Piedmont Report: Barolo 2005-2009
March 2009 - Antonio Galloni - erobertparker.com
My November trip to Piedmont was full of surprises. I encountered two massive snowstorms in the span of three days, the second of which forced me to abandon my car on the hills of La Morra! The roads were virtually desolate, and the sight of these pristine hillside vineyards covered in snow instilled a surreal sense of calm in my otherwise jam-packed schedule. As usual, I spent most of my time evaluating the 2005 Barolos, but also had a chance to get a sneak preview of the 2006s, 2007s and 2008s. Once again it looks like Piedmont (Barolo in particular in this case) is in the midst of string of excellent to profound vintages that may in time rival 1996-2001.
Many wines I tasted from barrel were simply thrilling. Unfortunately it has become increasingly clear that producers will have a hard time selling these wines through to the final consumer. The global recession and string of successful vintages is a recipe for pricing pressure on the downside, something I am already seeing as aggressive retailers in the US discount their remaining stocks of 2004 Barolos. In addition, consumers around the world are trading down to more affordable wines, and also drinking bottles they already own. While the environment will be challenging for the growers and the trade, Piedmont fans will have no shortage of great wines to consider over the next few years.
2005: Location, Location, Location
The 2005 Barolos will begin to appear on the market within the coming months. Overall, the vintage is stronger than I had originally thought, but with some important caveats.
The oft-repeated line about real estate is “location, location, location.” The same thing can be said to summarize the 2005 Barolos. The conventional view in Piedmont is that the best vineyards are those with southern exposures, where the winter snow melts first. In the pre-climate change world, Nebbiolo had difficulty ripening and location was indeed paramount. That is again the case in 2005, where the top sites yielded beautiful fruit, but anything less than well-situated vineyards struggled. Compare that with 2004, where many of the entry-level Barolos were wonderful, and the difference in the vintages is striking. At the high end though, the best 2005 are exceptional and aren’t too far off the levels top producers achieved in 2004.
Temperatures during the 2005 growing season were cooler than normal and weather was unstable throughout the year. The key event of the vintage was a forecast of extended downpours in early October which forced producers to make a choice; either harvest before the rains and accept that the fruit might not be fully physiologically ripe, or wait and risk extensive damage. The vast majority of producers picked before the rains, although it is the rare grower who has the candor to openly say they picked some or all of their fruit after a spell of rain that ended up lasting a week or more! From a simple, logistical standpoint, this set of circumstances favored small growers who could pick most or their entire crop in a few days and penalized larger estates that, by their sheer size, were forced to harvest over several weeks.
So, how are the wines? The answer is far better than I originally expected. The firm tannins the wines showed a few years ago have in many cases softened and the top wines are gorgeous. This is a medium-bodied style of Barolo, with about 1% less alcohol than has become common over recent years. To consumers who have been buying Piedmont wines for several decades, the wines will feel quite classic. In some ways 2005 reminds me of 1979, a vintage of smaller-scaled wines that were largely overlooked on the heels of the monumental 1978s, but that have aged beautifully. In terms of more recent years, 2005 reminds me most of 1993, a vintage in which the wines have developed nicely and are beginning to reach their maximum expression. The 2005s appear to be relatively early-drinking Barolos. Most of the better wines should peak around age 15 or so in terms of their development, but may continue to hold for sometime thereafter, as the acidities are slightly higher than normal. Readers who love the great Barolos of Piedmont should be enthusiastic about the prospects of a high-quality vintage where the wines won’t require decades of aging prior to reaching maturity.
As I alluded to above, Piedmont once again finds itself with another string of potentially outstanding harvests spanning 2004-2008, recalling the unprecedented series of strong vintages from 1996 to 2001. Within this context, it might be tempting to dismiss 2005. Speak with any old-timer, though, and they will tell you that while 2005 may not be a legendary vintage by today’s standards, several decades ago growers would have been thrilled with wines like these.
The 2005s offer a wide range of quality, yet through careful selection readers will be able to pick up some jewels for the cellar, especially in a market environment where pricing is increasingly under pressure. Most, but not all, of the top bottlings will be produced in 2005. These are a few producers whose Barolos stand out: Giacomo Conterno, Aldo Conterno, Vietti, Altare, Clerico, Roberto Voerzio, Bruno Giacosa, Bartolo Mascarello, Conterno-Fantino, Elio Grasso, Gianfranco Alessandria and Scavino.
