by Ed McCarthy
In January of this year, Piedmontese wine producers released their 2004 Barolos to the world, after aging them the required three years. The wines of Barbaresco, Barolo’s neighbor in Piedmont, have had a one-year head start in the market, since they have only a two-year aging requirement. I have been tasting barrel samples of the 2004 Barolos in Piedmont since 2005, and so I knew that the 2004 Barolos were good. But after tasting them this year, I was quite surprised at how exceptional they really are!
This message became clear to me in February, when Luca Currado, winemaker of Vietti, debuted his four 2004 Barolo wines in New York. I know Luca Currado for a long time, and I’ve seldom seen him so excited about a vintage. After I tasted the four Vietti Barolos, I understood Currado’s excitement: 2004, in many ways, is the perfect vintage in both the Barolo and Barbaresco districts. The wines have the structure (tannin, acidity, fruit, balance) to age successfully, and yet they are so delightful even now. The tannins in the 2004s are relatively soft, which gives them a velvety coating, rather than the often harsh, austere taste that is common with young Barolos, and, to a lesser extent, with young Barbarescos.
I can recall drinking the 1996 and 1989 Barolos when they were young; a challenging experience. It took a while for my taste buds to recover from the harsh tannins. I cite the 1989 and 1996 vintages because they are probably the two finest Barolo vintages in the past two decades; the 1989s have only recently softened and become enjoyable, while the 1996s still need a few years more to develop.
Tasting Vietti’s 2004s was quite a different experience. I first tried the “Castiglione,” a blend from three Vietti vineyards and the readiest to drink now; then the three single-vineyard Vietti Barolos, the “Brunate” from La Morra village, the “Lazzarito” from Serralunga and the “Rocche” from Vietti’s home village, Castiglione Falletto. I realized that this was a vintage that would please every Barolo lover—traditional-style Barolo followers such as myself and those who prefer the more modern, less tannic, readier-to-drink style of Barolo. I asked Currado why the 2004s are so drinkable even now. He smiled and said, “It’s just the way this vintage is.” If he had any wine making secrets, he was keeping them to himself. The only problem with Vietti’s 2004s is the price which looks to exceed previous vintages.
I followed up the Vietti ’04 tasting with a visit to Ceretto, who was showing his 2004 wines in New York recently. Ceretto is a Piedmontese producer who like Bruno Giacosa is equally famous for Barbaresco as well as Barolo. Federico, who has taken over his father Bruno Ceretto’s position as head of sales and marketing, represented the winery.
Federico’s cousin, Alessandro Ceretto, is now the wine maker, succeeding his father, Marcello. Federico Ceretto poured his three single-vineyard 2004 Barolos: Brunate, Prapó (from Serralunga), and his star Bricco Rocche (from Castiglione Falletto.) The three of them were fabulous, and like Vietti’s, all quite accessible now, considering the strength of the 2004 vintage. Ceretto’s 2004 Bricco Rocche is destined to become one of the great Barolos of the vintage, but it’s always expensive.
The 2004 that really bowled me over at the Ceretto tasting was its single-vineyard Barbaresco, Asili. It reminded me of Angelina Jolie, voluptuous and powerful at the same time (female readers might want to substitute Brad Pitt or George Clooney.) In short, it’s an exciting wine.
Some of the finest Barolos come from a small vineyard named Cannubi which is located on the steep, south and east facing slopes of the Barolo Commune. One winery lucky enough to receive these grapes is Marchesi di Barolo, who has produced wines since the 12th century. Their wines have an intense perfume of vanilla, roasted hazelnut and rose, and provide some of the best examples of traditional Barolo.
Earlier in the year I tasted the importer Neil Empson’s fine line of 2004 Barolos, and was particularly impressed with the Barolos of Marcarini and Poderi Colla. Both of these producers have kept their prices remarkably reasonable.
How does 2004 compare with previous Barolo/Barbaresco vintages? It’s closest to the 1998 vintage, also very good and a bit precocious. Since the Barolo and Barbaresco districts are 10 to 15 miles from each other and share a similar climate, there are usually only slight, if any, differences in the vintages of each district. But local winemakers will split hairs and say, for instance, that 1998 was somewhat better in Barbaresco than Barolo, while 1999 was slightly better in Barolo. The larger district, Barolo has three times as many producers as Barbaresco—about 200 to 70.
The greatest Barolo/Barbaresco vintages of the past 20 years, for me, have been the 1996, 1989 and 1999, in that order, followed by the 2001, 2004, 1998, 1988 and 1995. Time might prove the 2004 better than the 2001, although I doubt it; there are critics who prefer the 2001 to the 1999.
The other vintages? The 1990, ballyhooed at the time of its release as a “great” vintage, faded with time and is well past its peak (while the ‘88s and ‘89s are still
going strong.) All of the next four, 1991 through 1994, were mediocre, ’93 being the best of them. Another “famous” vintage, the precocious 1997, is already fading. The over-hyped 2000 was never better than average, and does not possess longevity. Practically no one made 2002; too much hail and rain (although Roberto Conterno of Winery Giacomo Conterno, an outstanding Barolo producer, promises that his 2002 Monfortino from “carefully selected grapes,” due to be released in 2009, will be one of his greatest Barolos; I concur, having tasted barrel samples twice).
The very warm 2003 vintage actually was better in Piedmont than in other parts of Europe (so far, global warming has not been that devastating in this mountainous area). But, why buy the average 2003s when the much better 2004s are now available? As for the future, it looks as if 2005 is a so-so vintage in Piedmont for Barolo and Barbaresco, but 2006 seems promising. The jury is still out on 2007; it’s too soon to make a judgment. Should you buy 2004 Barolos and Barbarescos, taking into account the current economic scene? There are a number of good 2004 Barolos and Barbarescos available in the $40 to $50 range, wholesale. True, that is still not inexpensive, but if you compare these prices to comparable-quality Bordeaux, Burgundy or Napa Cabernets, Barolos and Barbarescos are fairly priced.
Meanwhile, I would scoop up any good 2001 or 1999 Barolos or Barbarescos that are still available. Frankly, I save my Barolos and Barbarescos for special-occasion dinners. My everyday Piedmontese red wines are Barbera, Dolcetto and Nebbiolo, and in the warm weather, the producer Borgogno’s delightful Grignolino and Freisa. Most of these wines are delicious with a medium-weight, but with enough liveliness and acidity to accompany Italian cuisine, as well as seafood. I’ve never found a better wine with pizza than Barbera, for example. You can find these wines available now in the 2006, 2005 and 2004 vintages. Dolcetto is particularly good in 2005.
There are upscale Barbera wines, of course; a particular favorite of mine is Vietti’s 2004 Barbera d’Asti “La Crena.” Thankfully, Dolcetto seldom rises to these price levels. For instance, Marcarini’s fabled 2005/2006 Dolcetto “Boschi di Berri,” regarded as one of the greatest Dolcettos being made.
But if you like the taste of Nebbiolo (the grape variety of Barolo and Barbaresco,)
seek out Nebbiolo delle Langhe, Nebbiolo d’Alba, or Roero, the latter two made from grapes grown outside the Barolo/Barbaresco zones and are available for a reasonable price range.
In between Nebbiolo and Barolo/Barbaresco are two unheralded Nebbiolo- based wines from Northern Piedmont, Gattinara and Ghemme. Both offer a quality taste of Piedmonte at prices that won’t break the bank.
That’s my Piedmont update for 2008!
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