Yes, it’s true: Those formerly impenetrable 1978 Barolos, one of the most promising and also most frustrating vintages of Piedmont’s great red wine, have finally relaxed and opened – and they are wonderful, fully worth the 30-year wait since they were first released.
The 1978 vintage was unquestionably a classic pre-global-warming growing season in the Barolo zone. A cooler-than-average summer followed a cool, rainy spring but was capped by a glorious, warm autumn with great day/night temperature differentials – the latter always crucial for the proper maturation of Nebbiolo. The crop was small, and the wines were initially concentrated and very hard, with evident great structure but totally unyielding tannins. ’78 Barolos were notoriously slow to come around: Some critics feared they would never be drinkable. That worry has been slow to dissipate, as the wines remained hard and ungiving year after year.
My last post lamented the disaster of 2009 Barolo, but this one tells a very different story, a triumph for Barolo producers. My mornings at Nebbiolo Prima, back in May, were taken up with blind tastings of the newly released ’09 vintage, a painful chore at best. But my afternoons compensated: In the course of an assignment for Decanter, I visited several long-established producers whose cellars held enough older vintages to facilitate a comparative tasting of “classic” and “modern” Barolos, or, if you prefer, pre- and post-global-warming Barolos.
I was accompanied in these sessions by two colleagues, Tom Hyland, who had a similar assignment for Sommelier Journal, and Kerin O’Keefe, who was just finishing a likely-to-be-definitive book on Barolo for The University of California Press. These are two people with deep knowledge of Piedmontese wine and with palates I seriously respect – which means of course that their taste in Barolo resembles mine in being deeply traditional.
We wept and wailed in harmony at the dismal morning sessions, and we rejoiced together at our often-deeply-moving afternoon tastings. And we agreed completely that the 1978 vintage has finally come round, that it is marvelous drinking, and that it shows no signs of fatigue at all. This is a vintage, if you’re lucky enough to have it or to find it, to start drinking now and keep sipping for at least another ten years, and quite possibly more.
Here are the wines we tasted:
Giacomo Fenocchio Barolo Riserva: deeply earth-and-truffle nose; fantastically fresh on the palate, with classic Nebbiolo dark-fruit, funghi-porcini flavors, and no sign of tiredness at all. Claudio Fenocchio has now taken over from his father, who made this wine: He is consciously reverting to very traditional modes of winemaking.
Marcarini Barolo Brunate: Spicy, earthy, evolved nose, and beautiful, fleshy Barolo palate. Great balance and elegance. Elvio Cogno made this wine before he left Marcarini for his own vineyards, but the estate has maintained the same, almost meaty style into its more recent vintages.
Massolino Barolo Riserva: A grape selection, not a cru, and a great wine, still fresh, live, supple, with enormous complexity and depth: big and mouth-filling without feeling weighty or ponderous. Franco Massolino says that this wine exemplifies the style he strives for.
Oddero Barolo: Classic Barolo in the sense that it is blended from several communes and crus, and classic in every other sense as well. Beautifully evolved, dark and velvety, a wonderfully evocative wine, typical – in the best sense – of Barolo of that generation, in its fascinating combination of rusticity and sophistication.
Pio Cesare Barolo: Great funky, mushroomy aroma, just turning to truffle; deep, mature, mushroomy flavors; long, long earth and dried-black-fruit finish, with plenty of life in it yet. A big wine, as the Pio Cesares tend to be.
Prunotto Barolo Bussia Riserva: A classic, mature Barolo, seemingly at its peak, with no sign of decline: very fine, powerful, and elegant. The nearly legendary Beppe Colla* made this wine in a very traditional manner – about 50 days of maceration on the skins, long aging in big botti.
Grand wines, all of them, and at the end of the day a very happy, very privileged bunch of journalists.
And One More Aging Surprise
Other than my own, that is, which is a constant surprise to me.
I recently discovered, in a case of wines that I had lost track of, a bottle of 1998 Tommaso Bussola Valpolicella Classico. Now, I had never had any intention of keeping a Valpolicella so long, and I thought surely this must be a long-dead wine – but there it was, and I am well supplied with corkscrews, so what the hell? I pulled the cork, I sniffed, and what do you know? The wine smelled just fine. Not young and fruity, as one expects of Valpolicella, but mature and somewhat claret-y.
We had it that night with dinner, and it was very pleasant: not earthshaking, but an enjoyable, medium-bodied, mature wine that might have been a Medoc cru bourgeois. I had never suspected Valpolicella could live so long or so pleasingly. Since it was only 11.5% alcohol, it had to be that brisk Valpolicella acidity that sustained it. I’d be curious to hear if anyone else has had similar experiences with Valpolicella or any of its kindred wines.
* Photos from The Mystique of Barolo, by Maurizio Rosso & Chris Meier