Experienced wine buyers around the world know to be wary of general hype of vintages from Europe, largely because expectations
are largely determined by Bordeaux but results
are not. The 2015 vintage offers a case in point. Bordeaux made big, bold wines that wowed critics, but the generally hot, dry growing season produced very mixed results in other locales. Barolo is among them, and indeed results even within the relatively compact Barolo district are highly variable. This was demonstrated conclusively during my blind tastings of hundreds of wines in the area earlier this year. For consumers, the upshot is clear: 2015 produced some spectacular examples of Barolo, but also plenty of disappointing wines, even from highly respected producers. Buy…but buy carefully.
Regarding Barolo, buying carefully is likely to become a recurrent necessity and an ever more complex undertaking in the years ahead. The key reason for this is climate change, which has affected the Barolo and Barbaresco appellations around the small city of Alba more than almost any other fine wine region in the world. A trend toward hotter, shorter growing seasons is now nearly undeniable, even though the trend has only been clearly evident for about 20 years.
That this time span is so short is alarming in itself. But still, to be objective rather than alarmist, I hasten to acknowledge that--in terms of finished wines--the past two decades look like a Golden Age when evaluated in light of this area’s broader history. Never before have so many producers been able to make so many delicious wines from the finicky, late-ripening Nebbiolo grape that is the sole source for both Barolo and Barbaresco. Prior to 1996, vintners struggled to fully ripen Nebbiolo in roughly 7 or 8 years out of each decade. Since 1996, under-ripe fruit was only an issue in a single growing season, 2002, and even then, it was rain rather than cold that was the culprit.
At this point, I couldn’t blame you for replying, “Cheer up, Franz, buying good Barolo is getting easier, not harder!” You’d be half right about that. True, the challenge of avoiding hard, tannic Barolo has eased quite considerably during the past two decades. However, the challenge of finding restrained, refined Barolo is getting notably harder, and vintage characteristics are now very different from year to year, producing sharply dissimilar wines that need to be treated very differently. For example, 2011 was a downright hot year that produced very ripe wines that were ready to drink on release--but are already lacking in freshness. By contrast, the slightly older 2010s are only now coming into their own, and many of them will not be at their best for at least another 5 years.
Moving down from a macro- to a micro-level, an additional complication is that a warming climate is now making excellent wines possible from growing sites that suffered from insufficient sun exposure until very recently. Consequently, at the level of producers, savvy buyers should be on the lookout for new stars in the Barolo firmament, and should be asking themselves whether it still makes sense to buy from high-priced producers whose wines became famous in earlier eras when few others could get Nebbiolo ripe reliably.
In this time when climate change is throwing Barolo and Barbaresco into stylistic flux, you’d would do well to follow the famous advice inscribed on temples in Ancient Egypt and Greece: Know Thyself
. If you like ripe, generous wines with lots of overt fruit, and don’t particularly care to age them but rather want to dig in early, then you should be buying from years like 2015, 2011, 2009 and 2007. By contrast, if you prefer complexity over sheer size, and want wines with plenty of acidity and tannin so that you can gain additional complexity by aging them, then vintages such as 2013, 2010, 2008 and 2006 are the ones you should be seeking.
Early indications are that 2016 will be a vintage falling into this latter set, and a very good one too, so keep that in mind. The 2016 Barbaresco wines I tasted earlier this year were terrific, and I’ll be back in Alba to taste the 2016s from Barolo when those wines become available next January.
A final point that returns us to my initial observation is that there’s a lot of stylistic variation even within
particular growing seasons in this region, so the best buying strategy of all is to invest in information down at the level of particular wines from particular producers. Both Barolo and Barbaresco are much more diverse in sun exposure from site to site than, say, Burgundy, which is itself famous for variations between vineyards. Moreover, producers around Alba are adopting different strategies, with some “going with the flow” and accepting the bigger, fruitier wines now made possible by a warming climate, whereas others are actively resisting the trend by shading their grape clusters, picking earlier, etc. If you really want Barolo and Barbaresco in a particular style that you favor strongly, you’ll need to do your reading.
By that, I mean reading prose as well as ratings numbers. In the reviews below, you’ll find praise for wines based on either richness or restraint, but rarely based on both. The scores offer a summary of my sense of overall achievement, but to get wines that suit your preferences regarding character
, the descriptions are much more valuable.
