Archive for the ‘Barolo’ Category

Piedmont Vineyards Become a World Heritage Site

June 26, 2014

Barolo, Barbaresco, and some of their companions in the Langhe hills have just been designated a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO Standing Committee, meeting this year in Qatar, where I bet Commission members are wishing vainly that they could drink some the juice they’ve just honored.

vineyard 1

“It’s a just reward for the winegrowers who have preserved the Barolo and Barbaresco hills, skillfully cultivating their vineyards with respect for tradition and old farming skills,” says Pietro Ratti, president of the Barolo and Barbaresco Protection Consortium. “For us, the UNESCO recognition is a stimulus to keep on doing our job well with an even greater responsibility to pass on to our children the marvelous land that our fathers handed down to us.”

The new UNESCO site includes the Barolo DOCG communes of Barolo, Castiglione Falletto, Grinzane Cavour (and especially its castle), La Morra, Monforte d’Alba, Novello and Serralunga d’Alba, and the Barbaresco DOCG communes of Barbaresco and Neive. Nizza Monferrato and Canelli, which are primarily sites for the production of Barbera and Spumante, are also included within the designated area.

nominated zone

Areas in pink and red are the UNESCO-designated site

All are regarded by UNESCO as “a cultural landscape,” because their present appearance results from, as the official announcement rather stuffily puts it, a unique, historic interaction of nature and human endeavor. Most wine lovers would readily agree that that assessment is as true of the wines made there as it is of the fields from which they flow.

Just to jog your memory, here are a few photos of what the designated portion of Piedmont looks like.



vineyard 2


vineyard 3


You can find out more about this World Heritage Site designation – Italy’s 50th (are you surprised?) – here.





Nebbiolo Prima and 2010 Barolo

June 9, 2014

The online version of the Quarterly Review of Wine has just published my report on the 2010 Barolos I tasted last month at this year’s Nebbiolo Prima in Alba.



This is a great, great vintage that anyone even slightly serious about Italian wine – about fine wine, period – should not miss out on. You can read the entire article here.

Or, if you’d rather just cut to the chase, here are direct links to QRW’s lists of the wines that I considered the finest of the 200 or so I tasted that week:

five stars


four stars



After a lot of very serious wine tasting and very dreary New York weather, I’m now going to give my palate a break by taking a few weeks of vacation, including peering at birds and drinking nothing but beer and fruity/rummy concoctions adorned with small umbrellas, while eating my year’s allotment of chili peppers, at a luxurious eco-lodge in (hopefully) sunny Honduras.

Pico bonito 2

Veranda of the Lodge at Pico Bonito

When I get back, I will pick up where I left off, probably filling in some specific information about some of those great Barolos and – also part of Nebbiolo Prima – the not-at-all-shabby 2011 Barbarescos.  Fino alla prossima volta!

Nebbiolo Rules: Part 2

January 30, 2014

In my Decanter article on this topic, because of space constraints I had to drastically condense my comments on the specific vintages and wines I and my colleagues tasted over the course of this project. That cut really hurt, because I based all my key conclusions about Nebbiolo’s great, enduring identity on the data I gathered at those tastings: They were and are the ground of every assertion I made in my last post about the greatness of Nebbiolo. So here are those notes, as I originally wanted them to appear.

Not at all by the way, I want to express my deepest gratitude to the winemakers whose generosity and openness made this project possible:

Giacomo Conterno of Aldo Conterno
Claudio Fenocchio of Giacomo Fenocchio
Gianluca Grasso of Grasso
Manuel Marchetti of Marcarini
Franco Massolino of Massolino-Vigna Rionda
Mariacristina Oddero of Oddero
Pio Boffa of Pio Cesare
Emanuele Baldi and Gianluca Torrengo of Prunotto
Pietro Ratti of Renato Ratti

In addition to being fine winemakers, these are all warm and enthusiastic human beings, of the sort who make reporting on the wines of Italy such a pleasure.

Vintage 2004

A wet spring, a mild summer, and a balmy, dry September and early October produced beautifully ripe Nebbiolo, yielding a wine with fine structure as well as typically modern forward fruit, drinkable right from the start.

Pietro Ratti

Pietro Ratti

Renato Ratti Barolo Rocche
A big, powerful wine with years to go – “a 40-year wine,” Pietro Ratti says. He finished picking this harvest on November 1.

