Barolo and Barbaresco

With a late but successful nebbiolo harvest again this fall, Barolo and Barbaresco producers of the Piedmont enjoyed their tenth consecutive good to outstanding vintage--a string of luck that may be attributable in equal part to climate change and to lower yields and better farming practices.  Needless to say, there's a LOT of Barolo and Barbaresco on the market these days.

Annual production of Barolo, for example, was in the range of 7 million bottles a year in the mid-'90s and is now about 13 million (Barbaresco is around one-third that total).  But that increase in production understates the wealth of choices confronting consumers today.  Today, excellent wine is made virtually every year, literally to the point where consumers don't know what to buy.  Back in the '80s and even more so in the '70s and '60s, serious fans of Italy's most renowned red wines tended to focus their buying attention on three or four favored vintages each decade--in some of the other years, the fruit simply did not get ripe--and skip the rest.

Happily, there are now serious limitations on extending Barolo and Barbaresco acreage following a rush to plant more vines in the '90s and early '00s, often in less-than-ideal sites.  But for the time being, consumers face an embarrassment of riches.

Even if Barolos and Barbarescos are not usually as expensive as Burgundies these days, they are hardly cheap.  The top bottlings of the superstar producers have skyrocketed in price in recent years, as these wines are avidly pursued by collectors around the world.  Prices for many other very good wines are also high.  But there are also relative bargains to be found.  Increasingly, for example, producers are finding it difficult to sell their cru bottlings--especially less-favored crus--at significant price premiums, so many of them are declassifying very good juice into their normale bottlings.  It's not necessary to pay an arm and a leg for very good Barolo and Barbaresco these days.

On my mid-September tour, which I finished this year nearly two weeks before the very late nebbiolo harvest of 2013 commenced, I focused on the 2010s and 2011s in Barbaresco and the 2009s and 2010s in Barolo--i.e., technically, this year's releases and those that can be legally sold as of January of 2014.  I should note that some producers were not yet ready to show just-bottled 2010 Barolos or 2011 Barbarescos, and, with a few key exceptions, I did not seek to taste unfinished wines.

There were a few drops of rain on the Sunday morning I arrived, then clear sailing for my 11 days in the region:  afternoon temperatures in the 70s, cool nights and no precipitation--nearly ideal conditions for the nebbiolo vines and for visiting tasters.

The potentially great 2010s.  Two thousand ten was a major focus on my visit, as I tasted this vintage extensively in both Barolo and Barbaresco.  This is a potentially spectacular year in a rather Burgundian fashion--a modern classic, if you will, as the cool growing season and late harvest resembled a vintage from 20 years ago.  Much of the spring and summer was cool and rainy, with August witnessing a lot of fog, but conditions were warmer and mostly dry in September and October.

At their best, the 2010s display wonderfully floral, vibrant aromas and flavors; uncanny delineation and inner-mouth energy; the density of texture without excess weight that comes from slow ripening; and firm, noble tannins.  They are wonderfully elegant, fresh wines with considerable spine and lurking power.  Perhaps best of all, they show a transparency to site that will be prized by long-time fans of these wines.  Quality closely follows the hierarchy of vineyards.  As Luca Currado put it, wine quality in Barolo, especially in 2010, is about "location, location and location:  it's 80% terroir, 10% the work of man and 10% luck."

The 2010s are not generally opulent, fat wines, but they are not austere either.  They boast very good levels of dry extract and should gain in texture, depth and complexity for anywhere from one to three decades.  The top wines should be cellar treasures.

But 2010 is not great across the board.  In cooler or higher sites, and where crop levels were too high, the vines often struggled to ripen, and I tasted wines that don't quite have the mid-palate stuffing to support their tannic spines.  (Some growers disagree with this generalization, noting that the higher, later-ripening sites, which are often windier and less humid, produced the purest flavors of all, and experienced little problems with grape skins in 2010.)  Other 2010s come across as a bit tart, even green, today, with some wines showing elevated acidity levels.  A few producers reported that rainy periods in early September prevented the grapes from achieving full ripeness but others maintained that the long vegetative cycle allowed the acids, sugars and polyphenols to ripen in near-perfect unison, and the grapes to achieve 100% phenolic maturity.

The opulent 2011s.  In Barbaresco, a few of the growers I tasted with claim to prefer the 2011s, a very rich crop of wines from an early harvest.  Warm spells in spring got the vines off to a fast start and the summer, especially the month of July, was warm and dry.  Heat returned with a vengeance in late August and the first half of September but a couple of well-timed rains at the beginning and in the middle of the latter month helped to refresh the nebbiolo (and the barbera).  The vineyards also benefited from good water reserves from precipitation in winter and spring.  In Barbaresco, the 2011s combine opulent textures and mostly refined tannins.  From what I've tasted to date, they have more personality than the 2009s.

