Since early modern era for wines, three wines have been repeatedly regarded and mentioned as the ‘King of Wines and Wines of the Kings’. These are the romantic and scintillating elixirs of Champagne, the luscious golden wines of Tokay, and the precious ruby-garnet nectars of Barolo. While the first two have numerous mesmerising stories to capture wine aficionados’ fancies, Barolos have always spoken through their quality and finesse. It’s the still-wine ambassador for celebration from the Italian caché. And a wine of such stature and repute deserves celebration by itself.
In May every year, a sizeable group of wine critics, writers, and industry professionals gather in the historic and touristic city of Alba to witness and experience the vintage release of these Nebbiolo based wines from Barolo, Barbaresco, and Roero. One of its kind, Nebbiolo Prima is amongst the biggest annual event celebrating the single-varietal wines of the region. This event, spread over five-days, previews these wines before they are launched in markets across the world.
The three wine styles have individual identities, and must be appreciated for the tradition that makes them. Barolos are the man of the house and are boastful of their masculinity attained from the terroir of the region, enhanced by the winemaker’s contribution, and sharpened by the patient maturing over years. Barbarescos are the noble queens who are stern and assertive, yet icons of feminism with their charming eloquence and poise. They are sturdy but delicacy is their key feature. Roeros, the lesser known, are straightforward and expressive, without pretence or false semblance.
When these wines are aged longer than their basic styles, they’re called Riservas. Barolos are aged for a minimum of three years while Barolo Riservas must be matured for at least five. Barbarescos are considered softer and thus are rested for two years only while riservas are four years old when released. Roeros being the early blooming type can be released after year-and-a-half and a year later as riservas. These aging reigns are governed by local laws and stipulate minimum barrel and bottle aging durations for all styles before they can attain the much regarded highest designation in Italian wine quality pyramid: Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, or simply, DOCG. Barring the principal varietal, the other common fabric that binds these wine styles is the heavy oak accent. All these wines reach their prime with prolonged aging and oak adds structure and finesse to their repertoire.
This was my second year at the show and we were gathered to review the new vintage releases of Barolo 2010, Barolo Riserva 2008, Barbaresco 2011, Barbaresco Riserva 2009, Roero 2011, and Roero Riserva 2010.
Over five days of Nebbiolo Prima, we blind-tasted over 275 of these rugged wines. Bottles are dressed in a mysterious black sack allowing an unbiased showcase. These vigorous wines are served by profession sommeliers who juggle a flight of five wines each time they serve at your tasting table.
Being at Nebbiolo Prima is exciting but gruelling too. These unforgiving wines are still in the cradle and kicking like a new born. With every sip a tannin-bomb goes off on your palate, leaving a gum-numbing coma to recover from from the get-go. The thick-skinned and late-maturing Nebbiolo delivers the fruity tannins that are teamed with dusty tannins from prolonged oak aging Battling through these tobacco and wet-wood flavoured tannins to review wines’ quality for their fruit quality requires experience, patience, perseverance, and eye-for-detail. Even upon reaching the true pinnacle of a wine’s character, forecasting the development, destiny, and the future of these adolescent wines is like betting on a new-born’s career success in his 40s. However, the true judge of a vintage’s quality is to taste the wines while they are youthful when age hasn’t taken over. Thus, I see these wines for their showcase of the vintage’s nuances rather than the winemakers’ style and philosophy, and the wines expressed this throughout the five days.
Tasting wines for their vintage analysis is more fun than mere serious education. It displays the play of nature throughout the growing season bestowing the grape with its qualitative characteristics and shortcomings. It then becomes winemaker’s responsibility to harness the best and diminish the flaws through skill and technique. Piedmontese traditionalist winemakers have been long criticised for their oak-heavy winemaking style, obliterating fruit’s character. To this, young modernist winemakers create early-maturing fruit-forward wine styles that emphasise on the vineyard’s nuances than those from the winery.
2010 showcased all attributes of a classic vintage – right expression of fruit with mouthful of delicate and pulpy flavours, concentrated and ripe, balanced with phenolic ripeness of chewy yet amicable skin tannins, held together with a backbone of refreshing acidity. It was the year when the winemakers withdrew their ego and applied soft and little oak to merely support the grape’s vibrancy. It was the year of the modernists, and they were rewarded. Their victory doesn’t imply a traditionalists’ loss. The vintage was a learning for them too and even though oak was there, the intensity was drastically lesser. 2010 Barolos showed terroir and individuality.
Barbarescos this year were a tad disappointing. Blame it on the vintage or global warming but the 2011 produce showed signs of grapes’ over-ripeness, which translated into the wines’ biting tannins and alcoholic warmth. The year was amongst the longest and driest vintages and the wines were a mirror into vineyard’s conditions. However, early-harvest of the same could definitely yield some complex wines, and Roeros were just that: mystical, enticing, and worth holding a conversation over. Having said that, these are ideal conditions for producing age-worthy Barolos. Another two years and we will learn about that too!
Overall, riservas were perceived as too oaky and redundant as a style. Maybe it needs a facelift and revisiting that passage of time has demanded too. How the tradition-bound producers would solve this dilemma, time will tell.
PHILOSOPHY OVER FRUIT
Each morning’s blind tasting assembly would transpire into two winery visits. This was an interesting interface. Not only do the wineries open their cellars for your taste-test, but it’s where we imbibe their philosophies and gyaan through their produce. Relishing older vintages opens a window to understand single-vineyards’ topography, true nature of past vintages, challenges of the winery, and prevailing trends in the area. This year’s personal favourites were the single vineyard vertical tastings leading up to 1974 at Marchesi di Barolo, comparative display of cold versus warm vintage wines over the past two decades at Michele Chiarlo, and the study of Paolo Scavino’s single vineyard wines and how they have matured over the years.
In this five day fete, numerous wines are uncorked and shared. Upon everyone’s departure, a common emotion remains – respect for their tradition, cultural heritage, and ardour for Nebbiolo. While the region is tightly holding on to its past, the new-age generation is draping the wines styles with modernism and chic allure. Celebration for such a dramatic trio of wine styles is duly admirable And what could be better than lauding it with a toast of 2010 Barolo DOCG. Cin!!