Young Barolos, such as these outstanding bottlings singled out by the author, typically display elements of dark cherry, strawberry, tar, tobacco and tea.
Photo: Mitchell Shenker
Spotlight on Barolo
By Tom Maresca
Buying Barolo, whether to drink now or lay down for its inevitable, wondrous maturity, has suddenly become a no-brainer. Thanks to a fabulous run of excellent vintages spanning 1995 through 2000, Italy's noblest red wine (and one of the world's finest drinks) is enjoying unprecedented prestige.
In the tiny zone within the Piemonte region that Barolo calls home, this distinguished series of stellar vintages is a cause for amazement. Pio Boffa, the affable and energetic owner of Pio Cesare winery, one of the region's long-established quality producers, says, "When we had three great vintages together in 1988, '89 and '90, my father said to me, 'You'll never see this again.' My god! Now we've got six! It's unbelievable."
Giacomo Conterno, son of the revered Aldo Conterno and the force behind the respected house bearing his father's name (one of three here carrying the Conterno name), also measures the anomaly through the experiences of the family patriarch: "My father is 71 years old and has been making Barolo all his life - he's never seen six great vintages in a row."
In a region where growers are accustomed to one superior vintage, two good ones, and seven more prosaic to poor harvests per decade, it's easy to understand why these gentlemen are ecstatic over Barolo's consecutive victories, especially because 1995 broke a string of average-to-disappointing harvests with a small but select crop. In 1996, winegrowers scored again; it still wasn't a big crop, but the grapes were excellent. Then came the benchmark 1997 vintage, which was a fabulous year in most of Italy; in Piemonte the weather conditions produced grapes of a quality that younger growers had not seen before, and more seasoned veterans could only recall from many years past.
Everyone thought that would be it for the decade, but 1998 stormed back with a harvest at least as noteworthy as '96. In 1999, there was a repeat performance of the quality achieved in 1998. The year 2000 topped '99, though with a less-than-average crop size. And for those who simply can't get enough of a good thing, early signs indicate 2001 may be just as good as 1997, which will extend the Barolo winning streak to a mind-boggling lucky seven.
Boffa is one of many vintners in the Alba region who thinks that their run of good fortune can be chalked up to more than just plain serendipity. He believes that over the past few decades the area's climate has been definitively altered. He dates the change to approximately 1985, a year that he refers to as "the first modern vintage" of Barolo. Cesare Boschis, of the venerable Borgogno firm, strongly agrees. "The climatic cycles have altered so much," he says, "that one could almost say that the seasons have gone from four to two, a hot one and a cold one, or even a dry one and a wet one."
Pio Boffa elaborates: "It's hotter and drier with longer summers, with fewer rainy days during the harvest, all of which allow the grapes to ripen much earlier. Years ago, we used to pick the nebbiolo toward the end of October, early November. In 1979, for example, we picked after November 5."
For Barolo, which is vinified entirely from nebbiolo grapes, those prolonged summers have been a godsend. Nebbiolo needs every minute of sunshine it can get. It has an exceptionally long growing season, blossoming early and ripening very late. This is why the zone's best southward or southwest facing slopes have always been reserved for it, with other regional varieties, such as barbera and dolcetto, getting the second choice of sites.
That's part of the reason for Barolo's string of great vintages: over the past half-dozen years, the nebbiolo grapes have been ripening more evenly and more thoroughly than was typical in the past, and harvest has been occurring earlier than had been normal. According to Roberto Conterno, son of Giovanni, the head of the highly regarded firm of Giacomo Conterno, "Since 1995, we've had such a series of very good vintages as hasn't happened in living memory, and in 1997, the harvest was advanced, for the first time ever, to the end of September."
Others are less sure than Boffa and Boschis that a permanent climate shift has occurred, though they, too, acknowledge changing weather patterns. Marcello Ceretto, winemaker for the prestigious Alba wine house, says that since 1995, the summer has been longer. "Warm temperatures last until the end of September or October," he explains. "Rainfall has been less extended in the course of the year, but more concentrated than in the past." As a result, "The better weather has allowed better maturation and greater health of the grapes," he notes, "which have required little corrective support."
Still, as benevolent as the weather has been of late, when it comes to analyzing Barolo's recent successes, one must look beyond the obvious climate factors.
Little by little, over the last quarter century or so, the grapes, the process and the people who make Barolo have all been altered in ways both great and small -- so much so that in this region it is now difficult to distinguish the conservative trends from the progressive. Here, like elsewhere in the European wine world, vintners have embraced more modern vineyard and cellar practices, most of
which they've borrowed from New World wine regions. The happy result: Barolo is now a better wine than it has ever been.
Appellation Barolo borrows its name from the small hamlet (population 760) that lies near the center of the wine's growing zone, just a couple of miles southwest of Alba (the white truffle capital of the world) in the southern end of Piemonte. The zone itself is a more self-contained microcosm than most Barolo fans may realize. There are only about 3,000 acres of nebbiolo under cultivation here -- not quite as much vineyard land as in Margaux, a single Bordeaux commune.
