Although Barbera is rapidly gaining ground, Barolo and Barbaresco are still the defining wines of Piedmont. With a string of good vintages still in the pipeline, now is the time to be buying.
As springtime approaches, wine lovers’ thoughts begin to turn away from the sturdy wines of winter and toward light, refreshing wines to be sipped outdoors on a balmy day. On the other hand, when the frigid grip of New York’s winter descends, you try convincing wine critics to taste cool, crisp Pinot Grigios. Thankfully, there are some wines that can bridge the seasons easily.
“Barolo is unique,” asserts Paolo Abbona, owner of the Marchesi di Barolo winery. “It can go with multiple courses because it ‘washes the mouth,’ allowing you to taste the food.” In parallel fashion, despite its reputation as a heavyweight, winter wine, its acidity allows it to transition into lighter seasonal fare, such as roast chicken. Barbaresco, its more elegant sibling, does so even more easily.
This January, the Wine Enthusiast tasting panel convened for our first major tasting of Barolo and Barbaresco, focusing on the 1998 and 1999 vintages of Barolo and 1999 and 2000 vintages of Barbaresco. Piedmont had a run of good fortune in the late 1990s, with vintage after vintage drawing accolades from vintners and racking up big numbers on our vintage chart. The hot streak cooled somewhat in 2001, and came to a screeching halt in 2002, when hail and torrential rains combined on a near washout.
Still, that leaves a lot of wine from a number of good vintages from which consumers can choose. Retailers still have small stocks of 1996s, considered a classic, ageworthy year, and the ultraripe, sexy 1997s, many of which are already very approachable. Wise consumers, of course, take these vintage generalizations with a grain of salt; Abbona claims his ’97s will age longer than his “elegant” ’96s.
Of the three vintages we tasted for this report, no one year stood head and shoulders above the others. We found great wines among the ’98 Barolos, the ’99s from both regions and the 2000 Barbarescos. In fact, the fine showings of the 2000 Barbarescos give us great hope for the quality of the Barolos when they are released later this year. Michele Chiarlo calls 2000 “a very special vintage,” and Pio Boffa, of the legendary firm Pio Cesare, agrees that 2000 may be the best of the group: “It’s a sumptuous vintage. The fruit is so rich that it masks the astringency, yet the tannins are there, and the wines will age well.”
In the past, tannins were what made these Nebbiolo-based wines famous. They were wines that demanded extensive aging to tame the tannins, to acquire the velvety, supple textures and haunting perfumes that placed them among the world’s elite. Yet the wines were only consistently successful two or three vintages in a decade. Now, because of beneficent weather, increased awareness of modern viticulture and winemaking techniques, and renewed energy driven by worldwide demand, the quality of these wines has never been higher. “Everyone realizes that quality is the only way to survive,” says Boffa.
That drive for quality has come at a cost—to consumers. The average retail price of a bottle of Barolo in this tasting was close to $70. Why so much? Economics, plain and simple. There’s only a very limited area under vine in the Barolo DOCG (denominazione origine controllata e guarantita): approximately 3,000 acres in 1998, which produced less than 650,000 cases of wine (a record amount). Divided among 750 growers, the average land holding amounts to only 4 acres. Barbaresco is even smaller and more fragmented; in 1998 there were 363 growers farming 1,200 acres.
Wines from these tiny holdings are sought after all over the world, keeping prices high. And with few opportunities for economies of scale, costs are high as well. Land in some of the best-known sites, or crus, can change hands for as much as $400,000 per acre, making Napa Valley look like a bargain.
Many of the best wines in our tasting come from these single vineyards, but traditionally winemakers blended wines from different parts of the region to create and maintain a house style. Many of the so-called normale Barolos and Barbarescos are still blended from several different parcels. “I am concerned with the specific style I want to produce, not so much the specific crus,” says Boffa. “I make a single-vineyard wine, Ornato, but my soul is in my regular Barolo.”
Defining the various crus by taste is not for the faint of heart. Often one producer’s Cannubi, for example, may taste nothing like another’s. Differences in winemaking and aging techniques, vine age, even soil and aspect within a vineyard may vary so much as to confound those who try to identify the wines blind. Yet line up a group of crus from a single producer and the differences are often easy to spot.
Abbona resists generalizations about the characteristics of specific vineyards, but does allow that “the crus are always riper and more concentrated” than wines from other sites. Boffa makes a distinction—and other producers seem to agree—between the Barolos from the eastern portions of the zone versus those from western portions. “They are more robust, concentrated and tannic, whereas the western wines are fruitier and more delicate.”
