Piedmont’s Best Reds

Neither were they gallant elixirs, nor even a laudable contender to the Burgundian reds in the early European era. What were the ultimate sweet red vinos from the hills of Piedmont, Italy, has gradually evolved in to fine wines of choice to fill your copas while in the valley. The crown jewels of the Northern Italian red wine cache, Barolo and Barbaresco, have evolved over centuries to become what we now take pride in while it graciously sits on our dinner tables.

Considered to be a close relative of the Roman-brought Pinot Noir in Burgundy, Nebbiolo is the soul of these wines. The varietal’s stubbornness is the prime reason why it didn’t travel, not only within Italy, but even internationally. Its love for cold climate grounded it to the Piedmontese hills. The lack of sunlight naturally meant long ripening period, ensuring concentrated flavours in its nectar and a thick blanket of purple-hued skin to hold it together. Tough tannins ensured longevity and oak was brought in steadily to aid in structuring them. Through centuries of experimentation, the varietal has received its identity, not one but two –a masculine Barolo and an elegant Barbaresco. It has evolved to rival the elite reds from across the globe, earning a stature and gratitude of its own.

Needless to say, these wines have progressed and been reinvented during its journey so far. The traditional, old-school winemakers learnt to handle the fussy Nebbiolos by letting the grape take its own course of maceration in giant, rugged, and usually unclean, oak vats, sometimes lasting as long as three months. Not only did this make the wines blatantly oaky, it also increasingly left the wines partially oxidized, making them unappealing. This also marred Nebbiolo’s natural fruity richness. It was a boastful style showcasing what the winemaker could do, not what the nature granted. This amalgamation of hit and trial approach and the orthodox open vat winemaking was a standard. Although, with time, use of vats was restrained and perfected, yet the wines produced in this style lacked freshness. Recently, in mid-1990s, their nouveau styles emerged. Introduced by the ‘now’ winemaking generation, regards were paid to what the nature provided and wines showed focus towards preserving the grape’s varietal character. Influx of technological advancements has encouraged temperature-controlled fermentation in stainless steel tanks, careful and gentle handling of fruit, and shorter macerations. The thus-produced new Barolos and Barbarescos are now adored for their clean flavours, refreshing acidity, supple tannins, and gracious mouthfeel. They advocate careful oak usage, enough to assist, not overtake. This reincarnation of fruit-driven wine-style has also implied a subtle sink in the over-oaky Riserva style. May be it’ll be redundant in the near future, or a serious face-lift is vital.

Tasting of these three Barbarescos and six Barolos at the Sommelier India Tasting Panel presents three key elements – how the wine-style has evolved in the past decade, a study of vintages, and their agability index. Given its refreshing acidity, durable tannins, fruit-forward flavor profile, and warm potency, the four pillars imperative for any wine to fruitfully age, Nebbiolo-based reds are a safe bet to cellar for at least a decade. However, their durability is defined by their winemaking style and how proficient the vintage’s crop was. Over the past two decades, Barolos and Barbarescos have gathered more importance for the play of vintage variability than before. The ‘now’ generation is keen on utilizing the varietal as a medium to display these natural influences, converting them into finer nuances, especially their single-vineyard wines. Tasting of these nine wines provided a formidable base to study these influences. 

2004: Considered to be a classic year for the region’s wines, it was a blessing in disguise for the producers, especially coming out of the rough 2003 crop. Hot and dry weather supplied everything for perfect grape ripeness, producing elegantly perfumed and structured wines. Tannins promised to be juicy and supple with a few years of cellaring which showed in the tasting too. Also addressed as the ‘silky vintage’ the wines aren’t shy from impressing your with their ethereal mouthfeel, exactly withat our Ceretto Barbaresco delivered. Finest Barbarescos will age easily for20 years and Barolos 30 upwards.

2006: A good vintage for the traditionalists. With fully-ripened, heavier style crop, the wines were to show gripping tannins, tight fuller body, warm alcohol, and dark fruit and spice-laden flavours. It was a year for those who like to handle their grapes with a heavy-hand, elbowing the grape with husky oak, and extracting elements that can only be tamed with decades of patient cellaring. Wines of this vintage would become a food-worthy companion on the table after 20 years, promising pleasure to those who like heavy Barolos with rustic and earthy appeal with a tad chewy mouthfeel.

2009: it was a testing vintage for the regional producers, especially coming out of the successful streak of 2007 and 2008 vintages. The rough crop of the year didn’t allow much scope for experimentation or creativity, rather lead the winemakers to return to basics. Oak-handling played a key role in refining this year’s crop, yet the wines were plain average. Although there were a bevy of disappointments from this vintage, our three Barolos allowed us a spectrum to study. From the generally over-oaked Marchesi di Barolo tasting near-gastronomic, to respectable Soui’s drop tasting dull and tired already, finishing with an astute yet impressive Pio Cesare, it was a mix bag of surprising results. 

2010: It was my second year at the pre-release tasting of region’s DOCG reds. From an alcoholic and woody 2009 vintage, I was looking forward to the 2010 release for a gentle produce, and so it was. Another classic year producing majestic wines. The crop delivered ripe fruitiness, soft tannins, and abundant juiciness to enjoy the wines even now. This year’s Nebbiolo requested the winemakers’ minimal intervention, and simply transform them into a wine, retaining their finesse and approachability, with negligible oak support. Barolos this year were gentle and amicable while it was easy to over-extract the Barbarescos, rendering them tad jammy and spicy. The wines can easily age for 20-25 years, or enjoyed anytime from their seventh birthday. Worth the investment.

2011: Only Barbarescos from this vintage are commercially available yet, Barolos will have to wait another year before they could reach the Indian soil. It was claimed to be the year of the viticulturists. While the weather played hide and seek this year, it tested the viticulturists skill s to exploit whatever was offered. The wines are suggested a decade-long cellaring before they can be considered a discerning partner worth spending the evening with. With a tad imbalance of elements expected in this vintage, our tasting of Marchesi di Barolo Barbaresco proved to be a good window in to the understanding of the vintage. Needless to say, with a few years of cellaring, these missing links will be found and perfected. 

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