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Ninety-Nine Bottles of Barolo
By Michael Franz
May 24, 2016
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You read that right.  Not “ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall,” but ninety-nine bottles of Barolo.  In a blind tasting starting at 8:30 a.m. on Monday, May 9, in Alba, hub of the region including northern Italy’s greatest reds, Barolo and Barbaresco.  On Tuesday, I shifted to Barbaresco, but the total edged up to 105.  On Wednesday, back to Barolo, and up to 117 wines to taste….before noon.  If you know these wines, numbers of this sort could either make you swoon with envy or cringe in fear, as these are probably the world’s most punishing wines to taste when young, but certainly among the most rewarding when mature.

The occasion for this week-long experience (yes, I did survive through Friday) was Nebbiolo Prima, which is arguably the world’s greatest opportunity for a modest number of journalists to taste new vintages of wines as they are being released for sale.  I’ve participated for the past seven years, and I’ll continue to do so for every year in the future (until I’m either dis-invited or just killed outright by all of the tannins involved).

You might wonder whether it is possible to actually taste 117 Barolo wines in a discerning way, and indeed I’ve spoken with producers in the area who doubt this themselves and are skeptical of Nebbiolo Prima’s organization.  Regarding their concerns, I respectfully disagree, though I acknowledge that this is the toughest workout that my palate gets all year long.  Nevertheless, it really is possible to taste all those wines if the tasting environment is perfect (which it is), and if one works up to this (which I have), and if one is madly in love with these wines (which I am) and willing to absorb the pain and give every wine a careful analysis.

In fact, the only problem with Nebbiolo Prima has nothing to do with the event itself.  The problem is that there’s often a long lag time between when I get to taste the wines and when they actually become available for sale in the USA and other countries in which we have Wine Review Online readers.  That gap can be quite frustrating, but there are intelligible reasons for it.

One of these is that some producers choose to age their wines longer in bottle before releasing them for sale.  They do show them at Nebbiolo Prima to have them reviewed, but then hold them back for another year or more to let them become softer, more complex, and better integrated.  That makes perfect sense, but there’s still the problem that reviews may be long forgotten (even my reviews, which I know you try to memorize) by the time the wines actually show up in restaurants and retail stores.

Another reason for the lag time is especially interesting because it involves a secret as well as an opportunity for savvy wine buyers.  The “secret” isn’t actually something that’s being concealed by anyone, though it is a fact that I never see reported in the international wine press--and also one that the Italian wine trade chooses not to discuss.  But the fact is:  There is a lot of very, very good Barolo and Barbaresco that has been backing up in the supply pipeline since the worldwide economy took a dive in 2008.

Italy has been in particularly dire economic straights since that time, and domestic consumption of Barolo and Barbaresco has suffered even as high-end wines like these have seen demand go slack in almost all export markets.  This is where importers and distributors come into the story.  Understandably, they prefer to sell through their existing inventory before buying wines from new vintages, and if their existing inventory isn’t moving, they’ve got very few options:  Discount the wine’s they’ve got, or let the newer vintages sit in storage in Italy.

They’ve been doing both.  The first of these is great for consumers, and for the past five years, I’ve been buying terrific wines at deep discounts for my cellar, going back to the 2006 vintage.  (That cellar--by the way--is guarded by Marco, my pit bull.  Just so you know.)  Even the 2010 wines from Barolo, which were praised to the skies by everyone including me, are still available for sale at attractive prices, with only a few exceptions from producers who are so famous that people buy the wines regardless of vintage quality.

As for wines being held in Italy, that’s a problem for consumers, since you might well have read about a 2011 Barolo or 2012 Barbaresco a full year ago--but still not be able to find the wines for sale anywhere in the USA.  That has been a real problem with these very wines for the past 12 months, partly because all of the buzz over 2010 Barolo.  Consequently, I have waited until now to publish my reviews of the best wines from those two vintages until now.

But with 500+ new reviews in my database from the recent Nebbiolo Prima tastings, I can’t wait any longer…so here we go.

In this column, you’ll find reviews below of some of my very favorite Barbaresco releases from the 2012 vintage.  Next week, I’ll be back with 2011s from Barolo, and the week after that, I’ll start chipping away on the wines I tasted earlier this month.  The reviews that follow appear in order of preference (as the scores will indicate), and prices are approximate but close to what you’ll likely encounter in the marketplace:

Ca’ Rome’, Barbaresco “Rio Sordo” 2012 ($70, Empson, USA): Ca’ Rome’ is a terrific producer of both Barolo and Barbaresco (as well as Dolcetto and Barbera), and made in absolutely immaculate conditions in a gorgeous little winery located in the Barbaresco district.  It you find yourself anywhere in the neighborhood, this will prove to be one of the sweetest winery visits you’ll ever enjoy.  As for this particular wine, it shows highly distinctive scents of menthol and peppermint get this wine off to a striking start, and the flavors really follow through with a rich, open sweetness that perfectly offsets the high-toned aromatics.  If you’ll permit an audiophile analogy, this has perfect balance between treble and bass.  94