Giacomo Fenocchio Bussia Riserva
Maturing classically in aroma (dried roses, tar, and earth) and palate (earth tones starting to dominate black fruit). Claudio Fenocchio calls it “a good traditional vintage – elegant.”

Prunotto Barolo Bussia
Fruit-forward, with some oak overtones, but very young; years, maybe decades, away from maturity.

Massolino Barolo Vigna Rionda
A balanced and elegant wine, beginning to mutate from youthful flower aromas and fresh fruit to a more mature array.

Aldo Conterno Barolo Romirasco
Minty, herbal, spicy nose; on palate, black fruits and herbs, earth and mineral; fresh, live, balanced, complex, deep, elegant, with the silky mouth-feel of many 2004s.

Elio Grasso Barolo Gavarini Chiniera
Lovely, plump, sweet fruit, with great acidity, great floral qualities, and a consistent minerality.

Marcarini Barolo Brunate
A gorgeous wine, very spicy in the nose and on the palate; rich and positively meaty – very impressive.

Oddero Barolo Bussia Soprana Vigna Mondoca
“Perfect weather and a classic vintage,” Mariacristina Oddero says. The wine reflects it: fresh and live and very drinkable, but “very slowly evolving.”

Vintage 2001

A sultry, dry August was balanced by early September rains and markedly lower temperatures, so that by October the Nebbiolo grapes were perfectly ripe and balanced.

Gianluca Grasso

Gianluca Grasso

Elio Grasso Barolo Ginestra Casa Maté
Fine orange-edged garnet color; scents of dried flowers, tar, and tobacco; terrific fresh black cherry fruit, with perfect acidity; depth and complexity starting to develop – “a classic vintage,” as Gianluca Grasso says.

Oddero Barolo Bussia Soprana Vigna Mondoca
Equally classic and just as slow maturing as Oddero’s ’04; an excellent wine that will seemingly last forever.

Pio Cesare Barolo
Deep, dark Nebbiolo nose, elegant Nebbiolo fruit, deepening further into earth and funghi porcini.

Renato Ratti Barolo Rocche
Earth and mineral now covering fruit on the nose, but the palate shows fine black fruit, acid, and soft tannin. Balanced on a huge scale: powerful.

Vintage 1999

Rain in early September greatly improved the maturity of the Nebbiolo grapes, pushing them to full sugar and phenolic ripeness while maintaining their important acidity.

Giacomo Conterno

Giacomo Conterno

Aldo Conterno Barolo Colonello
Brilliant garnet color with a thin orange edge; lovely dried roses aroma, fresh palate, opening beautifully in the glass, with a seemingly endless finish. “Now is the time to start drinking this wine,” Giacomo Conterno says; personally, I would wait a few more years.

Renato Ratti Barolo Rocche
Pietro Ratti describes this vintage as being “austere and classic, still severe and tight” on the palate. It showed dried flowers and lots of mineral in the nose, leather, mineral, and beef jerky on the palate – just gorgeous.

Vintage 1998

Although overshadowed by the much-touted 1997 vintage, 1998 produced grapes of at least as high quality, and for many growers, better balance.

Mariacristina Oddero

Mariacristina Oddero

Oddero Barolo Vigna Rionda
Mariacristina Oddero calls this a “correct” vintage, very balanced, with fine fruit, but still austere in the nose and palate, just beginning to develop and open.

Renato Ratti Barolo Rocche
Spicy, floral, with huge fruit over leather and mineral notes – classic in a different way than Ratti’s ’99: less austere, fruiter and more charming, with a touch of rusticity.

Vintage 1996

The first of a cluster of fine harvests, reaching through 1998. ‘96 is regarded by most growers as the most classic of the batch, and also the slowest maturing.

Claudio Fenocchio

Claudio Fenocchio

Giacomo Fenocchio Barolo Villero
Nose slightly funky, already starting to go truffly; palate fresh and live, rich with black fruits and earthy, mushroomy notes. Claudio Fenocchio says it’s “a vintage we’re all still waiting for; it’s not yet opened, not yet reached its potential.”

Prunotto Barolo Bussia
Terrific fresh fruit, with a little vanilla mixed in with the intense black cherry; very long-finishing. Still needs time to work through the wood.

