Vintage Retrospective: The 1978 Barolos and Barbarescos

For most observers 1978 occupies a hallowed place among the legendary vintages in Piedmont.  From a purely historical perspective 1978 is also a fascinating vintage to study because it is the last important vintage in which the wines were largely made with traditional methods, both in the vineyards and in the cellar.  These wines pre-date the arrival of the more modern style of winemaking which in the 1980s would begin to change the way many estates vinified and aged their wines.   A recent dinner in New York with a group of die-hard Nebbiolo fanatics provided a great opportunity to re-visit many of the vintage’s benchmark wines.

As often happens, extraordinary vintages are the result of unpredictable and unexpected climatic conditions.  “1978 was a very strange year,” says Mauro Mascarello.  “The spring was quite damp, which resulted in a delayed and irregular flowering.  The plants were carrying only about one-half of their normal amount of fruit.  We basically had no summer, as the weather remained cool, rainy and foggy all the way through August.  It really looked like it would be a terrible vintage.  Then, all of a sudden, on the first of September the weather turned, and we had uninterrupted heat all the way through to October, with our harvest taking place in the second half of October.”  The hot weather fully ripened the little fruit that remained and the naturally low yields gave some of the most concentrated, memorable wines ever made

These 1978s show the extraordinary longevity that the best Barolos and Barbarescos offer.  I was amazed at how youthful the wines were, an opinion shared by most, if not all, of the other tasters.  Many wines displayed a lively, healthy color and appeared to be still full of life.  Critics of traditionally made wines would say that the 1978s are an example of how these wines are never really ready to drink, and certainly the wines have required a great deal of patience.  However, after having tasted more than twenty wines from this vintage over the last few months I can only conclude that the 1978s have proven to be well worth the effort of waiting.   Well-stored bottles will provide the emotionally moving drinking experience that only a few of the world’s great wines can offer.  The wines were decanted several hours prior to serving and were tasted non-blind.  While researching this article I had the opportunity to taste several other 1978s and also I include notes on those wines.

1978 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Riserva Montestefano—Lively red.  A great way to kick off the evening.  The Montestefano comes across a youthful, with notes of spices, minerals, and dark cherry fruit, with a somewhat tight, structured personality.  Although it is a wine of modest complexity, it is very enjoyable now and promises excellent drinking for another 5-10 years, perhaps more.  Without question one of the best wines I have tasted from this top-notch producer.  I can only hope current releases will age this gracefully.  92/drink now-2010, 11/05

1978 Guasti Clemente e Figli Barbaresco—Medium red.  The first wine I have tasted from this producer.  More evolved than the Produttori, the Clemente is a soft, supple effort that shows mature aromas of tobacco and leather, with perfumed, sweet fruit and an accessible, pretty personality.  It is a wine to drink now and over the next few years.  90/drink now-2008, 11/05

1978 E. Pira Barolo Riserva—The bottles of this producer are highly sought by lovers of traditional wines.  Pira was the last producer to crush grapes by foot and his bottles have always been an object of a certain fascination.  Although color is healthy, unfortunately the wine is oxidized.  No rating

1978 Pio Cesare Barolo Riserva—Deep red.  Pio Cesare’s 1978 Barolo is fully mature.  It shows slightly maderized aromas on the nose followed by evolved flavors of prunes and plums with good length, soft tannins and a note of menthol on the finish.  Clearly towards the end of its life, this is a wine to drink today.  89/drink now-2006, 11/05

1978 Vietti Barolo Rocche—The Vietti Rocche is unexpressive on this day.  It shows notes of dark plum-like fruit, with notes of tar and minerals that occasionally appear in the glass, but my overall impression is of an awkward bottle as the wine appears evolved and mature but just not offering much.  89+?/drink now-2008, 11/05

1978 Cantina (Bartolo) Mascarello Barolo—Medium red.  Mascarello’s 1978 is an immensely appealing, delicate Barolo.  Spiced and balsamic on the nose, it shows beautifully nuanced, sweet fruit that blossoms on the palate with an ethereal, perfumed quality, closing with great length and balance.  You never know what you’re going to get with Bartolo Mascarello, but when the wines are on, they are unforgettable.  95/drink now-2008, 11/05

1978 Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo Monprivato—Dark ruby.  A great contrast to the Cantina Mascarello, G. Mascarello’s sensational Monprivato is a huge, masculine Barolo that opens with a captivating nose of truffles and underbrush, followed by masses of dark, ripe fruit in a concentrated, long style.  This powerhouse must be tasted to be believed.  It is one of the more youthful wines of the evening, and appears to still not have arrived at its peak.  Attempting to assign a drinking window seems superfluous, as this Barolo is likely to offer superb drinking for another few decades.  Stylistically it reminds me of Mascarello’s new luxury bottling Ca’ d’Morissio.  A great effort.  95/drink now-2015, 11/05