* * *
Recommended wines are listed below in order of preference, and then in alphabetical order when scores are identical. Names of producers are indicated quite formally, usually as the producers name themselves on their labels (which is often according to local custom, with the family name preceding given names…a confusing practice for many outsiders). Usually there’s a shorthand designation for even the most complicated producer names (e.g., almost any knowledgeable USA retailer would refer to the second producer below as simply, “Luigi Pira”), but it is safer for me to go with formal names than nicknames, as different people nick names differently. I apologize for these complexities, but hey…nobody said this would be easy.
Within each review, the commune (or village, if you prefer) appears in parentheses. Names of the vineyards or "Crus" appear in quotation marks, as these names don't yet have the true legal status that appellations hold under French wine law, and are thus more akin to what the French would call a "Lieu Dit." All prices are approximate, as variations at retail are quite significant, and some wines haven't yet arrived in all export markets.
Please note that this is the 2nd of two columns on 2015 Barolo, with the best wines from the communes of La Morra, Barolo, Verduno and Roddi reviewed in Vol. I. To get to that column, simply click on my photo or name toward the bottom of the Wine Review Online “Home” page, which will bring up my column archive, with Vol. I atop the list:
Vietti (Novello) “Ravera” 2015
($195): Those who haven’t been reading my Barolo reviews from the past 10 years of blind tastings in Alba wouldn’t have any way to know that I’m not overawed by the region’s big names, nor afraid at all to give very high scores to up-and-coming producers regardless of how obscure they may yet be. But with that noted, it is also true that sometimes famous houses prove entirely deserving of their fame, as in the case of this phenomenally great Ravera from Vietti. In terms of texture, it is simply the best 2015 I’ve tasted, with an uncanny combination of silkiness and proportionality that effectively disguises the fact that it is actually a big, concentrated, powerful wine. Wine descriptors are all just analogies, so bear with me while I note that it is essentially impossible for a human being to come off as “charming” and “formidable” simultaneously, whereas this wine proves that the combination is no impossibility in the rare realm of truly great Barolo. Ultra-complex and yet amazingly pure and natural-seeming, this will be expensive, but well worth taking a hammer to your piggy bank. 99
Pira Luigi di Gianpaolo Pira (Serralunga d’Alba) “Margheria” 2015
($65): I can’t lay claim to having tasted every wine made at this estate during the past decade, but I’ve tasted most of them, and this is the best I’ve tasted since the marvelous 2006 “Marenca” (which was among the very best wines made in a great but still un-ready and widely misunderstood vintage). How am I so sure this 2015 Margheria is a great wine? Because I tasted it blind immediately following Vietti’s superb 2015 Lazzarito, and this was significantly more impressive…which is really saying something. It shows truly prodigious size and depth of flavor, yet remains harmonious and even graceful due to the fact that no particular aroma, flavor or structural component pushes out ahead of the others. The fruit is ripe and wonderfully appealing without seeming obvious; the wood frames and supports the wine without obscuring its fruit, and the tannins lend structure and guts without drying out the finish. Very competitive in the running for “wine of the vintage,” this doesn’t quite show the effortless, seamless quality of Vietti’s Ravera at this point, but it is a much less expensive wine that is very close in overall quality. An incredible performance in this vintage. 98
E. Pira – Chiara Boschis (Monforte d’Alba) “Mosconi” 2015
($110): This is clearly the best of all the wines I’ve tasted from Monforte in this vintage, and though it comes off as quite overt and modern in profile, I find it difficult to believe that anyone who loves Barolo wouldn’t adore it regardless of their particular stylistic preferences. I tasted it several times before and after several other wines, and was struck by different aspects in these multiple encounters, but every aspect was appealing and every encounter was immensely pleasurable. For example, my initial note emphasized its extremely expressive and alluring fruit aromas, with oak seeming very restrained in relative terms, though I later found a lot of vanilla scents that didn’t jibe with my first sniffs…but still seemed lovely in relation to the wine’s other aromatic components. Dark and dense in appearance, with so much open, seductive appeal that it provides a completely enveloping experience, this is a marvelous fleshpot of a wine. Yikes! 97
Podere Ruggeri Corsini (Monforte d’Alba) “Bussia” 2015