Massolino Barolo Vigna Rionda
A delayed release (2006), and all the better for it – deep, earthy, complex nose, refined palate of black fruit and soft tannins. “One of the more Piedmontese vintages,” Franco Massolino says, “closed and tough initially, with a long life ahead of it.”

Elio Grasso Barolo Roncot
A little oak sweetness showing, but the wine tastes mostly of Nebbiolo and terroir, as it ought. Shows every sign of being very long-lived.

Marcarini Barolo Brunate
Aroma still evolving (just beginning funghi porcini); in the mouth, spice, earth, porcini, and meat sweetness. To be drunk ten years from now.

Pio Cesare Barolo
Gorgeous tar and dried flowers nose, huge sweet fruit (the wood has subsided), with still years of development ahead of it.

Vintage 1990

The third of another group of fine vintages, ’88, ’89, ’90, all remarkably similar in quality and character. For most growers, this pivotal and important cluster of harvests marks the definitive onset of modern, “global warming” vintages in Piedmont.

Manuel Marchetti

Manuel Marchetti

Marcarini Barolo Brunate
Funky and earthy, with aroma and palate still evolving, though clearly showing freshness and meat sweetness, with depth and complexity lurking – a lovely wine with years of development to go.

Giacomo Fenocchio Barolo Bussia Riserva
The nose has gone wonderfully to truffle, the palate is rich and still quite young-tasting.

Renato Ratti Barolo Marcenasco
Very live, fresh, and fruity on nose and palate; a wine with great personality, thoroughly enjoyable and in no way fully evolved yet.

Vintage 1989

Despite very mixed weather from spring through fall, the Nebbiolo was in good shape at harvest, though the crop was somewhat diminished.

Franco Massolino

Franco Massolino

Massolino Barolo Vigna Rionda
Powerful aroma of dried roses, tar, etc. – the classic array. The palate is equally classic – profound, complex, polished, and still quite young. Very consistent in style from vintage to vintage.

Prunotto Barolo
Classic aromas and flavors beginning to shrug off the wood; a fine wine, still maturing.

Pio Cesare Barolo
Very fine aroma, palate evolved but far from finished – dark fruit, still fresh, great depth, great complexity – a fine, fine wine.

Renato Ratti Barolo Conca
Complex, big, and austere; tar and mint in nose, licorice and leather in finish, big Nebbiolo fruit in between. “Massive,” Pietro Ratti rightly calls it.

Vintage 1985

A fine summer and fall, though some producers remember it as very hot. All agree that at harvest, the Nebbiolo was splendid.

Beppe Colla

Beppe Colla

Prunotto Bussia
A really pretty wine, with rich black cherry, tar, and tobacco elements from nose through palate and on into the finish. The almost legendary Beppe Colla oversaw this wine through 50 days of fermentation in concrete, then into botti – the old way, and the result is a splendid wine that has years to go.

Vintage 1982

Hot and mostly dry, this year to my mind was a harbinger of the climate change to come. It gave a large and healthy crop, though the unusual (at the time) persistent heat made problems for many growers.

Gianluca Torrengo

Gianluca Torrengo

Prunotto Barolo Bussia Riserva
An earthy, almost funky nose; lovely Nebbiolo fruit, very fresh still; a fruit-and-spice box, structured and complex – and for all the heat, only 13° of alcohol. It shows the hand of a master.

Vintage 1978

Unquestionably a classic, pre-global-warming growing season: A cool, rainy spring followed by a cooler than average summer, but capped by a glorious, warm autumn with great day/night temperature differentials. The crop was small, the wines initially concentrated and very hard, with evident great structure but totally unyielding tannins. Notoriously slow to come around: Some thought it would never be drinkable.

Pio Boffa

Pio Boffa

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.

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.

Prunotto Barolo Bussia Riserva
A classic, mature Barolo, seemingly at its peak, with no sign of decline: very fine: powerful and elegant.

Massolino Barolo Riserva
A grape selection, not a cru, and a great wine, still fresh, live, supple, with enormous complexity and depth: feels big and mouth-filling but not weighty or ponderous.