Not so coincidentally, the soils are different from east to west. The eastern part of the zone, around the communes of Castiglione Falletto and Monforte d’Alba, have more sandstone; the soils around Barolo and La Morra have more clay and limestone. Cannubi, Barolo’s most famous cru, is the only site to combine both soil types, according to Abbona, one of that vineyard’s largest land holders.
The soils of Barbaresco are predominantly the calcareous clay type known as Sant’ Agata marl. Together with the region’s slightly lower elevation (200-250 meters above sea level, compared to 300-450 meters for Barolo), these conditions make for what Abbona calls “more elegant, easier to drink wines.”
“My grandfather used to tell me,” says Boffa, “and I think he was right, that Barbaresco is a woman, Barolo is a man.” Although our tastings partially bear this assertion out—the Barbarescos tended to show more reliance on complex aromas and less on sheer power than the Barolos—the highest-scoring wines from each region balance the two extremes, combining soaring aromatics with powerful, ageworthy structures (see sidebar, “Wine Enthusiast’s Favorite B&Bs”).
With so many variables to consider when choosing a Barolo or Barbaresco—vintage, producer, cru—the easiest approach is to find a producer whose style you enjoy and stick with it. Much as in Burgundy, where a similarly fragmented vineyard ownership exists and the vintages are often inconsistent, the name of the producer should be the first thing you look for on a label.
Many of our favorite wines are well known and expensive, but we’ve also spotlighted four other producers who we think are headed for stardom. There’s still time to catch them on the way up.
|Wine Enthusiast’s Favorite B&Bs|
95 Bruno Rocca 1999 Rabajà (Barbaresco); $85. Extraordinary stuff. The aromas practically defy description, packed with smoke, tobacco, cigar box and cured meat, all wrapped around a deep, rich core of black cherries. Picks up even more complexity in the mouth, adding vanilla, plums and dates in an expansive, mouthfilling experience, then—wham—the tannins hit home, sending you reeling and wondering when this wine will finally blossom. Great now, great 20 years from now. Editors’ Choice.
94 Parusso 1999 Bussia Vigna Fiurin (Barolo); $70. Unabashedly modern in style, with layers of menthol and toast surrounding immense depths of dark fruit. Plum, black cherries and tar fill the mouth with a texture that’s simultaneously rich and supple, silken yet velvety. Picks up more oak-induced notes of maple syrup and coffee on the finish. Editors’ Choice.
93 Bruno Giacosa 1999 Le Rocche del Falletto (Barolo); $175. It seems Giacosa’s wines are often difficult to taste young, which leads us to wonder later whether we have underestimated them. Relatively unexpressive on the nose, this wine reveals only hints of leather, cherries and citrus peel. But in the mouth, the quality is evidenced by a gradual building of intensity to a crescendo on the finish, where dried cherries, underbrush, mushroom, leather and citrus explode into dazzling length and intensity. Cellar Selection.
93 Ceretto 2000 Bernardot (Barbaresco); $67. Somewhat confusingly, Ceretto’s estate wines from Barbaresco are now bottled under the name Bricco Asili, with Ceretto only in small letters. But the quality is in the bottle. Smoky, meaty aromas give way with air to dried cherries, leather and a touch of citrus. Darker notes of asphalt and chocolate join in on the palate, which is big, muscular and chewy without being overdone. Finishes long, picking up flavors and a texture akin to cocoa powder. Editors’ Choice.
93 Elio Grasso 1999 Ginestra Vigna Casa Maté (Barolo); $53. Turns the neat trick of being big and mouthfilling yet not heavy, packing in spiced prune and date flavors wrapped in dark chocolate and tar. The finish shows this wine’s true potential, ending with big fruit, big tannins, mouthwatering acids and great length. Editors’ Choice.
93 Luciano Sandrone 1998 Cannubi Boschis (Barolo); $125. Expensive, but worth every penny to experience such a big, lush, juicy mouthful of Barolo. Hints of dark-roasted coffee and wisps of maple syrup wrap around flavors of strawberries and tar, but this wine is all about the seduction of texture—velvety and supple, leaving you wanting more and more. Cellar Selection.
93 Aldo Conterno 1999 Cicala (Barolo); $126. We found some inconsistency in the lineup from Aldo Conterno, but this wine flat-out rocks. The rich, intense aromas layer vanilla coffee buttercream over a framework of tart cherries, which explode in the mouth into a panopoly of red fruits. The tannins are plentiful—creating a rich texture—yet supple, showing great ripeness on the finish.