Until quite recently, the area was solidly rural and picture-book pretty in an almost stereotypical way. Alba, the regional administrative and business center, was a very slow-moving, pale-brick city, and the other wine towns - Barolo, Castiglione Falletto, Cherasco, Grinzane Cavour, La Morra, Monforte d'Alba, Novello, Serralunga, Verduno - were smaller and sleepier still. Each little, picturesque town continues to look much like its neighbor: a central castle of characteristically age-faded red brick, perched on the highest hill; a nearby church, occasionally grand enough to rate as a cathedral, presiding over the piazza where the Saturday market gathers; and a cluster of low houses of more modest antiquity straggling downhill from the hub.
The rhythms of life in agrarian communities like these in Piemonte have evolved very little in the nearly 2,000 years since the Roman legions marched in, "pacified" the region and doled out farms to the grizzled centurions who brought north with them the vines that were nebbiolo's ancestors. The best scientific speculation at the moment holds that nebbiolo's grandsire was probably aglianico, still the pride of Basilicata and a noble variety in its own right.
The chance importation of the grape's progenitor to the region has proven providential, indeed, for nowhere else on earth does nebbiolo yield such profound wines. The unique combination of soil, climate and winemaking practices combine to achieve what Roberto Conterno calls "the maximum expression of nebbiolo." Arguably, the only rival comes from the even smaller Barbaresco zone on the northeast side of Alba, where the soils and climate are similar. Further north in Piemonte, near Gattinara, or Ghemme, nebbiolo makes a good wine, in some years a great one, but never a wine that attains the depth and power of Barolo. Yet even further afield, in Valle d'Aosta or in Valtellina, nebbiolo yields markedly different wines -- enjoyable, but lacking subtlety and depth. Planted a world away, in California or New York, nebbiolo becomes a different grape entirely, producing -- so far at least -- wines of minimal interest.
On its home territory, nothing about Barolo is of minimal interest. The Piemontese passionately believe that Barolo is less a wine than a way of life. One local aficionado explains it this way: "As a young person, you love big, rich flavors -- so you drink Barolo. In your middle age, you seek something more solid, something less obvious -- so you drink Barolo. In your wisest years, you want a wine that allows you to think about and savor the pleasures of maturity, both its maturity and your own -- so you drink Barolo."
Right through most of the 20th century, winemaking was as it had always been -- unchanged in its essentials except for the belated infestation of phylloxera in the 1920s, almost 50 years after its devastating arrival in Bordeaux. As recently as 1975, few vineyard owners knew for sure what clones of nebbiolo were in their fields or what difference, if any, their identity made. Fermenters were mostly big, Slavonian oak tanks, often lined with inches and years of tartrate deposits.
Temperature controls consisted of ice dumped into the fermenters on really hot days. Stainless steel was largely absent, barriques were almost unheard of, and maceration times for nebbiolo were always measured in weeks rather than days. When the weather cooperated and the wine came out right, it was unforgettable, but in most vintages it was merely okay and unwelcoming -- a big red wine, rather harshly tannic, needing years of mellowing before it was truly drinkable.
In the 19th century, two equally popular versions of Barolo existed side by side: a sweet one with varying amounts of residual sugar, and a more austere, fully dry rendition. The latter was being championed by a Frenchman named Oudart, who today would be called a consulting enologist. He had a large say in the winemaking at several key estates -- the royal castle at Verduno, the Falletti estates and Grinzane Cavour, the property of the man who became the first prime minister of Italy after unification in 1861.
With that sort of influential backing, the dry rendition of Barolo gradually became dominant and, happily, set the standard for the Barolo we now know - big, full-bodied and rich because of the spectacular generosity of ripe nebbiolo fruit, but at the same time balanced and elegant, because of the grape's inherent abundance of acid and tannins.
The overtly aggressive nature of those tannins could have been the wine's undoing. Considered an attribute worthy of cult devotion by a small core of enophiles, those raspy tannins made the wine unpalatable for many others. Because Barolo was supposed to be as slow-maturing as it was long-lived, that very youthful harshness itself became, for some producers, a kind of guarantee of longevity. So the unofficial rule became that young Barolo should be undrinkable. That may have been a successful strategy in the 19th century, when nobles and wealthy bourgeois families cellared wines meant to last for decades, but in post-World War II Italy, it was a disaster. Barolo became a wine always honored but seldom drunk, a whole evolutionary step away from the enthusiastic acceptance Barolo has now attained.
While Barolo was struggling in the market, a quieter but fundamentally more serious battle had been enjoined in the vineyards. For a long while, everyone had thought the nebbiolo clonal situation was relatively simple. In the late 19th century, three main clones had been identified: lampia, michet (pronounced meek-ette) and rosé, of which the first two were by far the most important and the most widely planted in the Alba area. Rosé, as the name implies, is lightly colored and was rarely used, except where fragrance was the main consideration. And that was where matters stood until serious clonal research began about 25 years ago, and continues today. The ongoing project, which is being researched at the University of Turin, has revealed that nebbiolo, like pinot noir, is what is known as a "weak" variety, an unstable grape that mutates very easily in the fields, adapting rapidly to local circumstances.
