The Enigma of 2018 Barolo


Two thousand and eighteen is without a doubt the most erratic, frustratingly inconsistent Barolo vintage I have encountered in twenty-five years of visiting the region and a lifetime of drinking these wines. It is a vintage with some hits, many misses and highly variable quality throughout. Even so, with care readers will find a number of gorgeous wines among this year’s new releases.

It was a tough year in the vineyard, as we will explore later on in this report. Quality is all over the place. The best 2018 Barolos bring to mind vintages like 2012 and 1998, years in which the top wines are undeniably attractive, but without the personality of truly great vintages. Those are the hits. For the misses, it is a totally different situation. I tasted a number of 2018 Barolos that are washed out and diluted. To find wines like this in Piedmont we have to go all the way back to the early 1990s and vintages such as 1991, 1992 and 1994.

Not surprisingly growers made very different choices. A number of producers did not bottle all of their vineyard-designates. These include Massolino, Trediberri and Oddero, who blended all but their Brunate and Vigna Rionda into their straight Barolo. For the third consecutive vintage Roberto Conterno will not release a Monfortino. But many producers did bottle their entire range, with various degrees of success. Some, like Gaja and Elio Grasso, bottled their Barolos in drastically reduced volumes. At the far opposite end of the spectrum, Marco Parusso made all of his Barolos, plus three Riservas.

Some may try to pass off the 2018 Barolos as easygoing wines, i.e. wines that are good for restaurants. Be careful. While that generalization is certainly true for some 2018s, the reality is that the market will soon be awash with a number of weak, emaciated 2018 Barolos that discerning readers will want to avoid.

A panoramic late fall view of vineyards in Monforte, with Serralunga in the background.

Why, Why, Why?

There is little doubt the 2018s are extremely inconsistent, both in terms of quality and style. The question is: Why?

Every vintage is a puzzle. Putting together the pieces of that puzzle is the part of this job I enjoy most. Each visit and each tasting provides clues to the big picture. After a few tastings, an early view starts to form, a sort of hypothesis. Then, over the ensuing tastings, those first impressions are either confirmed and refined, or perhaps re-evaluated. While each grower is intimately familiar with their own wines, few have tasted many of their colleagues’ wines at this stage. The value of the critic is ultimately the ability to collect dozens of viewpoints from a wide range of perspectives and distill them into a cohesive opinion. Sometimes that is easy, sometimes it is not so easy. Vintage 2018 clearly fits in the latter category.

In tasting, the 2018 Barolos – even the best examples – don’t have the depth and layers found in important vintages, although some come very close. Those wines seem to reflect the richness of a very warm summer in their fruit profiles. The wines are forward, but not overdone.

A second group of wines presents a classic feeling of austerity. It is tempting to make comparisons with 2014, but the best wines of that year had more finessed tannin, gorgeous inner sweetness and a level of aromatic intensity that is not found in the 2018s, wines that are instead often marked by light to medium-bodied structures, even within the context of Nebbiolo, and unpolished tannins.

The last group of 2018s is comprised of wines that are washed out, diluted and lacking in both character, complexity and site expression. 

Many wines taste shocked, like they have been through some sort of trauma. As mentioned above, there are some notable exceptions. Although hard to generalize, the area around La Morra and Verduno yielded a number of terrific Barolos. The same can be said of elite vineyards like Brunate and Cerequio.

Rainfall during the 2018 growing season compared to historical averages. Data from Barolo 2018 Vintage Report © Enogea, Alessandro Masnaghetti. Used with permission.

Rainfall during the growing season was 923mm (36 inches), about 35% more than the historical average, as shown in the chart above. Growers reported as many as 25 consecutive days with rain in May. At that point, the problem is not just the moisture, but the fact that vineyards are very difficult to work. Tractors can’t go into wet vineyards, so as disease pressure mounts with rain, spraying has to be done by hand. That is expensive, time-consuming and less accurate than mechanized work. The same can be said for other vineyard maintenance that must be undertaken during this period.

Days of rain in 2018 compared to the ten-year historical averages. May is a clear outlier. Data from Barolo 2018 Vintage Report © Enogea, Alessandro Masnaghetti. Used with permission.

