2020 Barolo: Selective Excellence


Grace, elegance and understatement are some of the qualities readers will find in the 2020 Barolos. The best wines are undeniably striking. That said, the vintage is not an unqualified success, as the growing season presented its fair share of challenges. Overall, 2020 is a vintage of mid-weight Barolos. These are wines to admire for their balance and seductive appeal more than their power or structure.

Alex Sanchez and Elena Brovia turned out a stellar collection of 2020 Barolos.

The 2020 Growing Season

Warm temperatures in January and February got the growing season off to a fast start. Budbreak was early. There was some frost damage in April, with losses of as much as 10-15% in some spots. Flowering began without major issues, but the arrival of colder temperatures and rain in June extended flowering. Hail in mid-June damaged vineyards in La Morra and Verduno. The rest of summer was mostly uneventful, warmer than usual, but without severe heat spikes. Of course, it must be said that the concept of what is ‘normal’ is a moving target these days. While 2020 was generally a warm year, given the context of what we know about 2023 and 2022, today, the conditions of 2020 don’t appear particularly extreme.

Monthly heat summation data, compiled by Alessandro Masnaghetti, shows that 2020 was generally a warmer year but not excessively hot by present-day standards. June and October were cooler than most years. Readers need to keep in mind that Masnaghetti’s historical average runs from 2007-2016, a period chosen because it includes a wide range of years but not a trailing period, which would be more common. © Enogea, used with permission.

A rain event forecast for early October turned out to be one of the defining moments for the vintage. Nearly 90mm of water fell between October 2 and 3, a significant amount considering annual rainfall in Barolo is around 650mm. However, rainfall, like all technical data, needs to be contextualized. In the case of rain, the amount is important, but the degree to which different soils absorb water is just as critical to understanding the value of data, why it matters, and how it might ultimately affect what is in the glass. For example, in periods of heavy downpours, the pace of rainfall can be so intense that much of the water runs off the hills and is not actually absorbed into the ground. 

Some growers chose to pick ahead of the rains, others waited it out. Naturally, these decisions were harder and more impactful for estates that had vineyards ripening in late September and early October. Producers in later-ripening districts could afford to wait and, therefore, were not forced into making especially hard decisions. Some producers reported harvest dates that were relatively compact, while others reported harvest dates that were more spread out. A number of growers spoke of making multiple passes in their vineyards, some with greater frequency than in most years. To be sure, managing physiological ripeness while avoiding excessive alcohol and also dealing with significant weather events is a complex dance. In a vintage with challenging weather, conditions impacted growers and sites to varying degrees, which also explains the different approaches producers took and the overall heterogeneity of the wines in terms of both style and quality.

Average harvest starting dates (in red) with rain events (in blue) from Alessandro Masnaghetti’s 2020 Barolo Vintage Report. © Enogea, used with permission.

Tasting the 2020s

Starting with the positive, the best 2020 Barolos offer exquisite balance, tons of class and plenty of up-front appeal. In the previous generation, a forward vintage often meant soft, fruity wines. In 2020, however, those qualities come through in mid-weight wines endowed with gorgeous translucence and plenty of classicism. The 2020s clearly don’t have the energy or structure of truly important vintages, but the best wines are nonetheless quite appealing.

In many ways 2020 reminds me of 2012, but with greater energy and nuance that is likely the result of a combination of the year itself and an evolution in the way growers work in the field and in the cellar aimed at producing wines of greater energy and tension than the past.

One of the stars is Rocche di Castiglione. The wines from this small sliver of vineyards are consistently superb in 2020. Castiglione Falletto is often described as a sort of center for Barolo, the place where a rich mélange of the lighter, sandier soils of La Morra and Verduno mix with the older and more compact soils of Monforte and Serralunga in well-exposed hillside sites. Whether or not that is more romance than fact can be debated. However, the wines I tasted from this sector were consistently brilliant.

Even so, many 2020s are light, even within the context of Nebbiolo and Barolo, with limited site expression. These wines approach the style of 2018, although the vintage as a whole is stronger. Wines picked before the rains are sometimes light in body and also have vibrant, edgy tannins that remind me of the 2005s. Many of the best wines are those from fruit that was picked on the later side, either by producer preference or simply the personality of site.