What this means in practical terms is that in the vineyards, where two or three clones had been planted years ago, dozens exist today. Indeed, there may now be more than 100 different nebbiolo mutations thriving around Alba, each clone happily ensconced in its own highly specific site and adapted to its own particular terroir. So even where growers thought they were adhering to time-proven clones, replanting with grafts from their ancestral vines, the vines themselves were mutating. This also means, of course, that as growers have renewed their vineyards with their favored plant materials from their own vines, neighboring vineyards have been similarly metamorphosing, sometimes subtly, sometimes markedly. The situation resembles that of Burgundy, where soil variations and the equally unstable pinot noir variety combine to magnify the differences between even adjoining vineyards. And that's one essential reason why even the most tradition-bound Barolo makers simply can't reproduce their grandfathers' wine: the grapes themselves are irrevocably altered.
The Barolo zone also resembles Burgundy in the importance of what each site contributes to the wine. This can be both Barolo's strength and its limitation. Renzo Cotarella, head winemaker for the Antinori firm that now owns the Prunotto winery, a signature facility in the region, warns that "Barolo's production area is variable, and therefore the value of the vintages depends a lot both on the cru and on the producers." Chiara Boschis, owner and winemaker of E. Pira & Figli, says simply, "The greatest resource of Barolo producers is provided by the expression of the terroir that makes the wine so special."
The soils that define
the Barolo zone fall loosely into two major types: Helvetian and Tortonian (a third, Messinian, is relatively scarce and therefore not as important). The road that runs south from Alba through Monforte d'Alba and on to Dogliani roughly divides the two dominant soils: to the west lies the Tortonian, a blue-tinted marl mixed with sand and marked by the presence of elements such as magnesium. To the east, the sandier Helvetian loam is lighter in color and texture and is relatively rich in limestone, iron and phosphorous. The wines springing from the western-sited, Tortonian-nourished vineyards have generally been described as soft, fruity and aromatic, while those from the eastern, Helvetian sites are perceived as bigger, more structured and longer maturing. These broad distinctions are often blurred and sometimes completely obliterated, however, by the combination of clonal variation and winemaking techniques. More detailed analysis has also revealed that these two soils are layered throughout the region. As Maurizio Rossi explains in his excellent new book The Mystique of Barolo (reviewed on p. 40), "The roots of a single vine may actually pass through different geological layers, absorbing a variety of elements from each." All of those trace elements contribute their bit to the distinctive complexity and depth of a mature Barolo.
As modern (and often American) technology penetrated the region in the closing decades of the 20th century, Barolo producers made a series of small adjustments that, taken together, amount to a major improvement in the way the vines are cultivated. Compact plantings, for instance, provide more stress for the vines and greater concentration in the grapes. There is, however, an upper limit on planting density. According to Giacomo Conterno, 8,000 vines per hectare (about 3,300 vines per acre), an amount with which several growers have experimented, is excessive. "That much competition weakens the vines -- it's like dividing one loaf of bread among a whole football team. We've found 5,000 to 5,500 vines per hectare (2,000 to 2,300 vines per acre) is about the right density for us," he explains.
As elsewhere in Italy, many of the region's growers have cautiously moved in the direction of sustainable and organic farming, using fewer chemicals and striving to create a naturally healthy environment in the vineyards. In this they have been greatly helped by the recent spate of drier summers, which has reduced the need to protect against the many forms of mold that beset vines in damp weather.
As meaningful as this more holistic approach may be, the most important field innovation has been the widespread adoption of green harvest (the pruning away of whole bunches of unripe grapes to concentrate the remaining fruit), sometimes as much as one-third of the crop.
Paolo Abbona, whose family owns the venerable Marchesi di Barolo estate, says, "It is cluster thinning, carried out at mid-August, when veraison [the point of maturity when the grapes are just beginning to color] is at an advanced stage, that assures perfect ripening and increases the concentration of extractive substances."
Radically reducing fruit quantity through the green harvest yields a dramatic rise in quality wherever it is practiced, but it still pains growers to do it. For farmers the world over, a lot of crop seems better than a little, and diminishing it just goes against the grain. In Barolo, where the producers increasingly own their vineyards, enforcing strict quantity controls is becoming more feasible. But when wineries must buy grapes from outside sources, as used to be the norm in Barolo and is still fairly common, the independent growers often stubbornly resist the idea of dropping fruit, even when offered more money for the reduced crop.
Upgrading quality in the vineyard goes a long way in the cellar, where the actual process of winemaking advanced dramatically in the last quarter of the 20th century. Today the improvements leap to the eye: Spotlessly clean conditions prevail, with stainless steel tanks, temperature controls and computers in evidence almost everywhere. Even the most modest winery supports a laboratory to measure and track grape ripeness, sugar and acid levels, and phenolic maturation. Full malolactic fermentation is the norm and carefully monitored. These upgrades enable the processes of fermentation and extraction to proceed as flawlessly as possible. After all, the goal is not to alter the character of the fruit, but to best express what it inherently has to offer or, as Giacomo Conterno (of the Aldo Conterno firm) puts it, "to intensify the personality of nebbiolo and its site identity, to make the opposite of Coca-Cola wine."
