Tom Hyland acknowledges the role of climate change in Barolo over the decades and how this translates into the changing characteristics of the wine. Don't miss his assessment of the best Barolo vintages from the 1970s until today at the end.
During a vertical tasting of Barolo at the cellars of Massolino in Serralunga d’Alba this past May, proprietor/winemaker Franco Massolino reflected on his 1996 Vigna Rionda Riserva bottling, noting that, “1996 is one of the most important Barolo vintages.” He described the characteristics of this particular year in his own unique way, adding that, “the Barolos of 1996 are closed. They are like a lot of Piemontese people.”
Massolino may be brutally honest in his assessment of his countrymen – I find them to be most gracious – but we certainly agree on the characteristics of this particular wine. That day, along with two other veteran wine journalists, I tasted three other older bottles of Barolo from Massolino; we repeated this exercise at nine other area wineries over the course of a few days. We knew that tasting older wines with the individuals who had a hand in crafting them would give us considerable insight into the recent history of Barolo and reassure our belief that this is a wine that is among the world’s most specific expressions of terroir.
A changing climate means changing wines
The cellars represented a cross-section of communes in the Barolo zone; while most of the producers represent a traditional style, a few of them were slightly more modern in their approach. The cellars were: Marcarini in La Morra; Oddero (Santa Maria, La Morra); Renato Ratti (Annunziata, La Morra); Ceretto (Alba); Pio Cesare (Alba); Prunotto (Alba); Elio Grasso (Monforte d’Alba); Aldo Conterno (Monforte); Giacomo Fenocchio (Monforte); Borgogno (Barolo) and Massolino.
Tasting wines from the mid 1970s up to the late 2000s, it was evident that the younger wines were more approachable after a few years than their older counterparts were at a similar stage in their evolution. Approachable in this sense of the word is quite relative, as all of these wines are meant for prime enjoyment after 12-15 years, but clearly the examples of Barolo from the last two decades have not been as backwards as the wines of the 1970s and past. There are several reasons for this, one being the fact that vintners have heeded the tastes of consumers worldwide that are demanding more drinkable wines.
The warmer temperatures have resulted in not only earlier harvests - early October rather than mid-late October or even early November – but also riper fruit. This in turn has led to more successful vintages today.
Yet the primary reason for this can be summed up in two words – climate change. Each producer agreed that warmer temperatures, meaning earlier harvests, have been part of the equation of the last decade plus, but there were various responses as to when they initially noticed a shift in weather conditions in the area. “Global warming has been evident from 2003 to 2012,” replied Pietro Ratti, who succeeded his father Renato after his death in 1988 at their historic cellars in Annunziata. Pio Boffa, proprietor at Pio Cesare, recalls 1982 as the start of this warming trend, while Claudio Fenocchio remembered that his father Giacomo and he remembered that “1990 was the first vintage we experienced climate change. Ratti also added that “I can’t say if 1996 through 2001 was global warming.”
Pietro Ratti. Photo ©Tom Hyland
The warmer temperatures have resulted in not only earlier harvests - early October rather than mid-late October or even early November – but also riper fruit. That in turn has led to more successful vintages today, with five or six years per decade being perceived as excellent to outstanding; this is in contrast to forty years ago when two or three years per decade were deemed worthwhile. Oddero sums up the change in quality over the past forty plus years; “the best vintages of the 1970s were 1971 and 1978. In the 1980s, you had 1982, ’85, ’88 and ’89 that were excellent, while in the 1990s, there was 1990, ’96, ’98 and ’99. For the 2000s, there were five notable years: 2001, ’04, ’06, ’08 and ’09.”
There have been other subtle changes producers have noticed as well over recent time. “There are fewer forests (in the Barolo zone) today than 20 or 30 years ago,” remarks Ratti. As trees hold water and also serve as wind blocks, this has meant changes in planting and farming particular plots. “One of the most critical things in producing Barolo is how to manage the vineyard,” Ratti continues. “We need research. The organic way is the best way.” On this subject, Manuel Marchetti, proprietor of Marcarini notes that “while the yields today are about the same as in years past, the biggest change is the reduction of pesticides.”
The best Barolo vintages
What were the best Barolo vintages from the 1970s until today? I tasted an array of wines from more than ten different years, with a few of those vintages regularly showing brilliantly in the glass. 1989 was a superb year, one that has never received as many accolades as 1990, a vintage rated superior by certain influential American wine publications at the time of release. While 1990 is certainly an impressive year, due to the wines being riper and more explosive than the better-balanced offerings of 1989, most producers favor the latter. “The 1989 will be better still down the road and will live longer than the 1990,” notes Boffa.
