Nebbiolo Rules!

Recently, I published an article in Decanter’s annual Italy Guide about the aging ability of modern Barolo.

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Any devotee of the wine who is at all familiar with the extraordinary aging ability of Barolo as it used to be made must wonder if contemporary Barolos will behave as well over years of cellaring.

After all, a tremendous amount has changed in the way Barolo and Barbaresco vineyards are planted and maintained, the way the vines are trained and thinned, the way the grapes are selected at harvest – not to mention how they’re selected at green harvest, some time earlier. On top of that add all the cellar changes since those great vintages of the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, most of which were made without temperature controls or selected yeasts, and without either stainless steel or barriques.

Finally throw in climate change, which has made a tremendous difference in the harvests in Piedmont, especially for a vine like Nebbiolo, which needs a long growing season to achieve full ripeness. Put all those things together and you can’t blame a serious Nebbiolo-nut for wondering whether today’s wines are even the same thing as they used to be. Just how well will these modern Nebbiolos age? is a very real question.

Propelled by that curiosity (or anxiety, which may be more accurate), last May I joined two colleagues – Kerin O’Keefe and Tom Hyland – and visited several long-established Barolo wineries and tasted examples of four or five decades of their wines in each. For consistency’s sake, we tasted mostly Barolos, but our conclusions should certainly hold true also for Barbaresco, and I would argue for the northern Piedmontese Nebbiolo-based wines (Gattinara, Ghemme, Boca, etc.) as well.

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All of Piedmont’s important wine zones lie east of Turin.  The blue area on this map marks the northern Nebbiolo zone (Gattinara, Ghemme, etc.), while the red area is the Alba zone (Barolo, Barbaresco, Nebbiolo Langhe, etc.). Nebbiolo is not the principal grape in the green area.

Throughout our trip, the producers were pleased to have the opportunity to show what their wines could do, and in every case the wines justified their pride. Very, very few bottles showed any sign of fading: Even 40-year-olds still tasted live and supple, while at the same time their depth and complexity seemed to have grown and intensified. The oldest wine we tasted that week – a 1971 Barbaresco Riserva from Prunotto – provided an absolutely moving palatal experience in its elegance, profundity, and paradoxical mature freshness.

All of which of course would seem to confirm what we had already known: that the great Barolos of yesteryear were in fact Great Barolos, which tells us exactly nothing about the Barolos of today.

But not so fast: Everything depends on when you think “today” began, and we tried to structure our tastings – this was only accomplished with the very generous cooperation of the producers – to cover several possibilities. In the opinion of some producers, modern Barolo only began in 1988-1990, which is when they date the arrival of climate change in the Piedmont. For others, modern Barolo began when they first used stainless steel tanks and temperature-controlled fermentation. For yet others, the arrival of barriques in Piedmont was the watershed moment.

There are obviously good cases to be made for all those indicators, but for me the real change occurs between 1978 and 1982. 1978 for me marks the last classic, pre-climate-change vintage in Piedmont. The wines everywhere in the region that year – not just Barolo and Barbaresco, but the wines of the northern Piedmont too – at the time of their release were the Nebbiolos of legend: hard, tannic, huge, pregnant with great fruit and beautiful balance, but in their youth ungiving and austere — and they stayed that way for years, some of them for decades.

Then came 1982, which at the time the Piedmontese referred to as their California vintage. It was hot and the growing season was long and the grapes achieved sugar levels and a uniformity of ripeness that few growers had ever seen before. Some producers flubbed the vintage because the harvest presented such novel challenges, but most made fantastic wine of a new sort – much more welcoming when young, with abundant tannins but even more abundant fruit. In retrospect, it’s easy to see 1982 as the advance guard of the climate change that was looming. So for me, ’78 and ’82 mark, respectively, the last of the great “old” Barolos and the first of the great “new” ones.

What our daily vertical tastings showed, however, was no such break. Instead, each estate’s wines demonstrated a stylistic and palatal continuity right across the years, from wines of the ‘70s to wines of the new century. It was as if, in each place, Nebbiolo maintained its character over the years. Despite fluctuations of the weather or changes of winemaker or vineyard manager, the grapes in each site continued to give essentially the same wine. Some years of course were more intense than others, some showed more fruit, some more or less acidity – but it was startlingly clear to us as we tasted that these were the same wines, from youngest to oldest (you can read the whole Decanter report here, and in my next post I’ll get into some specifics of vintages and wines).

That continuous self-identity clearly evidences the power and persistence of the Nebbiolo variety and is one of the many reasons that I rank it right up with Aglianico (with which it shares many characteristics) as the premier Italian red grape and one of the very small handful of elite varieties in the world. Sure, it’s a finicky grape, a difficult one, and it doesn’t do well just anywhere. But give it what it wants – and evidently Piedmont does – and it will reward you with stunning wines, wines not only of long, delicious life but wines of astonishing consistency. So in many senses, Nebbiolo rules.

5 Responses to “Nebbiolo Rules!”

  1. Joe Calandrino Says:

    HI Tom:

    Your “Nebbiolo Rules” turns me a bit sentimental, not just because we are of one mind in this matter, but because the nostalgia tugs at my heart and senses. How incisive you are about that window of transition, 1978-82, when not only the vineyards witness the change but the whole attitude toward the wines as well. Interestingly, that window also applies to Bordeaux ( in California it’s a bit later and broader, perhaps 1984-1990). Those few ham-handed 1982 barolos notwithstanding, that vintage is certainly the region’s watershed moment.

    When we were still at Stony Brook (I’m referring to the mid 70’s to early 80’s), we spoke fondly of those wonder vintages of Barolo from the 60s (the 71s and 74s were entering the marketplace). I cut my teeth on those vintages, as you so kindly referred me to “Ed’s” wine shop (known to the rest of the world as Rocky Point Wine&Liquors).

    I was amazing to find that “Ed” had the vision to stock so many fine examples of those incredible 60s barolos. Nonetheless, these old style barolos were rich, focused, laden with deep cherry/red berry flavors with a backbone of acidity and tannins, that kept the whole tar-cigar box-truffles thing tightly but neatly wound.

    I love the new-fangled barolos. Yes, they are less ferocious, but they have all the virtues of the older style: just lovingly gloved in complex fruit. I’ve already confessed to drinking a fine example of the 2001 (i know, infanticide), and we just had a Borgogno 1999 Barolo Riserva to celebrate my father’s 85th birthday. The wine needed 2 hours of air before it yielded its sweet fruit, licorice, and cedar. This style is something of a hybrid of the new and more traditional styles. Absolutely no rush to drink this wine.

    Do you remember the Antoniolo Gattinara’s of the 70s? More proof that the nebbiolo conquers all, or, RULES!

    Go Broncos, the nebbiolo of the NFL.

    Best regards,
    Joe

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Nicely expressed, Joe, and a strong tug on my nostalgia string as well. Does this make Peyton Manning the Beppe Colla of the NFL?

  2. Jonathan Levine Says:

    Excellent pieces

  3. Tom Maresca Says:

    Ole: Thank you for your thoughtful comments. You are of course right about inherent limitations of my tasting sample: I worried about that myself, but could find no alternative — the most apparent “modernists” simply didn’t have the wine libraries to make comparisons possible. I’m not sure I’m going to be around long enough to undertake a project like this again by the time that does become possible, but I’d certainly be interested in the outcome.

  4. Nebbiolo ageability – Tom Maresca’s new post | OLE UDSEN WINE BLOG Says:

    […] Lovely and thought-provoking post by Tom Maresca here: http://ubriaco.wordpress.com/2014/01/20/nebbiolo-rules/ […]

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