But rain alone should not adversely impact a vintage to the degree it did in 2018, especially one in which the last part of ripening took place under mostly very warm, dry conditions. In today’s climate change-challenged world, it is not a far stretch at all to think that water reserves could come in handy during a very hot summer. There was no frost or hail to speak of. Conditions at harvest were generally benign. In fact, at harvest the mood was optimistic.

As it turns out, the single most important factor that explains the 2018 vintage in Barolo has little to do with 2018 itself, but everything to do with 2017.

Luca and Elena Currado (right) and longtime cellarmaster Eugenio Palumbo (left) presented a dazzling set of of wines at Vietti. Their 2018s are among the highlights of this very challenging year.

The 2017 Hangover

The concept of a ‘vintage’ in wine can lead to the natural - but ultimately mistaken – idea that a vine follows an annual calendar that starts more or less at the beginning of the year and ends with harvest. In reality, the vine is just like us; it has a lifetime of cumulative experiences that don’t re-set on January 1 or any other date, but that stretch over periods of time. This is an absolutely critical concept. For example, the bud that ultimately becomes a bunch of grapes is created in the preceding year.

In 2017, severe spring frost affected a number of areas within Barolo. Intense drought and unrelentingly hot temperatures followed for the rest of the year. Frost damage is a function of location (lower-lying slopes are generally the most affected) and the length of shoots at that time. In a cooler year, or earlier in the season, shoots may not be that exposed. In those cases, frost damage can be minimal. If frost arrives later in the season or in warmer years, when shoots are more exposed, damage can be significant, both for the current growing season and the one that follows. Drought and excessively warm temperatures are mostly challenging for well-draining sites that don’t retain water and younger vineyards that have not developed deep root systems.

The first highly significant event in 2018 is the 21-25 days of non-stop rain in May. Outbreaks of peronospera and oidium (powdery mildew) required immediate intervention in the vineyards. As mentioned above, crews could not enter vineyards with tractors, so spraying had to be done manually, something that not all estates can do, especially under time pressure. “We noted that disease pressure was especially high in vineyards that had been stressed by frost, drought and heat in 2017,” Alberto Cordero di Montezemolo explained. Flowering was highly uneven. Many growers reported aborted flowers, in other words, flowers that did not become grapes. At the same time yields were high. How does that happen?

Let’s go back to 2017. The vine is a very smart organism. In moments of severe water deficiency and heat stress the vine goes into survival mode and naturally limits crop. If conditions are not as stressful the subsequent year, the vine reacts by unleashing its stored energy and setting a very large crop. This is exactly what happened in 2003 and 2004, for example. 

“We responded to the conditions by leaving natural grass and herbs to grow for longer, so they could soak up some of the excess moisture,” explained Gian Piero Romana, the noted viticulturist who advises many of Piedmont’s top estates. “Similarly, we did not hedge the canopies, but rolled them over where we could to encourage the vine to expend its energy rather than risking renewed growth through hedging. Choosing the moment to green harvest was very difficult. In a year like 2018, if you thin too early, the risk is that berries size up, but if you wait too long, the risk is that the vine locks in to its new state and you can’t get things back in balance. Ultimately, we pushed thinning back as far as we could,” he added.

Heat summation for 2018 by month compared to the ten-year historical average from 2007 through 2016. Data from Barolo 2018 Vintage Report © Enogea, Alessandro Masnaghetti. Used with permission.

Summer was generally dry, while temperatures soared above historical averages as depicted in the chart above. The maturation of grapes from a sugars perspective was quite good. Temperatures moderated at the end of the season, while harvest was on the later side by recent historical norms. Some growers reported picking earlier than first anticipated because rain in September created a fear that conditions could deteriorate.

In the cellar, many producers chose to shorten fermentations and to generally handle the wines as minimally as possible given their lighter structures. That's not true everywhere though. Luca Currado at Vietti told me some of his fermentations were longer than in the preceding two vintages. Heavy rain in spring released stored minerals in the soils, which manifested itself in high potassium intake as vines absorbed all those minerals from the water. That, in turn, led to lower acidities in the musts, something that became increasingly evident during and after fermentation.