1996 was another brilliant Barolo vintage; the best wines from this year have the stuffing to cellar for another 15-20 years. “1996 is difficult to describe now,” says Fenocchio. “When you compare the 1990 and 1996, no one will remember the 1990 ten years from now, but the 1996 will be drinking beautifully.” Fenocchio also sings the praises of the 1978 Barolos, labeling them “grandi vini and ultimate tradizionale.”
2004 is a classic vintage with ripe fruit from the beginning. 2004 has not changed; it was elegant when it was young and it is still elegant.
From the decade of the 2000s, the wines from 2001 and 2004 are two standout years. “Tasting 2001 early on, you immediately knew from the beginning that it would be a great vintage. 2001 is a classic,” notes Grasso. Boffa notes the “purity of Nebbiolo” along with the “remarkable complexity and concentration” of that vintage.
As for the 2004, every producer raves about that vintage, as it offered lovely floral aromatics and impeccable balance from the start. “The weather that year was perfect,” Massolino recalls. “2004 is a wine I really like, a combination of power and elegance.” Giacomo Conterno, cellar director at Poderi Aldo Conterno, is equally praiseworthy. “2004 is a classic vintage with ripe fruit from the beginning. 2004 has not changed; it was elegant when it was young and it is still elegant.”
Nebbiolo of Serralunga d'Alba. Photo ©Tom Hyland
Today’s Barolos, produced in a period when these wines are receiving more deserved attention, are marvelous; technology and beneficial temperatures in most growing seasons have aided winemakers in their efforts to build upon this iconic wine’s history. But clearly, the finest examples of Barolo produced thirty and forty years ago prove that the producers of that era sought to craft wines not for instant credibility, but rather to stand the test of time. Tasting the 1978s, 1989s and 1996s – to name only three stellar vintages – is an exercise that displays that Barolo at its most honest, has always been a wine that reflects what the Italian call anima – the soul of a vineyard.
Select tasting notes
Giacomo Fenocchio “Bussia” Riserva (Monforte d’Alba)
Aromas of cumin, currant and truffle. Medium-full with very good to excellent concentration. Rich, elegant mid-palate; very fine tannins, precise acidity and lovely complexity. Excellent wine - cellar for 20 years plus.
Elio Grasso “Gavarini Chiniera” (Monforte)
Marvelous aromas of strawberry preserves, orange peel, red roses, mint and cedar. Outstanding persistence, silky tannins and very good acidity. The oak is a supporting player in the background. Beautiful elegance - age for 20 years plus.
Oddero “Vigna Mondoca Bussia Soprana” (Monforte)
Youthful garnet; aromas of morel cherry, porcini and red roses. Excellent concentration; generous mid-palate, very good acidity and outstanding persistence. 20-25 years.
Pio Cesare (classic Barolo – blend of several vineyards)
Deep garnet; aromas of ripe red cherry, cassis and a hint of chocolate. Very good to excellent concentration. Very good acidity, beautifully balanced tannins and excellent persistence. Very savory style of Barolo – best in 12-15 years.
Aldo Conterno “Colonello” (Monforte)
Lovely bright garnet; aromas of fresh red cherry, red plum, red poppies and thyme. Excellent depth of fruit, lovely ripeness, silky tannins and very good acidity. Outstanding persistence, lovely freshness; a superb expression of site. Peak in 25 years.
Renato Ratti “Rocche Marcenasco” (La Morra)
Lovely deep garnet; expressive aromas of roast coffee, porcini, sour cherry and nutmeg. Excellent concentration; lovely freshness – this is a very pretty wine, but one that has plenty of stuffing. 20 years plus.
Ceretto “Bricco Rocche” (Castiglione Falletto)
Deep garnet with a light edge; aromas of leather, a hint of tar and strawberry jam. Long finish with supple tannins and excellent persistence; very good acidity. 15-20 years, perhaps a touch longer.
Oddero “Vigna Rionda”
Deep garnet/light orange edge. Aromas of dried cherry, cedar and dried rose petals. Very good concentration; very good acidity, subtle wood notes, rich tannins. Beautiful expression of terroir, this should age gracefully, peaking in 15-20 years.
