Each year, in May, a handful of wine writers flock the rain-drenched streets of Alba in Piedmont. Their job is simple: to taste and review the new vintage releases of DOCG Barolo, Barbaresco, Roero, and their Riservas before their market release. The event, called ’Nebbiolo Prima’ , spreading over five consecutive mornings, showcases about 500 wines that are tasted blind in an organised fashion. The bottles are dressed in black sleeves, ensuring no favouritism towards any brand, commune, or cru, are expressed by professionals and sommeliers. This year, amongst others, we were examining the 2012 Barolo and 2010 Barolo Riservas.
Barolos have always ranked high amongst my favourite wine styles. Nebbiolo, especially from this area, shows much character. A lot like Pinot Noir in Burgundy, it’s fussy and uncompromising, dictating its sites, altitude, exposure, climate, and clonal selection choice, each contributing in some manner to the overall and final difference. The wines are largely categorised amongst the five major communes of Barolo – La Morra, Barolo, Castiglione Falletto, Monforte d’Alba, and Serralunga d’Alba. The other six communes are equally important but the former five have developed a better understanding and following for themselves, much like a brand name.
Good Barolos, and Riservas, unfold their true enigma only after a few years of cellaring, rewarding patience and highlighting the choicest of occasions. Thus, tasting them this young and commenting on their future is testing but not futile. The palate nearly stifles from the tannins and the acidity, their brutal assault apparent in every sip. It’s funny when we converse straight after the tastings and exchange views. Trying to bring life back to our palates, we sound like Rocky Balboa after a fight on sedatives. Yet we return each morning to the tasting tables to put ourselves through this misery. Why? Amidst all these punishing morning tastings, we still gather what we travel all the way for. It’s impressive, and educating, how the wines show their communes’ attributes, while respecting the display of the vintage’s features, amidst the luscious varietal aromas of rose, tar, sloe, and blackberry in every sniff.
So how was the vintage release this year? 2012 is already highly talked about, sitting in repute as high as any other classic vintage. Wines have an acidic nerve and are loaded with fruit. Freshness, a firm grip, and structure remained the key observation in most wines tasted. They’re already showing a good phenolic balance and a promise to age well. Especially after an inconsistent 2011 which was considered good only for Riservas, 2012 is relieving for many. Not to forget, we also had the 2010 Barolo Riservas. The vintage has been labelled as one of the most legendary harvests of all times. Someone must’ve worked really hard to make a bad Barolo this year, and even harder for a poor Riserva. The further aged, and masculine, rendition of Barolo, Riservas are smooth, structured, gentle, and unctuous in their offering already. Fruit is still pivotal, while tertiary notes are developing with only subtle assistance from the oak. They are worth betting on right now and will definitely be a delight a few decades later.
Here’s a regional guide to this year’s releases and how they fared as regional expressions:
The blue-tinted Tortonian soil dominates here. It’s compact and fertile, resulting in less tense and open wines. They’re expressive, fragrant, and loaded with gracious aromatics, and considered the most feminine, quickest to mature, and early-drinking Barolos.
Beautiful dusty ruby colour prevails. Pronounced perfume could be smelt from far and was very alluring. The palate busted with fresh ripe fruits. Even with a gripping and near dusty mouthful, acidity shined and made it an overall supple proposition. Most wines seemed ready and approachable. Michele Chiarlo’s Cerequio performed really well among the 56 La Morra Barolos tasted that morning.
Based on similar soil, wines here are bright and youthful, with plush fruit, and a tad extra warmth. Tannins are usually velvety and wines show considerable structure and concentration. The subregion is said to produce the most classic examples of the style.
Wines were either too good or simply passable, which was surprising. The better ones had luscious fruit, lifted dark spices, subtle mix of old and new oak, and commendable integration. Soft tannins aided in mouthfeel and fluidity. Also, dense aftertaste left a tad rustic but smart appeal. Sarmassa from Marchesi di Barolo was quite impressive and stood out from the lot of 40 Barolos from the commune. Lingering candied fruits were well braided with aged-meat complexity.
Beige-hued loose and less fertile Helvetian soil featuring more sandstone takes over here. Castiglione Falletto wines can easily be differentiated from the others. They’re deeper in most attributes – colour, body, palate strength, bolder and more intense tannins – thus making them a good contender for long and slow cellaring.
It was the best-showing commune this year for most. Structured, powerful palate, fine grain tannins, rich bouquet, generous flavours, fuller and concentrated overall. Rich cranberries, cherry tang, fragrant meats (ham), charred oak, and earthy dustiness featured in most of the wines. 19 wines were featured from the region and they were all tied together with ripe acidity and a gripping and authoritative structure. Some wines have already developed shades of tertiary character without sacrificing the primary fruit. Ceretto’s Bricco Rocche was impressive.
Limestone traces increase amongst the Helvetian dominated soil here. Its presence provides richness and power to the wine, making them amongst the most masculine and definitely the heaviest Barolos, requiring some extra years in the cellars than its counterparts. While limestone’s cool empowers the wines with refreshing acidity, it renders the tannins rough, providing a sincere depth on the palate.
Tangy acidity, cleanliness of flavours, and roundness on the palate were key. Most examples were far from the usual dustiness of young Barolos and there seemed an extra favouritism for newer oak. Lively and rich fruit, liquorice tones, dried shrubs, fresh damp unearth soil, and cherry skin chew were common. Concentration of elements was compelling. The wines were gripping but lifted at the same time. Thanks to the tannins and acidity burst, these wines will last long and will show very well by their tenth birthday.
Parked between Monforte d’Alba and Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga’s wines enjoy the best of both communes. They have long ageing potential, common in these Eastern communes, and are the firmest and most concentrated of the lot. Generally, the expression is big, bold, and, at times, rather potent. One of its communes, Francia, earned the wine style the coveted title of ‘wines of the kings’, speaking confidently about their personality.
It was my pick of the eleven communes this year. The wines were effortless and seriously impressive. Paler colour on the rims suggested the wines were ageing graciously. Palate was tight, dense, and heavy, with lesser intense fruit, and dominating spices. Pio Cesare’s Ornato alongside may other discerning producers performed well in the 55 wine flight from the commune.
Year after year I’ve failed to acknowledge tasting Riservas as early as this. They’re very shy in their adolescence and refuse to express, at times leaving the entire gum-numbing exercise unproductive. Oak-marred wines don’t show regional character, let alone the cru. However, 2010 vintage being so elegant and near-perfect had a different story. Not only were the wines open, but each one of them held an impressive conversation when approached. Overall, wines’ structure was pleasing, displaying fine balance between phenolics, fruit, oak, and development. La Morra’s Riserva’s were easy drinking and concentration was notable amongst Barolo’s produce. Castiglione Falletto’s wines completely lacked personality and were dirty and hollow. Monforte showed strength and grip, while Serralunga delivered fruity abundance and chewy palate. La Morra’s Paolo Scavino, Monforte’s Prunotto, and Serralunga’s Fontanafredda stood strong.
Selecting from 170 single vineyards and 11 communes of Barolo DOCG can be testing even for an avid Barolo drinker. The spectrum of offerings is not confusing, it’s rather pleasing. Even after centuries of its existence and dominance Barolo continuously reinvents itself. And no varietal Italian wine astyle can match the diversity of its offerings. The tumult between traditionalists and modernists has continuously churned new shades of Nebbiolo promising there’s more to explore and exploit. There’s always an excitement to see what new would the crafty winemakers do to impress. While it’s a patience game to wait and watch, it’s not all that bad with a few sips of a patiently aged fine Barolo, 1996 please!!
First published in Sommelier India Wine Magazine in August, 2016