With a few exceptions, 2020 is a vintage of wines with medium-bodied structure. Not surprisingly, many producers shortened the time in barrel and bottled earlier than normal. These include Fabio Alessandria at Burlotto, who bottled his 2020s (except the Monvigliero), about ten months early. (Note: that timing has a lot to do with the practical considerations of working with cask and Alessandria’s disdain for leaving the wines in tank.) Many other producers bottled one to several months ahead of their typical schedule. These include Fabio Fantino, Claudio Fenocchio and Matteo Sardagna. Several producers did not bottle all their wines. These include Alessandria with the Burlotto Acclivi (because of hail) and Silvia Altare with her Barolo Riserva Cerretta, a wine she did not feel was up to her standards.

Augusto Cappellano in his cellar. Amphoras are playing an increasing role here, not just for their unique qualities in aging wines but also because the smaller sizes are better suited to the ever-diminishing production of the Barolo Piè Franco.

What Makes a Great Barolo Vintage: Looking at 2020

Over the last several 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 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.

Nicola and Stefania Oberto at Trediberri, where the wines continue to impress. The Barolo Berri is especially fine in 2020.

Let’s Examine 2020:

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. In 2020, the growing season got off to an early start, and harvest was also on the early side, but the vegetative cycle was not especially compact by modern-day standards. Even so, some vineyards were harvested early in order to avoid the risk of approaching rain and/or elevated maturity. Overall, 2020 is a vintage with low polyphenols, another data point that suggests ripening was not optimal. The first condition was only partially met. 

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. In 2020, evening temperatures cooled down at the end of the season to balance daytime highs, but diurnal shifts were only moderate compared to more classic vintages. Thus, the second condition was partially met.

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. In 2020, frost was an issue in some areas. Rain right around harvest time was even more problematic. Therefore, the third condition was not met.

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. Rain in early October created major challenges for growers. Some picked earlier than that would have otherwise. The fourth condition was not met.

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 early side for most estates, but not dramatically so. The fifth condition was partially met and only in select locations.

In the final analysis, our model does a pretty accurate job of capturing the key takeaway, and that is that 2020 does not have the attributes to be considered a great year. Naturally, this is an analysis of the conditions of the year and not the wines. The wines can only be evaluated through tasting.

A striking view of Serralunga on a clear fall day in November 2023.

Challenges Persist…

As exciting as Piedmont is these days, it’s not all roses. I still taste too many wines that are flawed, certainly way too many for a world-class region. There was a time when improvements in quality and investments required a leap of faith more than just money. The first quality estate bottlers, producers such as Gaja, Bruno Giacosa, Prunotto, Vietti and Giacomo Conterno, strived to make outstanding wines at a time when selling the wines was exceedingly difficult. One of the reasons there is so much bottle variation with older Barolo and Barbaresco (other than provenance) is because wines were left in cask until there were sufficient orders to bottle them. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, younger growers like Elio Altare, Luciano Sandrone, Roberto Voerzio and Enrico Scavino took things to another level, in their own way, seeking to make better wines than their parents. The market was still bleak. 

The early 1990s saw another group of families move from selling fruit to bottling their own wines. By then, the market was better, especially for the new style of lush, rich Barolos, but nothing like it is today, where growers can turn into superstars while their wines become objects of speculation. As this was happening, more traditionally minded growers toiled in obscurity, totally ignored by the press, especially the Italian press, but they followed their convictions too during what were some very tough economic times. So many of the most admired producers today struggled to sell their wines back then.

It is easy to critique the wines of the so-called “modern” school. Yes, yields were excessively low, the wines were too oaky, many of them did not age well, and who knows, maybe they weren’t always 100% Nebbiolo. So what? At least these producers were driven by intense ambition, a burning fire to reach another level.

