Piedmont Report - Barbaresco 2004: Barbaresco Comes of Age; Barolo 2003: Better Than Expected

by Antonio Galloni

After a series of poor 2002s and uneven 2003s Barbaresco bounces back with its stunning 2004s. It is a vintage that happily coincides with a growing maturity and seriousness among producers. The most striking developments taking place in Piedmont are a return to larger barrels for aging, a reduction in toast levels and a generally more refined style of winemaking all of which are very much in evidence in the 2004s. For many estates the 2004s are without question the finest wines they have ever made, although as always, there are a handful of disappointments. The best 2004 Barbarescos are wonderfully complete, with the sweetness of the 2000s and the greater aromatic complexity, detail and finesse of the 2001s. If that sounds particularly appealing, believe me, it is. The 2004 Barolos will be released next year, but the above applies to those wines as well.

The 2004 vintage gave producers picture-perfect conditions, but with some challenges thrown in just to make things interesting. The long, cool growing season unleashed the energy plants had kept in store during the torrid 2003. Growers were forced to green harvest more aggressively than normal to keep the plants from overproducing, although lamentably a few estates didn’t have the discipline and foresight to do so. Cool evenings towards the end of the season resulted in a gradual maturation of the fruit which allowed for the full development of aromatics and color, both of which the wines have in abundance. The Nebbiolo harvest took place in October.

The vintage was very promising from the start. I spent ten days in Barbaresco that year towards the end of the harvest and the smell of Nebbiolo musts in fermentation was heady. The wines are immensely appealing for their combination of fruit, aromatics and structure as noted above. Many wines are approachable today, but should also develop well over the coming years. Stylistically 2004 is closest to 1996, 1999 and 2001 although the wines in general possess more sweetness, generosity and finesse than any of those vintages. Simply put, 2004 is a vintage that has the potential to redefine many consumers’ views of the heights Nebbiolo can achieve.

Moving south to Barolo, the 2003 vintage has turned out to be better than expected although it remains highly irregular in terms of overall quality. The best wines tend to come from Serralunga, Monforte and parts of Castiglione Falletto, on the eastern part of the zone, where the more compact soils were able to provide the plants with access to at least some moisture. Older vines with deeper root systems, and therefore greater access to water, were also favored. The most variable wines come from the western part of the zone, and in particular, La Morra, where the soils tend to be more loosely packed and contain a higher percentage of sand. The town of Barolo falls somewhere in the middle. A number of the finest wines in 2003 come from unexpected sources. Sites considered less favorable due to their exposures offered the plants respite from the scorching heat in 2003 and have yielded surprisingly good wines.

The scorching hot, dry growing season was without precedent. Bruno Giacosa, one of the very few people with first hand knowledge of vintage conditions, told me the only year like 2003 was 1947. The unrelenting heat and lack of water caused the plants to go into hydric stress. The cool evenings that serve to develop perfume and color in the wines did not exist in 2003. As result, the grapes reached alcoholic ripeness well in advance of phenolic ripeness (the ripeness of the skins and seeds). Growers were forced to pick their Nebbiolos several weeks earlier than normal. The defining characteristic of the 2003 Barolos is the hard, unripe tannin that is found to varying degrees in nearly every wine. I have been tasting these Barolos since late 2003, and the wines have undergone a remarkable transformation. Many are surprisingly fresh and have found a sense of balance in bottle. As outstanding as some of these Barolos are, however, when wines start to lose a sense of identity with regards to the vintage, producers are treading on a very slippery slope.

It is tempting to group 2003 with other recent hot vintages, but this is a vintage with a personality all its own. In warmer years such as 1997, 1998 and 2000, the aromatic qualities and the delineation in the wines are diminished, but in exchange, the wines gain body and volume from the additional ripeness of the fruit. These vintages tend to attenuate the differences among sites, robbing the wines of some of their character. On the plus side, the wines have historically been more approachable when young yet have also proven to age well. Fresher vintages like 1996, 1999 and 2001 are characterized by an additional level of aromatic complexity, nuance and detail. At their best, the wines have notable transparency and are much more expressive with regards to site. These Barolos are often massively structured when young and require significant bottle age before they fully blossom. Although Nebbiolo is not a variety rich in color, cooler growing seasons give the wines vibrancy and liveliness in tonality which are often compromised in warmer years.