The 2011s are often very high in alcohol but also have sound acidity.  Even in Barolo, a number of producers were already describing these wines as richer and better balanced than the 2009s.  Angelo Gaja noted that both the 2011s and 2010s show more acid than tannins, while in 2009 it's the other way around.

Vintage 2009:  already unloved?  Two thousand nine has been widely maligned in the wine press as a hot vintage in which subtleties of terroir were lost and tannins can be dry, with the overwhelming majority of wines best suited for relatively early consumption.  Critics who have not yet tasted these wines in depth may be influenced by the roasted character of some sangiovese wines from southern Tuscany, which they have tasted by now.  But in my view 2009 is another good to very good vintage in which many excellent wines were made, even if it is not at the level of cooler, later, more classic years like 2008 and 2010.

Earlier-ripening sites, like much of Barbaresco and La Morra in Barolo, often suffered in the heat of July and August, with the result that many wines lack their normal perfume and silkiness of texture.  But I found plenty of exceptions to this generalization.  And of course young vines and vines on sandy soil could have suffered from a blockage of maturity in the summer heat.  On the other hand, the vintage was kinder to higher, cooler sites that can struggle to ripen their fruit in the cooler years.  Many insiders single out Serralunga as a big winner in 2009.  Here, I certainly found numerous wines that show the greater density and more integrated tannins that come from long, slow ripening--without loss of much of their aromatic complexity.  Picking dates were critical in 2009, as they are in most vintages.  Those who harvested too early could get incomplete phenolic ripeness while those who waited too long risked getting decadent aromas and flavors and insufficient acidity.

Many growers describe 2009 as generous and open--"a vintage of pleasure" or even "a beginner's vintage"--and maintain that the season was not as hot as most outsiders think.  Acidity and pH levels in the finished wines are sound, they insist.  They maintain that the balance of the wines is better than that of the 2007s, a vintage to which many critics and growers alike inevitably compare the 2009s.  And the wines cannot be compared to the 2003s, as the nights during the hotter spells in '09 were cooler.  Alcohol levels in the '09s are full but not usually excessive.  Growers also note that thanks to a snowy winter and heavy spring rains, there were copious water reserves in the soil and the vines did not suffer as much during hot, dry weather as they did in 2007.

While I don't find the floral perfume or site specificity of vintages like 2008 and 2006, the 2009s show lovely sweetness and generally avoid coming off as heavy.  Still, many 2009s convey the effects of the warm vintage in their low acidity and drier tannins.  And they're often more spicy, candied or liqueur-like than primary-fruity, characteristics that can be attractive in small doses, particularly to relative neophytes.  They can also be earthier than the silky, sweet 2007s--especially in Barbaresco--and this can mean a bit of rusticity.  In several Barolo cellars where I tasted 2009s and 2010s side by side, the 2010s made the 2009s appear dry and relatively advanced.

Note that for the 30-odd estates I visited in September, I have also included tasting notes on their current releases of dolcetto and barbera.  The current vintage for dolcetto, 2012, produced leaner wines with lower alcohol levels than those of previous vintages.  Although there were periods of intense heat during the summer, some very cool weather in early September essentially ended the ripening process for dolcetto.  (Two thousand thirteen similarly produced relatively low-octane dolcettos.)  Although I tasted many tart, undernourished examples, this is a classic, juicy, easy-drinking, low-alcohol vintage as in the old days; dolcetto's highest calling, after all, is as an everyday quaffing wine that leads with its fresh fruit.  The 2010 vintage is better for barbera, but still in a relatively low-alcohol style.  Two thousand eleven, on the other hand, is a monumental year for barbera, and many of these wines are in the marketplace now.  The wines offer a spectacular combination of outstanding richness and healthy barbera acidity.

A word on wine labels.  Please note that some of the unreleased wines from 2010 and more recent vintages that I've reported on in this issue may yet appear in the market with different names than I have shown, as a result of changes made in labeling regulations in the Piedmont.  Essentially, Barolo can now be  Barolo, Barolo Riserva, Barolo or Barolo Riserva plus the name of a Menzione Geografica Aggiuntiva (i.e., additional geographic characterization), or, last but not least, Barolo or Barolo Riserva plus the name of a Menzione Geografica Aggiuntiva AND the name of a single vineyard.  The single vineyard has to be part of a Menzione Geografica Aggiuntiva, which are all named and listed by law, and cannot be used if it's located outside of these sites.  Labels cannot show two crus, and many wines labeled with proprietary names will need to be changed.  Incidentally, the list of permitted cru names can only be applied to Barolo, so many barberas will have to change their names.