2019 Barolo: Back on Track
BY ANTONIO GALLONI | JANUARY 10, 2023
After the highly problematic and uneven 2018s, Barolo bounces back
with a stellar vintage in 2019 that could very well represent the beginning of
a new cycle of strong, outstanding years for this historic appellation. The
2019s are potent, tightly wound wines that will thrill readers who appreciate
the nuance, subtlety and structure of Nebbiolo. Today, the 2019s show elements
of youthful austerity that, at times, recall vintages such as 2016, 2005 and
1999. The only thing 2019 lacks is some of the visceral excitement found in the
very best years, although the top wines certainly check all the boxes.
Chiara Boschis, left, along with her niece, Beatrice, and brother,
Giorgio, made some of the most impressive Barolos of 2019.
Barolo Loses a Favorite Son
I learned of Luciano Sandrone’s passing just as I prepared to go to
press with this report. I will have more to say on Sandrone and his remarkable
life once I have had a chance to gather my thoughts. For now, let me just say
that Luciano Sandrone was a titan. Sandrone defined an entire generation of young, quality-minded Barolo growers who revolutionized Barolo in the 1980s, when Piedmont was a far less dynamic place than it is today. With all due respect to his contemporaries,
Sandrone did several things none of them did. First, he created an estate from
nothing, with no inherited land, but rather with a vineyard he and his wife
Mariuccia purchased. Sandrone almost immediately found remarkable balance,
crafting Barolos that were decidedly modern in style but that also appealed to
wine lovers reared on the classics. The 1989 and especially 1990 Cannubi
Boschis were among his first iconic wines. Last and maybe most importantly,
Sandrone was the only grower of his generation to create a winery that climbed
the ranks and becomes part of Piedmont's elite, that small group of historic,
family-run estates whose wines are highly sought in the secondary market.
Luciano Sandrone, left, with wife Mariuccia, brother Luca and daughter
Barbara at their winery in 2019.
2019…How Did We Get Here?
As much as I am enthusiastic about 2019, this is not an easy vintage
to understand. Not at all. When I first started tasting Piedmont wines, looking
at years was pretty simple. Most vintages fell into one of two camps. Some
years were cooler and later-ripening. These ‘classic’ vintages, often preferred
by Nebbiolo purists, tended to yield wines with bright acids, penetrating
aromatics and plenty of structure, often manifested in forbidding tannins,
especially in the old days. Think of 1978, 1996 and, in more current times,
2004, 2005 or 2008. Warmer years offered suppler wines with softer contours and
more forward fruit. These wines were generally easier to enjoy with just a few
years in bottle. Think 1985, 1990, 1997 and 2000, for example. Occasionally an
odd vintage with a shock weather event like 2002 reared its head. And that was
about it. Simple.
Today, though, things are much more complicated. Some historical
context might be helpful. Going back to the middle of the last century, the
1950s and 1960s, warm vintages were considered the good years. In an
inhospitable climate constantly threatened by hail and rain (especially in the
fall), each year was essentially a race to bring in the crop before fall rains and
rot shut down harvest. Warmer, drier years provided the best opportunity to reach
this goal. The best vineyards were the sorìs, the south-facing, exposed
hillside parcels prized by growers for their ability to melt the winter snow
first. Hot was good.
The 1980s witnessed the first signs of climate change. The year was
1985, the first vintage old-timers point to as the beginning of a different type
of climate. But changes were gradual, and riper-styled wines had become
fashionable, so warm was still good. Of course, not all growing seasons were
marked by these conditions. The early 1990s featured a run of uninspiring, weak
vintages from 1991 through 1994, and then one of the all-time, truly classic
years in 1996. For the rest of the 1990s, 2000s and even 2010s, most vintages
were easy to group into one of two main categories. Cooler years still appealed
to classicists, while warmer years found a broader appeal. Top estates made
gorgeous wines in most years. Things were easy to navigate, in general terms.
Moreover, Piedmont was a net beneficiary of climate change, as seen by the
greater number of good to great vintages per decade. For example, the 1960s
produced three important vintages (1961, 1964 and 1967) while the 2000s
produced twice as many (2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2010).
That takes us to the 2010s, and 2019, the subject of this report. By
any measure, 2019 is a hot year. A very hot year. And yet the wines don’t taste
like wines from a warm vintage at all. Why? Have the vineyards adapted over the
years to current conditions? Perhaps winemakers have become more adept at
dealing with once freakish conditions that have become normal. Maybe there were
enough water reserves and other factors at play to help balance some of the
excesses of the year. Most likely, a combination of these factors and others
explains the personality and style of the wines.
