Tom Maresca was roundly disappointed by this 2009 tasting, citing the winemakers' failure to address how difficult the vintage was as one reason for this 'dismal' showing
‘Few 2009s justified optimism about their longevity, and most producers spoke of 2009 as a vintage for near-term drinking’
The 2009 vintage of Barolo will confront consumers with some harsh truths and some harsh wines. I tasted well over 200 examples of Barolo 2009 at Nebbiolo Prima in Alba in May. The majority of wines on offer over the five days of the event not only lacked classic Nebbiolo colour but showed almost no Nebbiolo aromas nor flavours.
I love Barolo, and I respect and admire many of its producers for their dedication and the clarity of their vision. Yet, I have to say that in this vintage the performance of many of them wasn’t simply lacking, it was dismal.
Of course there were exceptions: several producers – Giacomo Fenocchio, Aldo Conterno, Prunotto, for some – turned out quite drinkable Barolo. A few – notably Pio Cesare and Massolino-Vigna Rionda – even have faith in their wine’s ageing potential. That opinion was frequently echoed by merchants and buyers, who tasted a selection of these wines a week earlier than journalists, and with the producers (not blind). But to my palate – and in the opinion of many journalists I spoke to – most Barolo-makers seem to have severely underestimated the difficulty of this vintage. Few 2009s justified optimism about their longevity, and most producers spoke of 2009 as a vintage for near-term drinking.
Giacomo Conterno, of the Aldo Conterno winery in the commune of Monforte, was one of the more outspoken producers. He said: ‘2009 was a winegrower’s vintage. At the end of August, some [Nebbiolo] vines were already almost ripe, and some were completely unripe – almost 30 days’ difference between them. What you did about that determined what kind of wine you made.’ The usually upbeat Consorzio assessment of the harvest this year is very guarded:
‘The 2009 vintage will also be remembered for its irregular ripening pattern… In terms of technological maturation, the vintage can be placed between the 2003 and 2007… With regard to the phenolic maturation… the data found in the grapes were comparable to the 2003… in this vintage results were not always improved by delaying the harvest.’
Most Barolo lovers will recognise that a comparison to the very hot 2003 vintage is hardly flattering and should be a red flag. But the Consorzio report continues in an even more monitory vein: ‘Wherever vineyard management and planting decisions were shown to be correct, the quality of the product proved to be higher. This is supported by analytical data bearing out the fact that the use of appropriate, timely vineyard management techniques suited to the vineyard catered for higher quality production, underlining and increasing the difference compared to vineyard management plans which failed to take into consideration the influence of the climate and the development of the vine.’
Translated from the bureaucratic idiom, that means growers who made the right decisions in the field could make good wine in 2009, but some – I would say many – did not.
Giacomo Conterno was explicit about those decisions. ‘It was difficult, but I chose to discard the unripe grapes and concentrate on the ripe ones. This meant a 50 per cent reduction of the crop from our normally low yields, but I am proud of the wine we made in ’09.’
He has every right to be: his 2009s were among the best – big, rich in alcohol, fruit and tannin; hot-weather wines to be sure, but with recognisable Nebbiolo character.
Many growers seem not to have done as he did. Most of the Barolos I tasted showed a combination of green tannins and over-ripe fruit, apparently the result of that uneven ripening. In many cases, winemakers seem to have tried to correct or mask those flavours by using toasted oak barrels, which only distanced the wines further from classic Barolo.
Accordingly, the watchword for 2009 Barolo must be caveat emptor. If you can, taste before buying. And don’t expect these Barolos to last long in any case. This is a ‘restaurant vintage’ – more or less accessible early, with a relatively short drinking window. I estimate that most 2009 Barolos will be drinking at their best or near it by 2015 and will continue to be good for, at most, five further years.
Every year, Barolo producers assure journalists that they are steadily cutting their use of barriques. In 2009, they seem to have rushed back to them. Wine after wine – especially from the usually reliable commune of La Morra – smelled like espresso and tasted of toasted wood. Lovers of the international style will revel in these wines. Those who relish classic Nebbiolo flavours will hate them.