Pertinace, Barbaresco “Marcarini” 2012 ($45): I was totally enthralled with all three 2012 Barbarescos that I tasted from Pertinace, and though I had the slightest preference for this bottling, I’d also buy the “Castellizzano” or the “Nervo” in a heartbeat.  This one gets the nod for offering just a bit more in the way of sheer generosity, with mouth-coating flavors that prove amazingly persistent and won’t let the wine’s tannins impose any hint of astringency.  94

Montaribaldi, Barbaresco “Sori Montaribaldi” 2012 ($50):  From a steep site with perfect sun exposure, this is among the most consistently excellent wines in all of Barbaresco.  The 2012 is gorgeous, with very dark color and gorgeous notes of cola and dark cherries.  Supremely graceful and elegant, but with a lot of coiled power that will allow this to unfold for another decade.  94

Castello di Verduno, Barbaresco “Rabajà” 2012 ($48): Completely successful in terms of aromatics and flavor, this is very showy from start to finish.  There’s almost no hint of wood influence, which makes the wine’s performance even more impressive, as it seems entirely based on the quality of the fruit.  The flavors are sweet, soft, savory and succulent, and yet the wine remains fresh, which is an uncanny but delightful combination.  94

Orlando Abrigo, Barbaresco “Montersino” 2012 ($49): I love this producer’s wines consistently, though I fluctuate somewhat between favoring this bottling or the one from “Meruzzano” from year to year.  In 2012, this won by a nose, thanks to a slightly more complex and layered character.  But make no mistake:  Both of these are wines to buy, based on their exemplary combination of richness and purity.  94

Paitin, Barbaresco “Sori Paitin” 2012 ($43): Much the bigger and bolder of two excellent 2012s from Paitin, this shows the slightest flaw as the finish is just a bit hot, yet sheer richness and depth and breadth of the wine’s fruit make it immensely appealing.  There’s an old cliché by which Barolo is supposed to be masculine and Barbaresco feminine, but this wine apparently didn’t get that memo.  94

Poderi Elia, Barbaresco “Serracapelli” 2012 ($50): I’ve never taken particular note of any wine from this producer before, but this one took me by the collar and demanded my attention.  Ripe and juicy on the nose as well as the palate, it offers fabulous breadth and depth of flavor, but without seeming over-ripe, over-extracted, or over-anything.  There are no signs of cellar tricks or bolstering from wood here, just perfect Nebbiolo fruit.  Fabulous.  94

Moccagatta, Barbaresco “Basarin” 2012 ($42): This is impressive for depth of color and degree of concentration, and the winemaker was apparently emboldened by the seriousness of the material to apply a pretty serious dose of wood.  That isn’t generally to my taste in Barbaresco, but the wine is an undeniable success, with very ripe fruit soaking up the tannins and providing a balanced finish for a wine with a lot more punch than one would expect from this appellation.  93

Montaribaldi, Barbaresco “Palazzina” 2012 ($45): This wine always seems excellent to me (often rivaling this producer’s flagship bottling from the Sori Montaribaldi vineyard), but in 2012 it was so outstanding that I had to re-taste it even after learning its identity.  It is irresistibly alluring in aromatic terms, with scents of sweet fruit and dried flowers, and the palate is even more engaging, with remarkable depth and length.  Given that it shows no overt wood and not the slightest whiff of alcoholic heat, this comes across as a wine of great class as well as great power, which is an exceedingly rare combination.  93

Paitin, Barbaresco “Serra” 2012 ($33): The Barbaresco bottlings from Paitin appeal to me at a very high level almost every year, and the pricing in the USA is always quite reasonable, so they are well worth a search.  This was on the lighter side of the best wines from 2012, but it proves quite winning thanks to expressive aromas and excellent balance and integration.  A subtle swath of sweetness across the mid-palate holds everything together and provides softness to the finish.  93

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Other Excellent 2012 Barbaresco Wines:

Ada Nada “Rombone Elisa” (92)
Cà del Baio “Asili” (92)
Cà Del Baio “Vallegrande” (92)
Carlo Boffa “Pajè” (92)
Dante Rivetti “Bric’ Micca” (92)
Giacosa Fratelli “Basarin Vigna Gianmatè” (92)
Giuseppe Negro “Gallina” (92)
Giuseppe Nada “Casot” (92)
Giordano Luigi Giuseppe “Montestefano” (92)
La Contea “Serragrilli” (92)
Pasquale Pelissero “Bricco San Giuliano”
Prinsi “Gaia Principe” (92)
Prinsi “Gallina” (92)
Rattalino “Quarantadue42” (92)
Rivetto Dal 1902 “Cè Vanin” (92)
San Biagio “Montersino” (92)
Terre Da Vino “La Casa in Collina” (92)
Ugo Lequio “Gallina” (92)
Ada Nada “Valeirano” (91)
Adriano Marco E Vittorio “Basarin” (91)
Cà Del Baio “Marcarini” (91)
Cascina Alberta “Giacone” (91)
Massimo Rivetti “Serraboella” (91)
Moccagatta “Bric Balin” (91)
Roberto Sarotto “Gaia Principe” (91)