($50): Bussia is a famous but rather unreliable cru, simply because it is huge in extent and, consequently, home to many sites and producers of varying quality. However, at least four vintners made great wines from it in 2015, and I thought this was narrowly the best of the four when tasting blind. It is highly complex and supremely alluring, with wonderfully seductive aromas displaying floral, savory, spicy and fruit notes. On the palate, it shows a traditional style with moderate ripeness and oak but lots of expressive flavors, all of which are delivered in such proportionality that every nuance gets to present itself, leaving an impression that is, well…orchestral. 96
G. D. Vajra (Serralunga d’Alba) “Baudana” 2015
($80): This is always a pretty expensive wine, yet in vintages when the particularities of the growing season mesh well with the impressive talents of the Vajra family, it doesn’t seem expensive but, rather, a conspicuously attractive value among Barolo’s very best wines. Succulently ripe but not over the top, the core of fruit in this 2015 release is almost impossibly gorgeous, and tastefully restrained wood adds just a bit of spice and framing without impinging on the wine’s wonderful purity. Already dangerously delicious but destined for much greater complexity with additional time in bottle, this should be purchased and then promptly stored in the most inaccessible spot you can find in your home. 96
Alessandria Gianfranco (Monforte d’Alba) “San Giovanni” 2015
($73): This isn’t the most aromatic Barolo crafted from Monforte in this vintage, but man…it is marvelously flavorful and undeniably delicious. It shows excellent balance thanks to subtle wood treatment, with no alcoholic heat but a lot of lovely nuances in aroma and flavor. Immediate in its charms, this doesn’t need time to soften or integrate, as is usually the case for top-class Barolo, though it will become significantly more interesting if afforded time to develop tertiary notes from bottle age. With that noted, realism dictates the observation that most buyers who taste this early on will tear through their stash before bottle aging has a chance to work its magic. 95
Ascheri (Serralunga d’Alba) “Sorano” 2015
($75): In light of the tendency of 2015 to produce big wines and the commune of Serralunga to do the same, this is an admirably stylish wine that’s quite complex but only moderately weighty. Still rather un-developed, most of its accents are oak-based, but these spicy, toasty notes work beautifully with the fruit, which shows both red and black tones. The wine’s structural properties are immaculately proportioned, with acidity, fruit, wood and tannin all seeming just right in relation to one another. I may be guilty of under-scoring this for the simple reason that it wasn’t quite as “showy” in terms of density in the blind tasting lineup as some of the top 2015s, and it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if this were to outpace many of its counterparts in improvement during the years ahead. 94
Barale Fratelli (Monforte d’Alba) “Bussia” 2015
($70): This excellent Bussia is dark in both appearance and tone of fruit, yet manages to seem open in terms of flavors and generous in overall profile. This impressive accomplishment stems from modest use of oak that bespeaks respect for the fruit among the winemaking team, which was successful not only in leaving center stage for the fruit, but also in allowing floral and savory accents to express themselves. There’s sufficient tannin in this for years of positive development, but they assert themselves late in the sensory sequence, resulting in a long, symmetrical finish. Great work evidenced here both in the vineyard and cellar. 94
Conterno Diego (Monforte d’Alba) “Ginestra” 2015
($62): I don’t recall this house’s Ginestra from earlier vintages, so this is news to me, and very good news indeed. By contrast to the toweringly powerful 2015 Sori Ginestra from Conterno Fantino, this shows less muscle but more grace and overall appeal, at least at this point in the development of the two. In both aroma and flavor, it is open and soft and savory, with lots of little complexities that are already very nicely integrated with the core of ripe fruit, as are the structural components of acidity, wood and tannin. With no heat and wonderful proportionality, this medium-bodied beauty is stands as evidence of excellent decisions in both the vineyard and winery. A terrific wine that got everything the 2015 offered without succumbing to any of its temptations to excess. 95
Diego Pressenda (Monforte d’Alba) “Bricco San Pietro” 2015
($50): This is simply the best wine I can ever recall tasting from this producer, who will now remain in a prominent place on my radar screen. This isn’t a huge wine (which is fine by me), but rather one that impresses by dint of complexity, balance and proportionality. On a base of red and black fruit tones, it shows interesting savory notes recalling carpaccio and roasted game, along with spice and toast notes. Softly but sufficiently structured, this will excel in the near term, and likely offer delicious drinking for a full decade. 95