Marcarini Barolo Brunate
Spicy, earthy, evolved nose, and beautiful, fleshy Barolo palate. Lovely continuity of style: spicy aromas, fleshy palate with great elegance. Elvio Cogno made this wine before he left Marcarini for his own vineyards.

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.

Vintage 1971

Freezing winter; late, wet spring; hail in May and June; hot dry summer; perfect late September and October: All resulted in a small but quite superior harvest. The wines were balanced and elegant from the start, but reticent: many were initially hard and closed.

Prunotto Barbaresco Riserva
A masterpiece from Beppe Colla, perhaps the finest wine I tasted all week. Gorgeous and mature, perfect in every point, showing fruit both fresh and mature, fully evolved tannins, fine acidity: an elegant and complete wine (13.5° of alcohol, for the record). This is a wine I would score 100 out of 100, without hesitation.


And there you have it. Wherever you set the dividing line between modern and traditional Barolo (I am using Barolo here, as I have throughout these two posts, as shorthand for all Piedmontese Nebbiolo wines), the character of Nebbiolo crosses it without noticing any difference. The grape and the soil dominate almost anything the winemaker or the weather can do – at least in great years. So again, Nebbiolo rules.

Nebbiolo Rules!

January 20, 2014

Recently, I published an article in Decanter’s annual Italy Guide about the aging ability of modern Barolo.


Any devotee of the wine who is at all familiar with the extraordinary aging ability of Barolo as it used to be made must wonder if contemporary Barolos will behave as well over years of cellaring.

After all, a tremendous amount has changed in the way Barolo and Barbaresco vineyards are planted and maintained, the way the vines are trained and thinned, the way the grapes are selected at harvest – not to mention how they’re selected at green harvest, some time earlier. On top of that add all the cellar changes since those great vintages of the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, most of which were made without temperature controls or selected yeasts, and without either stainless steel or barriques.

Finally throw in climate change, which has made a tremendous difference in the harvests in Piedmont, especially for a vine like Nebbiolo, which needs a long growing season to achieve full ripeness. Put all those things together and you can’t blame a serious Nebbiolo-nut for wondering whether today’s wines are even the same thing as they used to be. Just how well will these modern Nebbiolos age? is a very real question.

Propelled by that curiosity (or anxiety, which may be more accurate), last May I joined two colleagues – Kerin O’Keefe and Tom Hyland – and visited several long-established Barolo wineries and tasted examples of four or five decades of their wines in each. For consistency’s sake, we tasted mostly Barolos, but our conclusions should certainly hold true also for Barbaresco, and I would argue for the northern Piedmontese Nebbiolo-based wines (Gattinara, Ghemme, Boca, etc.) as well.


All of Piedmont’s important wine zones lie east of Turin.  The blue area on this map marks the northern Nebbiolo zone (Gattinara, Ghemme, etc.), while the red area is the Alba zone (Barolo, Barbaresco, Nebbiolo Langhe, etc.). Nebbiolo is not the principal grape in the green area.

Throughout our trip, the producers were pleased to have the opportunity to show what their wines could do, and in every case the wines justified their pride. Very, very few bottles showed any sign of fading: Even 40-year-olds still tasted live and supple, while at the same time their depth and complexity seemed to have grown and intensified. The oldest wine we tasted that week – a 1971 Barbaresco Riserva from Prunotto – provided an absolutely moving palatal experience in its elegance, profundity, and paradoxical mature freshness.

All of which of course would seem to confirm what we had already known: that the great Barolos of yesteryear were in fact Great Barolos, which tells us exactly nothing about the Barolos of today.

But not so fast: Everything depends on when you think “today” began, and we tried to structure our tastings – this was only accomplished with the very generous cooperation of the producers – to cover several possibilities. In the opinion of some producers, modern Barolo only began in 1988-1990, which is when they date the arrival of climate change in the Piedmont. For others, modern Barolo began when they first used stainless steel tanks and temperature-controlled fermentation. For yet others, the arrival of barriques in Piedmont was the watershed moment.

There are obviously good cases to be made for all those indicators, but for me the real change occurs between 1978 and 1982. 1978 for me marks the last classic, pre-climate-change vintage in Piedmont. The wines everywhere in the region that year – not just Barolo and Barbaresco, but the wines of the northern Piedmont too – at the time of their release were the Nebbiolos of legend: hard, tannic, huge, pregnant with great fruit and beautiful balance, but in their youth ungiving and austere — and they stayed that way for years, some of them for decades.