“For me, 2019 opens a new cycle of growing seasons, all marked by
intense heat in the summer,” opined Chiara Boschis. "I
suppose a year like 2019 feels 'cooler' than some recent (read: subsequent) vintages,
but that is only because the parameters of what these things mean have changed radically
of late," Carlotta Rinaldi explained. "Certainly, 2019 is not a cool year
compared to the norm 20-30 years ago. We had temperatures in excess of 38.5°C (101.3°F)
Fabio Alessandria at Burlotto offered a slightly different
take. “We had heat in the summer, but the spikes
were not prolonged and were followed by rain in each instance, so the vines
never went into stress. We had rain again before harvest and some hail, but
again, nothing problematic.” Many other growers define 2019 as a vintage with a
regular growing season and no shock events, although that is not exactly
accurate everywhere, as we shall see.
In the cellar, many growers spoke of a vintage that
extracted rather easily, so fermentations and macerations were shorter,
although tannin management was a concern. “It was a nerve-wracking vintage, the
kind of vintage that gives you a lot of grey hairs,” Luca and Elena Currado
explained at Vietti. “We made a lot of decisions on pure instinct. Our longest
macerations were on the Brunate (30 days) and Lazzarito (27 days). Still, we
shortened macerations by about a week on the Ravera, Rocche and Villero because
we did not want to extract any bitterness in the tannins.”
Apart from a few wines tasted from cask and or tank, most,
if not all, of the 2019s in this article were bottled in the summer of 2022.
Mariacristina and Isabella Oddero presented a fabulous collection of
The 2019 Growing Season
The year began with a very dry winter accompanied by generally warmer-than-average
temperatures. Colder weather and rain arrived in April. Budbreak was delayed by
about two weeks. Persistent rain came in May, threatening a repeat of 2018
that, thankfully, did not materialize. Ultimately, the May rains proved far
more benign than the similar conditions of the preceding year. June and July
saw temperatures rise significantly. Above-average rainfall in July, September
and October restored balance in the vineyards. On September 5, a swath of hail
cut across Diano d'Alba and San Rocco Seno d'Elvio before reaching Val
Talloria, in Grinzane Cavour and then the lower slopes of Serralunga d’Alba at
Fontanafredda, Castiglione Falletto and La Morra. Brovia’s Garblèt Sue' and Giovanni
Corino’s Bricco Manescotto are among the wines that were not bottled, while Trediberri
lost virtually all their crop at Torriglione.
Despite slightly above-average temperatures from July through October,
harvest took place in October, for most estates during the second or third
week, which is to say late by today’s standards. Growers reported cool nights
in the period leading up to and during harvest. Alessandro Masnaghetti
describes 2019 as a “very late” harvest, in line with 2004, 2013 and 2016. Rain forecast for October 15 never materialized, but pushed some estates to pick ahead of it just in case. Showers arrived a few days later, essentially
bringing harvest to its conclusion.
The 2019 Barolos in Tasting
Attempting to correlate the style of the wines to the growing season
is a frustrating exercise in 2019. It is a year with elevated temperatures in
the summer. Yet, the wines have an undeniable classicism and an overall feel
that don’t align with the usual preconceptions about hot vintages. I tasted
quite a few 2019s that needed many hours of aeration to show well. Readers who want
to taste the 2019s now should be prepared to give the wines time.
Another fascinating aspect of 2019 is that it is a year marked by
lower alcohols than what has become the norm. “It’s nice to see a return to more
typical alcohol levels for us,” Maria Teresa Mascarello told me, adding that
2018 was the first year her Barolo reached 15%. “Two thousand nineteen is one
of the years with lower alcohols among recent vintages,” Fabio Alessandria
added. “All our Barolos are between 13.8% and 14.1%.” Historically, Barolo has
always had higher alcohol than the other great reds of Europe, most notably
Burgundy and Bordeaux. Labels from the 1970s often show alcohols of 14% or
14.5%. Of course, we have to consider the more rustic tools that were available
for such measures back then, but the simple fact is that Barolo has never been
a 12.5% Left Bank claret; the wines have always been higher in alcohol than
that. In 2018, many wines reached or exceeded 15%. And yet, in 2019s, most
Barolos are lower in alcohol by 0.5% or a bit more than their recent historical
The typical parameters for thinking about vintages in Piedmont may need
to be rethought, but that is a big discussion for another time. It seems clear,
though, that we may be witnessing a paradigm shift that will have far-reaching
consequences for the future. Indeed, as we go to press with this report,
Piedmont is experiencing shockingly warm conditions, making growers fearful of
the year to come.
Franco Massolino in his family’s newly finished library. Massolino’s
2020 Barbarescos, 2019 Barolos and the 2017 Riserva from Vigna Rionda are all
What Makes a Great Barolo Vintage: Looking at 2019
Over the last few years, I have shared my model of what makes a great
Barolo vintage. It is the sum of everything I have learned from many people,
organized in a way that pulls all that information together. Compared to
Bordeaux, Piedmont has yet to establish a framework for a high-quality,
important vintage. Many people have views, but I have never seen them codified.