Oddero Poderi e Cantine (Castiglione Falletto) “Villero” 2015
($70): Several different wineries trade under the family name of Oddero, so it is worth a little extra effort to assure that you’ve got the right one when seeking out this wine, which will definitely be worth the effort. It shows plenty of concentration and depth of flavor, with rich, muscular fruit accented by a tastefully restrained dose of oak. The tannins are sufficient to help this age gracefully, but also fine enough in grain and assertiveness to enable near-term enjoyment. A rich, satisfying wine that shows the virtues of the vintage without any of its vices. 95
Poderi Colla (Monforte d’Alba) “Bussia, Dardi le Rose” 2015
($70): It is a pleasure to see this great little estate back at the top of its game, turning out a wine at the same level as the wonderful 2010. The fruit is even more open and generous in this rendition, but still fresh and very pure, which is a hallmark of Poderi Colla wines, along with restrained wood and alcohol. Accents are actually more mineral than woody, and those with sufficient patience to let this gain additional complexity as bottle age contributes tertiary notes will be rewarded with a truly great wine. 95
Vietti (Serralunga d’Alba) “Lazzarito” 2015
($195): There’s a considerable element of unfairness in comparing this terrific effort to Vietti’s transcendent 2015 Ravera, as it must suffer by comparison, but “suffering” is a word that has no place in relation to this wine. It is moderate in weight (which is not a criticism) but highly complex, with excellent structural balance and wonderfully harmonious integration of all its aromatic and flavor components. There’s just a little less of everything in this wine by comparison to the Ravera, which is simply the more compelling wine of the two…which I feel compelled to note…since even prosperous wine lovers may not have sufficient funds to afford both of them. 95
Conterno Fantino (Monforte d’Alba) “Sori Ginestra” 2015
($100): This is always a big, powerful wine with bold oak that requires a lot of patience, and the 2015 rendition is certainly in keeping with that profile. At least one can say that it isn’t deceptive, as its very dark, concentrated pigmentation announces its intentions before the glass is even hoisted. Spicy, toasty oak is evident in the aromatics, but with lots of fruit to help the wine achieve balance. On the palate, the first sensation is of a big blast of dense, muscular flavor, with the fruit again holding its own against the wood flavors and tannins. When afforded 10-15 years to settle down and integrate, this estate’s Sori Ginestra can be stupendously good, and in the 2015 the only question is whether a touch of alcoholic heat will dissipate as the wine pulls together during the years ahead. 94
Pecchenino (Monforte d’Alba) “Bussia” 2015
($68): Pecchenino is less well known for Barolo than for producing superb, high-value Dolcetto from the Dogliani appellation that’s located just south of the Barolo district. However, savvy consumers should always have an eye out for the two Barolo bottlings produced in a tiny cellar within the district, including this Bussia and one from the cru of Le Coste di Monforte. The 2015 Bussia leans more toward the red than the black side of the fruit spectrum, with impeccable balance of tannin, acid and wood in relation to the fruit. Nicely ripe but still quite pure, with unobtrusive oak accents, this is already delicious but sure to become notably more complex and complete over the coming decade, when it is likely to merit an even higher score. 94
Reverdito Michele (Serralunga d’Alba) “Badarina” 2015
($48): A big, rich, highly expressive wine, this seems to hold more sex appeal that it should be possible to pack into a 750 ml bottle. With myriad notes including dried flowers, church incense, red fruits, spices and cola, this is a model case of Nebbiolo’s unique ability to show both fruity and savory character in spades, even prior to the development of tertiary notes from bottle aging. Although there’s just a whiff of over-ripe alcoholic heat that holds me back from according this an even higher score, it remains a smashing success that I’ll seek to buy for my cellar. 94
Rosso Giovanni di Rosso Davide (Serralunga d’Alba) “Serra” 2015
($90): This has the 2015 growing season etched into it very deeply, with big, ripe fruit driving all of the sensory signals it emits. It shows just a hint of over-ripeness on the palate and a little whiff of alcoholic heat in the finish, but neither of these impressions are problematic, and are definitely compensated for by the sheer size and deliciousness of this fruit-driven wine. Rather like some of the very best wines from the 2007 vintage, this comes off as something of a “guilty pleasure” because it doesn’t have the intricacy or reserve shown by top wines in cooler, more classic vintages. Still, this gives so much pleasure that it is easy to forget any guilt involved when comparing it to some Platonic Idea of what Barolo should be. 94