Then came 1982, which at the time the Piedmontese referred to as their California vintage. It was hot and the growing season was long and the grapes achieved sugar levels and a uniformity of ripeness that few growers had ever seen before. Some producers flubbed the vintage because the harvest presented such novel challenges, but most made fantastic wine of a new sort – much more welcoming when young, with abundant tannins but even more abundant fruit. In retrospect, it’s easy to see 1982 as the advance guard of the climate change that was looming. So for me, ’78 and ’82 mark, respectively, the last of the great “old” Barolos and the first of the great “new” ones.

What our daily vertical tastings showed, however, was no such break. Instead, each estate’s wines demonstrated a stylistic and palatal continuity right across the years, from wines of the ‘70s to wines of the new century. It was as if, in each place, Nebbiolo maintained its character over the years. Despite fluctuations of the weather or changes of winemaker or vineyard manager, the grapes in each site continued to give essentially the same wine. Some years of course were more intense than others, some showed more fruit, some more or less acidity – but it was startlingly clear to us as we tasted that these were the same wines, from youngest to oldest (you can read the whole Decanter report here, and in my next post I’ll get into some specifics of vintages and wines).

That continuous self-identity clearly evidences the power and persistence of the Nebbiolo variety and is one of the many reasons that I rank it right up with Aglianico (with which it shares many characteristics) as the premier Italian red grape and one of the very small handful of elite varieties in the world. Sure, it’s a finicky grape, a difficult one, and it doesn’t do well just anywhere. But give it what it wants – and evidently Piedmont does – and it will reward you with stunning wines, wines not only of long, delicious life but wines of astonishing consistency. So in many senses, Nebbiolo rules.

A Great Barolo Cru: Lazzarito

November 29, 2013

A few days of windy, wintery weather excited my self-indulgence gland, and I (rather easily) persuaded Diane that we needed A Rare Roast Beef and a Real Red Wine. A quick trip to our butcher, Ottomanelli, produced the fixings for the former, and a quick look into my hoard produced the latter: a 1989 – great vintage! – Vietti Barolo Lazzarito. To borrow a phrase from a memorable Flanders & Swann song, “A chorus of yums ran round the table.”

As a cru name, Lazzarito probably isn’t as immediately recognizable to American wine drinkers as, say, Cannubi, but it’s a site just as long-revered and just as important. Before the late-twentieth-century expansion of many Piedmont townships, the Lazzarito name was restricted to a very precise “bowl” of vineyards on the western slope of Serralunga, just about in the middle of that large commune’s north-south axis.



The vineyards of Serralunga. North is on the left. Lazzarito is the yellow section in the middle.


Most of the Nebbiolo vineyards (there is some Dolcetto too) lie between 300 and 400 meters in altitude, with western or southwestern exposures. The calcareous soils are largely ancient marine sediments, with admixtures of marl and sand, and they naturally restrict the abundance of Nebbiolo fruit, while conferring a wealth of trace elements. Taken together, the characteristics of the site contribute to producing Barolo of great elegance and complexity, with very long aging potential. In short, Lazzarito is a top-tier site.

There are documents that indicate that Lazzarito was known by that name already at the beginning of the 17th century, and that its wines were already prized. The name may mean that a lazar house – a leprosarium, or perhaps a hospice of some sort – once stood there, but that is very uncertain.

The entirety of the Lazzarito hillside was formerly the property of Opera Pia Barolo, a charitable entity established in 1854 by bequest of the last Marchesa di Barolo, Giulietta Falletti. The Marchesa was French, born Juliette Colbert, and she is legendarily supposed to have played a major role in the development of Barolo by bringing the French enologist Oudart to the zone. According to the story, the Fallettis shared Oudart’s services with the then King of Savoy (later of all Italy) on both their enormous properties throughout the area.

After the Marchese’s death and the Marchesa’s long childless widowhood, all those Falletti properties became part of the Opera Pia Barolo and were over the years gradually dispersed. Now the largest chunk of Lazzarito is owned by Fontanafredda (itself once an estate of the king – but that’s another story), with Guido Porro and Vietti next in line. Anselma, Ettore Germano, Rivetto, and Villadoria also own significant pieces.



