It’s been an exceptional start to the 21st century for Piedmont’s Barolo producers. Michael Garner finds out what’s behind this unprecedented string of strong vintages and homes in on the producers and wines to seek out

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By the turn of this millennium, Barolo’s golden age was underway. From the second half of the 1990s, a span of successful vintages leading up until the most recent in bottle, 2010, was interrupted by only two consecutive harvests – 2002 and 2003 – which were sub-standard; the rest are classified in varying degrees between good and outstanding.

This is hardly typical: even as recently as the 1980s, an average of three or four good years per decade at best was the norm. With no historical precedent for such a favourable run, clearly some sort of explanation becomes necessary.

Changes in the field

Climate change is certainly a factor. Whether higher temperatures in recent years can be attributed to global warming or the cyclical nature of weather patterns remains uncertain. However, growers agree that the warmer weather has been a bonus as the Nebbiolo grape typically ripens in mid-October, and historically even later.

A more considered explanation points to a much improved approach to viticulture, particularly throughout the 1990s, from which growers are reaping the benefit. Better clonal selection; treating each vine individually rather than systematically; a general shift from the use of chemical treatments and fertilisers to more environmentally friendly farming methods; and finally widespread use of bunch thinning have combined with dramatic effect. Bunch thinning, in particular, has helped ripen fruit more quickly, though some argue that the practice promotes a surge in sugar levels for the harvest, with a corresponding drop in acid levels and little benefit for the phenolic maturity of the grapes.

Earlier ripening does, however, allow the crop to be harvested before the arrival of the unpredictable weather that hits the area around mid-October onwards. Growers recount how their fathers would be a bag of nerves leading up to harvest time, never knowing whether or not the grapes would ripen before the bad weather set in.

The green scene

With the recent UNESCO recognition of the area as a World Heritage site, the organics movement is gathering momentum. Chiara Boschis, who runs the historic E Pira & Figli with her brother Giorgio, maintains: ‘We’re creating a mini El Dorado. This was an area people couldn’t wait to get away from – now everyone wants to join us. Our future is definitely green.’

Cordero di Montezemolo, one of the few estates with a vineyard that surrounds its hilltop winery, will release the first vintage of certified organic Barolo shortly. Cavallotto, similarly blessed with wraparound vineyards, has been practising sustainable methods for decades – so far without seeking official recognition. Others are following. Yet such is the stigma attached to using synthetic treatments that some growers perhaps ‘protest too much’. There is less interest evident, for now, in biodynamic farming, although Ceretto, never a company to let the grass grow under its feet, is reputedly moving in that direction.

The third major factor is a much more careful approach to cellar practices. Improved hygiene was undoubtedly a necessary step, as was the use of better-maintained and cleaner wood, whether large or small barrels (the recent trend is back towards the former). Fermentation practices are better researched, though there is plenty of variation – from fermenting in opentopped wooden vats (as still practised at Giuseppe Rinaldi for its Brunate Barolo) through to batteries of gleaming stainless steel fermenters of all shapes and sizes – allowing producers ample scope for freedom of expression.

This gives Barolo today a broad spectrum of styles, ranging from a bright, pale garnet to a much deeper and darker, ruby-toned colour; from intense and ethereal to richer and more powerful aromas; and from medium to full body. A structure based on high levels of acid, tannin and alcohol remains constant.

Nature or nurture?

Combine these three factors and the onset of a golden age makes a lot more sense. The region is already basking in a newfound sense of self-confidence: production has doubled over the past 25 years thanks to rising demand. Growers have built on that success and Barolo has a far more commercial, approachable style than ever before. But anomalies remain. Where once warmer years were the most successful, nowadays cooler vintages seem to produce the truly classic wines. Barolo never fails to surprise. Perhaps it’s simply that producers have learned how to cope with trickier vintages.

My following vintage guide to 2000-2010 provides a ‘rule of thumb’ of which wines to drink and when.

Michael Garner has specialised in Italian wine for more than 25 years as an importer, author and educator

Written by Michael Garner

  1. 1. Introduction
  2. 2. The Barolo producers you can rely on
  3. 3. Barolo vintage guide: 2000-2010
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