Italy’s 2001 Barolo and 2001 and 2003 Barbaresco vintages

by Antonio Galloni

The 2001 vintage caps off a remarkable string of outstanding vintages for Piedmont that began in 1996. During that relatively brief time period producers gained a great deal of knowledge and experience, both in the vineyard and in the cellar, a positive trend which continues today. In addition, 2001 featured the growing conditions in which Nebbiolo thrives: hot daytime temperatures alternating with cool nights. The favorable weather, along with producers’ newfound sense of maturity combined to produce an extraordinary set of wines. Simply put, for Barolo, 2001 is the most complete of the vintages between 1996 and 2001.

Nebbiolo is a tricky varietal to work with as it is early to flower and late to mature. This long vegetative cycle means that there is more time during the year in which something can go wrong. To reach its maximum level of expression Nebbiolo needs to mature slowly, especially during the critical month of September. In 2001, the last month of the growing season was characterized by fairly wide temperature swings brought about by hot days and cool nights. These ideal climatic conditions allowed the grapes to mature gradually and achieve both phenolic and alcoholic ripeness at the same time, with harvest taking place in October.

The 2001 Barolos are richly colored and intensely aromatic, with great delineation of aromas and flavors. The best wines show plenty of ripe fruit, superb length and a gorgeous, layered quality that defines classic Barolo at its very best. In addition, I tasted quite a few wines that hint at a new level of elegance as well as finesse. Readers will find no shortage of excellent Barolos at the normale level, which highlights the consistency of the vintage. At the other end of the spectrum, many of the region’s top bottlings are spectacular and most will prove more complex as well as age-worthy than their 2000 counterparts. Lastly, many of the best 2001s are structured wines that will reward aging. Readers who have milestones to celebrate in 2001 are quite fortunate.

It has become quite popular to criticize the 2000s, but just as its praise may have been somewhat overdone a few years ago, today the risk is to do the exactly the opposite by being overly dismissive. The reality lies somewhere in the middle. One of the chief attributes of 2000, like 2001, is an overall consistency of quality, which in 2000 is most evident in the entry-level Barolos. The 2000s are also remarkable for their generous, fruit-driven style and early accessibility. Readers should not be concerned if the 2000s turn out to be relatively quick agers as some have suggested. While it is true that wines from warmer vintages tend to mature faster than those from fresher vintages, a look back at the evolution of two other fairly recent hot and much-hyped vintages may be instructive. Today, well-stored 1985s are peaking and the 1990s still appear young, so it seems reasonable to expect that the best 2000s, which were generally made from lower yields and with much more care, should last at least as long, if not longer. Having wines in the cellar that reach maturity at different times strikes me as a good thing and sure enough, the 1985s are gorgeous today, even if they lack the complexity and structure of the great 1978, 1982, and 1989 vintages that surround it.

Longtime readers know that I am especially fond of 1999, a vintage in which the top wines are outstanding even if overall quality is erratic, particularly at the low and middle end of the quality spectrum. Compared to the larger-scaled 1999s, the 2001s feature finer and more elegant tannins. They are wines of greater finesse and today my impression is that they will reach maturity sooner than the 1999s.

Looking forward, 2002 offers little of interest and 2003 is highly variable. The lack of new releases coming onto the market this year presents a great opportunity for readers to take a look at their cellars and make some strategic decisions about long-term needs. The six extraordinary vintages spanning 1996-2001 produced a large number of exceptional wines, many of which remain available at relatively reasonable prices. However, over the next year or two I expect the available supply of these wines to dwindle while prices for the most desirable bottles will continue to rise dramatically. Readers often tell me they regret not having made deeper purchases of vintages such as 1989 and 1990, when the wines cost a fraction of what they cost today. Now is the time for consumers to do their best to ensure their cellars are well stocked for the future. Broadly speaking, vintages 1997, 1998 and 2000 look to be early maturing (in relative terms), while the fresher and firmer 1996, 1999 and 2001 vintages will take longer to come around.

Much of the above applies to Barbaresco as well, with the important caveat that quality is unfortunately much more irregular in Barbaresco. When I visited the region earlier this year producers were excited about their 2003s, mostly because the current vintage in Barolo (2002) is much weaker, and therefore competition from that more prestigious zone was likely to be limited. It is tempting to lump 2003 together with other recent hot vintages such as 1997 and 2000, but that would be a mistake. I can still remember visiting the region in June 2003 when heat was stifling and the evenings provided no respite whatsoever. Record- breaking temperatures tested the mettle of the most experienced producers. Bruno Giacosa told me it was the hottest vintage since 1947. The scorching heat wreaked havoc, especially in well- exposed plots, where grapes literally burned under the sun. The lack of water caused the vines to shut down, a condition known as hydric stress, which resulted in the seeds not reaching full maturity and thus, many wines are characterized by hard, unripe tannins. The hot, dry conditions also resulted in the earliest harvest on record, with the Nebbiolos being picked in mid-to-late September, a good two to three weeks earlier than normal. The most successful wines come from cooler microclimates where the fruit was somewhat protected from the worst of the scorching sun or specific vineyards where the plants had at least some access to water because of older vines with deeper roots and/or more compact, moisture retentive soils.

At first producers were not terribly excited with their Nebbiolos and some estates weren’t sure if they would bottle their top selections. As time passed, many producers told me they were pleasantly surprised with the evolution of their wines. Quality is highly irregular, though, with some fascinating, if freakishly ripe Barbarescos, although most of the wines are uninspiring and remain defined by the green, unripe tannins of the vintage. In short, it is hard to get excited about the 2003 Barbarescos for many reasons, not the least of which is the phenomenal quality of the 2004s. At virtually every property I visited I had the opportunity to taste the 2004s and simply put, they are remarkable. It is an abundant vintage in both Barolo and Barbaresco but quality- minded producers who diligently limited yields made exceptional wines. As in Barolo, producers in Barbaresco continue to improve through experience and for many estates the 2004s are shaping up to be the best wines they have ever made.

Vintages 2003, 2004 and 2005 have also produced a number of great Dolcettos and Barberas that merit close attention. Those wines will be covered at length in a forthcoming article.