Each year, Piemonte’s historic and gastronomic city of Alba prepares itself to uncork three magnificent vintages of six wonderful regional expressions bound with craftsmanship and time to the palate of selected few from across the globe. These DOCG designated wines of Barolo, Barbaresco, and Roero, with their muscled Riservas, pour through the glasses at a five day event called Grandi Langhe Nebbiolo Prima. This year the event was restricted to three days. Each morning they would gather to silently blind-taste over a hundred wines from designated sub-regions of a winestyle. All these wines are at least three years old yet like a newborn in a cot. It’s a technical challenge of its own kind to taste yet-to-emerge wines, decipher their vintage characteristics, play of regional and winemaking influences on the crop, further decoding the play of aging on them thus far, and bet on their potential in the future. Yet, anxious professionals await this daunting challenge as the result is educating and indulging, at its least.
This year’s pre-release DOCG wines were – 2011 Barolo Riserva, 2012 Barbaresco Riserva, 2013 Barolo and Roero Riserva, 2014 Barbaresco and Roero. This time the challenge was not just the nature of tasting, it was also the sheer number of wines showcased in a comparatively shorter time. It could easily set stage for palate fatigue and influence conclusions of one’s judgement. Furthermore, most wines were from the two most challenging vintages in the decade thus far, 2013 & 2014. For the faint-hearted all this could easily be a deal-breaker, but for me it was a much exciting proposition to taste two of my favourite North-Italian wine-styles, Barolo & Barbaresco, in their utmost unpretentious forms. It’s a liquid journey through the hills of Langhe, their communes, top sites, and winemaking styles that have been creating continuous excitement for decades now and are amongst the most priced European reds.
Barolos are aged for a minimum of 38 months of which 18 are in oak barrels, while Barbarescos must be aged for a minimum of 9 months in oak of the total 18 months prior to release. Nebbiolo forms formidable pillars for these wines to rest on and age graciously creating layers of complexity and developing into a gastronomic treat in their best examples. It displays vintage and site variations exceptionally well and thus a detailed study of regions’ topography, communes’ distribution and attributes, and features of the best sites is a imperative pre-requisite.
With all set, we tasted, and tasted, and tasted some more, and this is my review of the vintages released
2013 BAROLO DOCG
It went down in the books as a cold and rainy vintage indicating late budbreak, and definite hard work in the vineyards with fungal issues. Mildew was to be concerning and expectedly led to crop loss for many. While damp soil was welcomed by some acting as a water reserves for the approaching hot summer, for the rest it left vineyards too moist to operate with machines thus ordering manual spraying. Now that can be costly and highly exhausting, which isn’t for all. In short, it was challenging all through. However, the area has seen ample climatic inconsistencies in the past and producers have learnt from them. And thus, it wasn’t all bad. And this is where Barolo is unique. While in Burgundy a bad vintage can have nearly the entire region and its producers sheltering under that same umbrella, Barolo, thanks to its topographic diversity, always has some commendable betting options on the table.
Due to long ripening seasons, most Barolos had silky tannins, thus more firmly shaped personality than boastfully powerful ones like from the 2010. But for cooler areas, tannins were grippy and simply too young to have evolved when we tasted. The vintage promised elegant wines meant for younger drinking, subtle, elegant, perfumed and effortless in their best avatars. Communes of Barolo, Novello, and Monforte failed to impress this year, while Verduno was a big hit. Its wines were fruity, mid-weight, and carried structural appeal. Castiglione Falletto produced some great examples displaying perfume, and the top drops hailed from Serralunga marked for their grace with textural finesse.
In 2013, producers had to show some tact and more skills in tackling the natural influences, gently extract climatically well-crafted fruit, and let oak-aging only smoothen and provide shape with gentle minimalistic handling. Those who couldn’t decode the vintage ended up with severe imbalances in ripeness, further marring the fruit with obtrusive oak, resulting in a horrible proposition in the glass. With a mix of simple and stunning ones, 2013 is short of being titled a classic vintage yet, without any hesitance, a classy one.
