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Magnificent Structure: Barolos and Barbarescos

When Tom Maresca tasted the 1999 Barolos and 2000 Barbarescos, he was bowled over. Here he picks out the very best.

In May, in the small, medieval city of Alba, the producers of Barolos and Barbarescos presented their latest releases. Alba is Italy’s equivalent of Beaune, situated at the centre of a two-winged wine zone as prized by cognoscenti as the Côte d’Or. Consequently, the audience for the 350 new wines to be officially presented – a group of 50-plus international journalists – was hound-on-the-hunt eager. By the end of the week, most had been turned into a bunch of tired puppies by massive doses of young Barolo and a smaller infusion of even younger Barbaresco.


The daily sessions offered 205 Barolos from 1999 and 81 Barbarescos from 2000 – some of them barrel samples – plus 65 Nebbiolo d’Alba and Roero reds. Estate visits and producers’ dinners brought the week’s total of wines tasted to well over 500 – a marathon of Nebbiolo tasting.


In the near unanimous opinion of both the attending journalists and the winemakers themselves, 1999 Barolo is a great wine. 2000 isn’t as special a harvest as either 1999 or, from all preliminary reports, 2001, but it’s still a very good vintage. (In any other context it would probably rank as excellent.) The 2000 Barbarescos are softer and more accessible, readier to drink now and in the immediate future than the big, very firmly structured 1999 Barolos, which are going to need some time to come around. My best guess is that the most forward wines of this vintage will start showing their best about five years from now. The more traditionally styled wines will need much longer – 10 years or more – and then should last brilliantly for decades.

In the eyes of almost all the growers, 1999 is a classic Barolos year. According to Roberta Ceretto, whose family makes some of the most elegant Barolo and Barbaresco around, ‘1999 can be compared with 1996 – both are wines that will live for many, many years. Both are a little closed at first, very alcoholic and rich. It was unbelievably hot that summer, but this gave great development to the different elements in the grapes.’

The level of winemaking displayed at this event, by producers of every size and seemingly every degree of rusticity or sophistication, was extraordinary. Out of more than 500 wines I tasted, less than a handful were badly made. Yes, there were wines in styles I don’t care for – too much new-oak sweetness, or (to my palate) overdone extraction – but even those were deliberate stylistic choices, and well done of their kind. You’d be hard put to find another wine region anywhere in the world where it’s possible to taste so many wines of a prestige category like this without coming across a significantly higher percentage of truly poor wines, mere riders on the coat-tails of their appellation. There were virtually none here, and Barolo and Barbaresco producers deserve recognition for their efforts.

Shrugging off stereotypes

You cannot make blanket statements about Barolo and Barbaresco, even in recognisedly great vintages such as 1999. The old clichés say that Barbaresco is the ‘feminine’ wine, elegant and subtle, as compared to the powerful, ‘masculine’ Barolo, but that’s true less than half the time. Despite their small area – 1,040ha (hectares) of vineyards in all (Bordeaux’s Margaux appellation alone totals 1,300ha) – the Barolo and Barbaresco zones contain myriad soil types and exposures, as well as significant differences in altitude.

Tino Colla, winemaker at the highly respected Poderi Colla estate, says, ‘In a single vineyard, you can find 10 different soils. In the space of 50 metres, everything can change – soil, exposure, temperature, rainfall – even hail.’ The latter is Colla’s rueful reflection on the freak hailstorms of 2002, which did severe damage to his Bricco del Drago and Bussia vineyards and almost destroyed Barolo’s Cannubi and Cerequio crus.

Roberta Ceretto agrees: ‘The University of Torino has been taking detailed measurements in our vineyards,’ she says. ‘They found that in our Brunate vineyard there is a consistent 2?C difference between the top and bottom of the vineyard. Can you imagine what a difference that variation makes to the ripeness of the grapes over a whole growing season?’

Add to this the differences created by winemaking and the stylistic choices of the winemakers, and the result is a bevy of wines that, despite being based entirely on a single grape variety – the noble, cranky Nebbiolo, – display marked distinctions.

Dark tobacco and tar flavours and big tannins almost always mark out Nebbiolo, but the intensity of those characteristics varies with the wine’s vineyard of origin. Wines from the commune of La Morra, for instance, are usually among the biggest and most robust Barolos, while wines from the eponymous commune of Barolo tend to be lighter bodied and more elegant, paradoxically resembling the stereotype of Barbaresco.

Buy to lay down

In young wines especially, the stylistic differences imposed by the winemaker’s choices – in tannins, fruit and new oak – can all differ dramatically among winemakers.

For those with patience, in fully mature Barolos and Barbarescos (anything from 10 to 30 years old, or more, depending on the vintage), those differences tend to even out, merging to give the marvellous, complex aromatics and distinctively deep, dry sapidity that only Nebbiolo can display.


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