Barolo at its best: the epic tasting event
Nebbiolo is the name of the grape responsible, in the right hands and conditions, for some of Italy’s – and the world’s – greatest red wines. Although planted in many places around the globe, nowhere else – so far – does it reach the heights to which it can soar in Italy’s northwest, the home of two of Nebbiolo’s most acclaimed incarnations: Barbaresco and Barolo.
A few days ago, there was an extraordinary tasting of a dizzying array of these wines coming from 19 producers, many of them being the region’s most-recognised names. With vintages spanning some 63 years (1947-2010), 26 wines were brought from the impeccable cellar of a noted collector and presented to just 13 very fortunate individuals, including myself. You simply could not beg for a better opportunity to gain an understanding both of the sheer potential of this noble grape and what some of its greatest interpreters have done with it.
Much is made of wines that can be – or even “need” to be – aged. Even more is made of the great producers of such wines. Since Barolo is really one of the few wines that can, famously, age for three or four decades – or more – being able to see what happens to the wines and what the great producers are capable of making is extremely valuable. All the more so when you can try so many vintages from so many producers at one time. Naturally, wines from great producers are seldom cheap, even when they are freshly released. Buying aged wines of good provenance is almost invariably expensive, not to mention risky. It should go without saying that a tasting like this could only be made possible either at great cost or with the greatest of fortune: when there is a collector who has painstakingly laid down a cellar with these kinds of wines over the course of decades.
Tasting notes are, as always, at the end of the post.
Barolo – the Zone
Barolo is a pretty village near Alba in Piemonte, and is the namesake of the eponymous DOCG. It is one of 11 communes permitted to grow Nebbiolo for Barolo wines. The most important communes of Barolo DOCG are Barolo itself, La Morra, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba, and Monforte d’Alba. While plantings of Nebbiolo have increased over the last 15 years in response to higher prices and demand for the wines, there are still just 2000 hectares planted in the DOCG.
Barolo – the Wines
The wines are often legendary and, these days, the legendary wines are often very pricey. While this puts it on fairly even footing with Bordeaux and Burgundy, to name just two examples, there is one important caveat: top wines from Barolo remain far, far cheaper than top wines from either of those French appellations, while offering an experience to rival them both.
Production is limited, and DOCG rules indicate 38 months of aging for the Rosso and 62 months for a Riserva (with at least 18 months of that in oak barrels for both variations, though size of the barrel is not stated) before the wines can be released. Only Nebbiolo may be used. Winemaking has come a long way since the 70s and 80s, with more temperature controls and shorter, anaerobic macerations. This means more fruit, less volatile acidity and, often, less aggressive tannins than a few decades before.
The grape enjoys calcareous soils and is fussy in the vineyard. It brings forth wines that are high in acid, high in tannin, and low in colour. The classic descriptor of Nebbiolo is “tar and roses”, but there can be lovely cherry and plum fruit aromas, and the perfume can be hauntingly beautiful – a quality that is, sadly, almost always lacking when it is grown in regions outside of Piemonte. Not that that people don’t try; the grape is found, in admittedly small quantities, all over the world. The allure of great Nebbiolo wines is much like that of great Pinot Noir, and many winemakers want to try their hand at it.
It is too easy to get distracted by details at a tasting like this. The simple fact that both the 1947 and the 1954 vintages were not only drinkable, but authentically enjoyable even to my palate (with my enjoyment of firm tannin and good fruit) could have pushed them into the upper echelons of perceived enjoyment. But, stepping back and assessing the wines more subjectively for my own enjoyment as well as objectively based on my training, this is what really stood out:
Bruno Giacosa: a titan of the DOCG. Both of the wines that we tried were beautiful, delicious and complex – and even youthful, despite one of them being forty years old . They were truly astounding wines. And, it must be said, Giacosa is one of the most traditional of producers – so no surprise, really, that the wines are to my taste – but he is also one of the most expensive.
Luigi Pira: if there was a single producer offering the “best value” of the evening, this would be it. And I am not remotely surprised that it ended up being Pira, because I have bought and enjoyed the wines from this producer for years already, and have always appreciated the fact that, though they do not cost a fortune, they consistently punch far above their weight. At the evening’s tasting I only enjoyed the Giacosa wines more.
Giacomo Conterno: and speaking of expensive, Giacomo Conterno is only marginally less expensive than Bruno Giacosa, if at all. But the wines – again, both of them – were beautifully balanced, clearly defined and very enjoyable. The comparison of ten years’ difference was very interesting.
