The 2015 vintage in many European appellations was all about promise or peril--or both, as turns out to be the case in Barolo. It was a hot, dry growing season in general terms, which is to say that it made big, showy wines where vineyard sites could withstand the challenges posed by heat and borderline drought. Barolo has sites that were up to those challenges. However, great wines were made from them only by vintners who were clever enough to maintain a leaf canopy preventing sunburn--and prudent enough to pick before the Nebbiolo fruit dehydrated on the vine. Barolo also has vintners who were up to those challenges, and hence there are great Barolo wines from the 2015 vintage. But, as economists warn, Buyer Beware: There are also wines that are lacking in delicate aromatics, or over-ripe in flavor, or overtly alcoholic in their aftertaste. This is a vintage for the wary and the wise, rather than the instinctive and indiscriminate.
This is the first of two columns on top wines from the vintage, with the second one in May covering the best wines from the communes of Castiglione Falletto, Monforte d’Alba, Novello and Serralunga d’Alba.
All of the wines reviewed below were tasted blind in Alba in late January at Nebbiolo Prima, one of the world’s most carefully conducted events permitting journalists to evaluate important wines soon to become available. The very best 2015 Barolo releases are scattered across the two columns I’ll publish here on WRO, and likewise scattered across the appellation. As you’ll see below, the commune of Barolo was particularly successful in 2015, with the famous cru of Cannubi performing up to its very lofty reputation. As you won’t see below, a lot of rather cooked, hot wines were made in La Morra, but again, fate was not simply a function of location, and Pietro Ratti made a brilliant wine from the very same cru of Rocche Dell'Annunziata that yielded some manifestly overblown bottlings from less careful producers.
Highly recommended wines are listed below (in order of preference, or in alphabetical order when scored at the same level). Most are now available, either for sale (mainly in Europe), or for pre-sale in the USA, or will become available in North America in autumn of this year.
Virna Borgogno (Barolo) “Cannubi” 2015 ($80): I have the highest respect for Virna Borgogno’s wines, and put my money where my mouth is…by buying at least one or two of her wines in her portfolio in most years, ranging from the Riserva through the cru wines and right down to the normale Barolo DOCG bottling. This, however, is the most striking young wine I’ve ever tasted from the estate, and from a vintage that is not my favorite. Perhaps I should write “admirable” rather than “striking,” as what is really special about this is its magical purity. Sure, there’s an alluring sweetness to the fruit, but there is actually nothing remotely overdone about any of the wine’s components or characteristics. The fruit got picked at just the right moment…and the wine got pulled out of barrel at just the right moment, and all the other little details were right on the button too. As this matures and fills out with tertiary notes from bottle age, it may very well merit another point. At the risk of lavishing too much praise on the wine, I should confess that my raw note from the first (blind) taste of it concludes with, “…a sexpot, but of the Grace Kelly variety!” One last note: Virna has long sold a wine that was presumably derived from this same plot under the name “Cannubi Boschis,” which is also used by Sandrone. Because I was tasting blind in January and didn’t see the bottle, I can’t swear that the 2015 is designated simply as Cannubi rather than Cannubi Boschis. Some designations that included two crus were recently forbidden, and this is exactly what happened to the (often superb) Virna bottling of “Preda Sarmassa” from earlier vintages. Additionally, the boundaries of the Cannubi cru were recently enlarged, which could also explain why the organizers at Nebbiolo Prima had this down as “Cannubi” rather than “Cannubi Boschis.” If you find all of these details tiresome, then consider not buying this wine…which will leave more for me! 99
L'Astemia Pentita (Barolo) “Cannubi” 2015 ($85): I cannot recall tasting a wine from this producer or even reading the name, and consequently I had to taste this three times before I could believe my eyes…and my palate. The second and third tastes came more than an hour after I’d run through all of the day’s wines, so this looks fabulous not only in the context of the exalted Cannubi cru but also against the backdrop of a lot of big-name wines from the communes of Barolo, La Morra and Verduno. The wine just sings from the first whiff to the last sensory impression in its very long finish. Aromas of dried flowers mingle with scents of ripe fruit and balsamic notes, followed by flavors that deliver on the bouquet’s promise in spades. The flavors are full of stuffing, with excellent depth and breadth on the palate, yet the wine retains a sense of prettiness and reserve despite its formidable flavor impact. Marvelously integrated at this young age, this shows an excellence that seems…well, effortless…a great wine in which everything fell together naturally and beautifully. I hate to end this review by noting anything negative, but this is the kind of bolt-from-the-blue performance that makes me wonder: How many of those who tasted this will have the guts to score a less-than-famous wines as generously as it deserves? 98