This combination of factors leads to many wines that generally feel light, some even to the point of coming across as fleeting, but with alcohol levels that are in line with previous vintages on a wine-per-wine basis. As a comparison, in 2014 the wines were light and lower in alcohol by about 0.5%. In 2018, the textural feel of the wines is often deceptive, as most wines are in their standard range of alcohol, but don't always come across that way. These wines are incredibly awkward. 

Not surprisingly, the entirety of the year caught some producers off guard. “We were happy going into harvest,” Franco Massolino explained. “The fruit looked good. We weren’t expecting a great year, but certainly a solid year. Then, during fermentation, we noticed that acidities dropped quite a bit. In the end, we decided the best course of action was to blend all our single-vineyards into a single Barolo.” Some producers opted to acidify. “I’m not afraid to say it. I acidified all the 2018s, and I also bottled all my Barolos a year earlier than normal, with the exception of the Monvigliero,” Fabio Alessandria told me during my visit at Burlotto. Opinions on the quality of the year vary widely, as readers will see in the accompanying producer commentaries.

Of course, it bears saying that producers in Barolo have limited options in the cellar. This is especially true for those who work with large format oak. In Burgundy, the odd barrique that does not reach a certain level of quality is quietly sold to the négoce. In Bordeaux and Napa Valley, winemakers can cull out under-performing barrels and also blend in other varieties to improve balance in their wines. None of that is possible in Piedmont. A cask is a single volume of wine that can't be significantly adjusted. 

The first Piedmont vintage I have a memory of tasting young is 1990. By the time 1996 came around, I was tasting and buying as much Barolo and Barbaresco I could afford. I have never seen a vintage with such a wide range of results. Of course, we have to set aside 2002, as so many wines weren’t even bottled, so it is hard to compare across essentially all wines in that case.

Tasting upcoming vintages from barrel with Maria Teresa Mascarello is always a great learning experience.

What Makes a Great Barolo Vintage: 2018 Under the Microscope

Over the last few years I have shared my model of what I think makes a great Barolo vintage. It is, of course, the sum of everything I have learned from many people, organized in a way that I think makes sense. Unlike Bordeaux, Piedmont does not have an established framework for what constitutes a high quality, important vintage. Clearly many people have views, but I have never seen them codified. What follows is my set of objective criteria that are necessary in order for a Barolo (or Barbaresco) vintage to be considered truly great. This framework is inspired by the late Denis Dubourdieu and the model he developed for assessing Bordeaux vintages. To that, I add my 20-plus years of visiting Piedmont and all of the data I have collected in speaking with winemakers, agronomists and other professionals over that time, plus drinking more than my fair share of the wines. As with Dubourdieu’s model, this model addresses the growing season and does not venture into an assessment of the actual wines.

Clearly, this model is created in the present day. It won’t apply as well to vintages from previous eras, especially vintages from the 1950s-1970s. At that time, warm weather was considered ideal because grapes struggled to ripen. The warmest vineyards, those that faced due south the famous sorís, were the most coveted. Today, in our climate change-challenged world, you would be hard pressed to find a producer who believes that south-facing vineyards are the most ideal.

Let’s look at 2018.

1. A Long Growing Season – A long growing season, which is defined as the period from budbreak to harvest, is essential for achieving full physiological ripening of the fruit, skins and seeds. Since Nebbiolo is already a very tannic grape, less than full physiological ripeness is heavily penalizing. The growing season was within normal parameters, while harvest was on the later side, but ideal physiological ripeness was not achieved (for other reasons), so the first condition is only partially met.

2. Diurnal Shifts – The final phase of ripening must be accompanied by diurnal shifts, which are the swings in temperature from warm days to cool nights. Diurnal shifts create aromatic complexity, full flavor development and color. Evening temperatures did cool down at the end of the season to balance daytime highs, but perhaps not to the degree some growers would have liked. Thus, the second condition is only partially met.

3. The Absence of Shock Weather Events – Frost and hail can severely and irreparably damage the crop. Similarly, periods of uninterrupted elevated heat can block maturation. Several weeks of uninterrupted rain in May made vineyard work extremely difficult. Moreover, the hangover of frost, drought and excessively hot temperatures from 2017 affected many vineyards. Therefore, the third condition is not met.

