Barolo 2009: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The news is mostly bad, I’m afraid, at least for lovers of traditional Barolo. The 2009 vintage is, to put it concisely, pretty crummy.

A chunk of my recent travels took me to Alba, as it does most years in mid-May, for Nebbiolo Prima, the week-long tasting of new release Barolo and Barbaresco. This year, Barbaresco had all the good news: Its growers were showing the 2010 vintage, which is hands-down spectacular, and about which I will have more to say in a later post. The bad news was all Barolo’s, and it was pretty dismal.



This is not to say there weren’t some good Barolos. There were, some from consistent overachievers and some from small estates that are unknown to me. The communes of Barolo, Monforte, Serralunga, and tiny Novello did reasonably well. But many producers I normally count on joined the ranks of the serious underachievers this year and turned out wines that – to my traditionalist palate – had very little to do with Barolo. Particularly disappointing were the wines of the usually graceful commune of La Morra.

Here’s a question for the technocrats: How does a wine that (a) is too dark for Nebbiolo; (b) smells like espresso (and in one case like asparagus); and (c) tastes like coffee and toast – how does a wine like that get the Barolo DOCG designation? Something is seriously wrong here: Either I’m crazy, and my palate has gotten completely skewed, or the appellation’s tasting commission really blew it.

For the record, I don’t think my palate is very far off: Many other journalists agreed with me, and most of the winemakers described the harvest – off the record, to be sure – as “difficult” and the wines as “for short-term drinking.” I gather that many of them told a slightly-to-very different story to the trade – the buyers – who tasted in company with them a week before the journalists arrived in Alba to taste blind. Caveat emptor, eh?

Be that as it may, taste blind is what I and my colleagues of the press corps did.



It was a pretty grueling experience: approximately 80 wines each morning, which would have been difficult enough had we been tasting Soave, but the bruising tannins and high alcohol of these young Nebbiolos made it an endurance contest. Most of us felt that we probably did not do justice to the last 10 or 15 wines of each morning, but there was just nothing to be done about that. The amount of alcohol absorbed through the mucous membranes, and the amount of wood and grape tannins by that point coating cheeks and tongue, weren’t going to be nullified by a short break or piece of bread or swallow of water.

So it is possible that I missed some good wines every day – but the pattern that was established each day by the first 65 samples certainly didn’t raise any high hopes for the remaining 15. Here are some of my typical comments on a string of wines from Wednesday morning (for the record, La Morra):

  • Closed – espresso finish
  • Coffee aroma – closed – espresso finish
  • Coffee and volatile acidity – palate closed – espresso finish
  • Espresso nose – closed palate – espresso finish
  • There is just nothing here to recommend. The drinking window of these wines – if there is one – runs from two years from now to five years from now. Not a vintage to recommend but to avoid.

And lest you think I’m really out in left field, here are some of the comments that Italian wine expert Franco Ziliani published from his own tasting notes:

Several wines left me totally indifferent, with no temptation to move on from sampling to drinking them, while for others I let my tasting notes speak for themselves: concentrated color, dirty wood, extractive green, wood extract, dry tannin, sub-zero pleasantness; . . .  scents of boiled cabbage and broccoli, . . . no substance, dry finale, ending on coffee-dust tones; dirty nose, reductive, extractive, vegetable, no vigor in the palate, dry tannin, toasted; . . . smelly, dirty rubber, vegetable extracts, limp, faded, sweetish in the palate, no vitality, a shameless meaningless wine.

Wishy-washy, isn’t he? One of the things I like about Franco is that he makes me look temperate.

As you can see, all that adds up to a pretty sad performance from what likes to think of itself as the premier red wine district of Italy. I can’t begin to imagine how so many winemakers got a vintage so wrong. Nor can I in all honesty imagine why many of them didn’t voluntarily declassify, or why the official tasting commission didn’t declassify for them.

Well, take that back: I can imagine one strong reason, and it begins with $ or €. But that should be the strongest reason for declassification in this case: To justify those large amounts of euros and dollars that bottles of Barolo are commanding, rigid enforcement of the quality standards is crucial. Without that, the DOCG is meaningless, the reputation of Barolo tanks, and its price plummets. So it’s in the growers’ best interests to insist on strict application of the wine’s standards to every grower in every vintage. Without that, just kiss off that new Mercedes.

To conclude this jeremiad with some good news, here’s my honor roll of wines that turned in creditable performances in this apparently very, very difficult vintage:

  • Ascheri: Barolo Sorano
  • Barale Fratelli: Barolo Bussia
  • Brezza Giacomo: Barolo Sarmassa
  • Bric Cenciurio: Barolo Coste di Rose
  • Cascina Cucco: Barolo Cerrati
  • Cavalotto-Bricco Boschis: Barolo Bricco Boschis
  • Ceretto: Barolo Prapo
  • Poderi Colla: Barolo Dardi Le Rose-Bussia
  • Aldo Conterno: Barolo Bussia
  • Aldo Conterno: Barolo Bussia Vigna Romirasco
  • Luigi Einaudi: Barolo Cannubi
  • Elvio Cogno: Barolo Cascina Nuova
  • Giacomo Fenocchio: Barolo Cannubi
  • Giacomo Fenocchio: Barolo Villero
  • Fontanafredda: Barolo Serralunga d’Alba
  • Giribaldi Mario: Barolo
  • Elio Grasso: Barolo Gavarini Vigna Chiniera
  • Elio Grasso: Barolo Ginestra Vigna Casa Matè
  • Paolo Manzone: Barolo Meriame
  • Marcarini: Barolo Brunate
  • Massolino-Vigna Rionda: Barolo Parussi
  • Pio Cesare: Barolo Ornato.
  • E. Pira & Figli: Barolo Cannubi
  • Rinaldi Giuseppe: Barolo Brunate-Le Coste
  • Gigi Rosso: Barolo Arione
  • Paolo Scavino: Barolo Bric del Fiasc
  • Sebaste: Barolo Bussia
  • Viberti Giovanni: Barolo Buon Padre

See an update on this vintage here.

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