Italy is not an entrepreneurial country. In places like the United States, success is admired. It is seen as something to emulate. In Italy, success breeds envy. The relaxed Italian lifestyle might lead the casual observer to believe societal hierarchies are less stifling than they are in countries like France, but that is just an illusion. Yes, Italians are less outwardly formal than the French, but the societal constructs are similar. What this means is that anyone who tries to do something outside the norm, who strives to rise above their colleagues and peers, is, by definition, breaking outside of the constructs of society. Quality-minded producers in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s took those risks because they had conviction in their beliefs. The market certainly was not clamoring for their wines.  

Fast forward to today. Piedmont has maybe 8-10 elite domaines that are superstars. No one can get enough of the wines, trade or consumer, as everyone’s allocations continue to be trimmed. Every year, importers, brokers and members of the trade travel to Piedmont to scour the hillsides for the next emerging producer, the next exciting estate where they might be able to secure enough wine to actually make a difference in their business. Leaving aside this current period of weakness, the market for quality, artisan Piedmont wines is booming. If anything, it may be too hot, given that producers with no track record but a good story and some social media skills can quickly create an aura for themselves. Leaving aside these few blips, the world is clamoring for more fine, handmade wines of place. 

Today’s lower and mid-tier producers do not face the challenges of the previous generation. The demand and the markets for quality wines are there. So, when these wineries make poor wines today, what they are really doing is leaving millions of euros on the table for themselves and their families. They are essentially throwing away their future. To be born, through no skill or doing of their own, in one of the world’s most elite viticultural regions and to then make dirty, flawed wines is a travesty.

Gianluca Grasso excelled in 2020 with wines that capture the very best the vintage had to offer.

Growers to Watch

On a more positive note, these are some of the emerging growers who have made an impression recently.

Erik Revello (Carlo Revello & Figli)

Erik Revello has been working alongside his father, Carlo, since 2016, but 2020 was the first year he had a role in decision-making. Erik Revello’s wines show growing confidence and the pure, delineated approach that is typical of his generation. I have very high expectations for the future.

Tom Myers (D’Arcy)

Native New Zealander Tom Myers has done a fine job in getting established in Piedmont, a region that is not exactly welcoming to outsiders. There is no real market for buying grapes or negociant wines that might help a young producer get started, as there is in other regions. The first wines I have tasted from D’Arcy are works in progress. Myers has already had to move winemaking facilities several times, a stress for the wines and for him. The wines aren’t ready for prime time yet. But they will be.

Ferdinando Principiano (Principiano)

Ferdinando Principiano has been around too long to be considered ‘emerging’, but his wines have improved markedly in recent years, and he deserves to be recognized.

Alberto Alessandria (Crissante Alessandria)

As I wrote in my year-end review, Alberto Alessandria has been making some serious waves of late. The new Barolo Monvigliero could very well be his best wine yet.

Alberto Alessandria is making gorgeous wines at his family’s estate in La Morra. The Barolo Monvigliero, here in its first year of production, was especially impressive.

Beyond Barolo… 

Piedmont has so much more to offer than just Barolo and Barbaresco. This year, I included the full range of wines I tasted at each estate in this report rather than waiting to publish those reviews in a separate article at a later date. In my view, the level of an estate is determined by the quality and consistency of its entry-level offerings. These wines are very important, as they provide insight into producer styles and quality yet also remain affordable, something that is increasingly a challenge. In brief, the 2022 Dolcettos have turned out to be better than I expected. Despite intense heat and drought, the vast majority of Dolcettos in 2022 are pretty classic in flavor structure and overall feel. The 2021 Barberas are fabulous, pedigreed wines endowed with notable vibrancy and depth. Beyond those staples, readers will find many delicious wines to explore. I was especially struck by a number of gorgeous Freisas I tasted. With a structure akin to Nebbiolo and fruit that veers into the realm of Barbera, Freisa has so much to offer.

Marta and Carlotta Rinaldi at their cellar in Barolo with their Weimaraner, Vida.

About This Report

I tasted most of the wines in this report during a trip to Piedmont in November 2023, the 27th year after my first visit to the region. As is my practice, I retasted many wines in my office in New York in the weeks that followed.

© 2024, 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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