Focus on Barolo and Barbaresco

After tasting well over a thousand Barolos and Barbarescos from the 2004 through 2007 vintages over the past two-plus years, and discussing these vintages in depth with a few dozen winemakers and other Piedmont insiders, I’ve reached the conclusion that it’s impossible to generalize about these very different years—and you can add 2008 to the list as well. It may well be that 10 or 15 years from now, one or more of these vintages will submit to easy characterization, in the way that many producers and consumers feel they now “know” vintages like 2003, 1997, 1996, 1990 or 1989, but it’s way too early to reach such conclusions today. The fact is that there are simply too many variables at work in this relatively small area: differences of soil, altitude, slope and exposition; the constant risk of localized hailstorms and rainfall variation; differences in vineyard practices and yields, which have a major effect on fruit ripeness; the timing of the harvest; and so on. And that doesn’t even include the infinite number of variables involved in vinification and élevage.

Not to worry, though: the good news is that all of these vintages produced large quantities of very good to outstanding wine. Thirty years ago, when virtually two out of three vintages could be safely avoided due to lack of ripeness or miserable harvest-time weather, it was a lot easier for consumers to make purchase decisions on Barolo and Barbaresco. Today, the region enjoys an embarrassment of riches, and consumers faced with so many choices sometimes choose nothing at all, especially at a time when they are reluctant to tie up their available cash in expensive wines from anywhere. All but the smallest and most-in-demand cult producers of Barolo and Barbaresco have seen their sales slow dramatically in the past year or so, and with so much good wine still in the barrels, cellars and distribution network, only significant price cuts hold out the potential for unclogging the pipeline. It remains to be seen how many producers are willing to cut prices on high-quality vintages.

The vintages in question. Two thousand five was a coolish growing season with some badly timed precipitation. A couple of periods of rain in September were not especially damaging to early pickers but left the fruit more vulnerable to the serious week of rain and cold temperatures that arrived at the beginning of October. In theory, the Barbaresco area was favored, as the harvest here is generally earlier than in Barolo and much of the Barbaresco nebbiolo was in by the end of September. But there are also harvest date differences within the Barolo area, with La Morra normally picking earlier than sectors to the southeast like Monforte d’Alba and Serralunga d’Alba, sometimes by two weeks or more. Exposition is another critical factor, as the best south and southwest-facing sites generally ripen their fruit earlier. The work in the vineyards, especially steps to reduce crop loads, introduced yet another key variable in 2005. But it’s important to note that many growers who knew the serious early October rains were coming rushed to bring in their fruit, despite the fact that it had not yet reached ideal ripeness. Many Barolo producers told me that they declassified or sold off fruit harvested after the first week of October.

Despite the weather challenges, the 2005s are looking better and better. Keep in mind that global warming has vastly changed the nature of Barolo and Barbaresco even since the ’96 vintage. Today’s wines are higher in alcohol and lower in acidity, and in warm years can offer early fleshiness of texture and sweetness of fruit that rarely happened here in the last generation. The flip side to this climate change is that very ripe nebbiolo grapes can lose some of the ineffable perfume of this sensitive variety. A couple of Piedmont insiders went so far as to tell me that prior to the mid-’90s, southwest-facing hillsides were widely considered to be the most favored sites for producing outstanding Barolo and Barbaresco because these heat traps were the most likely to ripen their fruit thoroughly before the cold weather and rain arrived in the autumn. But vineyards facing southwest may be less ideal for today’s climate, as the fruit in these sites can be roasted by the afternoon sun in the hot years. With the harvest for nebbiolo now frequently starting in late September, some producers believe that sites facing southeast, which ripen more slowly and retain more aromatic complexity, are privileged in a time of global warming.

The 2005s are generally medium-bodied wines with sound acidity and firm tannic spine. They can be wonderfully floral and minerally wines, even if they’re rarely as opulent as other recent vintages. And they are developing slowly. Many producers like these wines much better today than they did at the outset, and some told me they thought the wines would be far longer-lived than they originally would have predicted. In many instances, the 2005s are quite tight today and really demand cellaring. Crop levels tended to be low, down significantly from the levels of 2004, in many cases due to strict selection at the harvest.

