Focus on Barolo and Barbaresco

There is no question that sales of Barolo and Barbaresco, the greatest expressions of the nebbiolo grape, have slowed in recent years. Many factors account for this trend. Clearly, political and economic malaise has significantly affected worldwide sales of most premium-priced wines. Veteran winemaker Elio Altare refers to the current period as "the third crisis" for worldwide wine sales in the past 30 years, following the 1975-1977 oil shock and the recession of 1990-1991. Altare admits that Barolo and Barbaresco have been particularly hard-hit. "Today we have a worldwide political crisis, which has had an effect on consumer confidence," he said. On my tour of the
Langhe hills around Alba in the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy in late September, numerous producers told me that sales to Germany, which had historically been a very important market for Barolo and Barbaresco (in many cases, their number one or number two export market), have virtually evaporated since 2000, as the German economy continues to struggle with the burden of reunification.

The unprecedented string of very good to outstanding vintages over the 1995 to 2001 period has also resulted in confusion on the part of consumers. When faced with an embarrassment of riches and no clearcut distinctions among consecutive vintages, consumers sometimes end up delaying purchasing decisions or buying nothing at all. It doesn't help matters that prices for Barolo and Barbaresco are extremely high, with any possible tendencies toward pricing restraint by producers being negated by a weak U.S. dollar.

Still, wherever I went in the Barolo zone in September, winemakers were reporting solid demand for their 2000s thanks to The Wine Spectator anointing this vintage with 100 points.It must be pointed out that although not a single producer that I visited in September rates 2000 as the best of the 1996-2001 string, and several purists place it well back in the pack, all were grateful for the plug for their wines. With many '98s and '99s still stuck in the pipeline, growers feel lucky that the 2000s are selling through to the retail consumer.And some were confident that the excellent-and more classic-2001 vintage would also attract strong buying interest.

The purpose of my early fall trip was essentially to sample the 2001 and 2000 Barolos, and the 2002 and 2001 Barbarescos-not to mention the occasional early white truffle. (2001 Barolos and 2002 Barbarescos can be released anytime after January 1, 2005.) At the estates I visited, I generally also tasted current and imminent releases of dolcetto and barbera, and I have included notes on these wines as well.

Some vintage overgeneralizations. Vintages 2001, 1999 and 1996 are more classic, balanced vintages with better acidity and more aging potential. Vintages 2000, 1998 and 1997 generally possess lower acidity, and featured less day-night temperature fluctuation during the weeks leading up to the harvest. They were generally hotter, drier growing seasons. (At press time, 2004 looked much more like the former style than the latter, and growers in the Langhe believe they will be able to make classically styled wines.) Serious nebbiolo aficionados will no doubt gravitate toward the 2001s, 1999s and 1996s, while relative neophytes, as well as those who simply want to be able to drink their young wines with pleasure, will enjoy the 2000s, 1998s and 1997s.

Most producers of Barolo and Barbaresco agree that cool nights during the month or so leading up to the nebbiolo harvest are essential to making vibrant, ageworthy wines. Put another way, in order for producers to make "complete" wines, the climate in a given growing season must provide the vines with a little of everything: warm days to build grape sugars and ripen the skins, cool nights to slow down the process and preserve acidity, and well-timed rains that invigorate the vines without diluting the grapes.

Vintages 2000, 1998 and 1997 were very warm years that widely produced wines with plenty of alcohol; there are many wines with a roasted fruit character, especially in 1997 and 2000. When sugars rise faster than grape skins ripen, there is always the risk that fruit will be picked short of full phenolic maturity, and that some wines from these years will be characterized by dry or even slightly bitter tannins. Many wines in 2000 and 1997 show a cooked fruit quality, which can muddy or even overwhelm the nebbiolo grape's often delicate aromas of flowers, minerals and white truffle. Of these three very ripe years, the 1998s are the most likely to show sappy aromas of crystallized fruits, despite near-drought conditions through much of the summer; this vintage has been widely underrated. Of this trio, 1997 generally witnessed the warmest harvest conditions—not to mention a very early harvest. Afternoon temperatures were still in the 80s into mid-October that year, and by then most of the nebbiolo harvest was finished. But it was the very warm nights in August and September that set the tone for the vintage and compromised acidity levels in the grapes. I think of 2000 as a fresher and suaver version of 1997.

