One of the biggest misconceptions surrounding Barolo is that you need to wait decades before the wines are ready to drink.
While this advice may have once been true, it no longer applies to modern-day Barolos. Essentially, those made from about 2000 on can be enjoyed much earlier, even after eight or 10 years. For some of the warmer vintages, waiting too long could even lead to some bitter surprises.
The best part is that despite being approachable sooner, top vintages still offer great aging potential.
So, what’s changed? Everything.
Up until the 1980s, most Barolo was made by large firms that relied on a vast network of grape growers. Many of these farmers were more interested in quantity than quality. With other crops for them to manage, growers harvested when it was convenient, rather than when grapes had reached ideal ripeness.
Cellar technology was also quite basic, and post-fermentation maceration times could stretch for months.
Climate was another major factor. Cooler, wetter growing seasons meant that for each decade, there were only two or three good or great vintages. This largely resulted in Barolos that were aggressively tannic in their youth, with acidic backbones that need years to integrate.
Modern-day Barolos are more complete and approachable at a younger age than ever before.
Today, most growers have long become Barolo producers in their own right, focused on consistent quality. Great improvements in winemaking and cellar equipment, which include temperature-controlled fermentations, gentle presses and better-quality oak, have all been fundamental.
But the most important changes have happened in the vineyards. Reduced yields, less copper and the abandonment of harsh chemicals have made a big difference. Other factors like planting grass between the rows, timely harvests and rigorous grape selection have been key to create Barolos with more refined, noble tannins.
The effects of climate change have also led to warmer, drier growing seasons. This means that, in most years, Nebbiolo rarely struggles to ripen as it once did.
All of this amounts to Barolos that are more complete and approachable at a younger age than ever before. To capture the compelling combination of complexity, freshness, tension, fruit and firm yet refined tannins, open them up eight to 15 years after the vintage.
The 2001s, 2004s, 2008s and even the 2010s all drink beautifully right now.
Many 2004s are at their peak, while the 2008s and 2010s still have years more of aging potential. The 2011s are showing well, but most don’t have serious long-term aging potential. The 2007s and 2009s should be enjoyed soon.
You can still wait decades to enjoy top vintages, if you want, but just know that it’s not something you have to do.
While she’s enjoying modern-day selections sooner, Italian Editor Kerin O’Keefe also loves the beauty of a well-aged Barolo, and her collection includes a 1964 Cantina Mascarello stashed in her cellar.