Less immediately obvious, but perhaps even more integral to the steady improvement of Barolo, has been the transformation of the Barolo business. Until the 1960s, the production of Barolo was dominated by a handful of firms whose role loosely paralleled that of conventional Burgundian négociants. They owned no vineyards, and instead sourced fruit from various growers throughout the Barolo zone, blending according to a house formula -- so many kilos from La Morra, so many from Castiglione -- to produce a wine that was labeled, simply, Barolo. Ideally, the resulting blend reflected a balance of the characteristics belonging to the different sites. The producer's name on the label was the consumer's assurance of the quality of the bottle's contents. But just as happened in Burgundy after World War II, many of Barolo's hard-working farmers took control of their own fruit once they discovered the greater profitability of making the wine themselves, showcasing their vineyard sites and labeling and selling it under their own names.
Marketing vineyard designates had been tried before -- Guiseppe "Beppe" Colla, longtime winemaker for the Prunotto firm and one of the most highly regarded authorities in the region, first bottled a Barolo cru 30 years ago -- but the popularity and proliferation of cru bottlings has occurred in tandem with the birth of Barolo connoisseurship. So in this way, too, tradition has given way to more modern winemaking approaches, even among the most conservative practitioners. And this new emphasis on site specificity is yet one more contributing factor in Barolo's current series of triumphs.
The metamorphoses wrought by late 20th-century technology and the advent of a global wine market have clearly enhanced the quality of recent vintages, but an element of friction exists among the zone's producers, who are divided over what are called traditionalist and modernist approaches. Both terms have to be taken with a grain of salt, as the distinctions between them seem to be fading. That said, there remains the ongoing disagreement in the zone about winemaking style. The debate over barriques, which has been ballyhooed in the press so much that it has almost become a cliché, is the most obvious bone of contention. Barriques -- small, new oak barrels in which the wine is aged -- provide the flash point because their effect on the wine's taste is so blatantly evident.
Combined with shorter maceration times (and therefore less extraction of elements from the grape solids), barriques substitute sweet tannins both for nebbiolo's own, frequently harsher ones and for the smoother, less intense tannins provided by the huge Slavonian oak cooperage traditionally favored by some houses. Proponents of barrique aging, such as Domenico Clerico and Elio Altare, leaders of the modernist faction (i.e., barrique using), believe "barriques give a wine elegance" - period - as both have said on more than one occasion. Opponents, such as both Conterno houses and Bruno Giacosa, among many others, assert that these small barrels undermine the character of Barolo, giving it a vanillin sweetness that overrides nebbiolo's own fruit. In fairness to the modernists, it must be noted that as they have gained experience with barriques, the oak flavors have receded in their wines. As Chiara Boschis explained, "We had to learn how to use barriques. They weren't part of our traditional tools." It's useful to remember that the Cerettos were among the earliest to use barriques in making Barolo, an innovation that 20 years ago caused them to be regarded as dangerous radicals. Ceretto still uses barriques, and most experts regard their wines as the hallmark of mainstream Barolo.
The distinctive vanilla flavor that barriques confer has practically become the signature of international-style wines, from wherever and whatever grape varieties they are made. So perhaps it would be more accurate to describe Barolo's barrique debate as a subjective controversy over style -- one between adherents of regional particularity (with whatever asperities that may entail) in one camp, and in the other, fans of readily accessible, more immediately elegant wines (with whatever homogenization of flavors that may require). Historians of the zone will recognize this as our contemporary version of the 19th-century skirmish between proponents of the native, sweet version of Barolo and the French-influenced, then-novel dry Barolo. For those with vested interests in the region, the debate can be deeply personal and fired with emotions.
Keeping Barolo on its glorious roll is paramount for both parties, and neither faction has allowed the barrique question to hinder it from making great wine, as the spate of recent triumphs proves. But a more divisive controversy is brewing -- one that could threaten the fundamental nature of Barolo as a monovarietal wine. The first shots have already been fired, in the form of discussions within the zone to alter the DOCG requirements to permit the blending into Barolo of small percentages -- three, five and eight are the numbers I have heard floated - of another classic, regional variety, barbera, or perhaps even the very non-native cabernet, merlot or syrah.
The measure was defeated, but the bull sessions have only just begun. Those who favor blending argue that the practice is in the true tradition of Barolo -- the way things were always done before the DOC and DOCG regulations were put in place. This assertion holds up under the scrutiny of area historians as well as through the testimony of still-active winemakers. "Talk to the old guys around here," Pio Boffa advises, "and they'll all tell you that they always fermented a little barbera with the nebbiolo -- not to add alcohol, but to cut the astringency, to give more fruit, to add soft tannins."
