Barolo: The glory days

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  • Friday 8 August 2014

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.’

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