Focus on Barolo and Barbaresco

For those who believe the world climate has changed in recent years, there may be no more dramatic evidence than in the Langhe hills around Alba in Northwestern Italy, the home of Barolo and Barbaresco. On my tour of the best addresses in mid-September under balmy conditions, growers were anticipating their fifth consecutive harvest of thoroughly ripe nebbiolo grapes-a streak utterly without precedent in the region. What with warm late summers and early autumns and modern vinification techniques aimed at gentler extraction, the reputation of Barolo and Barbaresco as forbidding and mouthshatteringly tannic monsters is rapidly becoming obsolete. Not surprisingly, there is currently great worldwide demand for today's suaver renditions of nebbiolo. And I'm pleased to report that there has never been so much compelling wine in the marketplace and in the cellars. Here's a summary of what you can expect from Mother Nature's largesse:

1996. The region's traditionalists rank this classic if somewhat stern vintage as one of the greats, and there hasn't been a vintage since with 1996's acid/tannin backbone and sheer grip. The '96s are highly aromatic, concentrated, tightly wound and extremely backward, with rather severe acid and tannin structures buffered by high dry extract. An extended period of dry, clear days and chilly nights in September slowed down the ripening of the nebbiolo while allowing the grapes to retain acidity. The harvest took place well into October under excellent conditions. Crop levels were small, due primarily to cold weather during the flowering. Most of the better wines will reward, if not require, a good decade of cellaring, and should be long-lived. But the '96s are not generally wines to purchase in restaurants anytime soon, nor are they bottles for collectors without sound cellar conditions and a lot of patience. Interestingly, some insiders told me that all three subsequent vintages ('97, '98 and '99), due to warmer late summer and early fall temperatures, generally favored fruit from higher spots, where grapes can gain in skin ripeness longer without losing their acidity. Fruit from the best south-facing sites often became almost too ripe under these conditions, but not in '96, when these grapes achieved gloriously complete flavor development at moderate sugar levels.

1997. And now for something completely different: 1997 is about as far removed in style from '96 as another successful vintage can be. Ever since the crop was brought in early under very dry and warm conditions, with elevated grape sugars and big, sweet tannins, the local press has hailed '97 as outstanding. Now that virtually all Barbarescos and most Barolos are finished wines, it's a bit easier to view the vintage. Yes, these wines will make new friends for nebbiolo around the world: they are sweet, mouthfilling and approachable, and high in alcohol, sometimes freakishly so. The '97s tend to be very low in acidity by nebbiolo standards; some show distinctly jammy or exotic aromas. They have the material to last in bottle, but a surprising number of wines are already delicious to drink. They will be popular wines, but purists who enjoy what happens to topnotch Barolo and Barbaresco after extended cellaring will probably want to lay down the '96s (and wait for the '98s as well). Although many growers in Barbaresco feel that '97 is an even better vintage than '96 for their appellation, I found much less of the enticing floral character in the later year-it's almost as if these aromas were cooked out of the grapes by the heat of late summer and early fall. A minority of '97s in both appellations are revealing a slight dryness to their tannins, suggesting that some growers picked quickly due to skyrocketing sugars and falling acids but before the grape skins were thoroughly ripe.

1998. This is a fascinating and highly promising year. A few growers I visited told me that the '98 vintage produced the least dense wines among those of the '96 to '99 period, but the naysayers are in the minority. For most estates, this very dry, warm growing season and harvest yielded rich, full wines with lively aromas and flavors; the best examples combine the structure and elegance of '96 with the more pliant fruit and less formidable acidity of '97. They are often big wines but they do not come across as outsized or heavy because of their balance and finesse. While these wines rarely possess the ferocious tannins that can make classic Barolo vintages hard to taste in their youth, they clearly have the stuffing and backbone to age. It's early days yet, but for many estates, their '98s may ultimately prove to be more complete wines than both the '96s and the '97s. And that's saying a lot.

1999. Despite the superabundant crop (especially large in Barolo), 1999 appears to be another excellent, thoroughly ripe year, if somewhat inconsistent. Sugars and acids were generally correct at the end of September, but some growers picked before the skins were thoroughly ripe. Those who harvested directly after a rainy spell in mid-September were especially likely to have made leaner, even slightly diluted wines. But those who let their fruit hang were rewarded with good weather, and their wines demonstrate strong fruit and full, sometimes jammy, ripeness. Like 1998, 1999 was an excellent vintage for dolcetto and barbera.

Pricing. Prices paid for Barolo and Barbaresco grapes rose sharply from 1995 to 1998, then declined slightly in '99, thanks mostly to the big crop. For growers who do not need to purchase fruit, bottle prices for Barbaresco typically rose around 50% between '95 and '97 (prices to the trade for the '97 Barolos have not yet been set), but much of this increase was negated by a considerably stronger dollar. Early evidence is that bottle prices for '98s will be up only modestly over '97s, if at all, despite the high quality of the '98 vintage. Thus, although prices for Barolo and Barbaresco today are at record levels, and much higher than they were in the early '90s, future hikes should be modest. The major variable in the equation will be the willingness of importers to pass along the savings they have achieved as a result of our stronger currency.

My coverage of Barolo and Barbaresco is presented in two sections. First, I have briefly profiled 22 of the region's top producers, and offered notes on their current and upcoming Barolos and Barbarescos (in most cases '96 through '98 for Barolo and '97 through '99 for Barbaresco). Tasting notes are published in the order in which the wines were presented to me. As always, precise scores are provided for finished wines, and ranges for wines still in barrel. Following these profiles I have included tasting notes on scores of additional Barolos and Barbarescos sampled during my September visit. Many of these are from smaller Barolo and Barbaresco estates represented in the U.S. and other export markets by the Florence-based superbroker Marc de Grazia. An all-day tasting of '96, '97 and '98 Barolos from numerous estates represented by de Grazia was one of the highlights of my recent trip to the Piedmont. During this marathon event, I shattered my personal record for outstanding bottles tasted in a single day. Due equally to space constraints and to the high quality of the '99 vintage for barbera and, especially, dolcetto, I have decided to publish a special feature on these two categories in the next issue. Please note that although I tasted and have reported on numerous finished '97 Barolos and '98 Barbarescos, these wines cannot legally be released until January 2001.