The Lazzarito cru. The central portion, on the west side of the road, is the most highly prized. Vietti owns the fields just slightly south of the Cantina Lazzarito.


The present status of the name Lazzarito is slightly uncertain, since the recent (highly politicized – are you surprised?) designation of crus in Barolo has canonized the expanded township boundaries, and included under the revered Lazzarito designation some vineyard sites that used to be separate entities – for example, Lazzairasco, a good site, but not up to Lazzarito’s level. So for more recent vintages, it pays to know exactly where a producer’s vineyards are located – and for that information, nothing compares to the data on the back of Alessandro Masnaghetti’s maps, a portion of which is reproduced above.

color 1With older vintages, like my ’89, that is not a problem, since back then only growers who owned or had access to the very finest sites bothered with a cru designation. For Lazzarito, the major names to look for are Fontanafredda, Guido Porro, and Vietti. Vietti has long produced wine from Lazzarito and owns some of the choicest portions of the hillside. As for the vintage: Barolo fans will remember 1989 as the middle vintage of a succession of three great ones, regarded by many growers in the Alba area as marking the arrival of global warming as a fact of life in the zone. Most critics think 1990 was the finest of these three vintages, and in most cases they are probably right. ’90 certainly has power and fullness – but from some sites, and Lazzarito is surely one of those – 1989 has the finesse and elegance of the very greatest Barolos.

The bottle Diane and I enjoyed certainly did. Of the many superb Barolos I’ve been lucky enough to drink, this bottle offered the most velvet mouth feel, the most elegant mature fruit, and the longest finish of almost any I can recall. That it did so after many years in my less-than-ideal storage conditions is a tribute to the skills of the late Alfredo Currado, who with his wife Luciana owned Vietti and for years made all its wines. It’s also a testimony to the value of putting wines of a good vintage away and forgetting them for as long as you can stand it: As I’ve said so many times in this blog, the rewards are wonderful.

2009 Barolo and the Individual Palate

November 18, 2013

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?!


alba tasting


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.

Choosing Wine, Serving Wine, Mastering Wine

October 28, 2013

I visited the Museum of Modern Art a few days ago to view the new Magritte exhibition and look in on some old favorites. Among the latter I was struck in particular by a single Modigliani painting of a reclining nude.



It was off in a corner, virtually unlooked-at by the hordes that were parading admiringly past the Picassos. As far as I’m concerned, that single painting was worth more than all the Picasso nudes – pink, blue, or cubist – in the rooms around it.



For all the mannerism of Modigliani’s drawing and painting, that nude was real and alive and intensely human. She radiated sensuality, and by doing so redefined sensuality. Everything in the painting served her, presented her, celebrated her. All the Picasso nudes I looked at that morning also celebrated something, but what they celebrated was mastery – Picasso’s mastery, of his medium, his techniques, his subjects. The women in his paintings didn’t live, they served: They were Picasso’s subjects in every sense of the word. Still great paintings, mind you – but great in a way different from Modigliani’s. Many people will prefer them to Modigliani. I once might have myself, and I still respect them – but I love the Modigliani.

So, I realized, for me there are two whole different categories of esthetic response, and probably two different kinds of art that create them: admiration of the artifice itself, and a new or renewed understanding of what the artifact in a literal sense re-presents. (I’m sure the philosophers have beaten me to this apprehension: There is nothing new under the sun.)

Needless to say, it quickly occurred to me that that was true of wine too. (It’s been a long away around, but you knew I’d get there eventually, didn’t you?)

I realized that there are producers whose wines celebrate the grapes and their terroir, and there are producers whose wines celebrate the mastery of the winemaker. A few nights ago, Diane and I enjoyed a 1999 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo with some excellent broiled lamb chops, followed by a small plate of equally excellent cheeses. And a few nights later, we drank a lovely bottle of classic Frascati – Fontana Candida’s Terre dei Grifi – with some simple fried chicken, preceded by an even simpler shrimp cocktail. Both wines were absolutely lovely, and both perfect with the meals they accompanied; and both, on their different scales, were celebrations of the grapes they were made from.

