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Best of the Best from Barbaresco's 2016 Vintage
By Michael Franz
Mar 5, 2019
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I’ve got very good news to report, based on very extensive tastings of newly-released Barbaresco and Barolo wines that I conducted in Italy five weeks ago:  There’s a boatload of marvelously delicious Nebbiolo headed toward our shores.  Barolo from 2015 is less consistent than Barbaresco from 2016, but the top Barolo releases from 2015 are terrific, and I’ll be back next month with the first of two profiles of the best wines.  For now, consider taking a hammer to your piggy bank in anticipation of the 2016s from Barbaresco, which are generally pure, balanced, stylish, natural-seeming wines with an effortless deliciousness built from a rare combination of depth and elegance.

If this glowing praise comes as a surprise to you, it may be because the 2015 vintage in Europe was so “newsworthy” in wine trade terms that it eclipsed wines from the following year that are now looking even better in some important appellations.  The 2015 growing season was quite a warm one, producing big, showy wines in many locations, including very famous ones such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the northern and southern Rhône, as well as in Italy and Spain.  By contrast, the 2016s from many regions were less “pushy” and “impressive” in terms of sheer size, but as they’ve developed, have surpassed the 2015s, with better balance and proportionality on a slightly smaller but still extremely satisfying scale.

That’s true in general terms for Barbaresco from the two vintages, and by this time next year, we’ll know whether the same result pans out for the 2016s from Barolo.  My bet is that’s exactly what will result, and my guesswork is fortified by the ten superb examples of Barbaresco profiled below.

There’s no need to get too geeky about the “why” factors explaining the excellence of the 2016s from Barbaresco.  The growing season was unusually cool, moderate and long in the context of a local climate that has been notably hotter for the past two decades.  Harvesting was performed later than usual in perfect conditions, with virtually no “raisining” from heat but still full ripeness, as demonstrated by low levels of sharp malic acid, registering below 1 gram per liter.  The long “hang” time for grape clusters translated into very expressive aromas and complex flavors, with moderate alcohol levels for producers who didn’t get greedy and pick too late.  Such greediness was not much in evidence in the many wines I tasted, making for one of the most stylish sets of Barbaresco wines in recent memory--perhaps the single most stylish, based on how the wines look today.

My top ten from the late January tastings are listed in order of (early) preference below, with best-guess price indicators and scores that are conservative.  Many of the wines were bottled quite shortly before being shown at Nebbiolo Prima, an absolutely superb event in Alba where the new releases of Roero, Barbaresco and Barolo are displayed for journalists each year, along with older Riserva bottlings just released from these appellations.  As these wines settle down after a longer term since bottling, they will quite likely show even better and deserve higher scores, but I don’t wish to get into the business of offering “speculative evaluations.”  It is very unlikely that any of the wines reviewed below will end up deserving lower scores when they become available soon:  There’s no way for these to go but up, based on the balance and symmetry they’re already displaying, and you should buy with confidence (especially in view of the relatively lower prices for Barbaresco by comparison to Barolo):

Battaglio (Barbaresco) “Serragrilli” 2016 ($50):  This is clearly the best wine I’ve ever tasted from this house.  It is brimming with expressive aromas and flavors, combining both fruity and savory notes and showing the richness most commonly associated with Barolo but also the nuanced, nimble character of top Barbaresco.  Big for the vintage, but still without any hint of excess, this is  a remarkable achievement and a killer wine.  95

La Biòca (Barbaresco) “Ronchi” 2016 ($40):  I can’t say that another wine from this producer has stuck in my memory, but I can say that this one will stay lodged there for a very long time.  Quite concentrated and even enveloping in its ripe richness and depth of flavor, this is a big wine but also one that is uncanny in its nimbleness, with restrained wood and just the right measure of tannin to frame the fruit without drying it out.  Already quite delicious, this also shows lots of room for improvement with time in bottle.  The only bottle of this that I could find offered online was a 2015 in the UK, so I hope a USA-based importer will take notice.  95

