Barolo 2005: Location, Location, Location

by Antonio Galloni

My late November trip to Piedmont was full of surprises. I encountered two massive snowstorms in the span of three days, the second of which forced me to abandon my car on the hills of La Morra! The roads were virtually desolate, and the sight of these pristine hillside vineyards covered in snow instilled a surreal sense of calm in my otherwise jam-packed schedule. As usual, I spent most of my time evaluating the 2005 Barolos, but also had a chance to get a sneak preview of the 2006s, 2007s and 2008s. Once again it looks like Piedmont (Barolo in particular) is in the midst of string of excellent to profound vintages that may in time rival 1996-2001. Many wines I tasted from barrel were simply thrilling. Unfortunately it has become increasingly clear that producers will have a hard time selling these wines through to the final consumer. The global recession and string of successful vintages is a recipe for pricing pressure on the downside, something I am already seeing as aggressive retailers in the US discount their remaining stocks of 2004 Barolos. In addition, consumers around the world are trading down to more affordable wines, and also drinking bottles they already own. While the environment will be challenging for the growers and the trade, Piedmont fans will have no shortage of great wines to consider over the next few years.

The 2005 Barolos will begin to appear on the market within the coming months. Overall, the vintage is stronger than I had originally thought, but with some important caveats. The oft- repeated line about real estate is “location, location, location.” The same thing can be said to summarize the 2005 Barolos. The conventional view in Piedmont is that the best vineyards are those with southern exposures, where the winter snow melts first. In the pre-climate change world, Nebbiolo had difficulty ripening and location was indeed paramount. That is again the case in 2005, where the top sites yielded beautiful fruit, but anything less than well-situated vineyards struggled. Compare that with 2004, where many of the entry-level Barolos were wonderful, and the difference in the vintages is striking. At the high end though, the best 2005s are exceptional and aren’t too far off the levels top producers achieved in 2004.

Temperatures during the 2005 growing season were cooler than normal and weather was unstable throughout the year. The key event of the vintage was a forecast of extended downpours in early October which forced producers to make a choice; either harvest before the rains and accept that the fruit might not be fully physiologically ripe, or wait and risk extensive damage. The vast majority of producers picked before the rains, although it is the rare grower who has the candor to openly say they picked some or all of their fruit after a spell of rain that ended up lasting a week or more! From a simple, logistical standpoint, this set of circumstances favored small growers who could pick most or their entire crop in a few days and penalized larger estates that, by their sheer size, were forced to harvest over several weeks.

So, how are the wines? The answer is far better than I originally expected. The firm tannins the wines showed a few years ago have in many cases softened and the top wines are gorgeous. This is a medium-bodied style of Barolo, with about 1% less alcohol than has become common over recent years. To consumers who have been buying Piedmont wines for several decades, the wines will feel quite classic. In some ways 2005 reminds me of 1979, a vintage of smaller-scaled wines that were largely overlooked on the heels of the monumental 1978s, but that have aged beautifully. In terms of more recent years, 2005 reminds me most of 1993, a vintage in which the wines have developed nicely and are beginning to reach their maximum expression. The 2005s appear to be relatively early- drinking Barolos. Most of the better wines should peak around age 15 in terms of their development, but may continue to hold for sometime thereafter, as the acidities are slightly higher than normal. Readers who love the great Barolos of Piedmont should be enthusiastic about the prospects of a high-quality vintage where the wines won’t require decades of aging prior to reaching maturity.

As I alluded to above, Barolo once again finds itself with another string of potentially outstanding harvests spanning 2004-2008, recalling the unprecedented series of strong vintages from 1996 to 2001. Within this context, it might be tempting to dismiss the 2005s. Speak with any old-timer, though, and they will tell you that while 2005 may not be a legendary vintage by today’s standards, several decades ago growers would have been thrilled with wines like these. The 2005s offer a wide range of quality, yet through careful selection readers will be able to pick up some jewels for the cellar, especially in a market environment where pricing is increasingly under pressure. Readers who want to get an early look at how vintages 2006, 2007 and 2008 are shaping up may want to take a look at my recent article Piedmont Report: Barolo 2005-2009.