???????????????????????????????FrascatiTasting them, I thought Langhe hills! and Roman campagna!, not who the winemaker was or what the cellar had done. That the winemaker and cellar, in both cases, must have done a lot – or refrained from doing a lot – was evident upon reflection, but it’s not what popped into my head with the first, or second, or third sip. A lot of Piedmont wine – and not much Frascati – is like that, whereas a lot of Tuscan wine seems to me to fall into the other category, where what strikes you first and foremost is what the winemaker has accomplished. Certainly some Chianti Classico is like that, and a lot of Brunello, and almost everything that comes from Bolgheri – not to mention 99% of classified-growth Bordeaux. This is not to say that these are lesser wines, but wines different in nature, and having a different impact, both on the palate and on the imagination.

All this caused me to realize that for years now I have been choosing wines for my dinners for two different reasons: one set of wines for the vivid presence of the grapes and where they came from, the other for the technical perfection of the winemaking. These are equally admirable but very different kinds of wine, and I saw too that I usually serve them in different circumstances: the first with deliberately simple foods of the best available prima materia, the second with more elaborately constructed dishes or more complex sauces. I choose the first combination because it showcases the wine without in any way detracting from the food, the second because the interplay of food and wine intensifies them both. This is not an ironclad rule, of course – I’m too much of an anarchist to believe in ironclad anything – but it has been for me a useful, if unconscious, rule of thumb.

So my little epiphany in front of Modigliani’s gloriously incarnated painting also made me aware of something I had been acting on for a long time without ever being fully conscious of it, and that realization in turn has given me a new handle on the wines I drink and serve. A long time ago I set out to tell people about Mastering Wine: clearly, I’m still in the process of doing so myself. I have no idea whether my current thinking is my final destination or just a way-station on the road, but it will be interesting to see what happens next.

Stop the Presses: 1978 Barolo Is Finally Drinkable!

July 5, 2013

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:


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

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

June 24, 2013

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.

Old Ways Are Best

June 4, 2013

As I become a cranky old fart, I find myself more and more enamored of the wines that my palate recalls from years back. I realize that the flavors I am romanticizing about used to occur only about once a decade in France and Italy and Spain, and that the other nine years were often enough just barely drinkable. Yes, it’s true: Thanks to technology and climate change, we now get more good vintages than bad out of every decade, and I would be an ungrateful churl to repine at that.

And yet, and yet . . . My palatal memory – which is not infallible, but is on the whole pretty reliable – tells me that the other vintage, that one in ten, was special in a way that even the best modern vintages rarely reach. I’m pretty sure I’m recalling something real – just as when Andre Tchelistcheff years ago assured me that the pre-phylloxera wines he drank in his youth tasted better, richer, more intense than anything he’d had since. The few pre-phylloxera wines I’ve been privileged to taste convince me that he too was remembering something real, not simply indulging in nostalgia.

So it gives me more than usual pleasure, and excites more than usual interest, when I discover some winemakers and some projects that are starting in a modest way to turn back the clock, to retain everything useful that has been learned in recent decades while paying some serious attention to what their grandfathers – who, as they will be quick to tell you, were no dummies – did and why they did it.

Where I am most aware of this happening in Italy is in what I regard as its two greatest red wine zones, Campania and Piedmont. In the former, both the great traditional house of Mastroberardino and the newer firm Feudi di San Gregorio have launched research into surviving pre-phylloxera vineyards, methods of cultivation, and clones of their great varieties. In Piedmont, there has so far been a lesser emphasis on clones and old vineyards, but more and more focus on how the anziani – the old timers – used to handle the grapes and what they did with them in the cellar.

Recently, I’ve experienced three very different Nebbiolo-based wines that are in their separate ways striving to recapture the great traditional character of Piedmontese wine: Vallana’s Cuvee Bernardo Vallana 2010; Giacomo Fenocchio’s Barolo Bussia 2008 90 Di; and Prunotto’s single-vineyard Barolo Riserva Bussia 2008 Vigna Colonello.


Vallana’s Cuvee Bernardo Vallana 2010

Bernardo Vallana was an almost legendary winemaker, a pioneer in spreading the fame of the Alto Piemonte thanks to his favorite wine: Spanna. Spanna was and is the local name for Nebbiolo in Piedmont’s sub-Alpine zone, which includes appellations such as Gattinara and Boca. “Vini di altri tempi,” Vallana used to call his wines – “wines of yesteryear” – already in the 1960s and 70s hearkening back to the great, elegant Nebbiolos of the past. Now, 50 years later, his grandchildren, Francis and Marina Fogarty, are striving to recreate the taste and character of those wines in the vineyards that gave rise to them. Here is Marina’s explanation of the project.

