The Nebbiolo Prima event, held in Alba every May, begins with a handful of Roero Nebbiolos and proceeds to Barbaresco before moving on to three days of Barolos, which usually by their sheer numbers wind up slightly overshadowing Barbaresco and completely screening Roero. This year was typical: The new releases consisted of 224 examples of 2008 Barolo and 2006 Barolo Riserva (my take on these will be coming out in Decanter) and only 90 Barbarescos, mostly of the 2009 vintage plus a few 2007 Riservas.
Despite the numerical preponderance of Barolo, the Barbaresco wines on offer definitely commanded attention. The commune of Treiso and especially the Barbaresco commune itself showed very well indeed, though many of the wines from the third commune – Neive – were seriously marred by over-oaking.
It’s a serious mistake to think of Barbaresco as only Barolo’s kid brother. Granted, Barbaresco receives one year less of aging before release than Barolo does – but in every other respect the wines are practically identical. Both consist of 100% Nebbiolo. Their producers work with the same clones on similar soils and in similar microclimates, only a few miles apart. In some cases, the same people produce both wines. It is more historical accident than any profound distinction that has made them two separate appellations. Both are DOCG and marvelous, age-worthy wines of the highest caliber.
American consumers seem to have understood this: The US alone absorbs more than a quarter of all the Barbaresco produced, while, for example, our unfortunately benighted British cousins import less than half of one percent of Barbaresco’s output. So if you’re attending the Olympics, don’t go looking for Barbaresco; gold medals will be more abundant. A British colleague of mine, an admirer of Barbaresco, is convinced this is because British consumers have been misled by the name and think Barbaresco is just an expensive Barbera. That sounds unlikely, but anything is possible.
In any event, the Barbaresco zone continues to deserve gold medals for its quality, and this 2009 vintage stands among the best of them. It was by no means an easy vintage. Rather, it ran from one extreme to another, from the heaviest winter snows and the rainiest spring in years to a totally dry, searing hot summer.
Ripening was very uneven, in a way that seemed more the consequence of place and soil than grape variety: in some spots, for instance, the Barbera ripened before the Dolcetto, which just shouldn’t happen. By the time the Nebbiolo was ready for picking, being a long-season, late-ripening variety, the grapes had pretty uniformly reached full ripeness both for sugars and tannins – maybe a little low in acidity, but by and large well-structured for cellaring and still with the kind of soft tannins and lush fruit that make modern Barolo and Barbaresco ready to drink so much sooner than the formidably hard wines of the past.
In the best 2009 Barbarescos, that combination of fine structure and rich fruit indicate a wine with a long future of pleasurable drinking before it, starting in all probability in about the fall of 2013 and going on for at least 10 years, and in many cases for 20 or more. 2009 joins that now unbelievably long string of excellent vintages that Piedmont and its fans have been enjoying. I know we’re in an economic crisis – who doesn’t? – but if you’re under 50 it would be fiscally irresponsible not to acquire a case or cases of these 2009s while you can: The pleasure dividends are worth it.
Here are some of my top-rated wines:
Angelo Negro, Cascinotta: black fruits and funghi porcini, hints of espresso; very interesting.
Cà del Baio, Asili: black cherry, roses, tobacco in nose, fresh fruit and mushroom on palate, balanced and elegant.
Cà Romé, Sori Rio Sordo: a touch closed, but beautifully structured.
Cascina delle Rose, Tre Stelle: a wine at once forceful and graceful, with intriguing fruit notes throughout (e.g., dried fig in the finish).
Cascina Morassino, Morassino: lovely Nebbiolo nose, fine black cherry fruit, plenty of minerality.
Castello di Verduno, Rabajà: Dried funghi, dark Nebbiolo fruit, and earth tones in nose and finish.
Giuseppe Cortese, Rabajà: fresh fruit with underlying minerality – very nice.
La Cà Nova, Montestefano: a touch rustic, but powerfully earthy, from one of the best sites in Barbaresco.
La Spinona, Bricco Faset: very complete and round, with forward fruit, good minerality, excellent balance.
Marchesi di Gresy, Martinenga: tar and tobacco and black cherry, with perfect acidity and tannin.
Moccagatta, Bric Balin: already complex and fine.
Pertinace, Marcarini: big black fruit, soft tannins, good acid; lively on the palate.
Poderi Colla, Roncaglie: classic earth, dried roses, and tar in nose and finish; needs time, but should be superb.
Prunotto Barbaresco: not a cru, but the basic wine and beautifully put together.