4. Stable Weather During the Last Month – The last month of the growing season makes the quality of the vintage. Stable weather without prolonged rain episodes is essential for harvesting a healthy crop. The end of the growing season was warm, but there was some rain that might not have been an issue in most years, but certainly did not help in 2018. The fourth condition is only partially met.

5. A Late Harvest – Harvest must take place in October (possibly late September in some areas), with the final phase of ripening occurring during the shorter days of late September and October, as opposed to the longer, hotter days of August. By present day standards harvest was on the later side, so the fifth condition is met.

Guido and Fabio Fantino on a typically Piedmontese November day. In recent years, the Conterno-Fantino wines have gained in energy and precision.

Readers will note that most of the conditions required for a good to great vintage are only partially met in 2018. That’s exactly what so many 2018 Barolos taste like - partial wines, not fully formed wines. Of course there are exceptions where conditions were more favorable and where growers made the right adjustments at critical moments.

In looking at the big picture, the question remains: What explains the unevenness of the 2018 Barolos? Is it simply a matter of location? Is it a question of better long-term care of vineyards at some estates? Were some producers willing to do the hard work to steer the vintage in a positive direction and others not? Is there generally a lack of technical knowledge relative to other regions in the world? Have some producers become complacent after a string of good to great vintages and red-hot demand for their wines? 

In the final analysis, the results of 2018 are likely a combination of some - maybe all - of these factors, to varying degrees, depending on the estate. My own view, after having tasted many 2018s that are successful, is that the overall quality of this vintage could have been and should have been higher.

Silvia Altare (right) and longtime winemaker Tes Cyo (left) turned out a stellar set of 2018 Barolos.

Estates to Watch

I have been drinking and buying Piedmont wines since my twenties, tasting probably since before that, but let’s just say since my twenties so I don’t get into trouble. Waiting tables in Boston restaurants (in the days before sommeliers) gave me an opportunity to taste wines from all over the world. I quickly came to believe that Piedmont offered similar quality to more famous appellations from France and United States but with more favorable pricing, so that ‘s what I bought for myself. Plus Rioja, my other favorite back then. Like everyone else who has bought Barolo and Barbaresco for some time, I have been utterly shocked by the tremendous price appreciation for Piedmont’s best wines. Some estates have had brilliant track records for years or decades, while others have achieved cult-like status basically overnight. It is worth noting that most of that appreciation is market-driven rather than the result of increased prices at the cellar door. Of course, prices for other highly desirable wines have also exploded, so Piedmont remains very attractive from a relative standpoint, even if prices have skyrocketed while availability has dwindled. While that can be seriously discouraging, I believe we are living in an amazing time in which there is more good and great wine than ever before. These are some of my favorite lesser-known Barolo estates today. All of them make wines that are delicious, compelling and still priced favorably for the consumer.

· Barale - The wines from this classically-minded, historic estate in the Barolo continue to improve under the direction of Eleonora Barale.

· Castello di Verduno - This historic property owns an enviable array of vineyards in both Barolo and Barbaresco. The wines have been especially notable of late. 

· Einaudi - The move towards a more classic style and greater direction overall is starting to pay dividends at Einaudi, another historic name in Piedmont. 

· Crissante Alessandria - This small, family-run estate in La Morra has started to turn out gorgeous, understated Barolos that capture the natural finesse of the appellation. 

· Diego Conterno - A relatively young estate in its current incarnation, Diego Conterno has quietly moved up the ranks in recent years with Barolos that are wonderfully nuanced.

· Fratelli Serio & Battista Borgogno - The Barolos at this old-school winery have turned a corner over the last handful of years and are increasingly of note.

· Mauro Veglio - Now in its second generation, this La Morra estate is poised to make a big move under the direction of Alessandro Veglio.

Fabio Alessandria at Burlotto made all the right calls in 2018; the Burlotto Barolos are once again superb.

In Conclusion…

While 2018 is a vintage to navigate through carefully, readers will find a number of compelling wines that are well worth considering. As usual, I include a number of wines from previous vintages that are entering the market now. I tasted most of the wines in this article during a trip to Piedmont in November 2021. I followed that up with tastings in our New York office in January 2022. Because of the challenging nature of the vintage, I tasted many wines more than once.

© 2022, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

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