Barolo's and Barbaresca's - is oak ok now?

barolo, barbaresco, 1998, alba, italy People & Places Articles
  • Friday 16 January 2009

In the late 1990s, Alba was infatuated with new French barriques. A
decade on, TOM MARESCA looks at whether time has changed not
only these Barolos and Barbarescos, but also the mindset of producers

I’ve never been persuaded by either the arguments for barriques or by the wines made with them. What I have loved, ever since I started drinking Barolo and Barbaresco 40 years ago, has been the wonderful character of Nebbiolo, and especially of mature wines from Nebbiolo.

As author Alan Tardi says in brilliantly describing the taste of a 30-year-old Barolo in his Romancing the Vine: ‘There are the wild, dark frutti di bosco flavours of blackcurrants and black cherries.

There are mushrooms, truffles – even a hint of manure – and, on the finish, the characteristic (though increasingly rare) qualities of leather and tar. This wine is not thick or jammy, the way so many today are made.

In fact, in the glass it appears almost transparent, garnet (not velvety red) with a touch of orange, not unlike the outer skin of an onion. It is subtle and refined – it doesn’t knock you in the head or get up in your face – yet it is incredibly intense.

It begins with the smell of violets and moist, rich, loamy soil; travels the full length of the palate from ripe fruit to tanned hide, and continues to evolve in the mouth even long after it’s been swallowed.’

In my experience, many of those wonderful characteristics of the Nebbiolo grape can be obscured, and in the most extreme cases totally blotted out, by the use of new barriques.

Because of their smaller size, barriques impose much more pervasive contact between the evolving young wine and the surface of the wood, thereby forcing greater extraction of sweet tannins from the oak into a wine that already has abundant tannins of its own.

With those sweet tannins, the wine also imports a distinct flavour of vanilla and, because of a combination of greater oxygen exchange encouraged by the porosity of the oak and other particles leached from it, the end result is a wine that has moved into a much darker colour spectrum and into a Pepsi flavour spectrum – characteristics which, until quite recently, have had enormous appeal in the international market, and so explain why so many winemakers pursued them.

Many people – producers, consumers, and wine critics alike – believed or hoped

that time would mellow those strong oak flavours and integrate them into a more traditionally maturing Barolo or Barbaresco. Well, it doesn’t and they don’t.

I’ve never been persuaded by either the arguments for barriques or by the wines made with them. Back in time Sunday morning at the Alba Wine Exhibition in May was devoted to a

journey back in time, to revisit the 1998 vintage. It was worth it.

At 10 years old, 1998 Barolo and Barbaresco are showing clearly that they deserve the best of their original evaluations and far exceed the low estimates. The wines received mixed early reviews, largely because they followed the 1997 vintage that generated so much excitement in Italy, and were in turn followed by the magnificent ’99s.

In the wines of the Alba area, of which Barolo and Barbaresco are chief, ’97 is not holding up as well as the vintages that surround it. Both ’96 and ’98 are maturing in classic Nebbiolo style, as is 1999, deepening in flavours and complexity, seemingly picking up aesthetic and physical bulk as they age, behaving, as they often do, like the great red Burgundies to which they are justly compared.

Giovanni Minetti, general manager of Fontanafredda, describes those harvests: ‘1999 was the coolest of the more recent vintages. 1996 was the last very cold harvest we’ve had in the Langhe.

1997, on the other hand, was our first really hot vintage, and we weren’t ready for it: we were unsure how to handle the field work. By contrast, in ’96, the grapes were still green at the end of August. Septemberand October were perfect: they saved the crop, but we had to pick very late.

By those standards, 1998 was a much more normal, more average vintage for us.’ Pietro Ratti, proprietor of the Renato Ratti estate and president of the Union of Alban Wine Producers, takes a slightly longer perspective: ‘1998 wasn’t very lucky, because it came in the middle of the magic years – 1996, ’97, ’98, ’99, 2000, 2001.

It was one of the “less incredible” of those years, but certainly one of the most balanced of the six. If today I want to show what Barolo is to someone who doesn’t know Barolo well, I open a bottle of 1998.

I consider the vintage classic for its quality, its balance,and its typicity.’ My memory and old tasting notes tell me that this cluster of vintages probably marked the Alba area’s greatest infatuation with barriques.

In those days, barriques provided the flashpoint of the technologically driven culture wars between the partisans of new styles in winemaking and the defenders of traditional Barolo and Barbaresco.

The latter was customarily aged – and often had been fermented – in botti, large barrels, usually of Slavonian oak and often too old. The differences between these and the new-style wines aged in barriques (smaller barrels of usually new, usually French, oak) showed dramatically in the young wines.

Here, many newstyle wines were dominated by the vanilla sweetness of new oak or the espresso sweetness of heavily charred oak, as opposed to the more subdued, even reticent, leathery, black cherry fruit of young Nebbiolo as it showed or hinted at in traditionally made wines.

The barrique party at the time claimed that barriques gave Barolo and Barbaresco elegance – which was quite debatable – and that such wines appealed to the international market – which, alas, wasn’t.

Change in direction

This tasting of 10-year-old wines showed one thing conclusively: if you cellar Pepsi,

what you wind up with after 10 years is old Pepsi. The oak just doesn’t fade, unless it was moderately used in the first place.

Vanilla-flavoured wines remain vanillaflavoured, and espresso-flavoured wines still taste like strong coffee, with little evidence of the development of those dark flavours or complex subtlety of which Tardi writes.

