It’s been an exceptional start to the 21st century for Piedmont’s Barolo producers. Michael Garner finds out what’s behind this unprecedented string of strong vintages and homes in on the producers and wines to seek out...
By the turn of this millennium, Barolo’s golden age was underway. From the second half of the 1990s, a span of successful vintages leading up until the most recent in bottle, 2010, was interrupted by only two consecutive harvests – 2002 and 2003 – which were sub-standard; the rest are classified in varying degrees between good and outstanding.
This is hardly typical: even as recently as the 1980s, an average of three or four good years per decade at best was the norm. With no historical precedent for such a favourable run, clearly some sort of explanation becomes necessary.
Changes in the field
Climate change is certainly a factor. Whether higher temperatures in recent years can be attributed to global warming or the cyclical nature of weather patterns remains uncertain. However, growers agree that the warmer weather has been a bonus as the Nebbiolo grape typically ripens in mid-October, and historically even later.
A more considered explanation points to a much improved approach to viticulture, particularly throughout the 1990s, from which growers are reaping the benefit. Better clonal selection; treating each vine individually rather than systematically; a general shift from the use of chemical treatments and fertilisers to more environmentally friendly farming methods; and finally widespread use of bunch thinning have combined with dramatic effect.
Bunch thinning, in particular, has helped ripen fruit more quickly, though some argue that the practice promotes a surge in sugar levels for the harvest, with a corresponding drop in acid levels and little benefit for the phenolic maturity of the grapes.
Earlier ripening does, however, allow the crop to be harvested before the arrival of the unpredictable weather that hits the area around mid-October onwards. Growers recount how their fathers would be a bag of nerves leading up to harvest time, never knowing whether or not the grapes would ripen before the bad weather set in.
The green scene
With the recent UNESCO recognition of the area as a World Heritage site, the organics movement is gathering momentum. Chiara Boschis, who runs the historic E Pira & Figli with her brother Giorgio, maintains: ‘We’re creating a mini El Dorado. This was an area people couldn’t wait to get away from – now everyone wants to join us. Our future is definitely green.’
Cordero di Montezemolo, one of the few estates with a vineyard that surrounds its hilltop winery, will release the first vintage of certified organic Barolo shortly. Cavallotto, similarly blessed with wraparound vineyards, has been practising sustainable methods for decades – so far without seeking official recognition. Others are following.
Yet such is the stigma attached to using synthetic treatments that some growers perhaps ‘protest too much’. There is less interest evident, for now, in biodynamic farming, although Ceretto, never a company to let the grass grow under its feet, is reputedly moving in that direction.
The third major factor is a much more careful approach to cellar practices. Improved hygiene was undoubtedly a necessary step, as was the use of better-maintained and cleaner wood, whether large or small barrels (the recent trend is back towards the former).
Fermentation practices are better researched, though there is plenty of variation – from fermenting in open-topped wooden vats (as still practised at Giuseppe Rinaldi for its Brunate Barolo) through to batteries of gleaming stainless steel fermenters of all shapes and sizes – allowing producers ample scope for freedom of expression.
This gives Barolo today a broad spectrum of styles, ranging from a bright, pale garnet to a much deeper and darker, ruby-toned colour; from intense and ethereal to richer and more powerful aromas; and from medium to full body. A structure based on high levels of acid, tannin and alcohol remains constant.
Nature or nurture?
Combine these three factors and the onset of a golden age makes a lot more sense. The region is already basking in a newfound sense of self-confidence: production has doubled over the past 25 years thanks to rising demand. Growers have built on that success and Barolo has a far more commercial, approachable style than ever before.
But anomalies remain. Where once warmer years were the most successful, nowadays cooler vintages seem to produce the truly classic wines. Barolo never fails to surprise. Perhaps it’s simply that producers have learned how to cope with trickier vintages.