More than one journalist remarked to me that the 2009 Barolos called into question the integrity or validity of the whole DOC/DOCG system: how can wines that show almost no Nebbiolo character qualify for the Barolo appellation? That’s a question Barolo-makers are going to have to confront immediately if they hope to retain the confidence of consumers and the price levels they command. Piedmont has largely been spared the years of controversy that have roiled, for instance, the Brunello zone, because the producers have assiduously cultivated a reputation for unsullied integrity and consistent pursuit of the highest quality. The 2009 chips away at that reputation. It’s up to the producers to repair that lapse. Vintage 2010 should help: all the winemakers I spoke to were almost exultant about the quality of their 2010. I certainly hope they’re right.
What the producers say:
Giacomo Conterno, of Aldo Conterno: ‘A wine-grower’s vintage. What you did [in the field] determined what kind of wine you made.’
Pio Boffa, of Pio Cesare: ‘I love the 2009 vintage – it has the purity and freshness of ’07 and the structure of ’08.’
Franco Massolino, of Massolino-Vigna Rionda: ‘For us, a warm vintage that made powerful, classic Barolo that is still tannic and not yet open. Other producers differ.’
What the trade says:
Jorge L Mendoza, sommelier, The Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne, Miami: ‘The wines are showing generous fruit, well-rounded, ripe tannins and fresh acidity. They are drinking, at release, pleasantly well. It is a vintage that l think will reward some cellaring time.’
Robin Kelley O’Connor, European wine specialist and education director, Italian Wine Merchants, New York: ‘My impression of 2009 Barolo was overall positive. The over-achievers delivered on quality. Certainly there were some average wines produced, but on the whole my opinion is very favourable, and I believe the 2009 Barolo’s are going to offer a great degree of pleasurable drinking.’
Michael Franz, editor of Wine Review Online: ‘The 2009 Barolos are maddeningly inconsistent. They include some indisputable successes, but also many wines with overly ripe, stewed-fruit characters and a lack of freshening acidity. The most distressing disappointments are actually marred both by stewed fruit and green tannins, pointing to the challenge of achieving balanced and uniform ripeness in a warming climate marked by heat spikes late in the growing season.’
A word on Barbaresco 2010:
Barbaresco producers this year had the inestimable advantage of showing their 2010 vintage, about which it is impossible to find a negative opinion in either the Barolo or Barbaresco zone. Producers are simply over the moon about this vintage, and tastings of it bore out their enthusiasm – with the exception, again this year, of the wines from the oak-crazed commune of Neive.
Here is the Consorzio’s verdict on the growing season: ‘Nebbiolo was able to enjoy fine weather throughout the month of September, offsetting the slight delay in the ripening of the grapes due to the wet weather between July and August. Ripening checks showed that the sugars continued to accumulate during the second half of the month, while the acid profile gradually dropped to very acceptable levels. Ripening of the phenolic components which are essential for ensuring body and ageing capacity has been excellent. Without question, Nebbiolo has responded sublimely this year… this will prove to be an excellent vintage for the Nebbiolo denominations.’
Even for the usually optimistic Consorzio reports, this is strong language, and my tastings showed it is justified.
In the communes of Barbaresco and Treiso, producers were able to achieve classic wines, with the poise and balance of traditional Barbaresco and the luscious, accessible fruit of modern vintages. My tasting notes remark again and again about classic aromas of black cherry, road tar and dried roses, about lovely fruit and perfect acidity on the palate, with tannins that are already softening, and perfectly pitched leather and tobacco finishes.
The Neive commune continues this year with its inexplicable-to-me infatuation with toasted oak barrels, which come close to eradicating any Nebbiolo character from the wines – a pity in any year, but a true shame in this superb vintage.
Producers and journalists concur that 2010 seems to be an ideal vintage that will drink very enjoyably soon — for some of the most forward wines, within this calendar year — and last for decades. I found many wines to enjoy already, and many more, slightly closed at the moment, that will prove very pleasurable in one or two years’ time.