The wines that in their youth had seemed less extreme – either completely traditionally vinified or only lightly exposed to barriques – now tasted much richer, more complex, worth

the waiting for: in short, much more as great Barolo and Barbaresco have always tasted – deep, dark and harmonious.

Fortunately, times change, and global fads change with them. The path Piedmont winemakers are now taking is clearly away from heavy dependence on

barriques.

Those small barrels have by no means disappeared, but are being used with much greater moderation than in the past. Perhaps it’s just a normal learning curve, as with any new technology (and barriques were certainly a new technology in Alba in the ’90s); perhaps it’s because, living in the regionwith the possibility of tasting young and old Barbaresco and Barolo all the time, the producers didn’t need to wait for a 10-year retrospective to discern what effect barriques were having on their wine.

According to the winemaker Federico Scarzello, ‘We’ve built a new concept of Barolo, so all the growers are going in the same direction. There are still many different styles, but the direction is the same: moderate wood, distinct Nebbiolo flavours, a wine full but not aggressive.’

Mariacristina Oddero is even more explicit: ‘There is a return to the use of large barrels, especially of Slavonian and Austrian oak. That oak is tighter and gives less oxidation; French oak passes too much air, accelerates the maturation too much.’

More than that has changed since 1998. Minetti of Fontanafredda explains: ‘The biggest changes we’ve made are in the fields, in the way we manage the vines and control our yields. The key things are to reduce vine vigour and grape quantity.

Perfect maturation of the tannins can be achieved by field management.’ If that is so – and evidence is mounting that, weather permitting, it is – then the winemakers of Alba will be able to achieve, without barriques, the soft tannins and elegant, youthfully accessible wines that they had turned to barriques to produce for them.

And if that is so, then we can hope for a 10-year retrospective in 2018 that will show no traces of Pepsi but taste only of glorious, mature Nebbiolo fruit.

When wood works: Maresca's top 1998's:

FIVE STARS ★★★★★

Cavallotto Fratelli, Vigna San Giuseppe,

Bricco Boschis, Barolo Riserva

Big and still opening; all the classic

Nebbiolo flavours emerging. Has years

of life yet. 2009–2025. £24 (2003); Gdh

Cavallotto Fratelli, Vignolo,

Bricco Boschis, Barolo Riserva

A bit less forceful and expressive than the

Vigna San Giuseppe. 2009–2022.

£39.55 (2001); Gdh

Fontanafredda, Lazzarito, Barolo

This is a lovely, complete wine, tasting

typically of the variety at its best and of

this fine cru. 2009–2025. £30.88; EnW

FOUR STARS ★★★★

Ada Nada, Cichin, Barbaresco

Traditional Nebbiolo flavours with just a

touch of wood sweetness; evolving well.

2009–2020. N/A UK; +39 0173 638 127

Anselma, Barolo

Very well structured; surprisingly, still a

bit closed, with a small touch of wood.

2009–2018. N/A UK; +39 0173 560 511

Anselma, Adasi, Barolo

Balanced and elegant; the gamut of

aromas and flavours from dried roses to

road tar and leather. 2009–2020.

£39.99; BoC

Boroli, Villero, Barolo Riserva

A whiff of coffee over otherwise classic

scents; nice in the mouth – black cherry,

tea, leather. 2009–2018. £41 (2003); Wtd

Cantina Franco Molino,

Rocche dell’ Annunziata, Barolo

A generously scaled wine, still evolving

and growing – very fine. 2009–2020.

N/A UK; +39 0173 503 80

Dante Rivetti, Brico, Barbaresco Riserva

Classic aromas and flavours on a

medium-scale. Very nice. 2009–2014.

N/A UK; +39 0173 671 25

E Pira & Figli, Cannubi, Barolo

Leather, dried roses, tar, a touch of

truffle – everything just as it should be.

2009–2020. £36.42; Ant

Francesco Sobrero, Pernanno, Barolo

Excellent fruit not quite balanced;

enjoyable. 2009–2014.

N/A UK; +39 0173 628 64

Giacomo Ascheri, Sorano, Barolo

Dried roses, tar, a bit of truffle; still live

and evolving. 2009–2025. £25.45; EnW

Giacomo Brezza & Figli, Barolo

Classic and lovely on nose and palate,

with a long life in front of it.

2009–2020. £17.99; CCl

Giorgio Scarzello & Figli,

Vigna Merenda, Barolo

A very good wine from a fine cru.

2009–2018. N/A UK; +39 0173 561 70

Marchesi di Barolo, Barolo

A tiny shadow of oak over sweet fruit; a

vigorous wine, with a lively finish.

2009–2020. £20.71 (2003); Vsm

Moccagatta, Bric Balin, Barbaresco

Structured and elegant, though still tight.

2009–2018. N/A UK; +39 0173 635 152

Oddero, Vigna Rionda, Barolo

Everything is in place in this tightly

structured wine; give it at least an hour

to breathe. 2009–2020. £21.90 (1997); Ali

Palladino, San Bernardo, Barolo

Almost textbook evolution: hints of

truffle, roses, leather, vestiges of some

oak sweetness; long, walnut finish.

2009–2018. N/A UK; +39 0173 613 108

Renato Ratti, Conca, Barolo

A touch of vanilla threading through

otherwise traditional flavours.

2009–2018. N/A UK; +39 0173 501 85

Vajra, Bricco delle Viole, Barolo

Restrained, well bred, very contained:

needs time to breathe and/or to age.

2009–2020. £42.99 (2003); Lib

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