1978 was the one vintage that really put Barolo on the map. Since then there have been enormous changes in both vineyard and cellar, as well as global warming. So has this changed the intrinsic character of the wines? Tom Maresca reports...

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All lovers of Barolo sooner or later question how modern Barolo will age, compared to the famed wines of Barolo’s past. Wines of vintages such as 1978 helped to establish the 20th-century reputation of Barolo as a wine that is firm and closed in youth, needing decades to soften and become drinkable, eventually evolving into a glorious, deeply flavoured, world-class nectar.

The years since the harvest of 1978 have seen many changes in Piedmont. There has been a proliferation of stainless-steel fermenting tanks (of which there were few in 1978), not to mention the introduction of temperature-controlled fermentation, shortened fermentation and maceration times and the appearance of barriques in the cellars.

Changes in the vineyard include an increased density of plantings, the introduction of green harvesting, and the beginnings of organic and biodynamic field and cellar work. And that is before mentioning the dramatic warming of the weather that has produced such an amazing string of fine vintages in the vineyards surrounding Alba.

With so many changes, the question nagging at the most serious devotees’ mind is, in its simplest form, ‘Is Barolo still the same wine?’

In an attempt to answer that, I and two other journalists arranged to visit a group of producers in May 2013 during Nebbiolo Prima, the regional pre-release press tastings. The list included Giacomo fenocchio, Prunotto, Massolino-vigna Rionda, Aldo Conterno, Elio Grasso, Marcarini, oddero and Pio Cesare – those whose cellars had the depth to allow side-by-side comparisons of ‘classic’ vintages and ‘modern’ ones, with a few stops in between (see Modern vs traditional). It was a fascinating, illuminating and reassuring experience. Much may have changed, but the centre holds: Nebbiolo remembers its role.

A continuous thread

There can be no question that Barolo is a wine capable of the greatest heights, and the bottles the producers poured for us readily proved that. The selected vintages were great wines, and also spanned the pre- and post-global-warming years in Piedmont, demonstrating not only the continuity of Nebbiolo’s character and capacity for greatness, but also the persistence of sound winemaking with this difficult grape in a climate that is at once increasingly benign and increasingly difficult.

We asked the producers for one Barolo from the first decade of this century, then one each from the 1990s, the 1980s and the 1970s, and they complied handsomely, providing a spread that even included of life yet before them. The 1978s especially struck me for their structure and finesse, not least of all because I was – finally! – tasting some 1978s that were ready to drink. I remember when they first appeared on the market: they were hard, closed wines, evidently very big and structured, but absolutely unyielding. They gave nothing to the drinker but promises, and continued that way for decades, epitomising the then-stereotype of Barolo as a wine for long-term cellaring.

Shift in style

That constitutes the biggest difference between contemporary Barolo and the Barolo of yore. As Gianluca Torrengo, the winemaker at Prunotto, says: ‘The greatest change in Barolo is that the wines are now drinkable young.’ On that point, the winemakers all agree.

Opinions differ on what factors lie behind this reversal of what had once been the most salient characteristic of the wine. Claudio Fenocchio says that he has made few changes in managing the vineyards, green harvest being the most obvious one, and some in the cellar – cement tanks have been replaced by stainless steel and temperature-a surprise bottle that may well have been the wine of them all, a 1971 Barbaresco Riserva from Prunotto – the handiwork of Nebbiolo master Beppe Colla, then winemaker at Prunotto.

Most Barolo makers see the trio of 1988, 1989 and 1990 as the pivotal vintages: these are the years that marked the alteration of growing conditions in the zone from the cooler, older pattern to the modern, much warmer set that has prevailed for the past 20 to 25 years. Those wines, plus the examples from vintages before and after them, made a phenomenal battery of fine Nebbiolos, and they impressed us mightily. By the time we arrived at the oldest wines each day, at that point we stopped spitting and started sipping reverently – despite the fact that we had already been tasting for many hours.

What struck us in almost every case was the continuity of style within each producer’s range: the old and young wines clearly belonged to the same family, even where the winemaker had changed. That’s a great tribute to the character of Nebbiolo, as well as the consistent vision of the winemakers.

What impressed us even more, however, was the striking freshness of all the wines, the evident years controlled fermentation. But he also says that, ‘in the old days’, his father used to pick the less ripe grapes around 10 October to make Nebbiolo, and then begin the Barolo harvest two weeks later – a sort of green harvest without losing any grapes.

Others report more changes in vineyard management. Prunotto has stopped using fertilisers and gone over to ‘green manure’ – mustard plants and legumes planted between rows of vines. Manuel Marchetti of Marcarini says he has replanted extensively and drastically reduced pesticide use, and now uses selected yeasts to start fermentation ‘for greater finesse’ in the wine.

Pio Boffa says that ‘climate is the biggest change, and it has forced us to make other changes, even to reverse some techniques’ – a remark I found key. Torrengo gave some examples of this reversal of techniques: ‘Since 2005, Prunotto has raised yields to control alcohol and balance tannins. We now don’t prune after June in hot vintages and leave more foliage to provide shade for the berries.’