Here is a highly selected list of some of the best:
Albino Rocca, Ronchi, Barbaresco
Albino Rocca, Teorema, Alba
Cascina delle Rose, Rio Sordo, Barbaresco
Cascina delle Rose, Tre Stelle, Barbaresco
Ceretto, Bernardot, Treiso
Marchesi di Gresy, Martinenga, Barbaresco
Michele Chiarlo, Asili, Barbaresco
Pertinace, Marcarini, Treiso
Poderi Colla, Roncaglie, Barbaresco
Produttori del Barbaresco, Barbaresco
Vigneti Luigi Oddero, multiple communes
Maresca’s best Barolos of 2009
This is a highly selective group of wines of the best of the 2009 Barolos that I tasted that week in Alba. It amounts to less than 10 per cent of the total wines tasted. They are grouped here by commune:
Bric Cenciurio, Coste di Rose
Excellent fresh fruit, with undertones of tar and dried roses, lovely black fruit and tobacco finish.
Buy N/A UK
E Pira & Figli, Cannubi
Classic aromas and flavours from Chiara Boschis: black fruits, tar and tobacco throughout.
Buy Enotria Wine Cellar
Giacomo Fenocchio, Cannubi
Lovely black cherry, leather and earth palate, softening tannins: very fine.
Buy Armit Wines
Luigi Einaudi, Cannubi
Slightly closed now on the palate, but very traditional aromas – tar, tobacco, black fruits. Will be fine.
Buy Trywines, Vini Italiani
Viberti Giovanni, Buon Padre
An enjoyable, correctly made wine, everything in place: tar and black fruits throughout.
Buy Bottle Green
Sylla Sebaste, Bussia
Tar, tobacco, black cherry nose. Mostly closed, but biggish, balanced, fresh, with an intriguing chocolaty finish. Needs time.
Buy N/A UK
Dark fruit scents, a hint of vanilla. Round on the palate with black cherry and earth flavours, long leather finish.
Buy Berry Bros & Rudd, Fields Morris & Verdin
Giuseppe Rinaldi, Brunate-Le Coste
Pleasing, with some freshness and intensity; long finish.
Buy N/A UK
Poderi Aldo Conterno, Vigna Romirasco, Bussia
Classic Nebbiolo aromas, great palate, already complex – spice and chocolate. Slightly hot finish a small defect.
Buy Liberty Wines
Poderi Aldo Conterno, Bussia
Very floral, mineral nose. Good fruit, with abundant tannins, some still a bit biting. Five weeks of skin contact: a big wine, still needing time.
Buy Liberty Wines
Elio Grasso, Gavarini Vigna Chiniera
True Nebbiolo colour and scents. Black cherry, tar and earth on the palate and in the finish.
Buy Mille Gusti
Elio Grasso, Ginestra Vigna Casa Matè
More fruit and fat than the Gavarini, but not as well balanced. Good wine for immediate consumption.
Buy Mille Gusti
Barale Fratelli, Bussia
Tea, tar, dried red fruits, tobacco on the nose and palate. Persistent tobacco and liquorice finish.
Poderi Colla, Dardi Le Rose, Bussia
Grand Nebbiolo aromas. Palate slightly closed, but showing good acidity, with emerging black cherry and tobacco flavours, long tobacco finish.
Giacomo Fenocchio, Villero
Fresh and live, with great fruit and depth, and very forward. Darker and deeper than Fenocchio’s Cannubi.
Massolino-Vigna Rionda, Parussi
Needs time: classic Nebbiolo aromas, long juicy finish.
Buy Liberty Wines
Massolino-Vigna Rionda, Parafada
Fine Barolo aromas – black cherry, dried roses, tar – and lovely fresh fruit, with just a touch of wood and a refreshing juicy finish.
Buy Liberty Wines
Cascina Cucco, Cerrati
An enjoyable wine with a subdued presentation of all the right stuff: black cherry scents and fruits, tar, tobacco, even a hint of dried roses.
Buy Prestige Food & Wine
Slightly closed, but fine black fruit-and-tar finish promises well.
Buy Ehrmanns, Fine & Rare
Pio Cesare, Ornato
Showing much less oak than usual, plus some lovely fruit. Nice balance, fine persistence.
Buy Maisons Marques & Domaines
Paolo Manzone, Meriame
Tobacco and dried roses on the nose, slightly closed Nebbiolo flavours on the palate, with a fruit and leather finish. Will be fine in a short while.
Elvio Cogno, Cascina Nuova
A delicate and graceful Barolo, already enjoyable but sufficiently structured to last.
Buy Flint Wines
Medium bodied, with lovely balance and all the right components in the right places, albeit on a small scale.
Buy Terra Firma
Written by Tom Maresca