Bernardo Vallana was a perfectionist, not simply a winemaker. He understood the importance both of single vineyard bottling for cru vineyards and of carefully blending cuvées when he wanted to emphasize the style of the winemaker. For this reason, he had an extremely long list of different labels for all of his wines. We have started to re-issue them, as we are determined to follow our grandfather’s footsteps. Bernardo Vallana’s house wine was Spanna del Camino (of the Fireplace), named after his home’s fireplace represented on the label. This is the first label to be re-launched in our project, and we re-named it Cuvée Bernardo Vallana.


As opposed to the classic Colline Novaresi Spanna, which expresses a younger flavor profile, our Spanna Bernardo Vallana cuvée has been expressly created following the original style of those Vallana Spannas capable of ageing for 30 years or more which made Bernardo Vallana such a legend. The wine is enjoyable now, but honestly we made this wine for people who are aware of the ageing potential of Vallana Spanna and wish to have a wine that they can store now, and enjoy its evolution in 10, 20, 30+ years’ time (provided they resist the temptation!).

My own tasting of the 2010 vintage confirms that Vallana’s grandchildren would make him very proud. It’s a very big wine despite its moderate alcohol, mouth-filling and smooth, with still quite firm tannins and wonderful Piemontese flavors – black cherry and tobacco most obviously, but all sorts of mineral and sottobosco notes as well. This is clearly a wine to cellar for as long as your patience lasts, and it will just get better and better. It really did recall those wonderful Vallana Spannas that I enjoyed so much in the 70s and early 80s.


Giacomo Fenocchio’s Barolo Bussia 2008 90 Di

In the more-familiar-to-most-consumers Barolo zone, Claudio Fenocchio, owner and winemaker of Giacomo Fenocchio, is following a similar path. “I am becoming more and more old-school,” he says, and the proof of that is the experimental (only 410 bottles made) 2008 Barolo Bussia he calls 90 Di. That is for the 90 days of maceration – skins and juices in constant contact, in large barrels – that he imposes on the wine. This hearkens directly back to very “old-fashioned” Barolo-making methods, when the wines commonly macerated on the skins for two months or more. As Claudio says, this is a deliberate return “to the Barolo of tradition.”

90 Di label

My palate calls it a complete success. The wine was startlingly accessible, showing huge fruit from the nose through the finish – big dried fruit and floral elements, earth, tobacco, with even hints of dried orange peel; the whole Piedmontese panoply for a young Nebbiolo. Even more impressive, the dried fruit components grew and grew in bulk and complexity as the wine opened in the glass, arguing for superior longevity and development. This wine gave every appearance of becoming one of the Barolos of legend. We can only hope he makes more of it, or makes more wines in the same style.


Prunotto’s Barolo Riserva Bussia 2008 Vigna Colonello

Similarly, Gianluca Torrengo, the winemaker at Prunotto, is making every effort to return the winery to the style and character of the wines made there in the past by another Piedmontese legend, Beppe Colla. Among his many other accomplishments, Colla (who still advises at Poderi Colla, an estate run by his daughter Federica and younger brother Tino) is credited with being, in the 1960s, the first in Piedmont to bottle cru Barolo. That was then a dramatic innovation, since Barolo orthodoxy insisted on blending Barolos not just from different crus but from different communes. In homage to that legacy, Prunotto is for the first time issuing a single-vineyard bottle of a cru it acquired in 1990: Bussia Riserva 2008 Vigna Colonello.

Torrengo too avows an interest in “old-school” Barolo: He has lengthened maceration times and sharply reduced the use of barriques, moving Prunotto’s wines back along more classic lines – which is where anyone who recalls Beppe Colla’s wines will think they belong. The Vigna Colonello I think a resounding success, a lovely wine, with fine balance and wondrous Nebbiolo fruit that just sings in the glass – clearly, a wine that will be very long-lived. “Typical of Bussia,” Torrengo says, “fine and strong.” Typical of classic Barolo, I say, and let’s have three cheers for that!


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