So the increasing heat of the growing season is causing producers to reverse some field procedures and to question a lot of conventional wine wisdom. Where in the past the flaw to be avoided when making classic Barolo was underripeness and its concomitant green tannins, now it is overripeness, and the accompanying issues of high alcohol with low acidity.

Most people in the Barolo zone now use cold-temperature fermentation and/or stainless steel on their Nebbiolo. And the majority plant more densely than in the past, or concentrate their crop by green harvest. In that sense, even the most traditionally minded Barolo makers are modernists, and not at all uncomfortable with it.

Do look back

However, some other popular tenets of modernism – that shorter maceration periods give fresher wines, that fermentation or ageing in barriques gives Barolo softer or more elegant tannins – have come into question.

And in response to what they see as negative answers, some producers are turning back the clock to the techniques of old, abandoning barriques and readopting large-capacity botti of Slavonian oak, and sometimes cement tanks, for ageing wines.

Beyond that, several are extending maceration times in emulation of ‘the old days’. Claudio Fenocchio has produced an experimental Bussia Barolo in the 2008 vintage – all of 410 bottles – macerated on the skins for 90 days. Prunotto has just made a 2008 Vigna Colonnello Riserva – another Bussia cru bottling that both pays homage to former winemaker Beppe Colla and emulates his style of winemaking.

Some producers, like Marcarini and Oddero (and Mascarello and several others that we could not get to), have never even abandoned the long macerations of traditional Barolo.

Giacomo Conterno says, ‘Since 2001, I’ve been going more and more old school. Old school has great appeal right now’. When old-school structure and longevity are wedded to modern rich fruit and early accessibility, they create a win-win product for Barolo lovers. As Gianluca Grasso puts it, ‘For ageing, cork is now the problem, not the grapes. Where we can get good acidity and 100% phenolic maturation, these wines will age.’

Written by Tom Maresca

Barolo: Modern vs traditional

In Barolo-speak, the terms ‘modern style’ and ‘traditional style’ have fairly precise meanings, largely with reference to what is done to the grapes once they reach the cellar.

In terms of the care of the grapes in the field, almost everyone in Piedmont is a modernist, and there is a broad consensus about density of plantings, spacing of the vines, trellis systems, green harvest to reduce yield and concentrate the fruit and, increasingly, the use of organic and/or biodynamic techniques.

Once the grapes reach the cellar, differences begin. Modernists tend to give them shorter macerations (in many cases, for only a week), occasionally ferment them in and definitely age them in French barriques – a portion new and often strongly toasted. The fermenting grapes are also frequently pumped over to submerge their cap.

Traditionalists on the other hand give their grapes longer – often much longer – macerations: a month is probably average, and in certain vintages maceration may be prolonged for almost two months. There is less pumping over or disturbing of the cap, and usually not a barrique in sight. Macerations may take place in stainless steel or in large vats – the traditional botti – of Slavonian oak, and ageing will certainly happen in such botti.

Barolo: The vintages and the wines

2004

Rating 4.5 stars
Drink 2014–2030
A wet spring, mild summer and balmy, dry September and early October produced beautifully ripe Nebbiolo. This yielded wines with excellent fruit and structure, accessible from the start. All wines tasted showed classic aromas (dried roses, tar, earth) and palate (earth tones starting to dominate black fruit), quite drinkable and fresh.
Barolos tasted: Aldo Conterno, Romirasco; Elio Grasso, Gavarini Chiniera; Giacomo Fenocchio, Bussia Riserva; Marcarini, Brunate; Massolino, Vigna Rionda; Oddero, Soprana Vigna Mondoca, Bussia; Prunotto, Bussia; Renato Ratti, Rocche

2001

Rating 4.5 stars
Drink 2014–2030
A sultry, dry August was balanced by early September rains and markedly lower temperatures, so by October the grapes were perfectly ripe and balanced.A ‘classic vintage’ as Gianluca Grasso says. All wines showed
black cherry fruit, with perfect acidity, depth, and complexity starting to develop.
Barolos tasted: Elio Grasso, Casa Maté, Ginestra; Oddero, Vigna Mondoca Soprana, Bussia; Pio Cesare; Renato Ratti, Rocche

1999

Rating 4 stars
Drink 2014–2025
Early September rain improved the maturity of the grapes, pushing them to full sugar and phenolic ripeness while maintaining acidity. Both wines tasted showed maturing aromas and flavours, with years to go. Pietro Ratti describes this vintage as ‘austere and classic, still severe and tight’ on the palate.
Barolos tasted: Aldo Conterno, Colonello; Renato Ratti, Rocche

1998

Rating 4.5 stars
Drink 2014–2025
Although overshadowed by the much-touted 1997 vintage, 1998 produced grapes of at least as high quality, and in the opinion of many growers, better balanced than the preceding year. These wines were less austere than 1999, fruitier and more immediately charming, still with years of development to go.
Barolos tasted: Oddero, Vigna Rionda; Renato Ratti, Rocche