The Tasting Notes, in order of presentation:
1954 Antonio Vallana “Spanna di Montalbano”
What a way to begin! A 64-year-old Barolo that is not from one of the renowned producers. Not only was it still alive, it was even a pleasure to drink.
Leather, iodine, dried plum and dried herbs. Amazing colour, really garnet and not brown – though I admit my photo doesn’t represent that as well as I would have liked. Youthful, even, with more than a touch of mulberry. Smooth and relatively full in the finish.
1947 Giacomo Borgogno “Riserva delle Vigneti proprii”
After 71 years I wasn’t expecting to encounter fruit in this wine, and I didn’t. But who cares? It was still alive, delicate and enjoyable – and with a bounty of other aromas.
A bit of minty wet leaves, mushroom, leather and savoury. Smokey, with a hint of bacon. Some caramel. Very good acidity, light, but still with strength. Becoming a bit short in the finish, but that is just an observation, not a criticism. Still quite impressive.
1971 Aldo Conterno “Bussia Soprana”
A delicate whiff of rose, garnet to brown in colour. Hint of metal, still a bit of tannin, dried fruit, spice – cinnamon and clove. Very good length. Elegant, warm, very fine.
1982 Ceretto “Briccho Rocche”
Lightly smoky, real tar and roses. Light. Good tannin – wow! Very good balance and with heat in the finish. Great body. A bit of cherry and fresh black plum, with good dried plum and even a bit of raisin. Sweet spices, lots of grip remaining. Very round and very well-made.
1989 Francesco Rinaldi “Cannubi”
A really nice surprise! Perhaps a bit more rustic than the Ceretto, but more interesting because of that.
Colour is a lovely garnet. Carrot skin, dark fruit, leather and spices. A bit juicy and with a nice hit of orange peel. Very good, fine tannin. Still very lovely.
1989 Scavino “Bric del Fiasc”
The fact that lots of new wood was used becomes clear quickly. Toffee, caramel, and a nose a bit like cognac or schnapps. No, wait, it’s Vieille Poire. Drying, stalky and a bit hot. Not much fruit. But a fair hint of walnut.
1990 Azelia “Bricco Fiasco”
Alas! A corked bottle.
1998 Luigi Pira “Marenca”
One of my favourites of the evening!
Already approaching garnet, but offering fine, perfumed depth, tar, mint and dark fruit. Mineral into the finish, smooth and very supple tannin. A bit more mint in the finish, lovely balance. A fine, roasted note accompanying sweet spices. Not juicy, but ripe. Delicious, balanced, powerful and elegant. Possibly also the best-value Barolo as well as being one of the finest wines at the event.
1997 Montezemolo “Enrique VI”
Ripe, good red fruit, floral, not as much tar. Smooth, fine tannin. Lacking a bit of concentration in the finish, which is carried by the alcohol. Sweet fruit in the nose, but evoking orange juice towards the finish.
1996 Paolo Scavino “Rocche dell`Annunziata”
Another great, interesting and fine wine from one of Barolo’s top producers.
The aroma of cooked tomatoes was the first thing I noticed, but this dissipated quickly in the glass. Very sweet fruit, prickly but moderate tannin. Cloves, good wood, not too much. Lots of cherry. Bit of menthol. Good youthful aspect despite the lower tannin.
2000 Roberto Voerzio “Riserva Vecchie Viti Capalot e Brunate” from magnum
Voerzio belongs in the so-called modernist camp. This wine didn’t have as many fans at the tasting as many of the others did. But it was no less well-made.
Very dark colour for a Nebbiolo. A very dense, dark wine with lots of ripe fruit, some hazelnut. Opulent, with good length with even more spice. Very ripe, somewhat chewy tannin. No corners and almost “international” in style. Easy to understand and to enjoy.
2000 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo
Racier fruit, stalkier tannin, more elegance, more acidity and a bit less “perfect” than the Voerzio. This made it more interesting to me, too. Also less colour than its predecessor.
2001 Massolino “Vigna Rionda”
A bit green and hard, with a distinct note of furniture polish. The fruit seemed a bit baked and the wine wasn’t overly complex. But the tannins were nice and firm, and the wine had very good length. Not my thing, unfortunately.
