Vintage Retrospective: The 1985 Barolos and Barbarescos

The subject of evaluating and rating vintages is one of the favorite topics of discussion among Piedmont lovers, so the opportunity to taste sixteen of the best 1985 Barolos and Barbarescos with a group of hardcore New York Nebbiolo fans made for a truly special evening.

Many insiders describe the 1985 vintage as a turning point for the wines.  According to Luciano Sandrone “1985 was in many ways the first ‘modern,’ hot vintage.  The Barolos were uncharacteristically open from the start and have remained accessible.”  Giacosa enologist Dante Scaglione says “1985 was the first vintage in which we had wines with very high alcohol.  In fact, we wouldn’t see such alcohol levels in our wines again until 2003.   I view 1985 as a vintage that is ready to drink and one which will not be especially long-lived going forward.”  Roberto Conterno had a slightly different take commenting that “I wouldn’t necessarily say our wines were accessible from the beginning, however today the 1985s are very expressive and it is a great vintage to drink today.”   

Because of the hot growing season and early appeal of the vintage, some have predicted that the wines would not age well.  For the most part, I was amazed at how well these Barolos showed.  Many of the wines displayed lively color, with rich, sweet fruit, and enough underlying structure to provide balance. While the wines as a group are mature, any suggestion that they are falling apart is simply not borne out by this tasting.  How long will the wines last?   That is a hard question to answer, since provenance is such a huge variable, but I think it is safe to say that for many of these wines well-stored bottles have another decade of life ahead, and perhaps more.   These 1985s offer great drinking today in a more accessible, softer style than either 1982 or 1989, the other two great vintages from the 1980s.

Unfortunately we also had a few bad bottles, which I suppose is to be expected in a tasting like this, although the percentage of corked/cooked bottles was higher than we would have liked (around 25%).  When these wines were first released fifteen years ago there simply wasn’t the kind of attention to temperature-controlled shipping that we have today and several wines appeared to have been damaged by excess heat at some point in their lives.  The biggest lesson here for consumers is that there is no substitute for buying these wines on release and cellaring them.  Doing so is the only reliable way to minimize the possibility of some very expensive disappointments at a later date.

The wines were double-decanted and served blind in flights of four.  The identity of the wines was revealed only after all of the wines had been tasted and discussed.  Tasting these wines blind with a group of passionate and knowledgeable Barolo fans was a great learning experience, but also a humbling one.   Mature Barolos are wines of extraordinary complexity and can fool even the most seasoned palates, as we would be reminded throughout the evening.

After the formal tasting was concluded, we enjoyed a delicious dinner, and finished off what was left of these spectacular wines.  We also tasted Prunotto’s 1985 Barolo Bussia, which was fresh, youthful, and delicious, although it didn’t quite reach the level of the best wines on this evening.  A great bottle of Bruno Giacosa’s 1986 Barolo Riserva Falletto followed, and it was one of the best wines of the night, prompting some of the tasters to wonder if this producer may have been more successful in 1986 than 1985.  The evening closed with the outrageous 1983 Recioto from Giuseppe Quintarelli.  While I don’t have enough experience with this wine to put it into the proper context, I will say that it was breathtaking for its complexity, balance, and sheer appeal.  At age 22 it appeared to be magically youthful, and my sense is that this is a wine whose aging potential is to be measured in decades rather than years.

1985 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo—Medium red. What a way to start the evening.  Mascarello’s Barolo offers a beautiful nose of spices and menthol that is just starting to reveal more evolved notes.  It is dense on the palate, with suggestions of rich red fruit, menthol and cocoa balanced by noble tannins which provide just the right amount of balance, and closing with an extraordinary finish that conveys a sense of freshness. A terrific showing.  95 points/drink now-, tasted 10/05

1985 Giuseppe Rinaldi Barolo Brunate Riserva—Medium red.  The Rinaldi appears to be more evolved, with suggestions of leather and tobacco on the nose.  It is an accessible wine that offers notable concentration in its rich, ripe red fruit flavors and soft, velvety texture, with an indescribably beautiful, ethereal finish that makes me want to taste this again and again.  Perhaps fooled by this wine’s super-rich, sweet fruit, I guessed this to be a modern Barolo…and I was not alone.  One of the most surprising and enjoyable wines of the night.  96 points/drink now-, tasted 10/05

1985 Altare Barolo Arborina—Lively red.  This wine stands in stark contrast to the other wines in the flight.  It is also one of the revelations of the evening.  Altare’s Barolo surprises for its incredibly fresh, attractive nose of roses, spices, vanilla, and toasted oak.  It is a lush, concentrated, fruit-driven Barolo, with generous amounts of dark red cherry, tar, and menthol flavors.  Still somewhat backward, it is also one of the most youthful wines of the tasting.   While today modern and traditional styles have begun to converge, tasting these four wines side by side gives a very clear idea of how shocking the modern Barolos must have seemed 20 years ago.  A great effort.  97 points/drink now-, tasted 10/05

