Not Ready for Prime Time – Yet

This is my long-promised post on 2006 Barolo, and here is the gist of it: If you want to enjoy this potentially great vintage, plan to live a long, long time. Right now it’s almost as mean as the proverbial junkyard dog, but behind its off-putting tannins and deeply veiled fruit, it has the stuff to become one of the great vintages. It reminds me of some of the legendarily tough wines of the past – 1961 Bordeaux, 1978 Barolo – a few of which are only reaching their peak now.

Foreground, Cogno Barolo vineyards; background, classic Barolo skyline

You can see why I was in no great hurry to post this news: This wine is going to be around for a long time. In addition to its being structured for very long life, it is also competing for shelf space with a lot of attractive predecessors: 2001 and 2004 are top-flight vintages, both of which are still on store shelves, as is the lesser but still pleasing 2005. And coming down the pike is 2007, which early on is giving every sign of resembling 2005: friendly, easy drinking, and easily good for ten years or so.

With all that competition, I doubt 2006 Barolo is going to be walking off the shelves. But if you love good, old-fashioned Barolo – deep Nebbiolo fruit and character wrapped in the kind of tough (not green, just tough) tannins that may take five or more years to become drinkable, but then get better and better for maybe more than a single human life span – if that’s your pleasure, this is your vintage. Buy some, and bury it as deep in your cellar as you can. Try to forget about it for a decade, then look in and see how the kids are doing: you’ll probably get some lovely surprises.

Tasting the 2006 vintage at Nebbiolo Prima was brutal work, one of the toughest tastings I’ve ever experienced, in both its physical and intellectual demands. One young Barolo like that is hard enough – but one after another of them for several hours leaves the mouth coated with tannin and makes it almost impossible to taste fruit even when it’s showing well. This absolutely necessitated tasting the wines again in different circumstances – with some food, or in a vertical, or as part of an individual producer’s whole line of wines – anything that would give some relief from those punishing tannins and allow me to come to grips with other aspects of the wine.

In those other circumstances, I was invariably very impressed with what 2006 Barolo has to offer. And for that reason, by the way, I apologize to those producers whose wines I didn’t get to retaste and whom I have almost certainly underestimated because of it. With the limited time I had in Alba, I couldn’t manage to taste everything again, outside the formal procedure. I will do my best over what remains of my lifetime to correct those omissions.

I did at least get to visit three excellent producers – Elvio Cogno, Giacomo Fenocchio, and Massolino – and they didn’t disappoint. Far from it, in fact: They made me realize just how good a vintage 2006 could be.

 Cogno: a family firm, working 11 hectares in the commune of Novello. The winery sits atop Bricco Ravera, an esteemed cru of Barolo. All wines are lightly contemporized traditional styles – i.e., most see a small amount of new oak, which does nothing to interfere with the classic fruit flavors. Top wines are the Barolos: Vigna Elena, vinified entirely from the rosé clone of Nebbiolo; Ravera, from lampia and michet clones; Bricco Pernice, entirely from lampia clones; Cascina Nuova, from their youngest vines, and designed to be easier and earlier drinking than its more austere elder siblings.

Valter Fissore, winemaker at Cogno

Cogno also produces top-flight Barbera and Dolcetto d’Alba, plus a distinguished Langhe Rosso called Montegrilli, blended half and half of Nebbiolo and Barbera. And if your palate should need freshening, Cogno also has been working to revive a very localized white grape called Nascetta (probably descended from Vermentino) with which they make an intriguing white wine they call Anas-Cetta.

Giacomo Fenocchio:  A very traditional producer. The family works about 12 hectares in several communes; the winery and home vineyards lie in Monforte d’Alba, one of the most esteemed communes of the Barolo zone. The wines all show great continuity of style and structure and fruit presence – elegant and forceful without being overpowering or in-your-face. No new oak anywhere, just great Nebbiolo fruit and Barolo terroir. Top wines include Barolo Bussia, Barolo Villero, Barolo Cannubi – this is a roll call of great crus – and a monumental Riserva. Also very fine Dolcetto and Barbera d’Alba and an excellent Langhe Nebbiolo.

Claudio Fenocchio, winemaker at Giacomo Fenocchio

Massolino: Once more, a family-owned estate and largely traditionally made wines. Headquartered in Serralunga d’Alba, Massolino has long been identified with Vigna Rionda, one of the zone’s and the family’s prized crus. They also vinify two other excellent crus, Margheria, like Rionda very traditionally made, and Parafada, which until recently had been aged in new barriques, but from which it has been steadily weaned over the last few vintages. All three are superb, long-lasting wines.

Franco Massolino, winemaker at Massolino

As a traditional house, Massolino also makes a “basic” Barolo, blended from Nebbiolo of all its vineyards. And as a market experiment, Massolino has just released Dieci Anni, a ten-year-old Vigna Rionda, which is unquestionably the best wine I’ve yet tasted of the 2000 vintage.

5 Responses to “Not Ready for Prime Time – Yet”

  1. Gary "Iron" Chevsky Says:

    Tom, my experience with the 2006 has been analogous to yours, beginning in 2010. I’ve written about them several times. Some are starting to become recognizable now that we are in 2011, but they absolutely need more time to even be adequately judged. I’ve mentioned a number of the promising 2006’s in my 2011 Tre Bicchieri article on my blog, but it’s been difficult to enjoy them in any sense of the word. I also think that collectors need to think hard what to stack up on. As you said, 2001 and 2004 are great, so there is no rush to go out and buy the 2006’s (yet). I’ve been enjoying some 2005’s as well.

  2. tom hyland Says:

    Tom:

    Very nice summary of this vintage’s Barolos. They are indeed old-fashioned and will be around for a long time. I agree with your thoughts on all the producers you’ve listed.

    Especially nice in a traditional vintage such as this is that terroir is so important, so the wines from Serralunga and Monforte have that tannic structure that will assure many years of aging, while the La Morra and Barolo wines will be more approachable at an earlier stage, though they too will hold for 15-20 years, at least.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Tom:

      I think you’re absolutely spot on about those cru distinctions — especially about Monforte’s probable longevity. I hope I’m around long enough to enjoy one of those when they’re ready!

  3. Cameron Underwood Says:

    Tom, Thanks for the interesting article on Barolo. I take on board your desire to taste the 2006 Barolos again in different circumstances and that so far you have only been able to do this for some of them, however are there any particular ones you are able to recommend at the moment?

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Cameron: In addition to the three producers mentioned in the post — Cogno, Fenocchio, and Massolino — I’ve enjoyed Colla, Cordero di Montezemolo, Oddero, Marcarini, Pio Cesare, Prunotto, Rivetti, and Vietti. I’m sure I’m going to be adding more to that list as I continue tasting: it is, unquestionably, a good vintage, albeit a tough nut to crack right now.

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