Renato Ratti (La Morra) “Rocche Dell'Annunziata” 2015 ($110): This was obviously the best wine in a long string of Barolos from La Morra that I tasted blind from this vintage, and that was obvious before I had any idea it came from the house run by Pietro Ratti, whom I admire and like very much. I’ll have multiple reasons for buying this myself, but chief among them will be to pour it for an importer friend who dismisses this house for making what he believes to be overly ripe, oaky renditions of Barolo. This will dispel that misimpression very quickly, as it shows delightful aromatic freshness that sets it off from its neighbors, and then follows that up with detailed but restrained fruit and tastefully restrained oak that offers spice and framing without any astringency. The finish is long and perfectly proportional, and the overall impression is one of exceptional precision and class. 98
Brezza Giacomo e Figli (Barolo) Sarmassa 2015 ($75): Probably the best vintage of this wine going all the way back to the great 2006, this is the Sarmassa of the vintage, but only beating the Marchesi di Barolo by a nose. It shows even more richness and heft than the very top Cannubi bottlings from 2015, yet there’s nothing obvious or overdone. Beautifully proportional and harmonious, a diagnostically minded taster can work to break this down and consider its components, but doing so will only show that the acidity, sweetness, tannin and wood are…again…proportional and harmonious. A terrific achievement. 97
Marchesi di Barolo (Barolo) Sarmassa 2015 ($95): This big, historic producer has long been more famous for Cannubi than any other cru, but when they get things right from Sarmassa, this is the cru to buy. And man…did they ever get things right in 2015, risking an overblown wine by (evidently) picking late in a hot, dry year but snatching up the fruit right before things might have gone haywire. Very rich, ripe, dense and sweet, this shows a vaguely candied character but no hint of raisiny over-ripeness nor any hint of heat in the finish. There’s actually enough acidity to keep it seeming fresh despite the faintly candied character, and enough tannin to avoid any sensation of flabbiness. This won’t win any points for restraint, but it is quite an alluring fleshpot of a wine. 96
Cascina Adelaide (Barolo) “Cannubi” 2015 ($85): My love affair with this house runs hot and cold, and the cold sets in when the fruit is too ripe and the oak too prominent. No such problems here, though, so we’re back in love. This shows exactly no excess ripeness on either the nose or palate or finish, and for that matter, there’s no extraneous weight…indicating a truly tasteful winemaking effort in a year that was loaded with temptations to excess. The oak treatment is commensurately respectful of the beautiful fruit. In sum, I taste almost all the wines from this estate almost every year, and have purchased more than my share of them, but I can’t remember ever tasting a more suave and stylish wine from Cascina Adelaide. 95
Agostino Bosco (La Morra) “La Serra” 2015 ($65): In most vintages, I find Marcarini turning out the best wine from this cru, but Bosco’s was clearly better in 2015. That’s good news, as these wines are often quite reasonably priced when you can find them in the USA, though this deserves your attention on sheer quality even if it doesn’t come in at a low price. Like many 2015s from La Morra, it is a little shy on aroma (which can result from heat burning out the aromatic compounds) and also just a bit alcoholic in the finish (with heat again being the likely culprit, causing sugars to soar as acids drop). But with those caveats noted, this is still a winning wine, delivering a big, delicious wallop of fruity flavor with tastefully balanced oak and some delightful savory undertones. Don’t serve this in overly polite company, as it might make a ruckus, but it could definitely get along with a grilled veal chop. 95
Francesco Rinaldi & Figli (Barolo) “Cannubbio” 2015 ($75): A marvelous performance from this renowned producer, even in view of the fact that 2015 was a year when the wine gods obviously smiled on the famous cru of Cannubi. This shows as much or more concentration as any of the six renderings from Cannubi that I tasted (blind, and in succession), but this is no mere powerhouse, as the fruit is enveloped by very retrained wood and very delicate tannins. A wine that impresses without seeking to impress, this is…in brief…a beauty. 95
Rocche Costamagna (La Morra) “Rocche Dell'Annunziata” 2015 ($55): This producer can make superb Barolo from this cru, and though I loved the 2012, I like this even better despite a little streak of alcoholic heat in the finish. That’s La Morra’s “achilles heel” in 2015, but in this instance, the wine’s many virtues easily overwhelm its one shortcoming. The aromas are fresh rather than cooked, and the flavors are really more savory than overtly fruity, with the fruit notes themselves showing no candied character or hint of raisining. The oak is subtle and entirely welcome as a provider of structural grip. Winning juice. 95
Cascina Ballarin (La Morra) “Bricco Rocca” 2015 ($60): A conspicuously high percentage of the 2015s I tasted from the commune of La Morra showed unbalanced alcoholic heat, which makes the loveliness of this wine really stand out as an accomplishment. The aromas are nicely delicate and detailed, with very good focus that also characterizes the flavors, which display both red and black fruit tones. Texturally, the wine is quite soft on entry, but is firm and taut in the finish, as is appropriate for a Barolo at this stage. 94