1978 Aldo Conterno Barolo Bussia—Dull red.  Shows evolved notes of beef broth and marsala.  Clearly, this wine’s best days are behind it.  80/drink now, 11/05

1978 Aldo Conterno Barolo Cicala—Lively red.  Conterno’s 1978 Cicala is fresh, vibrant and full of life.  It displays a beautiful nose of roses, spices and licorice, along with flavors of dark macerated cherries and tar on a structured frame.  Though still youthful, this superbly well-balanced wine is hard to resist today.  One of the finest wines I have tasted from this producer.  94/drink now-2008, 11/05

1978 Giuseppe Rinaldi Barolo Brunate Riserva—Dark ruby.  Rinaldi’s 1978 is another of the evening’s great wines.  It is a rich, dense Barolo, packed with massive amounts of dark fruit, spice, licorice, and tar flavors with superb length and a brooding, backward personality.  I found it absolutely irresistible, with a certain rustic exuberance.  It also appears to be quite youthful, and will provide much pleasure to those fortunate enough to own bottles.  93/drink now-2008, 11/05

1978 Valentino Barolo Riserva—Medium red.  I had never tasted an older Valentino, so this wine was a revelation for me. Valentino’s 1978 Barolo opens with an incredibly perfumed nose of spices followed by dark red fruit in a soft, approachable style with great length and overall balance. A lingering note of cocoa on the finish rounds of this outstanding effort.  Will this producer’s current releases be this compelling at age 27?  One can only hope the answer is ‘yes.’  94/drink now-2008, 11/05

1978 Bruno Giacosa Barolo Riserva Collina Rionda—Medium red.  Another first for me, the 1978 Collina Rionda was without question the most discussed wine of the night.  All of the elements of a great Barolo are there from the beautiful nose with its promising notes of roses, violets, tar, and menthol to the wine’s great structure, but for some reason things don’t seem to come together and this wine’s potential is never quite realized in the glass.  While most of the wines seem to have responded positively to several hours’ decanting, this wine appears to have been the exception.  90+?/drink now-?, 11/05

1978 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Riserva Monfortino—Dark ruby.  Conterno’s 1978 Monfortino remains one of the greatest Barolos ever made.  It offers complex sensations of spices, cocoa, leather, licorice and menthol followed by layers of dark fruit that coat the palate with incredible persistence and length.   This particular bottle seemed to show a more pronounced alcoholic component than have other recent bottles and although it is not the best bottle I have ever had, it still offered a great drinking experience.   The 1978 Monfortino is a pure joy to drink today, and like the Monprivato, its aging potential appears to be virtually limitless.  98/drink now-2018, 11/05

1978 Brovia Barolo Rocche—Deep translucent ruby.  Rich, alcoholic nose with aromas of sweet fruit and more evolved tobacco notes that suggest this wine is fully mature.  On the palate it shows the classic Rocche profile of macerated red cherries, minerals, and a lingering suggestion of sweetness, with superb persistence and balance.  This slightly rustic, old-school Barolo is a real joy to drink.  91/drink now-, 10/05

1978 Ceretto Bricco Rocche Barolo Brunate—Medium evolved red.  The 1978 Brunate is fully mature.  It offers aromas of spices, cocoa, underbrush and leather along with notes of licorice and menthol that develop in the glass.  On the palate it displays perfumed red fruit with excellent length and a tannic structure that is still not completely resolved.  La Morra Barolos are often described as early maturing, and I find it quite an achievement that this wine is in such great shape after nearly 30 years.  That said, there is little upside in cellaring this wine further as the fruit will fade before the tannins integrate.  92/drink now, 1/06

1978 Ceretto Bricco Rocche Barolo Prapò—Medium evolved red.  The Prapò, from a vineyard in Serralunga, is on an entirely different level.  Initially the nose is potent and backward, but with some time in the glass notes of spices, underbrush, tar, licorice and cocoa appear, followed by sweet, dark fruit and a kick of menthol on the finish.  Serralunga Barolos typically take longer to evolve and this wine comes across as more youthful than the Brunate, with enough concentration and focused fruit to balance the tannins, giving the wine a sense of greater overall harmony.   I can’t imagine that this wine will improve much with additional cellaring, but it doesn’t appear to be declining either.  My preference, though, would be to drink it sooner rather than later.  It would be a shame to miss this wine at this very expressive, beautiful stage of its life.   93/drink now, 1/06

—Antonio Galloni