2018 & 2019 Barbaresco Take Center Stage


My annual report on Barbaresco focuses on the 2018 and 2019 vintages in Barbaresco and other recent releases. Piedmont fans will be happy to learn that 2018 is far better and more consistent in Barbaresco than it is in Barolo. The first 2019 Barbarescos I have tasted point to an outstanding vintage that has the potential to be superb. In short, readers will find a large number of exceptional wines in this article. 

Andrea Sottimano in front of his Gamba fermentation vats. Sottimano made some of the most compelling Barbarescos of 2018.

The 2018 Growing Season & Wines

Not surprisingly, Barbaresco experienced many of the same challenges as Barolo in 2018. Hail damage was severe in some spots, including Basarin, Currà and Sorì San Lorenzo. “We had some hail in April and then a second, much more devastating storm, on July 15. I remember the day well because it was the finals of the World Cup and I had a bunch of French winemakers over at the house,” Andrea Sottimano explained. France would go on to hoist the trophy. Growers in Barbaresco had other matters on their minds. “Luckily, hail arrives in streaks, so all was not lost. We cleaned up the affected areas and moved ahead. Production is down significantly in some places, like Basarin, where we lost 50% of the crop. Even so, I hardly feel like complaining given what growers in other regions have experienced these last few years.”

Constant rain in spring and summer resulted in elevated disease pressure, while making it very difficult, if not impossible, for vineyard crews to apply anti-rot treatments with tractors. Summer months were hot and dry, while harvest was on the later side. On the surface, that seems pretty similar to Barolo, and, in some ways it is. But there are also at least two key differences. In my recent report on 2018 Barolo, I wrote that the drought and heat of 2017 left the vines in a weakened and vulnerable state. I see less evidence of that in Barbaresco. I also believe a number of sites simply handled the moisture better. 

There will be no Riservas from the Produttori del Barbaresco in 2018. “Disease pressure was high throughout the year,” Aldo Vacca explained when I stopped by. “There were some diurnal shifts at the end of the season, then a week where temperatures warmed before cooling again. The wines lacked color and depth relative to stronger vintages,” he added. 

Gaja did not bottle their single-vineyard Barbarescos and opted to use all the best fruit for their straight Barbaresco. “We weren’t able to do our usual blend of 14 vineyards because hail in July damaged a number of our vineyards. Many sites were unscathed, though, and they form the core of the 2018 blend. These include Costa Russi, Sorì Tildin, Roncaglie, Roncagliette and Pajorè, sites that tend to give a bit more structure than those planted on sandier soils,” Gaia Gaja recounted.

This lineup from Bruno and Danilo Nada is the most impressive I have tasted in more than twenty years of visiting the estate.

Other estates bottled all of their cru Barbarescos, some with notable success, including La Ca’ Nova, Sottimano and Fiorenzo Nada. “Two-thousand eighteen saw slow ripening until mid-September, then everything happened very fast," Marco Rocca explained. "Skins starting to degrade in the tanks pretty quickly, so we took the wines off the skins earlier than normal. We gave the crus 16-17 months in barrel instead of 20-22, which is more typical for us.” 

In tasting, the 2018 Barbarescos are medium-bodied, gracious wines. The best examples are beautifully balanced, with lovely aromatic presence, pure fruit and none of the edgy, aggressive tannin that marks so many Barolos. Overall, 2018 is an average to average-plus vintage for Barbaresco, but it is not outstanding across the board. There are a handful of truly superb wines and no serious disappointments, at least none that I have seen so far.

Francesco, Luisa and Bruno Rocca at the family estate in the core of Rabajà.

What Makes a Great Barbaresco Vintage: Looking at 2018

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 that are necessary in order 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 of 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 model addresses the growing season, and does not venture into an assessment of the actual wines.

Clearly, this model is 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 ideal 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.

1. A Long Growing Season – A long growing season, which is defined as the period from budbreak 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. In 2018, the growing season was within normal parameters, while harvest was on the later side, even if weather was somewhat variable at the end. Therefore, the first condition is mostly met.