Barale Fratelli (Barolo) “Castellero” 2015 ($65): This was the only wine from the Castellero cru in the commune of Barolo that I was able to taste form the 2015 vintage, and it damned sure makes me wish I could taste others as well. A big, ripe and fleshy wine with lots of aromatic expressiveness as well, this is wonderfully satisfying, but without trying too hard. My raw note from the blind tasting references “easy power,” which isn’t easy to translate, though sports fans who’ve see Ernie Els drive a golf ball or Wayne Gretzky zing a wrist shot will know exactly what I mean. 94
Gianfranco Bovio (La Morra) “Gattera” 2015 ($65): I’ve had my eye on the Gattera cru since tasting some amazing renditions from Mauro Veglio more than a decade ago, so it is a great pleasure to now see a beauty turned out by Bovio. Moderately expressive aromatically, it turns things up as soon as the wine hits the palate, showing very sexy flavors based on red and black fruits, balsamic notes, spices and thin threads of toast and fresh meat. There’s a faint flash of alcoholic heat late in the finish, but you’ll already be won over by the time you get to that. 94
Giacomo Grimaldi (Barolo) Le Coste 2015 ($65): Here’s a 2015 that fits the general profile of the vintage without crossing any of the lines that could take it away from showing excellent taste. It shows lots of sappy richness but not the slightest hint of over-ripeness (which is not so easy to do), and manages to come off as flavorful but not overly weighty and structured but not forbidding or astringent. Very nimbly grown and made in a vintage that tripped up plenty of others. 94
Mario Gagliasso (La Morra) Rocche “Dell'Annunziata” 2015 ($55): whether from this cru or Torriglione (a little cru located just below the winery), Gagliasso seems to turn out ripe, soft and sexy wines in almost every other vintage. That’s not usually a profile that does so well in hot, dry years, and there is indeed a bit of alcoholic heat in the finish of this, but the abundant flavors and succulent, silky texture are so overwhelmingly alluring that I was already won over before the heat set in. By the way, the Torriglione was just too hot for me to recommend in 2015, but I tasted this three times, and in every instance, quickly forgave for its sole transgression. 94
Mario Marengo (La Morra) Brunate 2015 ($60): This is what Barolo from La Morra tastes like in 2015 when a producer goes with the tendency of the growing season…but doesn’t go too far. The aromas are a bit reticent, but the flavors are anything but shy, flaunting dark fruit notes and accents recalling roasted game. Muscular but neither woody nor astringent, this tightrope walks the line between wildness and composure without tipping in either direction. 94
Mario Olivero (Roddi) “Bricco Ambrigio” 2015 ($55): This is easily the wine of the vintage in Roddi…or at least the best one I tasted (one wonders what Paolo Scavino achieved from this same Bricco Ambrigio cru; I didn’t taste that wine, but it would be much more expensive than this one, so let’s just not think too much about it). Superb purity of fruit is the key to its success, especially in a year when restraint and purity were in short supply. Thankfully, tasteful work in the cellar kept the oak to a minimum, lending a whiff of toast and spice but nothing so overt as to obscure the gorgeous fruit, and likewise the maceration didn’t extract more tannin than the wine can support even in its youth. The combination of gorgeous fruit, excellent proportionality and superb balance will make this a delight to drink over an unusually long period…starting right now. 94
G.D. Vajra (Barolo) “Bricco Delle Viole” 2015 ($85): This excellent producer turned in the best of three performances from the Bricco Delle Viole cru in 2015, as this shows a complex bouquet with savory notes intertwined with a whiff of toasty oak and the promise of sweet fruit. On the palate, the promise of fruity sweetness is indeed delivered, along with firm but balanced tannins that seem mostly derived from fruit rather than wood. Clearly an excellent wine, the sole shortcoming here is a bit of alcoholic heat in the finish. 94
Poderi Luigi Einaudi (Barolo) “Cannubi” 2015 ($70): This is a masculine rendering of Cannubi from 2015, which is to say that it runs with rather than against the vintage, as do some of its even more beautiful neighbors. That’s a bit of a backhanded compliment, but still, this is an impressive wine that delivers just the kind of richness and flavor impact expected by a lot of consumers shelling out the cash required to buy Cannubi. They’ll get just a bit of alcoholic heat in the finish for their money, but they’ll also get so much deliciousness that no doubt this will be easily forgiven. 93
Diego Morra (Verduno) “Monvigliero” 2015 ($64): There’s plenty of ripeness in this wine, but the overall impression is one of precision in last-minute restraint: The fruit for this beauty was picked at exactly the right time--and crafted in just the right way--to achieve great sweetness of fruit and breadth of flavor on the palate without the slightest whiff of heat or any sense of excess. The oak is just right too, which is to say that it is supportive without being obtrusive. This producer is new to me at this level of quality, and I’ll have an eye peeled in hopes of more excellence in future releases. 93