Stop the Presses: 1978 Barolo Is Finally Drinkable!

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.

Barolo vineyard *

Barolo vineyard *

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:

Barolos

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.

bussolaI 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

16 Responses to “Stop the Presses: 1978 Barolo Is Finally Drinkable!”

  1. Gloria Varley Says:

    In tidying up a locker yesterday I discovered a box of wines which my (now sadly late) husband and I had stashed years ago and which had somehow been completely forgotten. Amongst them, two 1978 Fontanafredda Barolos. I am hoping these are still lively. What do you think? They’ve been kept in dark, cool, humid conditions for about 30 years. (A PS: we enjoyed meeting your wife, Diane Darrow, at the Banco d’Assaggio way back in the 80s.)

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      I think you’ve got a better than even chance that those bottles will be great! I hope I’m right. Enjoy!

      • Gloria Varley Says:

        Thank you, that’s encouraging. I’ll let you know what happens.

      • Gloria Varley Says:

        Last evening the first of my ’78 Barolos was opened and shared with three friends. Ominously, the cork crumbled and then dropped into the bottle. But careful decanting avoided both cork crumbs and sediment and — to our surprise — the wine, despite being past its prime, was drinkable and enjoyable. No real fruitiness left, but interesting notes of aged leather and it opened in the glass most agreeably.

      • Tom Maresca Says:

        I’m sorry it wasn’t better: Perhaps the next bottle will really deliver. I’ve had some ’78s in recent years that have been just wonderful, but of course bottle variation is always with us. Good luck with the remaining bottles.

  2. Carmine Greco Says:

    I have 2 bottles Barolo 1978 Risarva Speciale runcot. Estate bottled by Azienda Aaricola Grasso. What do you think they are worth. Thank you Carmine Greco

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      To be absolutely honest, I haven’t the slightest idea. This is a reputable producer in a great vintage, but where have those bottles been for the past 35 years? How have they been stored? What condition are they in? How is the fill? Neck high? Shoulder high? All that matters to their market worth. And be aware that even great Barolo does not appreciate monetarily in any way like the long-established French collectibles (a term and concept I hate). In my opinion, you’d be better off drinking them with a few good friends over a lovely standing rib roast than trying to sell them.

  3. WineMinxAnnie Says:

    Hi Tom,
    So happy I stumbled across your post while researching a ’78 Lodali Barolo. I was not going to expect much from it, so your comments are encouraging! I’m bringing it to a dinner later this month, and will let you know what we discover. Cheers.

  4. Mark Henderson Says:

    Hi Tom, Regarding even older vintages in Piemonte I have read that 1958 was good, but do you know anything about 1954? Are there still likely to be any decent bottles from this vintage or are they likely to well and truly over the hill?

    Cheers…Mark

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Mark: !958 was good, and even better were 1951 and 1954. Any of them could still drink well, and might even be spectacular: Everything depends on their storage. If you can find bottles from a good producer, with a respectable storage history, you’ve got at least a fifty/fifty chance at a great wine.

      • Mark Henderson Says:

        Thanks for that Tom. A friend’s birthday next year so that gives me some interesting food for thought.

        Cheers…Mark

  5. Joe Calandrino Says:

    Tom:

    Good to hear you enjoying these wines. I would note that not all of the 78’s required 30 years to show off. I had finished mine off by 2000, but these were what I would call lighter (more restrained?) expressions of the vintage: Fontanafredda (silver label), Prunotto, Bosca, Ratti. They were certainly tannic, but their tarry berry, chocolatey, cedary profiles made these very drinkable in the early 90’s.

    Or do I have chainmail for tastebuds when it comes to Barolo?

    I wish I stashed a few. Alas…

    Best Regards,
    Joe

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      I can’t speak for the condition of your tastebuds, but I share your regret at not having any more ’78s. I too finished mine too soon: I just couldn’t help trying one every now and again, thinking each time, “well, they’ve got to be ready now.” Not that they weren’t enjoyable drinking, even in their still-unready states — but what I tasted in Piedmont back in May so far transcended any that I had drunk before that I could have wept in frustration if I wasn’t enjoying myself so much.

  6. Kerin O'Keefe Says:

    Tom,

    Thanks so much for including me in your fantastic article on pre and post-global warming Barolos. It was wonderful to taste those majestic 1978 Barolos with you and Tom Hyland.

    The 1978s are everything a great aged Barolo should be: they have structure and finesse combined with depth and complexity. They were also intriguing – they changed constantly in the glass and had such energy! There aren’t too many recent vintages for Barolo, with the exception of the 2006, perhaps 2004 and most definitely the 1996, that I can see being so youthful after thirty-five years.

    Regarding bottles that have surprised me for their unexpected aging potential, last year Paolo and I tried Giacomo Bologna’s Barbera d’Asti Bricco dell’Uccellone from the 1997 vintage that we had lost track of in our cramped cellar -and it was fantastic. It had developed another dimension that I wasn’t expecting it to have acquired. I think in this instance – as with your 1998 Valpolicella – the high acidity was fundamental for this evolution.

  7. Ed McCarthy Says:

    Tom,
    Thanks for the update on the ’78 Barolos. I had started to fear that they would outlive me! Wouldn’t THAT be a disaster!

    RE: older Italian wines that have aged beyond their expectancy: I don’t have any old Valpolicellas hanging around, but I have tasted older Gini Soaves from the ’90s that have survived nicely. And good Barberas, such as Vietti’s, G. Conterno’s, and Gaja’s (before he stopped making them) regularly lasted 15 years or more. As usual with older wines, even those with less-great pedigree, the secret is good storage.

  8. tom hyland Says:

    Tom: Thank you for your kind words. It was a pleasure to taste these wines with Kerin and you.

    Yes, the 1978 Barolos we tasted were marvelous. This is truly a great vintage, as the wines combine power and elegance along with – in the best wines – an unmistakable sense of place.

    I do have a somewhat similar story about an older Valpolicella, as I enjoyed the 1999 Tedeschi Valpolicella Superiore in Verona back in January of this year. Lovely wine and quite powerful. This was a Superiore, so a slightly different animal than the wine you detailed, but clearly, Valpolicella can age when given the proper attention.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s