2019 Barolo: Back on Track


After the highly problematic and uneven 2018s, Barolo bounces back with a stellar vintage in 2019 that could very well represent the beginning of a new cycle of strong, outstanding years for this historic appellation. The 2019s are potent, tightly wound wines that will thrill readers who appreciate the nuance, subtlety and structure of Nebbiolo. Today, the 2019s show elements of youthful austerity that, at times, recall vintages such as 2016, 2005 and 1999. The only thing 2019 lacks is some of the visceral excitement found in the very best years, although the top wines certainly check all the boxes.

Chiara Boschis, left, along with her niece, Beatrice, and brother, Giorgio, made some of the most impressive Barolos of 2019.

Barolo Loses a Favorite Son

I learned of Luciano Sandrone’s passing just as I prepared to go to press with this report. I will have more to say on Sandrone and his remarkable life once I have had a chance to gather my thoughts. For now, let me just say that Luciano Sandrone was a titan. Sandrone defined an entire generation of young, quality-minded Barolo growers who revolutionized Barolo in the 1980s, when Piedmont was a far less dynamic place than it is today. With all due respect to his contemporaries, Sandrone did several things none of them did. First, he created an estate from nothing, with no inherited land, but rather with a vineyard he and his wife Mariuccia purchased. Sandrone almost immediately found remarkable balance, crafting Barolos that were decidedly modern in style but that also appealed to wine lovers reared on the classics. The 1989 and especially 1990 Cannubi Boschis were among his first iconic wines. Last and maybe most importantly, Sandrone was the only grower of his generation to create a winery that climbed the ranks and becomes part of Piedmont's elite, that small group of historic, family-run estates whose wines are highly sought in the secondary market.

Luciano Sandrone, left, with wife Mariuccia, brother Luca and daughter Barbara at their winery in 2019.

2019…How Did We Get Here?

As much as I am enthusiastic about 2019, this is not an easy vintage to understand. Not at all. When I first started tasting Piedmont wines, looking at years was pretty simple. Most vintages fell into one of two camps. Some years were cooler and later-ripening. These ‘classic’ vintages, often preferred by Nebbiolo purists, tended to yield wines with bright acids, penetrating aromatics and plenty of structure, often manifested in forbidding tannins, especially in the old days. Think of 1978, 1996 and, in more current times, 2004, 2005 or 2008. Warmer years offered suppler wines with softer contours and more forward fruit. These wines were generally easier to enjoy with just a few years in bottle. Think 1985, 1990, 1997 and 2000, for example. Occasionally an odd vintage with a shock weather event like 2002 reared its head. And that was about it. Simple.

Today, though, things are much more complicated. Some historical context might be helpful. Going back to the middle of the last century, the 1950s and 1960s, warm vintages were considered the good years. In an inhospitable climate constantly threatened by hail and rain (especially in the fall), each year was essentially a race to bring in the crop before fall rains and rot shut down harvest. Warmer, drier years provided the best opportunity to reach this goal. The best vineyards were the sorìs, the south-facing, exposed hillside parcels prized by growers for their ability to melt the winter snow first. Hot was good.

The 1980s witnessed the first signs of climate change. The year was 1985, the first vintage old-timers point to as the beginning of a different type of climate. But changes were gradual, and riper-styled wines had become fashionable, so warm was still good. Of course, not all growing seasons were marked by these conditions. The early 1990s featured a run of uninspiring, weak vintages from 1991 through 1994, and then one of the all-time, truly classic years in 1996. For the rest of the 1990s, 2000s and even 2010s, most vintages were easy to group into one of two main categories. Cooler years still appealed to classicists, while warmer years found a broader appeal. Top estates made gorgeous wines in most years. Things were easy to navigate, in general terms. Moreover, Piedmont was a net beneficiary of climate change, as seen by the greater number of good to great vintages per decade. For example, the 1960s produced three important vintages (1961, 1964 and 1967) while the 2000s produced twice as many (2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2010).

That takes us to the 2010s, and 2019, the subject of this report. By any measure, 2019 is a hot year. A very hot year. And yet the wines don’t taste like wines from a warm vintage at all. Why? Have the vineyards adapted over the years to current conditions? Perhaps winemakers have become more adept at dealing with once freakish conditions that have become normal. Maybe there were enough water reserves and other factors at play to help balance some of the excesses of the year. Most likely, a combination of these factors and others explains the personality and style of the wines.