Others feel passionately that, whatever past practices may have been, the present DOCG edict insisting that Barolo be made from 100 percent nebbiolo is on target because the grape has ample depth by itself to make a complete wine. Even the two branches of the Conterno family agree on this. "Probably in the past, they blended some barbera into Barolo," admits Giacomo Conterno, of the Aldo Conterno firm, "but now it would be a mistake. Nebbiolo is so interesting in itself, it has such complex character, so much white-truffle intensity, that to dilute it would just be a big mistake. Barbera could darken the color, but that pale color is part of Barolo's identity, part of its personality." Weighing in from the Giacomo Conterno firm, cousin Roberto Conterno concurs: "I completely reject the wisdom of blending barbera, syrah, cabernet or merlot into Barolo. When one makes such an 'improvement,' it's because the wine needs to be improved," he explains. "But when we speak of nebbiolo in its maximum expression that is Barolo, I believe we speak of a wine that displays a complexity of aroma and a breadth and depth of flavor [that is] very unique." He believes that "all this alleged 'improvement' could do is to darken the color -- but what's the point?"
Even a firm such as Antinori, which now makes wine all over Italy and markets it globally, feels the threat to Barolo's regional identity. "Nebbiolo could give a more international wine by blending it with syrah and/or barbera in order to increase its tannin sweetness and color," says chief winemaker Renzo Cottarella, "but, of course, that addition would cause a loss of identity and typicity for Barolo." As always when there is contentiousness, one hears numerous sotto voce allegations that there are those who are already adding "other" grapes to Barolo, but aside from Angelo Gaja, who has declassified several of his most expensive wines in the neighboring Barbaresco zone and who has always famously gone his own way, no one is admitting it. (In my own experience,
I can testify that in tasting more than 100 new Barolos in Alba last year, I found that a lot of them were astonishingly dark-colored, and more than a handful possessed aromas that were decidedly atypical for nebbiolo.)
All this turmoil is both intensely fascinating and irksomely familiar to lovers of Italian wines. There is a long, causal chain that starts with the virtual invisibility of fine Italian wine 30 years ago in the American and international marketplace and runs through the volatile and imaginative aspects of Italian character, through the pragmatic demands of the now thoroughly internationalized wine market, through the highly competitive Italian response to them, and through the explosion of wine technology over the past few decades. The links end without a clasp at the point in which any prescriptive wine legislation becomes outmoded the moment it is formulated.
The scenario is basically the same all over Italy, but nowhere more so than in the zones where the stakes are highest -- where the finest wines originate. Old ways of doing things that have stood in place for centuries inevitably yield to newer, often better methods, in a process that is never ending. In the Chianti Classico zone, for example, a zone in which tradition had long required the blending of several grape varieties to build its namesake wine, producers have been gradually dropping the supporting varieties from the blend and moving toward a monovarietal wine with the indigenous sangiovese grape at its core. In Piemonte, where single-grape wines are the norm, some vintners are anxious to trace the opposite path, trying out the possibilities of blending different varieties to produce -- when it works -- a wine combining the virtues of all and the defects of none.
To make any pronouncements about the future of Barolo - beyond expectations for this year's vintage - is very speculative, indeed. No one can say for certain what will happen even in the short term, much less a few decades out.
Innovation has certainly come to Piemonte, and it has already contributed to Barolo's unprecedented series of successes; and however much the rhythms of the seasons are shifting, much more remains the same: the rolling hills, the richly nuanced soils and nebbiolo's long, slow growth pattern. Barolo is as close as it can get to being a cult in Alba, and it is treated deferentially by its makers, who are a pragmatic, enduring, stubborn lot. And although change is always on the wind, implementing it is not taken lightly by the passionate and thoughtful men and women who are Barolo's stewards. Be they traditionalist or modernist, every bottle they produce is their interpretation of their patrimony, their paese - a word that English renders very poorly as their land or their country, but that ultimately explains who they are and how they came to be that way.
So in this paese, where nebbiolo is king, every bottle of Barolo testifies to its maker's identity and integrity. Each is always as much a pledge of allegiance to a grudging and giving paese as it is a simple bottle of frequently great wine. It is the humanity in and behind Barolo that defines its quality, explains its present high standing, and holds out the hope for yet better harvests to come.
Benchmark Vintages: The majority of producers count 1982, 1989, 1990, 1996 and 1997 as the five greatest vintages of the past 20 years. A significant number also favor 1998 and 1999. A run of middling years preceded a disastrous 1994 vintage, wherein heavy rains ruined the harvest. Only a few makers produced a wine that was even drinkable, and most of those are already fading fast. In most instances, the less said of this vintage the better.
As for the still-in-barrel wines of 2000 and 2001, most vintners will say no more than "it's too early to tell yet." And 2002 is shaping up to be a full-blown disaster, with excessive rains bloating the grapes and catastrophic hailstorms wasting important crus such as Cannubi and Cerequio. At the time of this writing, three or four weeks of solid sunshine could save the nebbiolo, but the prospects for that are very dim.
