurally, the 2017 Barolos are lighter than the 2016s. Excessive heat resulted in uneven ripening and wines with less depth and structure than seen the year prior. The perception of acidity and tannin in the 2017s is often high, precisely because the 2017s don’t have the mid-palate richness and fruit depth of the 2016s. With few exceptions, the 2017 Barolos are not rich or opulent wines, like the 2003s, 2007s or 2011s. Rather, they are mid-weight, nervy Barolos that are reminiscent of the 2015s in feel, with edgy tannins that recall the 2005s, and, in most cases, a great deal of site expression, as readers would expect to see in a more ‘classic’ vintage. The finest 2017s are distinguished by suave, polished tannins that are inside a core of fruit rather than on the outside. Lastly, it is important to note that while the 2017 Barolos do not generally taste like wines from a hot year, the same is not true of the Dolcettos and Barberas, which are decidedly rich and fleshy. Dolcetto and Barbera ripen earlier than Nebbiolo and did not benefit as much (or at all) from the early September rain and cooler temperatures that set in that month.

Monthly rainfall in inches. Note that in 2017, rainfall was lower than the historical ten year average every month. Data from Alessandro Masnaghetti’s www.barolomga360.it, used with permission.

The State of the Market

There is plenty to like in the 2017s. Readers who stick with the top names won’t be disappointed, but there are quite a few newer producers who excelled too. Because of the current state of the world, my guess is that the 2017s will be relatively easy to find. I don’t expect to see too much speculation on these wines, and that is great news for consumers. It’s a great vintage to pick up a few extra bottles of your favorite Barolos, something that might not be possible in more hyped years.

The Sandrone family; Luciano, Mariuccia (Luciano’s wife), Luca and Barbara, outside their winery in Barolo.

2016: Closing Thoughts

Tasting several dozen more 2016s for this report and during our recent Festa del Piemonte event confirmed my initial impression of the year. Two thousand sixteen is an exceptionally consistent vintage across the board. It is very hard to go wrong with a bottle of 2016 Barolo. At the very top, top level, I don’t think the best 2016s reach the dizzying heights of the finest 2013s or 2010s, but that is a first-class problem that, frankly, only interests a small subset of consumers. Readers who are able to add 2016s to their cellar should absolutely take advantage of those opportunities. It’s a magical vintage.

A stunning winter view of the Monviso, in the Italian Alps, as seen from Serralunga d’Alba.

What Makes a Great Barolo Vintage: Establishing a Framework, Continued…

Last year I shared a template for a model of what I think makes a great Barolo vintage. It is, of course, the sum of everything I have learned from many people, organized in a way that I think makes sense. I repeat some of the text from last year’s article and then look at how 2017 measures up.

Unlike Bordeaux, Piedmont does not have an established framework for what constitutes a high quality, important vintage. Clearly many people have views, but I have never seen them codified. What follows is my set 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 Piedmont 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, his framework addresses the growing season, and does not venture into an assessment of the actual 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, full flavor development 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. 

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 faced due south 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. 

2017 Distribution of Rainfall and Harvest Start Dates. Data from Alessandro Masnaghetti’s www.barolomga360.it, used with permission.

In using this framework 2008, 2010, 2013 and 2016 all meet the criteria for a great vintage. Two thousand seventeen does not. Let’s go through the five points one by one. 

1. In 2017, harvest was 3-4 weeks earlier than 2016. But we must also consider that the warm winter and early spring also meant the growing season got off to an early start, although not enough to fully compensate for the early harvest and slightly compacted growing season. “We are looking for 200 days between budbreak and harvest, that is typical for us,” Gianluca Grasso told me. “In 2017, we had 185, so the growing season was shorter than normal, but not as extreme as 2011, where we had 170 days from budbreak to harvest.” Because of the compact growing season, 2017 does not meet the first criteria for a great Barolo vintage.  

2. One of the most intriguing aspects about 2017 was that evening temperatures were cool, notwithstanding the daytime heat, especially in the last month of ripening, the most critical part of the year. So, 2017 does meet the second criteria.

3. Intense heat throughout most of the year, severe frost and drought all qualify as shock weather events. Therefore, 2017 does not meet the third criteria for an important Barolo vintage. 

4. Weather was stable during harvest, with no sudden changes of temperature, rain or other shocks. In this regard, 2017 meets the necessary conditions for a strong year.

5. As I mentioned above, harvest was very early, which means grapes ripened during the longer, warmer and sunnier days of July and August as opposed to the more moderate days that usually set in after the middle of August. In terms of harvest timing, 2017 does not have the characteristics of the best years.

In sum, 2017 meets two out of the five criteria needed for a great vintage, but – and it is a big but – these criteria are not equally weighted. If forced to choose, diurnal shifts and stable weather during harvest are the two most critical things that Nebbiolo needs to be at its most expressive, and that means 2017 ultimately has a lot going for it, considerable challenges notwithstanding. 

Maria Teresa Mascarello is an ultra-tradionalist in every way. She dislikes commonly used spigots on her casks, so tasting from barrel involves her climbing up to the top of the casks to retrieve the wine. I was not able to taste from barrel this time around, but I am looking forward to it next time.

I tasted all of the wines in this article in New York from December 2020 to February 2021. It was the first time I have ever tasted a new Barolo vintage in New York and not on site. Tasting at home gave me an opportunity to follow wines over many hours and days, something that was especially important with the 2017s. Of course, tasting in New York pretty much eliminated the possibility to sample 2017s that are still in barrel, but most of those wines won’t be released for some time. I also tasted many wines from more than one bottle. Naturally, a few producers are missing, while another batch of samples is on the way. Readers should expect to see a handful of additions in coming weeks. In addition to the wines in this article, I tasted several dozen Barolos from multiple recent vintages that did not go into the report. Many of them are from top vineyards, including Vigna Rionda, Bricco delle Viole and Cerretta, among others. In the past I found this quite frustrating. Today, my perspective is a bit different. Tasting so many underachievers just points to how much untapped potential remains in Piedmont.

I would like to thank my team in both the US and Italy for their extraordinary efforts in helping get these wines to me. This article looks pretty much like any other Barolo article of mine. Much of the credit for that belongs to a number of people who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make it happen.

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