Like so many of the stories told in the Langhe, Ferdinando Principiano’s starts with his father. Americo Principiano, a grapegrower, inherited a vineyard passed down through the generations since before records exist. “At 6 years old I knew I would continue the tradition,” says Ferdinando Principiano. “I submitted a school essay in which I list my life goal as ‘helping papa pick grapes’.”
While other farmers were trading difficult hillside land for flatter plots good for growing grain, the Principiano family found that their grapes attracted big-name buyers. They happily sold fruit to Prunotto and Ceretto, to name but two, but somewhere along the line the generational gap widened.
“I got sick of seeing others make great wine from our grapes and that was the trigger that set me off,” says the bright-eyed 30-year-old. His father didn’t finish high school, but the younger Principiano resolutely set off to study enology in nearby Alba.
Changes were in store and father and son clashed on several fronts. “It was hard to convince him that 40 percent of the crop had to be dropped in order to make quality wine. When I started hardly anyone used barriques,” says Principiano. His father, a soft-spoken man, enters the room and listens attentively to his son.
“The last 15 years have seen a real revolution in the way wine is made. Back then there were just two or three wineries in Monforte d’Alba and today there are about 20,” Ferdinando says. “I don’t think the Langhe will change much more. We are at the right dimension and the right concentration of vineyards.”
Ferdinando Principiano, who refurbished the winery 10 years ago with new equipment, is responsible for vinification and aging with consulting enologist Giuseppe Caviola. Americo Principiano, on the other hand, manages three vineyards totaling 10 hectares. Fifty-year-old Nebbiolo vines are planted in the Boscareto vineyard in Serralunga d’Alba and 70-year-old Barbera vines are located in the Pian Romualdo vineyard of Monforte d’Alba. Since 1996, they started production from a small vineyard in Monforte d’Alba called Le Coste. Besides their two Barolos (Barolo Boscareto and Barolo Le Coste) the Principianos round off their portfolio with Barbera and Dolcetto. They still produce only 35,000 bottles per year.
“I am a wild card. I travel around the world to sell wine and I love to make it,” says the new father of 2-month-old Leonardo. “This is the best job in the world, and luckily it is passed from father to son.” — M.L.
It’s hard not to notice Bruno Rocca in the sleepy hilltop hamlet of Barbaresco. His hair is a tad longer than the norm and the volume on his car stereo is a tad louder. But the buzz he generates from his spectacular Rabajà vineyard resonates far beyond the confines of his hometown.
Rocca is animated and opinionated—safely within the margins of what is just—and he is a staunch advocate of the concept of territorio. “Others can imitate our flavor, but no one can ever imitate our territory,” he says emphatically, surrounded by a small entourage of faithful co-workers and friends. “Our territorio is everything and it must be protected at all costs.”
This is a heartfelt campaign for a man who started his career in marketing. In the 1970s, automotive giant Fiat in Turin and chocolate confectionary Ferrero in Alba, and their policy to hire locally, initiated a massive brain drain that left a painful vacuum in Piedmont’s vineyards. Lured by the prospect of a company car, Rocca became a Ferrero product manager at 19, leaving his father behind to grow and sell grapes. “When my father died in 1978, I had to either come home or sell the farm,” he says.
Rocca flirted with the idea of bottling wine before his father’s death, but met resistance because the family cantina was not large enough to accommodate barrels for aging. After, he continued to work both for the factory and in the vineyard, and invested to improve the cellar and land.
Today he is credited as one of the authors of the so-called Rabajà renaissance, which emphasizes low yields. The celebrated vineyard spans from Barbaresco’s highest hill, at 310 meters, and flows softly downwards. Grasso owns five hectares of its southwest-facing slope, immediately outside town, from which he produces his Barbaresco Rabajà. “I don’t think there is another vineyard like mine,” he says. “It has a unique mix of sand and tufa, and light breezes keep the vines healthy.”
Since 1995, Rocca has released a second Barbaresco under the Caparossa label. He owns an additional five hectares between the Fausoni (Neive) and Pajoré (Treiso) vineyards and makes the 50-50 blend with fruit from both. The 7-year-old vines in Treiso produce grapes high in alcohol but less important as far as structure is concerned, he explains. His four hectares in Neive produce fruit with a lot of structure but lacking aromas. “It’s impossible to improve a wine in the cellar if your grapes are good. The only thing you can do is ruin it,” he believes.
“In 50 years we went from growing grapes to keep mouths fed, to producing a luxury product,” he says. “And to think, I’d still be working at Ferrero today.” — M.L.
For more profiles, see this month’s issue of Wine Enthusiast.