1995: Growers could not endure another gullywasher, and, for the most part, Mother Nature cooperated. Two isolated hailstorms caused uneven quality levels, but those who ducked the hail made superb wine; those few who didn't made merely good wine (and after the heartbreak of 1994, they were very pleased to do so). This harvest yielded a small crop, but the best of it made wines that almost from the time they finished fermenting were judged to be big Barolos for long keeping.
1996: A fine year that yielded wines of classic Barolo structure. Some growers - Ceretto for instance - rank 1996 with their very best vintages. An idyllic growing season resulted in grapes that were deeply colored and intensely perfumed, and produced wines with generous levels of alcohol, acid and tannins, as well as rich fruit flavors. In short, a vintage to cellar and enjoy for years.
1997: Many producers rank this as their best or second-best vintage of the 1990s (in most other decades of the 20th century, it would have had no rivals). On a visit to Alba during this harvest year, I could not ever recall seeing so many smiling faces in the vineyards. A warm, perfect growing season produced grapes of intense ripeness. Many growers, however, have a few reservations. According to Giacomo Conterno (of Aldo Conterno), "1997 set a record for sugar in the grapes, but the acid is comparatively low, and you need acidity for longevity in Barolo. But '97 is a marvelous vintage for people to come to understand Barolo: it's easy to grasp and it's ready to drink now. You can drink it for years, while you let the more classic years, like '96, mature." For sure, no one will ever confuse 1997 with any other Barolo vintage. The wines are marked by big - in some cases enormous - fruit of unprecedented softness, making the wines both very accessible and completely atypical, so much so that in some cases they wouldn't be recognizable as Barolo in a blind tasting. The Barolo edge - the tension and toughness that underlies the complexity of nebbiolo's fruit, that slightly intimidating blend of beauty and power that makes Barolo so intriguing - is largely missing from these wines. No matter what has been printed elsewhere, fans of classic Barolos will likely be disappointed with the '97s, while newcomers to the category will find them a welcome and easy introduction to the species. If these were Bordeaux, they would be described as "a great restaurant vintage" and you would be advised to "drink them while waiting for your '96s and '98s to come around."
1998: Another spectacular year, and the "other" choice among producers for best vintage of the decade. Not as immediately seductive as 1997, but big, impressive and, for most makers, very long lasting. Overall, 1998 was an almost archetypal modern Barolo vintage: much more accessible than in the past, big in the mouth with generous fruit and abundant soft tannins and acidity for what promises to be a classic evolution over the next 10 to 20 years. Although these wines are already drinking pleasantly, they will be more welcoming in two or three more years, and should start behaving gloriously at about ten years from harvest. Advisory: Buy 1998 now and cellar it.
1999: This is a vintage that most makers agree will be much better after a bit of aging: a wine in the more classic Barolo mold, slightly reticent when young and expected to open gloriously with age.
2000: A vintage very similar to 1999: structured and balanced now, but a touch mute. With just a few years in the cellar it should be gorgeous.
2001: The harvest was late because of an unusually cool period at the end of September, but the grapes were very ripe and rich at harvest. Growers are making very cautious comparisons to 1997 and 1999, and crossing every digit in the hope that they are right. "Dense color, great dense fruit, good tannins, high extract and great finesse," Pio Boffa reports. Less reticent, Chiara Boschis (owner/winemaker of E. Pira & Figli), simply calls 2001 "magnificent!"
The Barolos listed here were tasted August 8 at the Italian Trade Commission offices in New York by the author and fellow wine critics Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing Mulligan, M.W., co-authors of Italian Wine for Dummies. The wines, reviewed from youngest to oldest, were not tasted blind. "Word scores" based on this magazine's BuyLine panel rating system were preferred over numerical rankings. Because so many wines of a single type were reviewed, many taste descriptors were omitted to avoid unnecessary repetition, which would be highly repetitive here. Because young Barolos characteristically taste of dark cherry or intensely concentrated strawberry plus tar and tobacco and long-steeped tea, wines that didn't display some combination of those elements didn't make the cut. All the finalists listed here scored "Very Good" or better in the panel's aggregate judgment. >
Bricco Rosso - $33: Approachable and traditionally styled. Good value. Very Good (Tricana Imports)
Bussia Soprana - $50: Relatively light-bodied, but very ripe and fruity. Very Good (Dufour & Co.)
Pio Cesare - $58: Fine traditional style; nicely balanced with beautifully focused fruit character. Outstanding (Paterno Imports)
Viberti, Eraldo - $65: Soft new-style; sweet tannins and slightly muffled fruit. Very Good (Vinifera Imports)
Ascheri, Vigne di Pola - $40: Slightly closed now, but big and deep, with concentrated fruit and tar and fine acid/tannin balance. Very Good (Matt Brothers)
Bussia Soprana, Colonello - $60: Great aroma; full, rich and already displaying impressive complexity. Very Good (Dufour & Company)
Bussia Soprana, Mosconi - $60: Much less advanced than its aforementioned sister wine; dark and a bit rustic. Very Good (Dufour & Company)
Ca' Rome, Romano Marengo - Vigna Rapet - $50: A new style - atypical but persuasive; ripe fruit with soft tannins; already approachable. Very Good (Empson USA)
Ceretto, Bricco Rocche Brunate - $88: Cherry, tar and strawberry elements, in the relatively lighter La Morra mode; a traditionally structured wine of great elegance. Outstanding (Clicquot, Inc.)
