The wonder years
- Wednesday 1 August 2001
Nebbiolo is among the greatest of the noble red grape varieties, producing in mature Barolo and Barbaresco a connoisseur's wine of deep, dark sensuality and an almost intellectual complexity. But however grand it may become in its maturity, in its youth it can be the world's most difficult wine to taste and judge. The grape's tannins, sometimes soft, sometimes aggressive, turn the taster's inner cheeks and tongue into cowhide and doormats. So it was with some ambivalence that I accepted the Unione Produttori Albeisa's invitation, together with 30 other journalists, to come to Alba, the wine capital of the Italian Piedmont, to taste about 250 examples of newly bottled and barrel-sample 1997 Barolo and 1998 Barbaresco.
Twenty years ago some producers even prided themselves on how unapproachable their wine was until it had 10, 15 or 20 years of bottle age. But the world has moved on and changes in the Barolo and Barbaresco cellars have made any individual wine much more welcoming, giving Nebbiolo's distinctive dark fruit and tobacco/tar undertones a chance to speak much sooner than before. Barolo and Barbaresco are still unquestionably worth keeping, but both wines are now enjoyable soon after bottling. Besides that, in the Alba area, nature has recently totally confounded human expectations and given Barolo and Barbaresco producers an unprecedented six successive splendid harvests. 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2000 all yielded top quality grapes for the winemakers, and for the first time – in my wine drinking career, at least – there may be enough great wine in the pipeline for Barolo and Barbaresco finally to break through into the average wine lover's consciousness.
Barolo and Barbaresco will never be inexpensive, however. Both require long barrel and bottle ageing before release – the more traditional the winemaker's style, the longer it stays in barrel. Cellar ageing costs time and money and those costs are reflected in the price. There is also a limited amount of wine – the combined Barolo and Barbaresco zones are quite small, just a fraction of the Burgundian Côte d'Or's surface and production. So scarcity too raises the price. And add the fact that Nebbiolo, like Pinot Noir to which it is so often compared, is a difficult grape with an extremely long growing season, and you have a powerful cluster of reasons why Barolo and Barbaresco can never be inexpensive.
The wines are also impossible to replicate. Even Pinot Noir, with care and attention, can yield a wine with a recognisable kinship to its Burgundian parent. Not so with Nebbiolo. Planted elsewhere, the vine doesn't come close to producing the same fruit it does in Alba. Barolo and Barbaresco express not just Nebbiolo, but Nebbiolo from Alba, a terroir, a microclimate, an ecology not duplicated anywhere else. The wines of the zone are as specialised and as special as the prized white truffles that grow there. They even share some of their character: old Barolos and Barbarescos are famous for their heady aroma of white truffle. That distinctiveness constitutes the heart of what drew me to Alba for three days of non-stop tasting.
In 1997, in Alba, a mild, dry winter led to a warm and equally dry spring. Good rainfall in June prepared for a decent, dry summer, and an almost perfect autumn brought many Nebbiolo grapes to early ripeness, with excellent sugar, acid, and tannin balance. I tasted well over 100 examples of this vintage, and there is no doubt in my mind that it is a fine one, characterised by exceptionally soft tannins (for Barolo) and an abundance of fruit and charm. Although young, the wines were unusually welcoming. For anyone who doesn't yet know Barolo, 1997 is the perfect vintage to start with.
The ratings that follow are one palate's reaction to young wines experienced in the artificial circumstances of a blind tasting without food or conversation or leisure to retaste, so there is no pretence of infallibility here. I used a scale of one to five: from one-star (acceptable) to five (superlative). The wines all displayed an impressive level of winemaking. I omit individual tasting notes because they would be far too repetitious. All wines offered characteristic aromas of dried roses, tar, and tobacco, sometimes with sweet new-oak notes; and all showed typical dark cherry/berry/plum flavours on the palate, with tar and tobacco underneath, or in the quite long finish. The reasons for ranking one higher than another were either the intensity of one or all of these components and/or the degree of balance and harmony the wine showed at this point in time. I expect the wines listed below, all rated three stars or better, to improve dramatically over the next five years, and perhaps for some years after that.
Palladino, cru San Bernardo; Schiavenza, cru Prapo; Sebaste, Mauro, cru Prapo; Voerzio, Gianni, cru La Serra.