What follows is my set of objective criteria necessary for a Barolo (or
Barbaresco) vintage to be considered truly great. This framework is inspired by
the late Denis Dubourdieu and the model he developed for assessing Bordeaux
vintages. To that, I add my 20-plus 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, this framework addresses the growing season
and does not examine the actual wines.
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.
Monthly rainfall and heat summation for 2019, as described in
Alessandro Masnaghetti’s Barolo 2019 Vintage Report. Note that Masnaghetti
compares 2019 to a ten-year average from 2007-2016, rather than a ten-year rolling
average, as he believes 2007-2016 captures a wide range of vintages while a
ten-year rolling average would have the effect of giving recent vintages too
much weight. © Alessandro
Masnaghetti Editore. Used with permission.
Let’s examine 2019:
1. A Long
Growing Season – A long growing season, defined as the period from bud break
to harvest, is essential for achieving full physiological ripening of the
fruit, skins and seeds. Since Nebbiolo is already a tannic grape, less than
full physiological ripeness is heavily penalizing. The growing season was
within normal parameters, while harvest was on the later side, and good
physiological ripeness was achieved (for various reasons), so the first
condition was met.
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. Evening
temperatures cooled down at the end of the season to balance the daytime high and
stayed cool during the critical harvest period. Thus, the second condition was
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. Several weeks of rain in spring made vineyard work challenging but
appear to have been less severe than in 2018. Hail was an issue in several
places in and around Alba, Grinzane Cavour, Serralunga and La Morra. Therefore,
the third condition was only partially met.
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. The end of the growing
season saw warm days alternating with cool nights. There was some rain at the
end of October, but most of the crop was in by then. The fourth condition was mostly
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. By
present-day standards, harvest was on the later side, so the fifth condition was
On paper, at least, most of the parameters for an important vintage
are present. Based on extensive tastings, I place 2019 below 2016, 2013 and 2010 - the most viscerally thrilling vintages of
the last 10-12 years - although I will have an even clearer idea once I have tasted the 2019s that have yet to be bottled.
It’s very much a family affair at Vajra. Isidoro, Aldo, Milena,
Francesca and Giuseppe Vajra at their winery in Barolo.
Producer, Producer, Producer
Now that I have spent quite a bit of time sharing my perspective on
the 2019 growing season and the wines, let me tell you why none of what you
have just read – if you made it this far – matters.
When I first got into wine, I was told to focus on producer first and
vintage second. I was taught that my favorite producers would likely make wines
I would enjoy even in weak years but that a strong vintage would not likely be
enough to propel a mediocre estate to suddenly make a meaningful jump in
quality, or a wine I would personally enjoy. So, I scoured retail shops in
Boston with my limited budget, buying closed-out 1991s, 1992s and 1994s, and
putting this theory to the test. It worked.
More recently, I opened bottles of the 2011 Bartolo Mascarello and
Rinaldi Tre Tine from my cellar. Two thousand eleven was a dry year that stayed
warm and dry all the way through to harvest. It is not the sort of vintage I am
most naturally attracted to. And yet both wines were gorgeous. I mean truly
exquisite. I served the Mascarello at a Vinous event. The wine impressed
everyone, not just me. Now, would I go out and buy these Barolos today if I did
not already own them? Probably not. But I will enjoy my remaining bottles.
Carlotta Rinaldi at her family’s historic cellars in Barolo.
Speaking of producers, allow me to share another personal anecdote. I was
fortunate to be introduced to Italian wines as a kid working in my parents’
retail shop. Later, stints in restaurants in the Boston/Cambridge area expanded
my horizons to other regions. As a young adult, I had a tremendous interest in
wine and pretty refined tastes that had been honed over the years, but I had no
money. In Barolo and Barbaresco (and also Rioja), I found wines that, in my
view, offered world-class quality but also unparalleled value among the world’s
Fast forward to today, and that really has stayed the same. Sure, a
few producers have ascended into the realm of the elite. Their wines, often
driven by intense speculation, have become dizzyingly expensive. Once past
those half-dozen or so names, so many estates in this report offer wines that
remain fairly priced versus global peers. Within these ranges, picking the
‘best’ wine is extremely subjective. For example, when tasting at an estate
that offers numerous Barolos (Oddero, Vietti, Altare, Massolino and Burlotto
come to mind), ranking the wines within the respective lineups is not at all
easy or obvious.
Recent vintages suggest Brezza
is making a significant move up the qualitative ranks. The 2019s are seriously
impressive. Enzo Brezza, far right, and nephew Francesco Brezza make the wines
while Naila Bonadei handles the business side of the
Piedmont remains a fertile hunting ground for savvy consumers who love
age-worthy, nuanced reds. I am no longer surprised by it, but suffice it to
say, the number of Burgundy growers I run into every year in Piedmont keeps
In short, Vinous readers will find plenty to explore in 2019, including
the latest vintage from Barolo’s majestic hillside vineyards.
© 2023, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.
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