An Unforgettable Winter Dinner: Barolo 1958 – 1998

For our January meeting my local tasting group gathered to survey the wines of Francesco Rinaldi and Luciano Sandrone, two producers who represent different schools of thought when it comes to Barolo.  By the time the evening was over however, we had also opened terrific bottles from Bruno Giacosa, Bartolo Mascarello, and Giacomo Conterno.  Not a bad way to spend a cold winter evening.  On this night I was fortunate to host the group at my house.  For the occasion I prepared a simple meal to accompany the wines, including tagliolini al ragu (featuring pasta directly from Alba), osso buco, and a selection of cheeses.  As always, a great time was had by all.

We started with a selection of wines from Francesco Rinaldi, a producer whose wines I have only tasted sporadically over the years.   As much as I love traditional Barolo, the house style here is on the austere side, and frankly a bit much for me.  Some might say the wines simply need time to reach maturity.  That may be the case, but even the wines from 1958 and 1964 retained the estate’s characteristic unyielding, monolithic personality and it is not likely that any amount of further bottle age will alter their fundamental qualities.  That said, several of my fellow tasters found the wines captivating and more enjoyable than I did.  Regardless, this was a great opportunity to taste this estate’s wines over a span of years including many historic vintages such as 1958, 1964, 1971, 1982, and 1985.  The bottles were all pristine and the wines have held up extremely well.

Our next grouping consisted of two wines served blind.  Giacosa’s 1986 Barbaresco Santo Stefano and Bartolo Mascarello’s 1980 Barolo show the heights Nebbiolo can reach in the hands of a serious producer even in lesser vintages.  Both wines were outstanding and while clearly not at the level of each respective producer’s finest wines, they offer a compelling mature-Nebbiolo drinking experience today.  We then moved into a flight of Luciano Sandrone’s great Barolos from the 1980s.  Over the years Sandrone has been the producer who has most successfully bridged the gap between traditional and modern styles in Barolo.  Tasting these wines together was a revelation, allowing us to track this producer’s evolution.  The only thing missing was a bottle of the mythical 1990 to cap things off, but as the song goes, you can’t always get what you want.

After several hours of tasting and debating we arrived at our final flight. The theme?  Monfortino old and new.  We were fortunate to taste an impeccable bottle of the 1978 Monfortino, which is on my short list as one of the greatest Barolos ever produced.  Tasting this wine from a perfect bottle is always an unforgettable experience.  With it we paired the 1998, the most recent release.  It was a great way to finish off the dinner.

Francesco Rinaldi: Barolo 1958 – 1993

1958 Francesco Rinaldi Barolo – Medium red.  Rinaldi’s 1958 Barolo is fully mature, with aromas of sweet spices and coffee beans followed by perfumed and ethereal stewed prunes on a delicate and fragile medium-bodied frame.  Though it offers good overall depth and complexity, clearly this is a wine to drink now and there is no upside to keeping bottles much longer.  89/drink now-, 01/06

1964 Francesco Rinaldi Barolo – Dark red.  The 1964 Barolo presents an uncharacteristically youthful dark red color.  It used to be quite common for estates to blend a little Barbera into Barolo and my guess is that this wine is not 100% Nebbiolo.   It is a richly structured wine that displays mature aromas and sweet dark fruit with good overall depth of expression, although it is not as well-balanced as the best wines in this grouping.  My sense is that this Barolo will keep for at least another decade, but I don’t see it improving much, if at all, from where it is today.  89/drink now-, 01/06

1971 Francesco Rinaldi Barolo – Dark red.   The 1971 Barolo takes things to another level with complex sensations of cherries in liqueur, wet earth, roasted coffee beans, menthol and super-ripe fruit with excellent persistence on the palate and big, powerful personality that captures the essence of the vintage.  Though fully evolved and mature there is no escaping the house’s austere and unyielding style in this Barolo.  90/drink now-, 01/06

1982 Francesco Rinaldi Barolo Cannubbio – Dark red.  This Barolo hails from the prestigious Cannubi vineyard.  It is fully mature on the nose, with suggestions of beef bouillon and herbs, although on the palate it appears to be much more youthful, showing notable length and layers of packed sweet dark fruit.  This brooding, backward Barolo appears to be in need of additional cellaring and readers who own bottles of this wine should be prepared to exercise considerable patience.  91/drink after 2011, 01/06

1985 Francesco Rinaldi Barolo Cannubbio – Dark red.  The 1985 Barolo Cannubbio vies with the 1982 for honors as the most pleasurable wine of this group.  It offers a mature yet aromatic nose of roses, tar, licorice, beef bouillon, spices and macerated cherries followed by super-ripe fruit that blossoms on the palate with great length, notable sweetness and a sense of ethereal beauty.  Perhaps it is the warmer vintage and the resulting sweetness of the fruit or the fact that this wine has reached maturity within most people’s lifetimes that I find attractive.  Whatever the reason(s), this was the most enjoyable wine of the flight for me.  91/drink now-, 01/06