1996

Rating 4 stars
Drink 2014–2030
The first of a run of fine harvests, stretching through to 1999. 1996 is seen by most growers as the most classic of these, and may also be the slowest maturing. Claudio Fenocchio says it’s ‘a vintage we’re all still waiting for; it’s not yet reached potential’. Right now: deep, earthy, complex nose, refined palate of black fruit, soft tannins.
Barolos tasted: Elio Grasso, Roncot; Giacomo Fenocchio, Villero; Marcarini, Brunate; Massolino, Vigna Rionda; Pio Cesare; Prunotto, Bussia

1990

Rating 4 stars
Drink 2014–2025
The third of another string of fine vintages – 1988, 1989 and 1990, all yielding wines remarkably similar in quality and character. These are Barolos of great personality that are thoroughly enjoyable now but in no way fully evolved. Barolos tasted: Giacomo Fenocchio, Bussia Riserva; Marcarini, Brunate; Renato Ratti, Marcenasco

1989

Rating 4.5 stars
Drink 2014–2025
Despite mixed weather from spring through autumn, the Nebbiolo was in good shape at harvest, though the crop was somewhat diminished. Powerful aromas of dried roses and tar – the classic array. The palates are also classic: profound, complex, polished and still quite young.
Barolos tasted: Massolino, Vigna Rionda; Pio Cesare; Prunotto; Renato Ratti, Conca

1985

Rating 4.5 stars
Drink 2014–2020
A fine summer and autumn, though some producers remember it as very hot. All agree that at harvest the Nebbiolo was splendid. Rich black cherry, tar, and tobacco elements from nose through palate and into the finish. Beppe Colla made this wine the old way: 50 days of fermentation in concrete, then into botti.
Barolo tasted: Prunotto, Bussia

1982

Rating 4 stars
Drink 2014–2020
Hot and mostly dry, this year was a foretaste of the climate change to come. It gave a large, healthy crop, though the unusual (at the time) persistent heat made problems for many growers. Another Beppe Colla wine: lovely Nebbiolo fruit, very fresh still; a fruit-and-spice box, structured and complex.
Barolo tasted: Prunotto, Bussia Riserva

1978

Rating 5 stars
Drink 2014–2020
Unquestionably a classic, pre- global warming growing season. A cool, rainy spring followed by a cooler than average summer, but capped by a glorious, warm autumn with great diurnal temperature variations. All showed big, funky, mushroom aromas, just turning to truffle; deep, mature, mushroom and mineral flavours; long earth and dried black fruit finishes, with lots of life in them yet.
Barolos tasted: Giacomo Fenocchio, Riserva; Marcarini, Brunate; Massolino, Riserva; Oddero; Pio Cesare; Prunotto, Bussia Riserva

1971

Rating 5 stars
Drink 2014
Freezing winter, late and wet spring, hail in May and June, hot, dry summer then perfect late September and October resulted in a small but superior harvest. The wines were balanced and elegant from the off, but reticent. This was gorgeous and mature, perfect, with fresh and mature fruit, fully evolved tannins, fine acidity: an elegant and complete wine – perhaps the finest here.
Barbaresco tasted: Prunotto Riserva

Modern Barolos for the cellar

There is a great consensus about the cellar-worthy vintages of this still-young century: 2001, 2004, 2006 and 2008 have all been described as yielding classic wines with the structure and quality to deserve long ageing. Of the possibly still-available wines made before the turn of the century, 1996 and 1998 are the vintages most frequently cited as definitely cellarable

2001

Rating 4.5/5 stars
Drink 2014–2030
This was recognised from its first release as an exemplary vintage. It is already moving nicely along its evolutionary journey, and in fact may be soon entering a dumb phase.

2004

Rating 4.5 stars
Drink 2014–2030
A vintage that differs from the others of this group in having the most open fruitiness. Right from the start, 2004 offered itself quite readily – so much so that some tasters think that it may never endure a dumb phase at all. That’s probably optimistic.

2006

Rating 5 stars
Drink 2014–2035
This appears to be the most reticent vintage of this group, in the austere, impressive style of old-fashioned Barolo. But it unquestionably has all the elements that give Barolo such a long life.

2008

Rating 4 stars
Drink 2014–2025
Not as austere as 2006 and probably not as profound: a good, sound vintage, above average in quality but – at least at this early stage of its development – seemingly the least good of these five.

2010

Rating 5 stars
Drink 2014–2040
This is still in barrel and won’t be released until spring 2014 at the earliest (many producers will wait beyond that), but all the leading indicators point to an extraordinary vintage with potential for very long life and quality perhaps higher than any of the wines above. It’s early days to be making such predictions with any certainty, but 2010 is certainly a vintage to keep your eye on.

  1. 1. Introduction
  2. 2. Barolo: Modern vs traditional
  3. 3. Barolo: The vintages and the wines
  4. 4. Modern Barolos for the cellar
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