1985 Marcarini Barolo La Serra—Medium red with orangeish tones.  The nose is evolved and slightly oxidized.  Stewed prune, earth and meat flavors dominate this fully mature wine, which has seen better days.  80 points/drink now-, tasted 10/05

1985 Giacosa Barbaresco Santo Stefano Riserva—Medium red.  The Santo Stefano is one of the most complete wines of the evening.  It shows and outrageous, well-delineated nose of alcohol, roses, tar, licorice, and macerated cherries that continues to open in a never-ending display of sensations and aromas.  Deceptively medium-bodied, the Santo Stefano is packed with masses of concentrated dark fruit, with superb length great overall balance, closing with a fresh finish that suggests it will continue to provide much enjoyment for years to come.  Some tasters, myself included, mistook this for the Barolo Falletto.  98 points/drink now-, tasted 10/05.

1985 Bruno Giacosa Barolo Falletto Riserva—Cloudy medium red.  The Falletto shows a delicate, mature nose of spices, tobacco, and fruitcake.  It is ethereal on the palate yet also massive and dense, with plenty of stewed fruit on a long, sustained frame with good grip and a long finish.  This is an enjoyable wine, but it is also more advanced than I would have expected, and does not appear to be a great bottle.  92? points/drink now-, tasted 10/05

1985 Angelo Gaja Barbaresco Sorì Tildin—Very dark ruby.  The Sorì Tildin presents a stark contrast to other wines in the flight in its super-ripe, concentrated style.  The aromatics are somewhat muted.  This seems to offer outstanding potential, although the fruit is dominated by an unyielding wall of new oak.  Every now and then spice, tar and licorice nuances emerge, but my overall impression is of a wine imprisoned by an excessive amount of oak.  92 points/drink now-, tasted 10/05

1985 Brovia Barolo Monprivato—Dark ruby.  Brovia’s stunning, youthful Monprivato is another of the evening’s highlights.  It shows a potent, alcoholic nose along with layers of dark, concentrated fruit that coat the palate.  Readers who enjoy a more masculine, authoritative style will love this intensely satisfying, rich, full-bodied Barolo.  A wine I came back to often during the evening, this is a fascinating as well as engaging effort.  Although it shows very little typicity of Monprivato, (I thought it was Monfortino) it is an astonishing effort nonetheless.     97 points/drink now-, tasted 10/05

1985 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Riserva Monfortino—Conterno’s Monfortino is a soft, accessible wine, showing notes of macerated cherries and alcohol on a medium bodied frame with fairly good length and freshness.  Unfortunately we didn’t have great luck with the Conterno wines and this bottle was not representative of what this tremendous wine usually offers.  (see Issue 3 and 4) 92 points/drink now-, tasted 10/05

1985 Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo Monprivato—Medium red.  Monprivato comes across as understated, as no element of the wine in particular stands out.  The nose is beautiful, but not especially expressive.  On the palate though, this wine really blossoms, displaying much delicate, sweet red fruit with tremendous harmony and superb length.  It is delicious today, but shows a fair amount of tannins and overall structure which suggests that well-stored bottles will provide much drinking pleasure for another decade or more.  An astonishing wine for its sheer purity and elegance, it is also much more typical of the Monprivato vineyard than the Brovia wine tasted alongside it.  96 points/drink now-, tasted 10/05

1985 Vietti Barolo Rocche—Medium ruby.  The Rocche is another stunning wine which seems impossibly young in its beautiful, fresh nose of roses and spices.  It offers plenty of sweet, concentrated fruit with much harmony and superb length in a style that bridges traditional and modern.  A compelling effort.  95 points/drink now-, tasted 10/05

1985 Aldo Conterno Barolo Granbussia—Dark ruby. The Granbussia comes across as a bit more evolved, with a nose that suggests spices and stewed fruits.  The tannins are mostly resolved, and this wine is soft and expressive in its rich prune and plum flavors, with terrific overall harmony.  It appears to be a wine to drink sooner rather than later.  94 points/drink now-, tasted 10/05

1985 Luciano Sandrone Barolo Cannubi Boschis—Dark ruby.  Sandrone’s Cannubi Boschis is spiced on the nose, with suggestions of toasted oak, vanilla, and menthol.  It is utterly irresistible, showing tremendous purity and vibrancy in its ripe sweet fruit, with superb length and a clean, fresh finish.   A wine that marries modern tastes with classic structure, Sandrone’s 1985 is a superb Barolo which has aged gracefully, but still has much prime drinking ahead of it.  96 points/drink now-, tasted 10/05

1985 Ceretto Bricco Rocche Barolo Bricco Rocche—Dark ruby.  Ceretto’s Bricco Roche shows somewhat evolved notes of tobacco, leather and beef bouillon on the nose.  It is rich and dense on the palate, with plenty of stewed fruit flavors in a delicate, classic style.  A very beautiful wine with a great sense of proportion, and which is at maturity today.   93 points/drink now-, tasted 10/05

—Antonio Galloni