Chiarlo (Michele), Cerequio - $80: Very clean and stylish in the modern manner. Very Good (Kobrand)
Giacosa (Bruno), Falletto - $150: Classic Barolo with contemporary fruit; a 20-year wine that is easy to drink now. Outstanding (Winebow)
Ghisolfi (Attilio), Bricco Visette - $51: Traditional style; sweet, generous flavors, though a touch closed right now. Very Good (Wm. Grant & Sons)
Icardi, Parej - $85: Approachable new style with opulent vanillin oak character. Very Good (Vinifera Imports)
Pira Chiara Boschis, Cannubi - $90: Recognizable Barolo character in sleek, modern dress. Outstanding (Vinifera Imports)
Poderi Colla, Dardi Le Rose Bussia - $39: Classic nose of tar and roses; a fine Barolo by any other standard, but perhaps a shade disappointing for the master winemaker Beppe Colla. Very Good (Empson USA)
Rinaldi (Guiseppe), Brunate Le Coste - $68: The epitome of what Barolo is today; a great wine very reasonably priced for its quality. Outstanding (Vinifera Imports)
Rocche Costamagna, Bricco Francesco - $50: Traditional and clean; already drinking well. Very Good (Laird Imports)
Voerzio (Gianni), La Serra - $99: Very modern style, but excellent for its kind. Very Good (Winebow, Inc.)
Bel Colle - $42: Representative contemporary Barolo, not markedly traditional or modern; attractive, but a little clumsy. Very Good (Premium Brands, Inc.)
Brezza - $37: Very fresh, and ready for drinking this minute. Very Good (A.V. Imports)
Ceretto, Zonchera - $45: Elegant, as is the Ceretto hallmark, classic and concentrated. Great quality for the price. Outstanding (Clicquot, Inc.)
Fontanafredda - $N/A: Enjoyable ripe fruit flavors, but rather simple and surprisingly lean for the vintage. Very Good (no present importer)
Livia Fontana - $40: A wine that straddles the traditional/modern divide; nice, sweet fruit; good value. Very Good (Selected Estates of Europe)
Marchesi di Barolo - $42: Classic 1997. An easy wine to like, with supple, ripe fruit. Very Good (Palm Bay Imports)
Massolino - $47: A controversial wine that divided the panel with opinions ranging from "classic structure" to "unremarkable." Very Good (compromise ranking) (Winebow)
Oddero - $65: Marked strawberry fruit with firm grip; should develop well. Very Good (Vinifera Imports)
Prunotto - $47: Soft and supple; a good, contemporary Barolo. Very Good (Winebow, Inc.)
Rocche Costamagna dell'Annunziata - $40: The epitome of the 1997 vintage: sweet, ripe fruit with a big, soft, fat, juicy mouth-feel. Good value, too. Very Good (Laird Imports)
Settimo (Aurelio) - $36: Classic aromas, modern flavors; tough to fault. Good value. Very Good
Viberti, Eraldo - $60: Brazenly new in style and taste, and surprisingly forward, but a good introduction for Barolo beginners. Very Good (Vinifera Imports)
Ascheri, Sorano - $60: Aromas of tobacco and black cherry with flavors that largely follow through; a good, complex wine, but a tad heavy-footed. Outstanding (Matt Brothers)
Batasiolo, Vigneto Bofani - $61: Elegant, but a bit light-bodied with some rather rough tannins for the vintage. Very Good (Marie Brizard USA)
Bel Colle, Monvigliero - $37:
More fruit character than classic Barolo character, but there are some good, dark, leathery undertones. A good value. Very Good (Premium Brands, Inc.)
