Soaring 2020s & 2021s
BY ANTONIO GALLONI | OCTOBER 24, 2023
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
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
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
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.
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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