Albino Rocca (Barbaresco) “Cottà” 2016 ($50):  Barbaresco “Ronchi” from Albino Rocca is also quite good in this vintage, but the bottling from Cottà is the pick of the litter.  Ripe, soft, sweet and pure, it is wonderfully natural-seeming in its aromas, flavors, and internal symmetry.  There’s real depth and impact of flavor in the wine, yet it doesn’t seem at all “wrung out” from overly aggressive maceration.  Remarkably graceful for its style, this is a very beautiful wine.  95

Castello di Neive (Barbaresco) “Santo Stefano Albesani” 2016 ($65):  A marvelously stylish Nebbiolo that is extremely expressive but still seemingly weightless, this shows open fruit with light savory undertones and appropriately understated wood.  The tannins are likewise very fine-grained and unobtrusive, brilliantly tuned to the fruit’s delicacy.  Fresh acidity never quite turns tart, and all of the wine’s structural elements seem perfectly proportioned, enabling all the aromas and flavors to sing together harmoniously.  Just beautiful.  94

Poderi Colla (Barbaresco) “Roncaglie” 2016 ($55):  This traditionally-styled wine is always good, but this vintage may be the best rendition I’ve tasted in a decade.  Writing that the aromas are “seductive” is really not engaging in hyperbole, and the flavors and finish all follow suit, melding soft fruit notes with gorgeous savory accents.  The wood is subtle almost to a vanishing point, and the seemingly oxidative vinification of the wine works just perfectly with the fruit from this growing season.  Only you can know how you most like being seduced, but if you like being whispered to rather than yelled at, this is your wine.  94

Giuseppe Cortese (Barbaresco) “Rabajà” 2016 ($55):  Add up an exemplary producer, a great cru, and an outstanding vintage and this is what you get:  A wine of impressive depth and length on the palate that nevertheless shows lovely purity and quite subtle wood accents.  This shows the seemingly effortless elegance of the vintage to great effect, even from a cru that often shows enough muscle to mimic Barolo rather than seeming obviously like Barbaresco.  94

Giuseppe Nada (Barbaresco) “Casot” 2016 ($48):  With the extremely talented young Enrico Nada making the wines and his father Giuseppe still energetically tending the vines, this house is rapidly rising in reputation among Barbaresco producers.  Not the most overt wine of the vintage by a long shot, this requires some swirling and patience to express itself, but once it opens, it displays superb purity and precision in both aroma and flavor.  Very natural in both flavor and feel, it certainly wasn’t overworked in the cellar, and its outstanding proportionality will enable it to gain complexity for up to a decade while still staying in balance.  I’ll be buying this--just as I’ve bought every vintage I’ve seen offered in the USA.  94

Paitin di Pasquero-Elia (Barbaresco) “Sori Paitin Serraboella” 2016 ($50):  Rarely a powerhouse but usually among the most interesting wines from Barbaresco, this is well suited to the growing conditions of the 2016 vintage.  Sweet and savory at once, with an appealing mélange of floral and cola topnotes, it shows great purity in its core of fruit but also a host of interesting little accents.  94

Pasquale Pelissero (Barbaresco) “Cascina Crosa” 2016 ($40):  This wine is an object lesson in the ability of 2016s from Barbaresco to achieve both concentrated flavors as well as purity and “lift” from expressive perfume, fresh acidity and fine tannin.  It shows significant ripeness as well as some overt oak, but the inner strength of the fruit easily counterbalances the wood and allows the wine to attain virtually perfect balance.  Earlier vintages of this are selling at very reasonable prices in the USA, and if this comes in at a comparable cost, it will be a steal.  94

Cascina Luisin (Barbaresco) “Rabajà” 2016 ($50):  This is a bigger, riper, sweeter rendition of the Rabajà cru than the 2016 released by Giuseppe Cortese, and in that sense is a bit more representative of what many Barbaresco lovers expect of this growing site.  I found it a bit less complex and polished, but it is so deliciously fruity and flavorful that there’s no denying its excellence, and time in bottle will undoubtedly augment its complexity.  93