2009 Barolo and the Individual Palate

November-2013-homepageThe November issue of Decanter features a Tasting Panel Report that loves – loves – the 2009 Barolos. As the issue’s cover blazons, “Barolo 2009s tasted: 134 fantastic buys from ‘an outstanding vintage.’”

Regular readers of this blog may remember that I began my brief report on the vintage thus: “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.”

I found most of the wines marred by a deadly combination of over-ripeness and green tannins, covered over in far too many cases by excessive oak and toasted oak flavors. And the Decanter panel liked that?

Between those two responses to the same vintage of the same wine yawns a profound gulf of palatal differences. British wine writers often refer to an “American palate,” by which they usually mean a taste for big, jammy wines, with assertive flavors (and often high alcohol) and pronounced oak sweetness. On the basis of what I tasted in Alba last spring and the way Decanter’s panelists responded to a similar set of wines, I’d have to say that’s a British palate they’re talking about, not an American one – at very least, not this American one.

When I first read Ian d’Agata’s and Christelle Guibert’s report on the magazine’s tasting, I was flabbergasted. Could we really be talking about the same wine? It didn’t seem possible. The three Decanter panelists tasted 140 wines and recommended 134, which would be amazing in any vintage of any wine. At Nebbiolo Prima (the annual, week-long tasting of Barolo and Barbaresco new releases), I and some 60 other international journalists tasted over 225 Barolos of the 2009 vintage; I would recommend just about 10% of them, if that many – about 25 wines out of 225. And the Decanter panel recommended all but six of the wines they tasted?!

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alba tasting

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All the journalists I talked to during Nebbiolo Prima expressed at best guarded opinions about 2009 Barolo, and even the producers, with a handful of exceptions, spoke of it as a difficult vintage, best for near-term drinking. The writers whose palates I know best agreed with me that the case was worse than that: 2009 was a deeply flawed vintage that many, if not most, producers had flubbed.

It wasn’t just that the weather was hot, but that it was extremely irregular, and induced equally irregular ripening: Some grapes were fully ripe while others in the same row were still green. Wines that combine over-ripe fruit with green tannins cannot be rescued by using lots of oak, which, from what we journalists were tasting every morning, was what many wine makers had tried to do. So one explanation of the difference between my opinion and the magazine’s tasting panel’s may be simply that those tasters enjoy oak, whereas I abhor it.

There can be other explanations too. Of course, the wines were not identical. I and my Alban colleagues tasted our Barolos in early May. I don’t know when Decanter’s tasting took place, but I presume it was after that – and of course it was in London, not Piedmont. Those two facts would create some (I think small) differences in the wines.

Moreover, the Decanter panelists tasted only 140 wines – one each from 140 producers. In Alba, we tasted 225 wines from 146 producers, half again as many. Of the wines that the Decanter panel tasted, only 108 were the same as the Alba bottles: 32 were bottles of either producers or wines that weren’t shown at Alba. So the magazine tasters experienced less than half of the exact wines that we Alban tasters endured. And, by the same arithmetic, we Alba veterans tasted 117 wines that the Decanter panel escaped.

But whatever the arithmetic of the two occasions may be, at bottom we’re dealing with radically different assessments of a whole vintage of a major wine – and the only way to account for that is by palatal differences. You taste only with your own mouth, which is pertinent not only to the “professional” responses to these wines but to every reader of those responses. That’s why in these posts I give so many caveats about tasting notes: what I or anybody else tastes may not resemble what you taste. If you tell me that the Barolo you’re sipping tastes like broccoli to you (one of them did, back in May!), you cannot be wrong: It tastes like broccoli to you.

So I can’t say Decanter’s panelists are wrong when they praise these 2009 Barolos as, by their lights, a classic vintage – but their classic Barolo has a lot of oak in it, and that’s not my idea of what Nebbiolo tastes like. Furthermore, I think that my idea of classic Barolo flavors and character is much closer to the time-honored ideal that its makers have striven for over decades of vintages. In short, I would say they are wrong about what constitutes classic Barolo, and that it’s misleading to call wines with that much oak in their flavors classic Barolo. But if that’s what they like in the ’09 vintage, then we agree about what we’re all tasting. We just disagree – radically – about whether that makes good or bad Barolo.

I admit I’m probably responding more strongly to this set of judgments than I normally would, because for years now I’ve covered Nebbiolo Prima and the new vintages of Barolo for Decanter. I was supposed to again this year: I wrote and turned in my story, which was accepted and scheduled for the December issue – and then I found out it was being bumped from the magazine in favor of the panel tasting report that appeared in the November issue.