2001 Domenico Clerico “Percristina”
Enormously dense and spicy, floral, big and structured – but also with excellent balance. The acidity really helps to keep the wine from feeling overly-concentrated. Very long, warm exit. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this wine, considering how “big” it is. Great stuff.
2001 Aldo Conterno “Gran Bussia”
Sweet nose – small plums, blackberries, even blueberry. Sweet spices and round tannin made me think there was some new wood involved, but that is not the case. Only large barrels are used, though those were used both for the fermentation and for a very long maturation before release. Honestly, the fruit is extraordinary in the wine, but it remains elegant and vertical – and very long.
2005 Aldo Conterno Bussia “Colonello”
Like the Gran Bussia, the nose has an amazing amount of sweet dark fruit – the Conterno wines had more of this quality than any of the others. Very good, fine tannin, excellent acidity, length is also very good, though I found the wine a bit hollow.
2008 Elio Grasso “Casa Maté”
This was very interesting. Dense, compact and solid. Quite restrained, but somehow poised, like a cat, as if to pounce. It offers extraordinary balance – all things in equal measure – though, as I said, somehow a bit muted. This leads me to believe, however, that it is going to develop into something magnificent in eight or ten years. Even so, I enjoyed it a great deal. Good ripeness, tight, and with good length.
2004 Giuseppe Mascarello “Monprivato”
Extremely restrained, almost completely closed. There was some cherry and other fresh small red fruits. Nothing remotely special at the moment, and nothing too extravagant. Perhaps it will reopen soon. It is worth noting that my impression of this wine was significantly in the minority.
2004 Luciano Sandrone “Canubbi Boschis”
Eucalyptus. Lots of dark fruit, a good nose, fresh and spicy. Lots of cherry, some cranberry. Very smooth tannin and with a lovely length. Much “harder” than the Gaja, below, reminding me of that old saw about Barolo being masculine and Barbaresco feminine. Have I mentioned that I hate those terms to describe a wine? Nevertheless, in this direct comparison I can understand why people use them if they are struggling for other descriptors.
2004 Gaja Barbaresco “Sori San Lorenzo”
One of only two Barbarescos in the tasting (the other also Gaja). Somehow, even after having been decanted, this wine seemed reductive. Very soft in comparison to the Cannubi Boschis immediately before. Fine fruit, very lively – even somewhat biting at the edges of the tongue. Not a lot of length, but very faceted and with loads of cherry.
2007 Giacomo Conterno “Cascina Francia”
Dense, a bit closed, yet open enough to enjoy. Hugely vertical, with powerful, tight tannin. Roasted hazelnuts, fresh red fruit, a bit of black fruit and delicate rose perfume. Lovely length, lovely balance. Very nice wine and still many, many years to go.
1997 Giacomo Conterno “Monfortino”
Still very, very youthful, with plenty of red and black fruit. Lovely perfume, great acidity, mushroom and sous- bois completing the complex picture. Very clean, very defined. Silky smooth despite the acidity, and very pleasurable to drink. Wonderful comparison with Cascina Francia, ten years its junior.
1997 Bruno Giacosa “Falletto”
This wine might “only” be the white label (which costs less than the vaunted “red label” below), but it was breath-taking and one of my favourite wines of the evening. Gorgeous floral nose, beautiful toffee, nuts, dried fruit, nuance. Vibrant acidity, lovely elegance, length and beauty. Superb integration. An extraordinary wine.
1978 Bruno Giacosa Barolo Bussia Riserva Speciale (red label)
And just when you thought the previous wine couldn’t be topped, here is one from the same producer – and nearly twenty years older – that can compete with it on every level, while adding the purest finesse and refinement, as well as the added complexity and smoothness of the extra years. Lightly smoky, saltwater taffy and caramel, leather and length. Completely balanced and somehow, incredibly, youthful. Hugely impressive, still with tannin and with fine acidity. Possibly the most beautiful thing of the evening.
1961 Gaja Barbaresco
Extremely oxidised and with perhaps another defect leading it to smell more than a little unappetising. Almost certainly not corked, I think, but still undrinkable. Pity.
2010 Guiseppe Mascarello “Villero”
The third wine from this producer, and the youngest at the tasting. Young, but still with lovely red fruit and good balance. Very tannic, yes, yet totally approachable. Already nearly ready to drink for people who like that kind of thing (like me). Good finish. After all of these older vintages, it was almost mischievously fruit-driven.
A Word About the Vintages:
Wine Spectator has a handy summary of nearly all the vintages that you can read here.