Borgogno Barolo Riserva (blend of vineyards from the commune of Barolo)
Deep garnet/ light edge; earthy aromas – dried cherry, sandalwood and orange peel. Very good concentration; tart acidity, very good persistence, round tannins and a distinct spiciness in the finish. The house style here is always toward elegance, not power. Enjoy over the next 10-12 years.
Pio Cesare (classic)
Lovely garnet; aromas of tobacco, cassis, dried cherry and truffle. Excellent concentration. Beautifully balanced wine, one of lovely complexity; graceful yet offering great power. Best in 15-20 years.
Massolino Vigna Rionda “Riserva X Anni”
This particular wine was released in 2006, ten years after the harvest. Deep garnet; aromas of balsamic, truffle and hazelnut. Excellent concentration; elegant entry on the palate. Excellent persistence, beautiful acidity, lovely complexity. Great wine – best in 20 years plus.
Lovely deep garnet color; aromas of Oriental spice, truffle and cedar. Rich mid-palate, very good acidity, gorgeous structure and excellent length in the finish. A classic that will stand the test of time; peak in 30 years plus.
Giacomo Fenocchio “Bussia” Riserva
Aromas of herbal tea, truffle and dried cherry. Excellent concentration; rich mid-palate, huge persistence; big, firm tannins. Marvelous complexity, but very young - 25 years plus until peak.
Renato Ratti “Marcenasco” (La Morra)
Aromas of tobacco, sage and dried roses. Very good concentration; round, elegant tannins. Tart acidity, medium-weight tannins, very good complexity. This is traditionally the least powerful of the Ratti Barolos, so this will peak in 10-12 years.
Renato Ratti “Conca” (La Morra)
Balsamic, tea leaf and licorice aromas. Excellent concentration; quite powerful, this has a huge mid-palate; very good acidity, big tannins and outstanding persistence. Notes of oregano and sage in the finish, this has a light savory quality to it and is actually a bit austere at present. Lay away for 20-25 years. Certainly a great wine that combines this vineyard’s terroir along with the superb qualities of this amazing Barolo vintage.
Ceretto “Bricco Ricche”
Deep garnet; aromas of balsamic, cherry jam, date and dried brown herbs. Generous mid-palate, very good persistence. Nicely balanced with excellent varietal character; best in 10-12 years.
Aromas of truffle, dried orange peel, tart cherry and a hint of tobacco. Excellent concentration and persistence; very good acidity and medium-weight, polished tannins. Excellent complexity, drinkable now, peak in 7-10 years.
Prunotto “Bussia” Riserva
Balsamic, dried cherry and truffle aromas. Excellent concentration, long, long finish, lovely acidity and balanced tannins. Great freshness with marvelous varietal character as well as great charm. 13% alcohol – this is beautiful now and will offer great pleasure for 12-15 years.
Massolino Riserva (blend of several vineyards)
Deep garnet/delicate edge; aromas of dried cherry, truffle and dried roses. Medium-full, this is amazingly fresh and there is a long, long finish with silky tannins and excellent persistence. A great expression of the house style of elegance and complexity with great varietal focus. Peak in 12-20 years.
Prunotto “Bussia” Riserva
Balsamic, dried cherry and china bark aromas. Very good to excellent concentration. Long, elegant finish with a distinct spiciness; upturned acidity, very good persistence and a lovely freshness. Approachable now, peak in 12-15 years.
Via Gioberti, 1 - 12060 Barolo | Tel: (039) 0173 56108 | www.borgogno.com
Loc. San Cassiano, 34 - 12051 Alba | Tel: (039) 0173 282582 | www.ceretto.com
Poderi Aldo Conterno
Loc. Bussia, 48 - 12065 Monforte d’Alba | Tel: (039) 0173 78150 | www.poderialdoconterno.com
Località Buccia, 72 - 12065 Monforte d’Alba | Tel: (039) 0173 78675 | www.giacomofenocchio.com
Loc. Ginestra, 40 - 12065 Monforte d’Alba | Tel: (039) 0173 78491 | www.eliograsso.it
Piazza Martiri, 2 - 12064 La Morra | Tel: (039) 0173 50222 | www.marcarini.it
Fraz. Santa Maria, 28 - 12064 La Morra | Tel: (039) 0173 50618 | www.oddero.it
Regione San Casciano, 4G - 12051 Alba | Tel: (039) 0173 280017 | www.prunotto.it
Fraz. Annunziata, 7 12064 La Morra | Tel: (039) 0173 50185 | www.renatoratti.com