2. Diurnal Shifts – The final phase of ripening must be accompanied by diurnal shifts, which are the 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, but perhaps not to the degree some growers would have liked. Thus, the second condition is only partially 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. Hail was a major problem in a number of zones within Barbaresco. In 2018 heavy and persistent rain in spring and early summer created elevated disease pressure and made vineyard work challenging. Hail was devastating in certain sectors. On the plus side, vineyards in Barbaresco did not seem as affected by the drought and heat of 2017 that left many vineyards in Barolo vulnerable to the challenges of 2018. Even so, the third condition is very clearly not met.

4. Stable Weather During the Last Month – The last month of the growing season makes the quality of the vintage. Stable weather without prolonged rain episodes is essential for harvesting a healthy crop. The end of the growing season was warm enough to ripen the crop, especially in better sites, and was mostly stable. The fourth condition is partially 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. By present day standards harvest was on the later side, so the fifth condition is met.

Readers will note that most of the conditions required for a good to great vintage are only partially met in 2018. For the most part, the severity of the challenges growers encountered in Barbaresco was not as severe as it was in Barolo, and therefore the overall quality of the year is higher, with an important exception that must be made in places where hail was especially damaging.

An early look at the Produttori del Barbaresco’s 2017 Riservas.

Looking Ahead to 2019

So far, I have only tasted a small selection of 2019s. Those wines point to an extremely promising vintage. The 2019s are deep, layered Barbarescos that show the heights of what is possible here. The growing season was marked by two heat events in late June and early July that helped fill out the wines, but not to excess, while the end of the year was pretty much textbook, with good diurnal shifts leading to a late harvest. It is too early to have a complete view of the vintage, but the lack of adverse weather shocks combined with the presence of favorable weather throughout the year, plus the strength of the wines I have tasted, all lead me to be extremely optimistic about the 2019s. Vintage 2020 and 2021 also look quite promising, so we may be looking at another stretch of fine vintages ahead.

Taking a walk through the old vine parcels at Paitin just before the 2021 harvest.

Some Thoughts On Pricing

Consumers are surely noticing the rapid escalation of prices for some of Piedmont’s most desired wines. Most of that has happened over in Barolo, which makes top-notch Barbaresco look like an increasingly better value. The subject of price increases is touchy. Some of it is driven by demand, which is usually the result of quality and consistency over time. But some recent price increases are driven purely by Greed. That is Greed, with a capital G. Let me be clear, I have no issues with any producer who raises prices over time and invests in growth and quality. Or a winery that wants to capture more of the upside that other parts of the value chain capture today. However, a lot of what I am seeing are price increases driven by a desire to improve ‘positioning’ or perception relative to other high-quality wines. That is extremely dangerous.

The wine industry faces two major challenges that will shape the future. Climate change is of course the first. Shifting demographics is the second. In today’s red-hot market, most wineries can jam through price increases. There will be buyers at newer floors of pricing. They won’t be the old buyers, but wineries that raise prices quickly don’t care about their existing customers. In fact, they are prepared to lose a good number of them. The question is: Who will buy these wines in ten years’ time? How are younger consumers going to get turned on to wines that cost $50, much less $100 or $200 a bottle? Increasingly the answer is quite stark. They simply aren’t.

In Napa Valley, where an average bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon easily costs $250 or more, wineries are obsessed with the age of their customers. They collect data assiduously and analyze it to understand trends in order to reach a younger audience. This is possible because wineries sell direct and have access to that data. In Italy and Piedmont wineries sell only a small portion of their wine direct and therefore have only a general idea of who is buying their wines. What happens in 10-15 years when today’s high-end consumers age out?

Teobaldo Rivella in his tiny cellar perched above the famed Montestefano vineyard. Rivella crafts some of the most compelling old-school wines in Piedmont.

How I Tasted The Wines

I tasted most of these wines during a visit to Barbaresco in September 2021, followed by additional tastings in our New York office in the months that followed. Ordinarily, this article is published a few months earlier. The combination of dealing with a return to a full travel, tasting and publishing schedule post-lockdown combined with my desire to re-taste a number of wines because of the trickiness of the year caused that delay. I expect we will be back on track later this year.

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