2006: Ripe and Structured
The 2006 Barolos are big, bold wines that combine ripeness with considerable structure. The growing season was quite a bit warmer than 2005, yet a spell of cool nighttime temperatures towards the end of the summer helped preserve freshness and balance in the wines. Hail was an issue in parts of La Morra, Barolo and Serralunga. As a result, several producers opted not to produce their top labels, including Elio Altare, who will have no-single vineyard Barolos in this vintage. Domenico Clerico has a new Barolo from a parcel he is renting in Serralunga that has been impressive on the multiple occasions I have sampled it from barrel thus far. Among the wines that are especially promising in 2006 are the Barolos of Giacomo Conterno, Vietti, Cappellano, Bruno Giacosa, Giacomo Conterno, Clerico, Bartolo Mascarello, Elio Grasso, Sandrone, Scavino, Conterno-Fantino, Giuseppe Mascarello and Giuseppe Rinaldi, to name just a few. At this stage 2006 appears to be a stronger vintage for Barolo than Barbaresco, where rain and hail were more problematic.
2007: Ripe and Generous
2007 was a freakish year, starting with an unusually warm and dry winter of a scale the region had never witnessed. By springtime plants, flowers and fruit trees were all a full month ahead of schedule. In the summer the weather moderated a bit and by late- summer the evenings had cooled off dramatically. These conditions caused the acceleration of maturation of the sugars to slow down, resulting in an unusual combination of an earlier than normal harvest, but also a season where the period from flowering to harvest was actually average or longer than average. The wines show some elements of a warm vintage, such as less intensity of color, slightly lower acidities and soft tannins; and some qualities of cooler vintages, especially in the aromatics, which in many cases are stunning. The wines are incredibly appealing even now, which reminds me quite a bit the 2000s, yet they are also more perfumed, in some ways reminiscent of the 2004s. It is far too early to make a final qualitative assessment of the vintage, but for now the wines are very promising. If there is a weakness to the vintage it is that the wines may be too good at this early stage.
Most of the reference-point wines will be bottled. Bruno Giacosa plans to release his Barolo Le Rocche del Falletto (and Barbaresco Asili) as a Red Label Riserva. In La Morra Roberto Voerzio has produced his entire line-up for the first time since 2004. A notable exception is Giacomo Conterno, who decided against producing his Monfortino. Proprietor Roberto Conterno believes Nebbiolo can recover from significant rain and humidity (ie. 2002) but not excessive heat (ie. 2003, 2007). The vintage had its fair share of challenges, particularly in the Bussia district of Monforte, an area that was pummeled by hail, resulting in the virtually complete loss of fruit from this prestigious collection of sites. Other wines that are impressive at this stage include the Barolos of Altare, Scavino, Clerico, Giuseppe Mascarello, Cappellano, Vietti and Bartolo Mascarello,
2008: A Classic in the Making?
2008 started in the worst of ways. A cool, damp spring led to an irregular flowering and fruit set. The risk of disease was heightened by the humidity, which prompted growers to spray aggressively at roughly twice the normal amount. By the summer, it was clear that Nebbiolo was the grape with the most potential for quality, although yields had been reduced by the unfavorable spring weather. As I toured the vineyards in August and September I saw a significant number of over-treated vineyards where the fruit looked positively toxic, which made the vineyards of high quality producers stand out to even the most casual observer. The summer was relatively uneventful and the leisurely growing season stretched into the fall, with cool evenings providing respite to the daytime heat. Producers were thrilled with the quality of the fruit they brought in, especially considering that their early fears for a compromised harvest had not come to pass. History buffs will recognize that these conditions bear a resemblance to 1978, one of the great all-time vintages in Piedmont.
From a technical standpoint, the readings of acidity, pH, anthocyanins and sugars are in line with those of prior classic, structured vintages, which has growers making early comparisons to historic vintages such as 1978, 1989, and/or 1996, depending on their age. There is an old Piedmontese expression which roughly translates into “a late harvest is always a good harvest.” We shall see, but the rich, full-bodied wines I have tasted thus far are certainly exciting at this stage, to say the least.
I am still working my way through the 2008s, but a few producers deserve special mention. Maria-Theresa Mascarello is one of the most improved winemakers in Piedmont. Over the last few years her wines have been striking, as is the case once again in 2008. Enrico Scavino has a new single-vineyard Barolo from the Monvigliero vineyard in Verduno, and his entire range of 2008s is among the most beautiful I encountered. Luca Currado at Vietti has a potentially superb set of wines to follow his equally spectacular wines from 2005, 2006 and 2007. In short, there is an awful lot to look forward to in 2008.
2009: Snow, Snow and More Snow….
Piedmont has been the beneficiary of heavy snowfalls all winter long on a level that locals say they haven’t seen in 25 years or so. Snow is healthy for vineyards because it melts gradually (as opposed to rain), which allows the water to reach even the deepest roots, creating important reserves of moisture that set the vineyards up favorably for whatever nature has in store next. We shall see...
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