1993 Francesco Rinaldi Barolo Brunata – Dark red.   In this context this 1993 Barolo, from the Brunate vineyard, must surely be regarded as an infant.  Indeed, it reveals a youthful personality with the barest suggestions of wet earth, licorice and sweet dark fruit all of which are buried behind a wall of big, imposing tannins.  Perhaps another decade of bottle age will be enough to soften this wine’s tannins, but my guess is it will take even longer for this to come around.  89/drink after 2016, 01/06

1986 Giacosa Barbaresco Santo Stefano – Medium red.  What a joy it is to find this beautiful Barbaresco in my glass.  Giacosa’s 1986 Santo Stefano is an immensely appealing wine.  It is soft and delicate in its expression, with lovely spice, cocoa and sweet stewed prune flavors.  Though not terribly complex, it offers notable length and most important of all, a great mature-Nebbiolo drinking experience.  I have had great luck recently with Bruno Giacosa’s wines from the 1986 vintage.  92/drink now-, 01/06

1980 Cantina (Bartolo) Mascarello Barolo – Dark red.   This Barolo is simply beautiful and one of the surprises of the evening.  Medium in body, it shows plenty of freshness in its vibrant sweet fruit with excellent length.  Although is possesses the modest complexity of the vintage, everything here is in perfect balance, adding up to a highly enjoyable bottle of Barolo.  My sense is that this wine has another decade of prime drinking ahead of it.  92/drink now-, 01/06

Sandrone: Barolo Cannubi Boschis 1982 – 1989

1982 Sandrone Barolo ­– Medium red.  Luciano Sandrone’s 1982 Barolo captures a turning point in the history of Barolo and as such it is a fascinating wine from an academic standpoint, not to mention that it is ridiculously delicious to drink!  Though not labeled Cannubi Boschis, the fruit for this wine comes from Sandrone’s original plot in that vineyard.  It offers the familiar aromas of licorice, tar, roses, and minerals, along with plenty of focused cherry and plum fruit with exceptional length, finesse and balance in an updated style that blends cleaner, purer flavors with a firm, classic structure.   This Barolo shows how far ahead of the pack Luciano Sandrone was nearly twenty-five years ago, particularly in his attention to low yields.   This wine is labeled as containing 14.5% alcohol, normal by today’s standards but practically unheard of at the time.  Well-stored bottles should drink well for at least another decade.  What I would give for another few bottles of this magical Barolo.  96/drink now-2016, 01/06

1985 Sandrone Barolo Cannubi Boschis – Dark red.  The 1985 shows a winemaker in the early stages of finding a voice and here we see a dramatic stylistic change.  With its prominent sweet toasted oak and vanilla aromas, this Barolo clearly belongs to the modern school.  The warm vintage no doubt contributes to this wine’s notable concentration, sweetness, and expansiveness on the palate and today the 1985 comes across as more evolved than the sturdier 1982, though it is still quite fresh considering the vintage.  Its best drinking is likely to be within the next 5-10 years.  95/drink now-, 01/06

1988 Sandrone Barolo Cannubi Boschis – Dark red.  One of the evening’s great successes, the 1988 Cannubi Boschis offers an exquisite balance between its evolved aromas of licorice, tar, spices and cocoa and the youthfulness it shows on the palate, where delicate and highly nuanced stewed prune and plum flavors coat the palate with notable vibrancy and freshness.  Of the four wines in this flight it is the most expressive Barolo for drinking today and over the next five or so years, and this bottle was pure magic.  94/drink now-, 01/06

1989 Sandrone Barolo Cannubi Boschis – Dark red.  This bottle of the 1989 Cannubi Boschis, which I purchased from a cold Italian cellar, is among the freshest I’ve tasted.  Even today it remains a massively youthful wine, with soaring aromas of sweet toasted oak, tar, menthol and spices that are followed by a tightly wound core of fruit on a concentrated palate of exceptional length.  It is an outrageously decadent Barolo that will continue to drink well for the next 10-15 years, perhaps more.  97/drink now-2016, 01/06

1978 G. Conterno Barolo Riserva Monfortino – Dark red.  What is left to say about the profound 1978 Monfortino?  I have been fortunate to drink this wine many times within the last year and it never fails to leave me spellbound.  This bottle is amazing.  The nose alone is to die for, with its characteristic aromas of tobacco, leather, and cocoa.  On the palate the wine remains unbelievably youthful, with masses of dark concentrated fruit that coat the palate with extraordinary seamlessness and the eternal finish that is the hallmark of this great, great wine.  My guess is that this wine is at the beginning of a long drinking window, although some might argue it hasn’t even matured that far.  An unforgettable wine.  100/drink now-, 01/06

1998 G. Conterno Barolo Riserva Monfortino – Dark red.  By contrast the current Monfortino release is obviously much more youthful and fresh.  It offers a captivating, highly nuanced nose of roses, tar, licorice and minerals, along with plenty of sweet dark fruit on the palate, in an expansive and profoundly expressive counterpoint of flavors and sensations. While still in its infancy, it is nonetheless a great pleasure to catch this wine at this unusually open stage of its life.  It will be fascinating to watch it evolve over the following years and decades.  97/drink after 2013, 01/06

-- Antonio Galloni