Two thousand six, in comparison, was a warmer year but without extremes of heat. Near-ideal weather during the harvest allowed most growers to pick their fruit in a leisurely fashion, at what they considered to be ideal ripeness. Many rich, full, classic wines have been made, but although the better wines have plenty of underlying tannic backbone they also have the flesh and sweetness to give them early appeal. Many producers describe 2006 as a classic vintage, along with 2004, 2001 and 1999, but it must be noted that none of these are classic in the sense of a year like 1996, which featured higher acidity and an early austerity that made the overwhelming majority of serious wines virtually painful in the early going. Localized hail hit some Barolo vineyards hard in 2006 (particularly in La Morra in August), but I have the impression that Barolo outperformed Barbaresco by a narrow margin due to less precipitation during the summer. Again, though, it’s impossible to generalize about the style of the 2006s. Many of the top growers describe their 2006s as large-scaled, powerful and classic, while others believe they have an essential fleshiness that will enable them to give pleasure before the 2005s. I tasted many outstanding bottles from this vintage.

The 2007 growing season began extremely early, as in France, and the summer was a bit warmer than that of 2006. But somewhat more pronounced day-night temperature variations in the weeks leading up to the harvest had the effect of drawing out the ripening process and preserving freshness of aromas (on my recent tour, I actually tasted more 2006s with a slightly roasted aspect than 2007s). One local winemaker noted that Barolo received a bit more summer precipitation than Barbaresco, which he described as “a good thing in a hotter year.” As a rule the 2007s are rounder and more opulent wines than the 2006s, with slightly lower acidity and higher levels of alcohol. Many growers are already describing 2007 as a more “modern” style of vintage, as the wines are silky, sweet and perfumed in the early going, with plenty of fruit showing. Some compare 2007 to earlier years like 2000, 1998 and 1997, but so far I find more elegance, more floral lift and more overall suavity to the 2007s than most examples from those vintages. Whether they have the structure for an extended life in bottle is a question that cannot yet be answered. But vintage generalizations are again foolish: while numerous producers describe the 2007s as “easier” wines, others find them to be uncommonly dense, high in dry extract, firmly structured and full of potential. To further complicate matters, a couple of insiders volunteered the opinion that the 2007 barberas are monumental wines, more serious within their context than the big nebbiolo wines.

Two thousand eight was again a more classic year featuring a very late harvest by recent standards and yielding mostly medium-bodied wines. It’s early days to talk about the Barolos and Barbarescos but some growers are thrilled with the structure, grip and precision of these wines and anticipate that they will be long-lived.

I tasted a higher percentage of successful wines than on any past tour of the Piedmont going back nearly 20 years. Besides the unprecedented string of successful vintages, the quality of winemaking and élevage continues to rise. The old-timers are cleaning up their cellars and replacing their oldest large casks. With the help of consulting enologists, they’re being far more careful to protect their wines against volatile acidity and oxidation, not to mention dirty elements of game and leather. And the so-called modernists continue to back away from the use of rotofermenters and very quick, hot fermentations. They are also reducing the percentage of new barriques they use to age their wines, in many cases eschewing small barrels completely in favor of 500- or 600-liter tonneaux or even the more traditional 10- to 30-hectoliter botti made from Slavonian or Austrian oak. The result is purer nebbiolos that showcase the higher-pitched fruit, floral and mineral elements of the variety, with leather, game and underbrush elements adding complementary bass notes rather than dominating the wines.

I was struck by the thought that my average scores were higher than they had been last fall in Burgundy, when I tasted the 2006 and 2007 red wines there. This should not be a surprise: these two vintages were at least as consistently good in the Piedmont, and nebbiolo ranks with red Burgundy and northern Rhône syrah as a wine that offers a rare combination of aromatic complexity, the ability to deliver flavor intensity without excess weight, and a long track record for evolving beautifully in bottle over a period of many years, if not decades. How many wines can make the same claim?

I will offer additional coverage of the Piedmont’s often superb everyday drinking wines, barbera and dolcetto, later this fall, although in this article I have included notes on these wines in the context of the producers I visited in September. Both 2007 and 2006 yielded outsized dolcettos and barberas; some producers said that 2006 was too extreme for dolcetto, which is far easier to drink at 12.7% alcohol than it is at 14+%. And the 2007s are also frequently above 14%. On the other hand, the extra warmth of 2007 has produced many extraordinarily rich barberas, and the best of these managed to retain the brisk acidity of the variety to support their atypical richness. Two thousand eight brought a return to a more classically lean style of dolcetto, and those that are ripe enough will indeed make ideal wines for everyday drinking.