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What Makes a Great Barolo Vintage? Establishing a Framework
BY ANTONIO GALLONI | MAY 11, 2021
What makes a great Barolo vintage? Unlike some regions, Bordeaux being the most notable, Piedmont does not have an established framework that sets out the criteria required for a vintage to be considered very high in potential quality. Clearly many observers have views, but I have never seen them codified. What follows is my framework of objective criteria that are necessary in order for a Barolo (or Barbaresco) vintage to be considered truly great. It is inspired by the late Denis Dubourdieu and the model he developed for assessing young Bordeaux vintages and the research my colleague Alessandro Masnaghetti has done in collecting and analyzing weather, harvest dates and other data. To that, I add my 20+ years of visiting the region and all of the information I have gathered 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 framework addresses the growing season, and does not venture into an assessment of the wines. This is very much a working model. It is meant to be tested, broken and refined over time.
A view of Serralunga as seen from Rocche di Castiglione, Castiglione Falletto.
1. A Long Growing Season – A long growing season, 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.
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 and color.
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.
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 or other events is essential for harvesting a healthy crop.
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.
In using this framework for recent years, 2008, 2010, 2013 and 2016 all meet the criteria for a great vintage. Two thousand-fourteen meets the criteria in Barbaresco and comes close in Barolo, where generally speaking, hail and rain were just too challenging for producers, the presence of a number of monumental wines notwithstanding. 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 were due south-facing, 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 sites for the future.
This article is adapted from some of my previous writings and published here as a separate piece so that it can be more easily searched and reference in the future.
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