Barolo producers you can rely on
- Aldo Conterno
- Bruno Giacosa
- Conterno Fantino
- Cordero di Montezemolo
- E Pira & Figli
- Ettore Germano
- Giacomo Conterno
- Giuseppe Rinaldi
- Mauro Mascarello
- Roberto Voerzio
Barolo vintage guide: 2000-2010
A glorious vintage to sign off the decade with! The coolish and sometimes wet growing season gradually improved through a fine September with more stable conditions at harvest time. The wines have a lot in common with 2008, although rather higher acid levels should help give them an even longer life. They show exceptional early promise: elegant, beautifully balanced and perfumed wines that could live for decades.
Recommended Francesco Rinaldi, Cannubi; Livia Fontana, Villero; Serio e Battista Borgogno, Cannubi; Rivetto; Serradenari; Sobrero, Ciabot Tanasio; Gigi Rosso, Arione.
A warm, generally dry vintage with slightly higher than average temperatures resulted in round, fleshy and friendly wine, with lowish acid levels that are excellent for short to medium-term consumption (generally before the 2008s and 2010s).
Recommended Bovio, Vigna Arborina; Rocche Costamagna, Rocche dell’ Annunziata; Bussia Soprana, Vigna Colonello.
A cooler vintage with a smallish crop helped by stable weather towards the end of the growing season. These are classically styled wines that show firm tannins and good sugar/acid balance; they should age very well.
Recommended Ascheri, Sorano; Sergio Barale, Bussia Riserva; Serradenari; Oddero, Bussia Riserva, Vigna Mondoca.
A generally warm and dry vintage for an early harvest of ripe and healthy fruit. Wine styles are very forward and expressive, with lowish acid and high alcohol. Again, delicious for early consumption.
Recommended Sobrero Pernanno, Riserva; Boroli Cerequio; Rocche Costamagna, Bricco Francesco; Oddero, Bussia Soprana, Vigna Mondoca
Despite heavy rains in early September, stable conditions returned towards the end of the month carrying through into October and prolonging the ripening season for a relatively late harvest. Splendidly aromatic and intense wines with good levels of tannin and acidity, marking the vintage out as a classic with excellent ageing potential.
Recommended Boroli, Villero; Marcarini, Brunate, Livia Fontana, Villero; Podere Luigi Einaudi, Nei Cannubi; Seghesio, Riserva.
A criminally under-valued vintage! At first, due to the relatively early harvest (avoiding the heavy rains predicted for October), the tannins seemed hard and green, but the wines have developed beautifully in bottle. The best have a quite magical fragrance that sets 2005 apart from most other Barolo vintages.
Recommended Sobrero, Ciabot Tanasio; Bovio, Vigna Arborina; Boroli, Cerequio.
A much heralded vintage, with a larger than normal but healthy crop. The wines have not held up quite so well, ageing more quickly than anticipated: fleshy and ripe, although often one-dimensional.
Recommended Castello di Verduno, Massara; Bovio, Arborin; Sobrero, Pernanno Riserva, Podere Luigi Einaudi, Nei Cannubi; Marcarini, Brunate; Livia Fontana, Villero.
The warmest vintage of the period. Hot, jammy aromas and flavours and high alcohol levels characterise the wines, as do green tannins due to a lack of phenolic ripeness at harvest. Few excelled, though E Pira and Brezza were better than most.
Everything that could go wrong did, and few growers released any Barolo at all. With careful selection however, decent wines were made, the best being: Castello di Verduno, Monvigliero; PaoloScavino, Bricco Ambrogio; Massolino, Vigna Rionda.
A great, classic vintage. Following a long, sometimes hot summer with decent rainfall, cooler conditions towards harvest slowed down ripening and allowed for full phenolic maturity along with good levels of sugars and acids. Barolo at its best: the wines are built to last and the best promise to develop further.
Recommended Oddero, Mondoca di Bussia; Castello di Verduno, Massara; Marcarini, Brunate. Cavallotto, Bricco Boschis, Vigna San
A reasonably warm year with decent rainfall and an early harvest. Charming wines. Good acidity and tannins have enabled them to hold up well.
Recommended Ascheri, Sorano; Sergio Barale, Bussia Riserva; Silvano Bormida, Bussia; Sobrero Pernanno Riserva.