A First Look at the 2004 Barolos

by Antonio Galloni

My November trip to Piedmont was one of the most eventful in recent memory. It seemed like every day brought with it an important piece of news, ranging from the possible sale of one of the region’s historic estates, to reports of a second winery caught in a bitter power struggle among families, to the locals’ displeasure over the construction of an imposing new luxury hotel many view as an eyesore among these generally bucolic landscapes. Several landmark restaurants will be closing, changing ownership and/or relocating at the end of the year. The recently updated delimitations of Barbaresco (and soon Barolo) vineyards and sub-zones was also a frequent topic of impassioned discussion. In short, it seems like Piedmont is undergoing a number of significant changes which come as a shock to anyone used to the familiarity and history of the region.

One thing that hasn’t changed is my enthusiasm over the 2004 Barolos. I began tasting the wines just after the harvest and have followed them regularly since then. Tasting these wines every six months or so has been an education, and it has been thrilling to watch their evolution. Quite frankly, I have never tasted young Barolos with this level of sweet, perfumed fruit and silky, ripe tannins. These are wines of extraordinary elegance, balance and finesse that may come as a pleasant surprise to readers used to the tannic behemoths of the past. Quality is outstanding from top to bottom. Readers will find everything from a number of superb entry-level wines to utterly profound luxury bottlings and everything in between. The vintage coincides with a growing sense of maturity among growers, especially those of the younger generation. A number of producers have made their finest wines yet.

As I have written in these pages before, the 2004 Barolos combines the sweetness of 2000 with the classicism, perfume and freshness of 2001. It is tempting to compare 2004 to 2001, two vintages which share many attributes. At a number of properties I had a chance to taste the vintages side by side. Today the 2001 Barolos appear to be more powerful, structured wines and they may eventually prove to be longer-lived. The 2004s, on the other hand, come across as more elegant and refined. A precise comparison is difficult because so many 2001s have begun to shut down while the 2004s are remarkably open at this stage although they too are likely to enter a closed phase at some point in the future. Drinking windows should be viewed as a general approximation, and will almost certainly need to be revised and updated in the following months and years. While both vintages are similar in terms of quality, I give a slight edge to 2004 for the remarkable finesse of the wines and the higher average level producers achieved.

The vintage itself was relatively uneventful in terms of weather, which came as a huge relief to growers with fresh memories of the difficult 2002 and 2003 growing seasons. The summer was warm but not overly so. The last month of the season, always the most critical period, saw cool evenings bring relief to the daytime heat, precisely the conditions Nebbiolo needs to develop vibrant color, expressive aromatics, layered fruit and fine tannins. It is a vintage in which specific vineyard characteristics are accentuated to the fullest. The calm weather during the harvest afforded growers the luxury of picking fruit at the optimal level of ripeness rather than being rushed by nature as was the case in both 2003 and 2005. Most producers harvested in mid to late October, but a few growers reported picking into November, something that is pretty much unheard of these days. The near-perfect weather also caused the plants to unleash the energy they had held in store after having shut down during the torrid 2003 growing season. As a result, yields were abundant. Quality-minded growers were forced to green-harvest aggressively. Quite a few producers reported that their yields were still on the high side, even after dropping a substantial amount of fruit. That said, so far I have not tasted too many wines that come across as diluted or lacking concentration, qualities I did see in a few 2004 Barbarescos.

The only problem with the wines is likely to be pricing. Most estates are raising prices 15-20% That, along with the continued depreciation of the US dollar means American consumers can expect prices to be up about 30% from the 2001s, the last vintage of similar quality. As hard as these price increases will be to accept, the truth is that they pale in comparison with the price hikes consumers have been asked to digest for top Burgundies, Bordeaux and other world-class wines in recent highly sought-after vintages such as 2005. In addition, the top wines are rarely subject to a similar level of speculation. Buying early is the key, but availability is rarely an issue. Barolo is not inexpensive these days, but the wines remain outstanding relative values among the world’s finest age-worthy and collectible wines.

My November trip also reinforced the impressions of vintages 2005, 2006 and 2007 I shared in Issue 173. 2005 is shaping up to be a vintage of fresh, perfumed, medium- bodied Barolos and Barbarescos, while the 2006s are richer, weightier wines. I also had a chance to taste a number of 2007 Barolos and the vintage appears promising. It is of course too soon to reach any definitive evaluations and results vary from producer to producer, but 2007 has the potential to be a vintage in the mold of 2004 and 2001. This article focuses on 2004 Barolos that are in bottle. Additional 2004 Barolos, particularly those that are bottled later than normal, and the 2005 Barbarescos will be covered in a future piece, while new Dolcetto and Barbera releases will be reviewed on this site as they were last year.