Fratelli Alessandria, cru Monvigliero; Burlotto; Cascina Adelaide, cru Cannubi-Preda; Cascina Bruni, cru Rivass; Corino, Giovanni, cru Rocche; Fontana, Livia, cru Villero; Germano, Ettore, cru Cerretta; Giacosa, Bruno, cru Falletto and cru Le Rocche di Castiglione Falletto; Fratelli Giacosa, cru Vigna Mandorlo; Marcarini, cru La Serra; Molino, Mauro, cru Gancia; Pio Cesare, and Pio Cesare, cru Ornato; Ratti, Renato, cru Marcenasco; Rocche Costamagna, cru Bricco Francesco; Rosso, Giovanni, cru Cerretta; Settimo, Aurelio; Vajra GD, cru Bricco delle Viole; Veglio, Mauro, cru Gattera; Vigna Rionda, cru Parafada.
Ascheri, cru Vigna dei Pola; Fratelli Barale, cru Castellero; Batasiolo, cru Cerequio; Fratelli Sercio de Battista Borogno, S&B, cru Cannubi; Bovio, Gianfranco, cru Gattera; Brezza e Figli, Giacomo, cru Bricco Sarmassa; Burlotto, cru Cannubi; Cascina Ballarin, cru Bricco Rocca; Conterno, Franco, cru Pugnane; Damilano, cru Cannubi; Dosio, cru Fossati; Grasso, Silvio, cru Ciabot Manzoni; Marcarini, cru Brunate; Molino, Franco, cru Rocche dell'Annunziata; Molino, Mauro, cru Conca; Principiano, Ferdinando, cru Boscareto; Ratti, Renato, cru Rocche di Marcenasco; Revello Fratelli cru Vigna Giachini; Rocche Costamagna, cru Rocche dell'Annunziata; Sandrone, Luciano, cru Cannubi Boschis; Stroppiana, Oreste, cru San Giacomo; Vietti, cru Lazzarito and cru Rocche; Vigna Rionda, cru Margheria.
I also took the opportunity to taste wines that were not submitted for the formal tastings. Among those that most impressed me, the following would all easily rank as three stars or above: Ceretto, all crus; Chiara Boschis, cru Cannubi; Domenico Clerico, cru Ciabot Mentin Ginestra; Giacomo Conterno, all; Conterno Fantino, cru Sorì Ginestra; Parusso, cru Rocche; Scavino, cru Carobric; Valentino, cru Vigna de la Roul.
The Barbaresco zone lies slightly east of Barolo and is about half its size. Soil conditions are also slightly different, but vineyard sites and exposures are very similar. The Barbaresco DOCG demands one year less of ageing than is required of Barolo. 1998's climatic pattern was slightly wetter and on the whole hotter than 1997's, with an ideal autumn for bringing the grapes to near-perfect maturity. The higher temperatures throughout the growing season produced greater concentration and intensity of flavours in the grapes, but also harder tannins, than 1997. Most growers regard the resulting wine as characteristic Barbaresco, with greater potential depth and complexity than the previous year's, but also less easy accessibility. Many producers, of Barolo as well as Barbaresco, rate their 1998s higher than their 1997s. This is a vintage that will amply reward patience – unfortunately not a quality in generous supply among consumers these days. Once again, the following ratings are one Nebbiolo lover's responses to very young wines. The same scoring system and the same caveats apply here as for the 1997 Barolos. HHHH Four-star Barbaresco Abrigo, Orlando, cru Montarsino; Antichi Poderi dei Gallina, cru Gallina; Fratelli De Nicola, cru Montesommo; Fratelli Grasso, cru Bricco Spessa; Lano; Marchesi di Gresy, cru Martinenga and cru Martinenga Gaiun; Fratelli Molino, cru Ausurio; Piazzo, Armando; Rocca, Bruno, cru Rabajà; Ronchi; Villa Ile, cru Garassino.
Abbona, M&E, cru Faset; Ca' del Baio, cru Asili; Cantina del Pino, cru Ovello; Tenuta Carretta, cru Cascina Bordino; Cascina Luisin, cru Rabajà and cru Sorì Paolin; Cortese, Giuseppe, cru Rabajà; Verro, Claudia, cru Ripa Sorita; Grasso Fratelli, cru Valgrande; Nada, Fiorenzo, and Nada, cru Rombone; Pertinace, Elvio, cru Nervo; Poderi Colla, cru Roncaglia; Punset, cru Campo Quadro; Rizzi, cru Rizzi.
Among the wines I tasted in less clinical circumstances outside the tastings, the Barbarescos of Ceretto, Gaja, Bruno Giacosa and Pio Cesare stood out – possibly five stars, certainly four.
The richness and complexity of these 1998 Barbarescos whet the appetite for next year's first taste of the 1998 Barolos, and after that the 1999s and 2000s. Little wonder that the town of Alba is looking prosperous, or that Nebbiolo lovers are planning their budgets very carefully.