This is the third installment of my three part series on Barolo. In part one we looked at the wine and its history, in part two we examined the modernist versus traditionalist debate, and in this part we will look more closely at some of the finest vineyards to be found anywhere in the world. Then we will also examine the extraordinary string of good and great vintages Piemonte has enjoyed and that are available on store shelves now.
An important consideration when choosing a Barolo is the vineyard where the grapes were grown. Basic Barolos are often a blend a many different vineyards. Many of the basic bottlings of Barolo carry no named vineyard. Actually, calling them basic is a bit wanting as those wines can be amazingly good wines. Still, the better Barolos often have a specific commune or vineyard named. Understanding the names can help you to determine your preferences and choose a better bottle.
When you start looking at the more expensive Barolos, those grapes are often from one vineyard or possibly a few of the better ones. The Barolo DOCG encompasses 11 different communes. Some have said that there are only five that matter. That, while perhaps a bit of an overstatement, has some truth to it. The five include: Monforte d’Alba, La Mora, Castiglione Faletto, Serralunga d’Alba, and Barolo (the commune that gives its name to the wine and the DOCG). Truly these five vineyards do produce most of the best Barolos. They have the advantage of being in the right altitudes with good soils and proper exposure to the sun. At the same time, there are good wines coming from the remaining communes, which include Diano d’Alba, Grinzane Cavour, Novello, Cherasco, Roddi, and Verduno. Often times these wines can be purchased for a bit less money.
As a generalization, vineyards in the western part of the DOCG tend to be more delicate and feminine. That would include the communes of Barolo and La Mora. This results from fertile soils. The eastern side of the DOCG has a poorer quality of soil and the wines are heartier. This includes the communes of Castiglione Faletto, Serralunga d’Alba and Monforte d’Alba. Although each commune does seem to have its own traits, the winemaker also will place their individual stamps on their wine. Still for the purpose of guidance when buying a Barolo, here are some generalizations about each the five major communes.
The wines of Serralunga d’Alba include the vineyards of Monfortino and Vigna Rionda among others. These are serious muscular Barolos that can last almost forever but need some cellar time to evolve and reach those heights. The Giacomo Conterno Monfortino Barolos are legendary for their quality and ageing potential.
Castiglione Falletto includes the vineyards of Rocche and Monprivato among others. These tend to be wines that feature many of the core strengths of Barolo while providing the consumer with a bit of everything. Bruno Giacosa’s Barolo from the Villero vineyard is also one of the great wines from this area.
Among the famous vineyards of La Mora are Arborina and Brunate. These are more feminine wines stressing the rose qualities of the wine and have wonderful subtle nuances to them. One of the leaders of the modernist movement, Roberto Voerzio makes wines here that tend to hide some of the natural qualities of the vineyards in favor of his more powerhouse style. Nevertheless, they are wonderful wines, albeit expensive.
In Monforte d’Alba lay the Bussia and Ginestra vineyards, among others. There are massive and breathtaking Barolos produced here including many by some of the more famous modernists including Domenico Clerico.
Finally, the commune of Barolo includes the Cannubi vineyard. The wines here are rich and hedonistic. Wines are produced by all types of producers including the Marchesi di Barolo and Paolo Scavino.
That being said, there are not great wines being made in the other communes or as a generic Barolo. But over time, the wines from the best producers from these communes have developed lofty reputations, with price tags to match. Yet, they are deserved.
Another issue that arises when choosing any wine including a Barolo is vintage. While great producers can produce very good wines even in off years, your odds of choosing a quality wine can increase if the vintage was good. What does that mean? Simply that the climatic conditions offered the winemakers the best chance of producing great wine. There was plenty of sun to ripen the grape. The vines had enough water and at the right times but not so much as to dilute the grapes and wine. A great vintage is not guarantee, but it does give the winemakers a chance.
Vintage selection of Barolos has been pretty easy as of late. Barolo had a string a very good to great vintages from 1996 to 2001. Depending on your tastes and when you plan on drinking the wine, any of these vintages should be enjoyable.
In a very broad generalization, the 1996’s are well structured, need plenty of time and will eventually turn out classic Barolos. This is my favorite vintage. Many of them are drinking well but most need further cellaring. 1997 was lauded as a great vintage on release. Then some said that the wines were over ripe, and not built for the long haul. Personally, I think these wines are full of vibrant fruit and the best for early drinking. Yet, I do believe these wines will last the test of time. 1998 is close to 1996 but not quite as structured and not quite as good. 1999 is more of a year for the modernists. Good fruit and built to evolve. 2000 was a better version of 1998. Finally 2001 may be the best of them (although I like 1996) as it seems to have a hefty dose of everything, although perhaps a bit exuberant compared to the 1996’s. In any event, you cannot go wrong with any of these vintages. If you are lucky enough to find older Barolos, 1982 and 1990 are your best bets. 1989 is a just bit behind. Be wary of anything from 1991 thru 1995 although some good wines were made.
Unfortunately, 2002, was a disaster. Hail storms at the end of the summer devastated the crops. Many producers did not or could not make wine. Those that did made wines far below their usual level of quality. I would avoid that vintage.
The 2003’s are just beginning to show up. As you might remember, 2003 was a vintage of extreme heat throughout Europe. It is perhaps a bit early to say how the heat affected the Barolos. But being in the foothills, the grapes were somewhat protected. I have yet to try any of these, but I would suspect a good but not great vintage. The wines should be quite unique. I look forward to trying them. Finally, the early reports on 2004 say that vintage will be as good as the string of 1996 thru 2001.
I hope you all go out and try a bottle or two and let me know what you think.
Loren Sonkin is an IntoWine.com Featured Contributor and the Founder/Winemaker at Sonkin Cellars.