2014 BARBARESCO DOCG
It was a cool & wet vintage that luckily nearly-missed the hailstorms that destroyed Barolo. Warm and humid end of winters aided in setting the perfect scene for mildew & rot to attack, increasing restless manual labour in the vineyards of already reducing crop for the producers attempting to maintain yields of sacrificed quality. Viticulturists had to continuously drop clusters and leaves to increase ventilation in desperate attempts of plausibly controlling rot on rather fragile and moody Nebbiolo grapes. At its tail the vintage reverse swung in Barbaresco’s favour leaving it at the mercy of late-ripening Nebbiolo to benefit from it and developing some depth of perfume, aromatics, colour, and strength. Unfortunately, majority of the crop were already wounded, resulting in overall irregular wines, mostly light, lacking in personality, and promising little cellar-worthiness. With such mix of crop it’ll be foolish to expect a good single vineyard Barbaresco, or at least not their best expressions at that. Thus producers had to resort to blending fruits from various plots, vineyards, and even communes with any chance of them showing some character, promise, or potential. Those from Neive did deliver showing most promise amongst them all.
Deemed amongst the most unusual vintages of the decade already, it has set itself for a classic display of gap between the top estates and the rest. Warmer sites with good drainage, coupled with capacity to withstand the loss through green harvest, crop-thinning, and multiple sprees of spraying could show their and vintage’s potential. It came down to producers’ technical prowess and their commercial capacity hence, and the only blessing was the grape’s natural late-ripening factor itself that supported in any way. Those who could dare to delay their harvest were rewarded. These wines may have some youthful anxiousness on the palate, but do they have any true potential can only be determined if they open up in the long run.
2014 ROERO DOCG
I’ve been an advocate of Roero wine style for a while and have seen the growth in wine enthusiasts adding it to their drinking repertoire. Unlike Barolo & Barbaresco, Roero can be blended upto 5% with auxiliary grapes. There wasn’t much allowance to expect a difference in vintage for the wines of Roero and they seemed to be affected by the wrath of weather too. However, the flexibility of bringing other grape(s) in the blend does work as a tool of insurance in vintages like this.They have seldom posed as the most influential and promising wine style and they delivered to their calibre. These wines were pleasureful in drinking and do hold some promise for the future. Though they were the least in number during the tasting, yet their simplicity, light-weighted structure, and honest delightful fruitiness was always appreciated, especially for those who found the bigger reds to be too weighty to handle at time.
Given the nature of these vintages, it was clear that either these wines will be at their best in their youth, or may require a little extra time before they could be commented upon. Not to forget, we were tasting these wines in early-April than the usual mid-May which which further took away from analysing and basing the judgements on correctly. Thus, most prestigious wine authorities launched their own revisiting the vintages in October this year, quite unlike earlier years, and noticed a little more promise than what the liquid could conjure in April. Thus, much like Nebbiolo itself, fruits of delayed gratification was rewarded.
With the third edition of Grandi Langhe Nebbiolo Prima coming to a close, there were some hit and misses for sure. However, there was lots to learn and imbibe. From the endurance of the grape, to the unhindered will of the producers, a gamble on quality, quantity, and fortunes, repute of the heirlooms on the line, yet regarding the fruit of nature’s rather mischievous play, it was a display of balance between man and nature’s complex relationship. After a successful spree of three vintages (2010-12), in a way it was nature’s way of reassuring itself that its receiver hasn’t become too casual and relaxed about its offers. Though our palates stood only as a spectator to this fine alliance, every sip we drew from those stained glasses was a reminder of generations’ hard work, dedication, and sheer determination we were there to enjoy the nectar of. No doubt these hills are deemed UNESCO World Heritage sites for their intricate relationship with its inhabitants.
First published in Spiritz Magazine in February, 2018