The 2003s don’t fit neatly into either of these categories. The wines are very ripe, but not cooked, yet also structured. The main question is how and to what extent will these wines develop and age. That is difficult to answer, but my impression is that the hard tannin that the wines possess will never entirely melt away. Many of these 2003 Barolos will require patience. Wines that have the stuffing to provide balance to the tannins should age best. Those that are skimpy on fruit, however, will suffer. As those wines lose their baby fat, the tannins are likely to become more accentuated. Among the surprises of the vintage are a number of very strong normale bottlings. Many of these wines are blends from vineyards in different communes, which is how Barolo was traditionally made by past generations. The ability to blend fruit from sites with different characteristics was a huge advantage in 2003.

Readers can look forward to a number of promising vintages that are currently aging in producers’ cellars. As in Barbaresco, the 2004 Barolos are extraordinary. They, too, are the finest wines many estates have ever produced. In 2005 the growing season was characterized by a slightly early harvest. Producers were forced to pick before a spell of rain that ended up lasting an entire week towards the end of the season or risk significant damage. The Barolos are on average 1% lower in alcohol and are made in more slender, smaller-scaled style. The best 2005 Barolos have lovely balance and harmony even at this early stage. 2005 looks to be a relatively early maturing vintage, never a bad thing given the age-worthiness of other surrounding vintages. The 2006s are big, structured wines. At this point they appear to have more stuffing than the 2004s, if perhaps slightly less elegance. Unfortunately several important vineyards were damaged by hail in 2006. As I write this in late September 2007, the Nebbiolo harvest is drawing to a close. 2007 is a year which amply proves the importance of not jumping to conclusions too early. The winter was the warmest and driest in living memory. Bud-break was a full month early, a freakish occurrence that had many observers worried. Spring brought with it violent hailstorms that damaged a few vineyards, most notably Bussia, which was decimated. Bouts of rain and colder weather in the summer slowed the rhythm of the plants. The summer became hotter, but the weather turned in early September, with evenings that were chilly – conditions in which Nebbiolo thrives. The weather held until the end of September, when some rain fell, but by then most producers had finished harvesting their Nebbiolos. Unlike 2003, where the growing season was shorter than normal, in 2007 the entire cycle was anticipated, but not compressed. Growers are thrilled with the quality of the fruit. Many have reported thick skinned grapes with low yields of juice, which typically makes for very structured wines. Early indications, at least on paper, seem promising. I will know more when I make my annual trip to taste the first wines of the vintage and indulge in a few truffles in November. All of the vintages back to 1970 have been carefully re-assessed and re-evaluated with a current perspective. Tough work, but someone has to do it. It is impossible to apply a single number to a vintage in Piedmont given that the main varieties have very different maturation cycles and thus results for Dolcetto, Barbera and Nebbiolo can vary within a given vintage. Ratings should be interpreted as applying to Barolo and Barbaresco.

Readers will find a large number of excellent 2006 Dolcettos and 2005 Barberas on the market. The 2006 Dolcettos are for the most part big, concentrated wines, whose richness has been achieved at the expense of some varietal character. For Barbera, 2005 is an excellent but not outstanding vintage. The best wines are well-balanced and easy to drink, even if they don’t have the sheer opulence of the 2003s or the definition, clarity and freshness of the 2004s. In addition, I also include notes on wines from Roero, Asti, and the northern districts of Piedmont, which offer interesting bottles worth discovering.

Now, for the not so good news. Readers scanning through these pages are likely to experience sticker shock when looking at pricing. For US consumers, the precipitous fall of the dollar has been especially painful and there appears to be no end in sight, at least not in the near-term. The dollar’s loss of value is especially noticeable in lower-prices bottles. Wines that used to sell below $20 are now priced in the mid- to upper $20 dollar range, a situation which is increasingly becoming untenable for consumers, producers and the trade alike. I will not be surprised to see producers raise prices for their top bottlings in order to remain competitive on the entry-level wines that for most estates represent the bulk of production. On a more positive note, vintages 1996-2001 yielded a large number of outstanding Barolos and Barbarescos, many of which remain available at reasonable prices. Consumers will want to snap up any remaining stocks of well-stored Barolos and Barbarescos purchased with a stronger dollar.