I was informed that the reason for this change was an editorial mix-up that left no other option but to bump my piece into the digital edition – where, I presume, the stark difference between my negative view of the vintage will contrast less sharply with the panel’s positive spin. But this is emphatically not a case of – to use a wonderfully apt cliché – sour grapes. My article (you can read the whole thing here) was written months before I ever saw or even heard about the panel report. No: This is a clear instance of the crucial subjectivity that underlies all “professional” judgments (I include my own) about wine.

A rating, a tasting note, a ranking – these are only as good as the palate(s) of the individual or group making them on one particular day, in one particular set of circumstances, and they depend – no matter how sharp or dull an individual taster’s palate may be that day – on the underlying preferences, prejudices, and presuppositions each taster brings to the occasion. For my palate, 2009 Barolo is an essentially flawed vintage, to be bought and drunk with extreme selectivity, and not to be seriously considered for long-term cellaring. For the Decanter panel, it is another creature entirely. Caveat emptor.

9 Responses to “2009 Barolo and the Individual Palate”

  1. tom hyland Says:

    Tom: I sat next to you at Nebbiolo Prima and endured these wines. To me this was a badge of honor, as too many of the wines were flawed, as you’ve pointed out.

    As for the differences between your reviews and that of the panel’s, well, I’ve read between the lines and I understand completely.

  2. Mark De Mey Says:

    Great piece of wisdom – trust your own palate, and, second to that, find a taster with whom you share the same preferences. I usually go with Mrs. Robinson (Jesus loves you more than you will know). As for Mr Tom – I’d like to follow him too, but first I need to taste some 2009s Barlos. I came close last week with some great Rinaldos from 2007: subtle and great.

  3. Joe Calandrino Says:

    Hi Tom:

    Very often the press pronounces a vintage glibly. Especially when the converse is the pronouncement: who can forget Parker’s assassination of the 1990 Bordeaux vintage? He created great doubt with his remark that the weather was “too torrid” and the crop too large “to make profound wines.” He slowed my purchasing of this vintage to a snail’s pace, as I had to taste each and every bottling prior to purchase, often missing out where stronger wine consumers were buying that wonderfully priced vintage blind by the case. The teflon critic went on unscathed while I still regret not having a cellar full of 1990s. I never trusted his palate again, and finally ‘grew up’ as wine lover, placing my judgment as the sole arbiter of wine quality and purchasing strategy. What a disaster—so many wines from that vintage, bottle after bottle, more profound and complete than the one before it, at nearly every price-point…alas.

    Good point about about oak—it hides a multitude of sins—even as it itself is often a sin. In the old days, a dollop of vanilla oak was a drop of assurance that the wine was made in a hygienic vinification. But when that flavor became the mediator of quality the wine business went upside down.

    A 2009 Barolo that tastes like a 2009 California merlot is neither a good California merlot nor a good Barolo. It’s always something else. It is often a lie.

    Thanks for this very powerful piece graced with a turn of phrase that could only come from your pen.

    Joe

  4. Stephen Wong Says:

    Glory be to David, and to Goliath, wipe your coins clean.

  5. Nevin Murtha Says:

    Thanks for this piece. I tasted several, around 25 2009 Barolos this past spring and like you was very disappointed. When I read your reviews I felt (as a relative newby in wine writing) vindicated in my judgment. While it is all subjective there are a few things that most Barolo fans agree on and that is they should be complex and with a long finish. I did not find this to be case in the majority of the wines I tasted.

  6. Aaron Says:

    Great post, Tom!

    This reminds me of the 2004 vintage, which John Brecher & Dottie Gaiter had the audacity to not love. That, of course, raised the hackles of a bunch of Barolo nuts who essentially called for their heads: http://dobianchi.com/2009/03/08/bite-your-tongue-dorothy/

    I think I’ll stick with you, John, and Dottie. You’re good company.

  7. Ed McCarthy Says:

    Tom, I just came back from the Langhe, where I tasted many 2009 Barolos. I agree with your assessment of the vintage. I find it highly irregular; although I did taste a couple of well-made 2009s, most were disappointing. But I find myself in disagreement with Decanter tasters quite often, just as I often disagree with Wine Spectator tasters. I think that wine magazines don’t like to print negative tasting reports. It might scare away advertisers.
    Stick to your guns. You’re a very good taster of Italian wines, including those of Piemonte. In the end, we all have to be true to ourselves.

  8. Charles Scicolone Says:

    Ciao Tom-Seems that the Decanter panelists now have the American palate.

  9. Jonathan Levine Says:

    Terrific piece.

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