I went to Piedmont in May for Nebbiolo Prima, the annual preview of Barolo and Barbaresco new releases. The host city, Alba, remained reliably sunny and comfortably warm, and the wines – nearly 500 of them over the course of the work week – remained astonishingly unpredictable. Last year I thought the use of barriques here in the heart of Nebbiolo-land was waning; this year it was back in force, ruining – for my palate – most of the Barbarescos of the Neive commune and most of the Barolos of Monforte d’Alba.
Every day at Nebbiolo Prima follows the same routine. By 9 a.m. at the latest, you sit yourself down to blind-taste between 65 and 80 examples of the new vintages (this year, Barbaresco 2009, Barolo 2008).
After lunch (and a vigorous toothbrushing, if you have enough time to dash back to your hotel room), you meet the producers you’ve chosen to visit for a look at their vineyards and cellar and whatever tasting they opt to give you. I lucked in this year, and enjoyed a series of vertical tastings that wonderfully complemented the mornings’ intensive horizontals and also showed just why Nebbiolo is so special a grape and Barolo and Barbaresco so special a twin-set of wine zones.
I’ll write about all of Barbaresco in a later post: There were some lovely wines there from the other communes that deserve notice. Today and in my next post I want to focus on some splendid visits I enjoyed to producers around the two zones, and what made them splendid.
Here are my first two producer visits, in the order of their occurrence.
This family has been making wine for about 400 years, cultivating now some 60 hectares in the Roero and Barbaresco zones. They make white wines, including a refreshing brut spumante, with local varieties – Arneis and the too-little-known Favorita – but their main effort goes into reds: a Roero rosso called Sudisfà and Barbaresco Basarin, from the Neive commune.
They first poured for me 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008 of the Sudisfà Riserva. This is a 100% Nebbiolo from the Roero zone, aged 24 months in French oak – but the traditional Piedmontese large botti, not barriques. This proved to be a lovely wine, with substantial Nebbiolo character that was lightened and freshened (and marked off from Barolo and Barbaresco) by the sandy soils of Roero. The ’04 was developing beautifully, in exactly the manner that will be familiar to Barolo fans, but with greater lightness. It had an almost-delicacy that is rare in Nebbiolo wines. The other vintages showed strong stylistic and palatal similarities – a consistency across vintages that I found impressive – though obviously younger and not as far along the track to maturity.
Next came 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008 vintages of the Barbaresco Basarin Riserva, also 100% Nebbiolo, also 18 months in oak (80% botti, 20% tonneaux). This was one of few Neive commune Barbarescos that I enjoyed, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. It showed itself a very different wine from Sudisfà: bigger, with firmer tannins, and slower maturing (the ’04 Basarin was far less ready than the ’04 Sudisfà), combining wonderful freshness with depth. This was a very fine sequence of vintages that showed again a fine stylistic consistency – a thing not easy to achieve with a grape as exacting as Nebbiolo.
Today managed by the founder’s granddaughter, Tiziana Settimo, this small estate (scarcely 6 hectares) works more than half its vineyards in the prized La Morra cru Rocche della Annunziata. Tiziana presented seven vintages of her Barolo Rocche: 2006, 2005, Riserva 2004, 1997, 1996, 1986, and 1985 – a really lovely line-up that showed clearly the exceptional aging ability of the wines of this cru.
All the wines were marked by an almost austere rendition of classic Barolo black-cherry and mineral scents and tastes with aromas in some cases (especially 2004) hinting at white truffle among the more familiar fruit and earth notes. I picked up tastes of mulberry in the finish of several, something I found in other La Morra wines as well: unexpected and intriguing. On the palate, all showed good acidity and firm tannins, the latter at different stages of softening from vintage to vintage.
The ’97 seemed to me to be peaking, something I’ve found true for all the 1997s I’ve tasted in the past year. I don’t think they are going into a secondary eclipse (something that can happen with Barolo and Barbaresco): I think they’re reaching the end of their lives. Very far from that fate were the 1996, the 1986, and the 1985. These showed themselves truly great wines, big and powerful, but with great elegance and still fresh fruit, along with their developing complexity. The oldest of them, the ’85 Barolo Rocche, gave no indication of fading; it still had fine body and balance, still marked Nebbiolo fruit, still vigor on the palate. A great wine, without question.
It’s worth noting that in part because of the economy and in part because of the extraordinary string of fine vintages Piedmont has enjoyed, many bottles of 2004, 5, 6, and 7 are still on the shelves, and often at prices lower than what this year’s new releases are likely to command. Buyer, take advantage!
My next post will continue the saga of my visits to producers during my week in Alba.