“For me, 2019 opens a new cycle of growing seasons, all marked by intense heat in the summer,” opined Chiara Boschis. "I suppose a year like 2019 feels 'cooler' than some recent (read: subsequent) vintages, but that is only because the parameters of what these things mean have changed radically of late," Carlotta Rinaldi explained. "Certainly, 2019 is not a cool year compared to the norm 20-30 years ago. We had temperatures in excess of 38.5°C (101.3°F) in Cannubi.”

Fabio Alessandria at Burlotto offered a slightly different take. “We had heat in the summer, but the spikes were not prolonged and were followed by rain in each instance, so the vines never went into stress. We had rain again before harvest and some hail, but again, nothing problematic.” Many other growers define 2019 as a vintage with a regular growing season and no shock events, although that is not exactly accurate everywhere, as we shall see.

In the cellar, many growers spoke of a vintage that extracted rather easily, so fermentations and macerations were shorter, although tannin management was a concern. “It was a nerve-wracking vintage, the kind of vintage that gives you a lot of grey hairs,” Luca and Elena Currado explained at Vietti. “We made a lot of decisions on pure instinct. Our longest macerations were on the Brunate (30 days) and Lazzarito (27 days). Still, we shortened macerations by about a week on the Ravera, Rocche and Villero because we did not want to extract any bitterness in the tannins.”

Apart from a few wines tasted from cask and or tank, most, if not all, of the 2019s in this article were bottled in the summer of 2022.

Mariacristina and Isabella Oddero presented a fabulous collection of 2019 Barolos.

The 2019 Growing Season

The year began with a very dry winter accompanied by generally warmer-than-average temperatures. Colder weather and rain arrived in April. Budbreak was delayed by about two weeks. Persistent rain came in May, threatening a repeat of 2018 that, thankfully, did not materialize. Ultimately, the May rains proved far more benign than the similar conditions of the preceding year. June and July saw temperatures rise significantly. Above-average rainfall in July, September and October restored balance in the vineyards. On September 5, a swath of hail cut across Diano d'Alba and San Rocco Seno d'Elvio before reaching Val Talloria, in Grinzane Cavour and then the lower slopes of Serralunga d’Alba at Fontanafredda, Castiglione Falletto and La Morra. Brovia’s Garblèt Sue' and Giovanni Corino’s Bricco Manescotto are among the wines that were not bottled, while Trediberri lost virtually all their crop at Torriglione.

Despite slightly above-average temperatures from July through October, harvest took place in October, for most estates during the second or third week, which is to say late by today’s standards. Growers reported cool nights in the period leading up to and during harvest. Alessandro Masnaghetti describes 2019 as a “very late” harvest, in line with 2004, 2013 and 2016. Rain forecast for October 15 never materialized, but pushed some estates to pick ahead of it just in case. Showers arrived a few days later, essentially bringing harvest to its conclusion.

The 2019 Barolos in Tasting

Attempting to correlate the style of the wines to the growing season is a frustrating exercise in 2019. It is a year with elevated temperatures in the summer. Yet, the wines have an undeniable classicism and an overall feel that don’t align with the usual preconceptions about hot vintages. I tasted quite a few 2019s that needed many hours of aeration to show well. Readers who want to taste the 2019s now should be prepared to give the wines time.

Another fascinating aspect of 2019 is that it is a year marked by lower alcohols than what has become the norm. “It’s nice to see a return to more typical alcohol levels for us,” Maria Teresa Mascarello told me, adding that 2018 was the first year her Barolo reached 15%. “Two thousand nineteen is one of the years with lower alcohols among recent vintages,” Fabio Alessandria added. “All our Barolos are between 13.8% and 14.1%.” Historically, Barolo has always had higher alcohol than the other great reds of Europe, most notably Burgundy and Bordeaux. Labels from the 1970s often show alcohols of 14% or 14.5%. Of course, we have to consider the more rustic tools that were available for such measures back then, but the simple fact is that Barolo has never been a 12.5% Left Bank claret; the wines have always been higher in alcohol than that. In 2018, many wines reached or exceeded 15%. And yet, in 2019s, most Barolos are lower in alcohol by 0.5% or a bit more than their recent historical averages.

The typical parameters for thinking about vintages in Piedmont may need to be rethought, but that is a big discussion for another time. It seems clear, though, that we may be witnessing a paradigm shift that will have far-reaching consequences for the future. Indeed, as we go to press with this report, Piedmont is experiencing shockingly warm conditions, making growers fearful of the year to come.

Franco Massolino in his family’s newly finished library. Massolino’s 2020 Barbarescos, 2019 Barolos and the 2017 Riserva from Vigna Rionda are all stellar.