Vintage 1996 is widely considered to be one of the classic Barolo vintages of the past 30 years; not coincidentally, most of September featured brilliantly sunny but cool days and atypically chilly nights. These extremely primary and often downright austere wines should evolve slowly and be long-lived. Many of the best wines will not approach peak drinkability until 2010 or so, and some will last for 30 years or more. I think of 1999 as a somewhat gentler version of this style—as in 1996, favoring Barolo over Barbaresco. Some Barbaresco producers told me that pre-harvest rains in '99 resulted in slightly more dilution than in Barolo, which typically harvests a bit later; there was also some hail in Barbaresco in August.

Two thousand one is a worthy successor to 1999 and 1996, as it offered a rather temperate summer, some well-timed rains in August, and then, following a warm, humid first half of September, good weather with cooler nights through much of the harvest. But don't believe for a minute that these are the austere, painful Barolos of yesteryear. This was a warm growing season, and the tannins, though firm, are plenty ripe. Still, these structured, stylish wines will need to be cellared for at least five to ten years before they begin to express the full aromatic potential of great nebbiolo. But their nobler tannins are far more complex and interesting than those of the 2000s, and their evolution in bottle will be fascinating to follow. For collectors with the budgets for expensive wines, the 2001 Barolos and Barbarescos are bottles to buy and lay down.

Keep in mind that my critical comments on 2000s are often due to the fact that I tasted these wines side by side with the 2001s (and sometimes with 1999s as well), either at the estates or in group tastings. On their own, many of these wines are fleshy, sweet and satisfying, and offer substantial early appeal. But when they're on the same table as the 2001s or 1999s, it's hard to ignore their shortcomings. In very few instances did I prefer 2000s to 2001s. The aromas and flavors of the 2000s are typically less complex and less sharply delineated; the wines generally offer less inner-mouth perfume and energy; and they finish with less grip and thrust. They also seem considerably more evolved. This latter characteristic is not a bad thing for wine drinkers who want the taste of Barolo in the near term, or who do not have proper cellaring conditions for longer-term storage.

Vintage 2002 marked an abrupt end to the Langhe's string of very good to outstanding years. A devastating hailstorm swept over a wide swath of the Barolo appellation on the afternoon of September 3, causing major losses in several important La Morra vineyards and hitting Cannubi hard as well before fizzling out to the southeast. But prior to that disastrous day the region had already had a difficult summer, with few prolonged periods of sunshine and warm weather, and numerous storms. Many producers declassified their Barolo or Barbaresco crus into a single normale; some won't offer Barolo or Barbaresco at all. Even those who are proud of the wines they made from this difficult vintage are aware that it will be hard to sell them unless they reduce prices significantly.

The region faced the opposite problem in 2003: sustained heat and drought. Many growers that I visited feel that the vintage was good for nebbiolo, but a sizable minority thought that it was simply too hot to make wines with any sort of aromatic perfume. Aldo Conterno and Angelo Gaja told me they did not plan to offer their cru bottlings in 2003. Some producers believe that the heat of 2003 was ideal for barbera, which needs sustained warm weather to counter its tendency toward very high acidity. My early tastings of the 2003 barberas suggest a wide range of quality. Some wines are immensely rich and reasonably balanced, while others lack the juiciness and verve that are the raison d'être of these wines. As elsewhere in Europe, there are too many wines that show more texture and alcoholic weight than actual flavor.

Happily, the trend toward more modest use of new barriques for Barolo and Barbaresco is continuing. Many estates have reduced the percentage of new barriques they use to age their wines, while others are moving their wines out of small casks and into larger ovals (but not into huge ones) after a year or so in an attempt to provide, as Luca Currado of Cantina Vietti describes it, the best combination of controlled oxidation and preservation of fruit. Still, I tasted too many 2000 Barolos in which wood tannins have further dried the finishes of wines that were rather tannic in the first place.

My coverage of Barolo and Barbaresco is presented in two sections. First, I have briefly profiled more than two dozen of the region's top sources, covering the gamut of styles, and I have offered notes on their current and upcoming Barolos and Barbarescos (in most instances, 2000s and 2001s for Barolo and 2002s and 2001s 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 not yet bottled. In the second section I have included notes on scores of additional Barolos and Barbarescos sampled during my September visit and in New York in October.