Climate change has been very kind to the winemakers of Italy’s Piedmont, giving them a succession of beautiful growing seasons. And they have made the most of nature’s bounty, turning out a series of wines of the quality level we used to get only once or at most twice a decade. This is truly a golden age for Barolo and Barbaresco lovers.
The proof of that was everywhere at the Barolo Barbaresco World Opening, a huge showing of new releases of both wines held in New York during the first week of February.
As if in confirmation of what has been going on in Piedmont, weather in New York that week was unnaturally warm, and the crowd at the event large indeed. 148 producers showed about twice that number of wines from 2015 and 2016, and many luminaries had traveled from Italy to personally pour their wines and to greet old friends.
I did my best, but there was no way that I was going to be able to taste 148 young Nebbiolo wines in a single afternoon, much less nearly 300. In the old days, when I was a young snip, and when the father of this event was held annually in Alba, I would taste far more wines than that over its week-long duration, but non sum qualis eram sub regno Cynarae – and in just one afternoon, standing up, struggling for spitting space at the buckets (too few and far between), and trying to take legible notes: no way.
So I tasted as many as I could, chatted with some producers I haven’t seen in years, and was totally impressed by the quality of the wines on offer. I didn’t taste a single bad one, nor even a middling one, all afternoon.
That goes for both vintages, despite their differences. And the differences are many and striking. The 2015 wines benefited from a deep winter snow cover, which provided ample ground water reserves to carry the vines through the six torrid, rainless weeks that followed the mild spring.
The rest of the summer and fall were as fine as could be hoped for, carrying the vines in almost perfect condition to the harvest. One producer remarked to me that 2015 had a hot growing season, “but we’ve learned now how to deal with them.” Here is the Consortium’s evaluation:
The Nebbiolo ripened perfectly, though slightly earlier than over the last few years. In particular, climatic conditions were seen in the second part of the summer that allowed for an impressive accumulation of polyphenols. The excellent quality of the tannins emerging on analysis will certainly ensure elegant, long-lasting wines with good structure…. The sugar content settled at average potential values of around 14–14.5% vol., while the acidity is perfect for Nebbiolo (6.5 g/l). With the ripening data at hand, the great balance that clearly emerges in the technical parameters goes well beyond the numbers, promising big wines. In general, considering the great balance shown in the ripening data we can say without any shadow of doubt that all the conditions are in place for a truly great vintage: one to remember, like few others in history.
Now, I’ve got to put some of that statement up to hope and/or hype, because I found the 2015s charming and intensely enjoyable – beautiful, with wonderful fruit and freshness – but not big. I may be wrong about that, but most of the producers I spoke to seemed to agree, indicating that for them 2016 was the great, structured vintage, not 2015. That doesn’t mean 2015 won’t age – just that it’s probably a 15- to 20-year wine rather than 50 to 100.
2016, on the other hand, just may be a 50-year vintage: Certainly, most of the producers I spoke with seemed to feel that way, referring to it almost unanimously as a “superb” vintage. The wines I tasted – mostly Barbarescos, which are bottled a year before Barolos – supported that judgement. They were big and balanced, with the kind of tannic ripeness and live acidity that in both Barolo and Barbaresco usually portends very long life and development in the bottle.
Here, for the record, is the Consortium’s evaluation of that harvest:
The late development seen in the early part of the year was made up for during the months of August and September. In particular, the second half of September was crucial for the components which will go into determining the structure of the wines, above all as regards the accumulation of phenolic substances. While waiting to be able to assess the real quality of the 2016 wines, as far as can be evaluated analytically we can look forward to wines with excellent balance, big bouquets and great structure, although in some cases lower alcohol contents will be recorded than in 2015. We can therefore expect a vintage featuring significant qualities which will be talked about for a long time to come.
That is surprisingly guarded for a Consortium statement: They usually veer toward over-optimism rather than caution. All I can tell you is that I loved the ‘16s I tasted, even though I think they really shouldn’t be drunk for a decade yet.
I’ll just list here, in alphabetical order, my best wines of the tasting. All were absolutely characteristic both of Nebbiolo and of the vintages as I’ve already described them, so I’ll keep my comments to a minimum.
Aurelio Settimo, Barolo Rocche dell’Annunziata 2015 – forward, light, and well-structured: fine.
_____________, Barolo Riserva Rocche dell’Annunziata 2012 – another lovely keeping wine, classically structured.
Brezza, Barolo Cannubi 2015 – nice indeed: wild fennel in the nose, wild cherry and herbs on the palate.
Cascina delle Rose, Barbaresco Tre Stelle 2016 – a big wine, yet welcoming, with great structure and balance.
Colla, Barolo Bussia Dardi le Rose 2015 – Excellent: classic Colla style and structure (if you don’t know what that means, you owe it to yourself to find out).
Conterno, Barolo Francia 2015 – very lovely, very young: cellar for ten years before you start them.
Gaja, Barolo Sperss 2015 – gorgeous, in that deceptively light, very structured Gaja style.
Giacomo Fenocchio, Barolo Bussia 2016 – a lovely wine, all raspberry and fennel and wild cherry.
Livia Fontana, Barolo Villero 2016 – beautiful acid/tannin balance, great over-all.
Marcarini, Barolo Brunate 2015 – lovely and accessible: drink this and the other 15s until the 16s come ready.
Massolino, Barolo Vigna Rionda Riserva 2013 – a great wine for long keeping.
Oddero, Barolo Riserva Bussia Vigna Mondoca 2013 – an extraordinary wine right through to its dark-chocolate finish.
Produttori del Barbaresco, Barbaresco Riserva Ovello 2015 – light and intensely wild cherry and, as with all Produttori wines, a bargain.
_____________________, Barbaresco Riserva Muncagota 2015 – big, fine, and structured: another great Produttori cru.
_____________________, Barbaresco Riserva Paje 2015 – Slightly bigger and more elegant than the Muncagota: very deep for a 2015.
Renato Ratti, Barolo Rocche dell’Annunziata 2016 – fine, fine, fine! With the great structure characteristic of the ‘16s.
Schiavenza, Barolo Prapo 2015 – very big, old-style Barolo: needs time to soften its tannins; very good indeed.
As you can see from all the above, the teens of this still new century are creating wonders in Barolo and Barbaresco. We have to hope that the warming trend can be brought under control before all we can get in the future becomes a fine crop of Nebbiolo raisins.