My birthday offered the chance to taste a range of vintages of Nebbiolo-based wines with some wine-loving friends. All the examples were from the Barolo or Barbaresco. How do these potentially majestic wines develop? When or do the tannins begin to soften? How easy or difficult is it to judge the vintage of a wine amid all the other variables of producer, winemaking style and weather? Here are a few thoughts.
Six shades of garnet
Even relatively young Barolo/Barbaresco is already garnet. The youngest in the line up was a 2010 but it has been through a couple of years of oxidative ageing in a cask. The most old-fashioned wine here was Giacomo Borgogno & Figli Barolo Classico Riserva 1998 and it had spent a full six years in a large cask. And Nebbiolo is not a deep coloured wine from day one. So unlike tasting vintages from Bordeaux or Burgundy, the range of colour between 1998 and 2010 was remarkably small.
Vintage variation is important in Piedmont
It would be easy to think that Italy is a warm place and the vintage variation is not important. And it is the case that we have not really had a dramatically different vintage since 2002 and 2003, which will soon be 15 years ago. But our 2003 and 2010 showed what a difference vintage can make. 2003 was a famously hot year and our example bore this out. I opened a first bottle and thought it was gone – no fruit, some off-flavours. I opened a second and got a better result – stewed fruit, rich texture, ripe tannins. In fact, the first of these two recovered and we happily drank it over the meal but unless your 2003s are from exceptional growers, it’s time to drink up. By contrast the 2010, as elsewhere in Europe a great vintage, was un-Barolo like in its accessibility. You couldn’t exactly call it fruity but it had precision and freshness, unlike all the other wines.
Age is to be counted in decades with Nebbiolo
This was a vintage-spotting blind tasting and it is only fair to say that we struggled, in general, to put these in vintage order. Not surprisingly, most people thought the 2003 was the oldest wine, not the 1998 on account of its brown colouring. Equally, it was tough to separate the 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007. But that is because these wines start with some mild oxidation and then take decades, not mere years, to develop. And those famous tannins take decades to resolve if they ever do: I remember tasting a wine blind and not considering Nebbiolo as a variety – until it was revealed that this lithe and silky texture was a 40-year old Barolo.
Winemaking choices determine style
There was a revolution in the Langhe in the 1990s in which a group of young growers, the ‘Barolo Boys’ challenged many of the traditional practices. A critical view was taken of very long maceration times of 40-50 days, the use of Slovakian or Austrian oak and ageing in large casks for years to soften all the tannins extracted in those long maceration times. In came shorter maceration times or even rotary fermenters (does the job in a few days and extracts less tannin) and ageing in French-oak barriques, with a proportion new. The heat has long since gone out of the controversy. Most producers now do a form of well-executed, modified, traditionalism. This means picking riper, better quality, fruit, perhaps three weeks of maceration on the skins and ageing in large format oak, little or none new. But there are still those who are more ‘modernist’ than that and will age in French-oak barrique. This gives a glossy sheen to the wines and retains a deeper colour than the traditional styles. Our wines were mostly modified traditionalist in style with one exception: Enzo Boglietti, Barolo, Arnione, 2006, 14%. This goes through 20 days fermentation at controlled temperature, plunged and pumped over daily. It then spends 16 months in French barriques (40% new; 60% used), followed by large oak vat for 6 months, stainless steel tank for a further 6 months before bottling. Modified modernist? While the tannins are there to remind you that this is Barolo, this is undoubtedly in a more international style.
Wine of the evening?
The 1998 was just to tough to consider – I doubt those tannins will ever soften and it was not a great vintage. There was some support for the modernist 2006. But most plumped for Luigi Oddero Barolo Vigna Rionda, 2004, 14%. While still a relative youth this is beginning to show that beguiling array of red cherry fruit, leather, smoke, something earthy and more. I just need to keep my remaining bottles for a decade and see how they are getting on.
The full list
And yes there was a ringer in there, with most of us spotting the rogue Left Bank Bordeaux:
Aperitivo: Erbavoglio, Colline Novarese DOC, 2013, 13.5% – a classy, mildly nutty Piedmontese white made from the local Erbaluce variety.
Giacomo Borgogno & Figli Barolo Classico Riserva, 1998, 13.5%
Château Hortevie, Saint-Julien AC, 2000, 12.5%
Tenuta Rocca Barolo Vigna San Pietro, 2003, 14%
Luigi Oddero Barolo Vigna Rionda, 2004, 14%
Enzo Boglietti Barolo Arione, 2006, 14%
Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Riserva Montestefano, 2007, 14.5%
Cantine Giacomo Ascheri Barolo Sorano, 2010, 14%
This is what summer in England looks like:
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