Brezza, Bricco Sarmassa - $62: International in style and reasonably well done for its kind. Very Good (A.V. Imports)
Brezza, Cannubi - $45: Solid, well-knit with some dark, deep flavors; the Cannubi site shows well. Very Good (A.V. Imports)
Bussia Soprana, Mosconi - $78: Fruity up front; solid finish. A very well made example of this vintage. Very Good (Dufour & Company)
Ca' Rome, Romano Marengo - $59: Modern style; sweet and easy to drink, but not a keeper. Very Good (Empson USA)
Chiarlo (Michele), Cerequio - $78: Very well crafted in the modern style, but overshadowed by new oak. Very Good (Kobrand Corporation)
Conterno (Giacomo) Cascina Francia - $100: Great aromas, terrific concentration. Absolutely classic Barolo with restrained fruit defined by a pure strawberry essence. Superb (Vin Divino)
Fontanafredda, Lazzarito - $NA: An excellent example of a beautifully balanced, mid-range, traditional Barolo - not overpowering, but not a 98-pound weakling either. Outstanding (no present importer)
Ghisolfi (Attilio), Bricco Visette - $49: Pleasant, easy, traditionally styled. Very Good (Wm. Grant & Sons)
Marchesi di Barolo, Cannubi - $55: Mineral notes and ripe flavors with notable potential for cellaring. Cannubi is one of Barolo's great sites, and every grower lucky enough to obtain its grapes generally turns out memorable wine. Very Good (Palm Bay Imports)
Martinetti (Franco) Marasco - $80: The bouquet is already showing mature aromas of coffee with good concentration on the palate. Very Good (Vinifera Imports)
Masssolino, Vigna Margheria - $61: Very atypical, fruity blueberry characteristics , a trait consistent with the ripeness and high sugars of the '97 vintage. A thoroughly enjoyable wine, but just recognizable as Barolo. Very Good (Winebow)
Oddero, Mondoca di Bussia Soprana - $53: Sturdy tannins and impressive concentration with more apparent structure than many 1997s, but shows nearly no aroma. Very Good (Vinifera Imports)
Oddero, Vigna Rionda - $53: Nice concentration with elegant flavors of black cherry and tar, from an excellent site. Very Good (Vinifera Imports)
Poderi Colla, Dardi Le Rose Bussia - $47: An impressive balance of sweet, ripe fruit with classic wine-making. Very Good (Empson USA)
Prunotto, Bussia - $75: A judicious blend of tradition and modernity yields a restrained, complex wine. Outstanding (Winebow)
Rinaldi (Giuseppe), Brunate Le Coste - $68: Excellent traditional Barolo, but a bit heavy-bodied for this maker; it may need more time than most other wines of this vintage. Outstanding (Vinifera Imports)
S. Rocco, Eredi Virginia Ferrero - $65: Slightly smoky nose. Delicate strawberry notes on the palate and a light body; pleasing, but drink it soon. Very Good (J.K. Imports)
Marchesi di Barolo - $35: An absolutely classic Barolo maturing very nicely. Very Good (Palm Bay Imports)
1996 Barolo Crus
Ascheri, Sorano - $60: A solid wine with good concentration and nice black cherry fruit. Very Good (Matt Brothers)
Ceretto, Bricco Rocche Brunate - $77: A lovely, elegant, round Barolo, almost gentle in its attack; developing perfectly. Outstanding (Clicquot, Inc.)
Conterno (Giacomo), Cascina Francia - $100: This is what Barolo is all about - a wine that's both lush and delicate at the same time. Superb (Vin Divino)
Chiarlo (Michele), Cerequio - $75: An exceptionally fine effort that's developing beautifully. Outstanding (Kobrand)
Fontanafredda, Serralunga d'Alba - $48: A very complete, mid-scale Barolo package representing excellent value. Outstanding (Wine Wave, Ltd.)
Giacosa (Bruno), Falletto - $199: Excellent wine, tasting a bit old-fashioned (i.e., it has a slight but discernible coarseness) - and far from a bargain! Very Good (Winebow)
Marchesi di Barolo, Cannubi - $51: Solid, impressive and age-worthy, though slightly mute right now. Outstanding (Palm Bay Imports)
Massolino, Vigna Margheria - $61: A solidly traditional Barolo from a classic producer. Very Good (Winebow)
Poderi Colla, Bussia - $49: Gentle, sweet and fat with an oaky finish; fine, but it lacks an edge. Very Good (Empson USA)
Prunotto, Bussia - $66: Classically tannic and delicious; an outstanding example of the vintage. Outstanding (Winebow, Inc.)
Rinaldi, Giuseppe "Brunate-Le Coste" - $65: A very traditional Barolo - perhaps even a bit old-fashioned - but with all the right components. Outstanding (Vinifera Imports)
Borgogno Riserva - $49: Sweet, classic Barolo, maturing nicely, from a traditional house that is highly reputed for its age-worthy wines. Outstanding (Banfi USA)
Ceretto Bricco Rocche, Brunate - $75: Big, powerful, yet elegant too, with dark, long-lasting flavors. A great, classic Barolo. Outstanding (Clicquot, Inc.)
Conterno (Giacomo), Cascina Francia - $120: A great wine oozing with strawberry jam characteristics, even though it needs more edge. That will come as the primary fruit flavors moderate with age and the underlying components surface. Outstanding (Vin Divino)
Prunotto "Bussia" - $66: Complex aromas of chocolate, cherry and tea; sweet, beautifully balanced fruit imbued with lively acidity. Still tastes like an infant, albeit a strapping one. Outstanding (Winebow)
Prunotto "Cannubi" - $66: Bouquet of black pepper, leather, tar and cherry; big, supple, smooth and powerful. A very fine Barolo on the largest scale. Outstanding (Winebow)
Rinaldi (Giuseppe), Brunate - Le Coste - $82: Fruity and fine in a very traditional style. Outstanding (Vinifera Imports)
Guest contributor Tom Maresca, a New York-based author of two wine books, has followed the Italian wine scene for a quarter century.
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