What Makes a Great Barolo Vintage: Looking at 2019

Over the last few years, I have shared my model of what makes a great Barolo vintage. It is the sum of everything I have learned from many people, organized in a way that pulls all that information together. Compared to Bordeaux, Piedmont has yet to establish a framework for a high-quality, important vintage. 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 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 framework addresses the growing season and does not examine the actual wines.

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.

Monthly rainfall and heat summation for 2019, as described in Alessandro Masnaghetti’s Barolo 2019 Vintage Report. Note that Masnaghetti compares 2019 to a ten-year average from 2007-2016, rather than a ten-year rolling average, as he believes 2007-2016 captures a wide range of vintages while a ten-year rolling average would have the effect of giving recent vintages too much weight. © Alessandro Masnaghetti Editore. Used with permission.

Let’s examine 2019:

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 tannic grape, less than full physiological ripeness is heavily penalizing. The growing season was within normal parameters, while harvest was on the later side, and good physiological ripeness was achieved (for various reasons), so the first condition was 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 cooled down at the end of the season to balance the daytime high and stayed cool during the critical harvest period. Thus, the second condition was 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. Several weeks of rain in spring made vineyard work challenging but appear to have been less severe than in 2018. Hail was an issue in several places in and around Alba, Grinzane Cavour, Serralunga and La Morra. Therefore, the third condition was only partially 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 saw warm days alternating with cool nights. There was some rain at the end of October, but most of the crop was in by then. The fourth condition was mostly 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 was met.

On paper, at least, most of the parameters for an important vintage are present. Based on extensive tastings, I place 2019 below 2016, 2013 and 2010 -  the most viscerally thrilling vintages of the last 10-12 years - although I will have an even clearer idea once I have tasted the 2019s that have yet to be bottled.

It’s very much a family affair at Vajra. Isidoro, Aldo, Milena, Francesca and Giuseppe Vajra at their winery in Barolo.

Producer, Producer, Producer

Now that I have spent quite a bit of time sharing my perspective on the 2019 growing season and the wines, let me tell you why none of what you have just read – if you made it this far – matters.

When I first got into wine, I was told to focus on producer first and vintage second. I was taught that my favorite producers would likely make wines I would enjoy even in weak years but that a strong vintage would not likely be enough to propel a mediocre estate to suddenly make a meaningful jump in quality, or a wine I would personally enjoy. So, I scoured retail shops in Boston with my limited budget, buying closed-out 1991s, 1992s and 1994s, and putting this theory to the test. It worked.

More recently, I opened bottles of the 2011 Bartolo Mascarello and Rinaldi Tre Tine from my cellar. Two thousand eleven was a dry year that stayed warm and dry all the way through to harvest. It is not the sort of vintage I am most naturally attracted to. And yet both wines were gorgeous. I mean truly exquisite. I served the Mascarello at a Vinous event. The wine impressed everyone, not just me. Now, would I go out and buy these Barolos today if I did not already own them? Probably not. But I will enjoy my remaining bottles.

Carlotta Rinaldi at her family’s historic cellars in Barolo.

Speaking of producers, allow me to share another personal anecdote. I was fortunate to be introduced to Italian wines as a kid working in my parents’ retail shop. Later, stints in restaurants in the Boston/Cambridge area expanded my horizons to other regions. As a young adult, I had a tremendous interest in wine and pretty refined tastes that had been honed over the years, but I had no money. In Barolo and Barbaresco (and also Rioja), I found wines that, in my view, offered world-class quality but also unparalleled value among the world’s elite regions.

Fast forward to today, and that really has stayed the same. Sure, a few producers have ascended into the realm of the elite. Their wines, often driven by intense speculation, have become dizzyingly expensive. Once past those half-dozen or so names, so many estates in this report offer wines that remain fairly priced versus global peers. Within these ranges, picking the ‘best’ wine is extremely subjective. For example, when tasting at an estate that offers numerous Barolos (Oddero, Vietti, Altare, Massolino and Burlotto come to mind), ranking the wines within the respective lineups is not at all easy or obvious.

Recent vintages suggest Brezza is making a significant move up the qualitative ranks. The 2019s are seriously impressive. Enzo Brezza, far right, and nephew Francesco Brezza make the wines while Naila Bonadei handles the business side of the winery.

Piedmont remains a fertile hunting ground for savvy consumers who love age-worthy, nuanced reds. I am no longer surprised by it, but suffice it to say, the number of Burgundy growers I run into every year in Piedmont keeps growing!

In short, Vinous readers will find plenty to explore in 2019, including the latest vintage from Barolo’s majestic hillside vineyards.

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