Barbaresco’s Soaring 2020s & 2021s


I was deeply impressed with the wines I tasted on my most recent trip to Barbaresco. Both 2020 and 2021 are terrific vintages with plenty of highlights. Best of all, so many wines remain reasonably priced within the context of today’s market, something that is increasingly evident as wines from other regions become quite pricey.

The Sottimano family, led by siblings Andrea, Claudia and Elena, turned out some of the most brilliant wines I tasted for this report.

The 2020 Growing Season & Wines

The core of this report focuses on the 2020 Barbarescos. A dry winter and warm spring got the growing season started early. The year remained mostly warm and dry, with true summer heat appearing later than the norm by present-day standards. Temperatures remained warm throughout September, but by then, cooler evenings and nights began to set in, ideal conditions for Nebbiolo. Forecasts called for 20mm of rain on Friday, October 2. Instead, nearly 100mm of rain fell. Ordinarily, that much rain in the middle of harvest is not ideal, but temperatures cooled, and conditions remained benign for the rest of harvest. Growers who had already begun picking paused for a few days, but some pushed up their harvest dates to avoid the rain. The majority of the Nebbiolo harvest was finished within the first ten days of the month.

In tasting, the 2020s are beautifully balanced. The wines show mid-weight structure and a fine sense of harmony. Although 2020 was warm throughout most of the year, there were no periods of excessive or prolonged heat, which likely explains why the wines are so harmonious, even in the early going. Overall, the 2020s come across as having less structure than the 2021s. It is a vintage of extreme pleasure without excess or opulence.

The steep slopes of Ovello as seen from Montefico.

What Makes a Great Barbaresco Vintage: An In-Depth Look at 2020

Over the last few years, I have shared a template for a model of what I think makes a great vintage in Barolo and Barbaresco. It is, of course, the sum of everything I have learned from many people, organized in a way that I think makes sense. 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 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 addresses the growing season and does not venture into an assessment of the actual wines.

Indeed, this model was 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 quite favorable 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. Last but certainly not least, with its varying elevations, myriad exposures and different soil types, Piedmont is inherently complex. In short, Piedmont is not a region that is intrinsically well-suited to generalizations. Even so, some information is better than none.

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 very tannic grape, less than full physiological ripeness is heavily penalizing. The 2020 growing season was fairly regular and mostly within normal parameters. Harvest took place in early October, perhaps a bit earlier than ideal, but not meaningfully. Therefore, the first condition is mostly met.

2. Diurnal Shifts – The final phase of ripening must be accompanied by diurnal shifts, in other words, swings in temperature from warm days to cool nights. Diurnal shifts create aromatic complexity, full flavor development and color. Evening temperatures did cool down at the end of the season to balance daytime highs. Thus, the second condition is 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, conditions were consistently warm and dry, but there were no heat spikes or other shock events to speak of. The third condition is met.

4. Stable Weather During the Last Month – The last month of the growing season makes the quality of the vintage. Weather during this critical period was stable, thus the fourth condition is 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. An October harvest, late by present-day standards, is favorable, so the fifth condition is met.

Readers will note that most conditions required for a good to great vintage are met, some partly, some entirely. And that sums up the wines nicely. There are a number of exceptional 2020 Barbaresco in this report. A number of producers made some of their best wines ever.

Paola, Giulio, Federica and Valentina Grasso at Ca’ del Baio turned out some of their best wines ever. Giulio Grasso suffered a broken foot just as the 2023 harvest was about to get started, but that was not enough to keep him away from the vineyards and wines he has tended to for several decades.

Looking Ahead to the 2021s

Two thousand twenty-one was marked by a cold and rainy winter. Spring was quite cool, leading to a delayed budbreak. There was some frost damage on April 8. The early part of summer remained cool, with some rain in mid-July that was well timed. Hail on July 31 affected some areas. Heat picked up in earnest around August 11. Until this point, the vintage had been tracking late, but then heat through September brought the ripening window back to a super-classic mid-October time frame. There was a bit of rain around harvest, but it does not appear to have been problematic. Relative to 2020, 2021 saw higher highs and lower lows, with a longer growing season that extended into the second half of October.

It is too early to have a complete view of the 2021s, as so many wines have not been released yet. The wines I have tasted so far suggest an outstanding to potentially profound vintage in the making. The 2021s are marvelously complete wines that offer a captivating mix of energy, structure, depth and plenty of site character. Many producers opted for longer macerations in 2021 than in 2020, another harbinger of a high quality vintage. Last year, in my article Piedmont Within Reach, I wrote: Two thousand twenty-one appears to be that rare year in which conditions were close to ideal for all the main red grapes. The 2021s have gorgeous aromatics, beautiful, vibrant fruit and often exceptional balance. I feel the same way today.

Luca Roagna was still unpacking these new cement amphora when I visited in September 2023. Roagna plans on using these neutral vessels to age small volumes of Riserva wines.

About This Report

I tasted all the wines in this report during a visit to Barbaresco in September 2023, along with a few follow up tastings in our New York offices. This year, I decided to publish all wines from the Barbaresco zone together, including the entry-level wines that usually go into my report on affordable wines in an effort to show the complete production of each estate. As much as I would like to, I simply can’t taste every Dolcetto or Barbera out there, so this section of the report focuses on the wines of benchmark producers. Many of these wines are 2022s, a challenging vintage marked by intensely hot and dry weather. Some 2022s reflect limited physiological ripeness in their lighter structures, while others are more complete. It’s an irregular vintage to approach with caution.

Closing Thoughts

As I put the finishing touches on this report, I can’t help noticing how many top estates remain under the radar. The savvy consumer will find many fine yet reasonably priced wines that embody the best of Piedmont’s artisan tradition. From what I see, signs of weakness are apparent in the market, creating favorable conditions for consumers who want to stock their cellars with the expressive, transparent wines of place that Barbaresco excels in producing.

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