Lovers of the great Nebbiolo-based wines of Barolo and Barbaresco have never had it so good. And I mean never. Outstanding vintages were relatively rare in these appellations for the century leading up to the mid-1990s, occurring perhaps two or three years out of each decade. However, since 1996, every single year except 2002 has been at least very good, and absolutely superb vintages were seen in 1996, 1999, 2001, 2004, and 2006. Having just blind-tasted dozens of new releases of 2010 Barbaresco, it now seems likely that this year will join the other 5 to be regarded as a genuinely great year.
If this last line looks a little tentative, it is only because another year must pass before I’ll be able to assess the 2010s that will be released next spring from Barolo. But the excellence of the 2010s from Barbaresco is already an extablished fact, at least as far as my palate is concerned.
You’ll find my reviews of the top performers tasted last month in Alba below, but first we should consider the remarkable run of vintages since 1996 and inquire briefly into what is going on in these two famous appellations.
Just behind the incontestably great recent vintages (1996, 1999, 2001, 2004, and 2006) follow five more years that are nearly as strong: 1997, 1998, 2000, 2007 and 2008. Additionally, many excellent wines were made in 2003, 2005 and 2009, and though quality wasn’t as consistent as in the other 10 vintages, those “top ten” years are not a fair standard, historically speaking. Considered against the broader backdrop of the past century, all three of those vintages look very good.
So, how should we assess this astonishing 15-year period? I’d make two observations, one of which glows with optimism, whereas the other drips with foreboding.
First, the good news: I’d say that, measured against the baseline expectations set by the preceding century, Barbaresco and Barolo have experienced the greatest and most rapid rise in vintage quality ever experienced by any appellations in wine-growing history.
But now for the bad news: The factor that initiated the great rise in quality is likewise the factor that threatens to bring it to an end. The factor in question is climate change, or, more specifically, rising temperatures during the growing season.
Rising temperatures seemed like an unalloyed boon in a year like 1997, when vintners suddenly found themselves harvesting fully ripe grapes a month (or more) before their fathers had been able to pick. For generations, their predecessors had planted Nebbiolo on south-facing slopes to maximize sun exposure and prayed that they could ripen the fruit fully before cold rains would wash out the crop in November. By contrast, recent years have seen many vintners harvesting Nebbiolo in September, and not entirely by choice, but rather to avoid excessive ripeness, dehydration of grapes, and loss of acidity.
A generation ago, growing excellent Nebbiolo amounted to little more than accumulating sugars in the fruit prior to the end of the growing season. But in years like 2007, 2009, 2011 and 2012, the challenge is to slow the accumulation of sugars long enough to develop aromatic and flavor compounds and to allow tannins to ripen.
As recently as five years ago, vintners in Barolo and Barbaresco were roughly evenly split on whether they were experiencing genuine climate change or a mere periodic anomaly. Today, virtually everyone I speak with around Alba regards climate change as an established fact, and a majority are rather frightened by the magnitude and sheer speed of the change--despite all of the excellent vintages in recent years.
That may seem surprising--like pessimism in the midst of a Golden Age--but it isn’t actually so difficult to understand. Consider this contrast: As recently as 1997, the growing season was regarded as excellent because it was so warm by comparison to the years preceding it. However, vintages such as 2008 and 2010 are now prized precisely because they were cooler than the years surrounding them. That is a very big change--in a very short time.
I’ll have a bit more to say about this phenomenon in my next column, which will be devoted to hundreds of Barolo wines tasted last month in Alba. The news, unfortunately, won’t be as good as what I can report here regarding 2010s from Barbaresco. The wines profiled below are the very best of a very strong group. Notes and scores were generated from five days of blind tasting under virtually perfect conditions at Nebbiolo Prima, an extraordinary event during which a select group of vintners from Roero, Barbaresco and Barolo debut their new releases each May.
The 2010s from Barbaresco were so good that I need to limit the wines reviewed here to those scoring 92 points or higher. All of the wines fall under the Barbaresco DOCG designation, but for each wine, I've also included the commune (Nieve, Barbaresco, Treiso, etc.) for serious students of these wines who might appreciate a more precise indication of the fruit source.
You may experience some confusion when looking at the producer name that begins each entry on account of the fact that some prefer to lead with a family name, whereas others start with a given name, as is customary in English-speaking countries. Figuring that producers should be allowed to call themselves whatever they wish, I’ve rendered every producer name exactly as it was designated by the organizers of Nebbiolo Prima. You’ll find that search engines are perfectly capable of leading you to the producer regardless of the order in which the name is rendered, so this is a minor point that I note only because some of the producer names look jarringly odd to readers from English speaking countries.
One last note: All of these wines will be released into commercial channels soon, if indeed they haven’t already been released. However, it is still too early to determine average pricing for any particular national market like the USA, and prices vary so widely across countries that any guessing on my part would do more harm than good. Wine reviews are ordered from top to bottom by score, with alphabetical ordering used for entries concluding with the same scores:
Giuseppe Nada, Treiso, Barbaresco “Casot”: Enrico Nada is a rising young star making a range of impressive wines and a downright stunning Barbaresco from a steep, perfectly exposed Cru called Casot near Treiso. Tasted twice blind and then again at the winery (how could I not ask to see the people behind this?), this wine shows billowing aromas that interweave ripe fruit scents with a host of floral, earthy, meaty and leathery accents. Light-medium in body, explosive in flavor, and delicate in texture, this is traditionally made, with no overt oak but plenty of acidic and tannic structure to develop over time. However, it is among the most immediately enjoyable Barbarescos I’ve tasted during the past decade, edging out Nada’s 2009 Casot, which I rated 94 in a blind tasting in May of 2012. Enrico thinks the 2009 will eventually be the better of the two wines, and though I’m not initially inclined to agree, I’m damned sure going to re-run the test for as long as I can get my mitts on the wines. 96
Ada Nada, Treiso, Barbaresco “Valeirano”: Sensationally complex, this wine features wonderfully earthy aromas recalling wild mushrooms, damp earth and cured meat, yet it doesn’t seem dirty or bretty. The fruit is very ripe, recalling dark cherry liqueur, with very soft texture and a long, sweet finish. A total fleshpot of a wine, I wouldn’t hazard a guess regarding how this will age, but it wouldn’t have much chance of getting to age in my possession anyway, so marvelous is it already. 95
Negro Angelo E Figli, Neive, Barbaresco “Cascinotta”: This was sourced from a cru within the broader Bassarin vineyard in Neive, and almost all of the wines from Bassarin were exceptionally good in 2010. This shows abundant oak, but the ripe (indeed, pleasantly stewed) fruit is easily able to hold center stage. Exceptionally well integrated, this manages to seem both soft and firm at once, which is a mark of the most successful Barbareschi from 2010. 95
Taliano Michele, Alba, Barbaresco “Ad Altiora”: Expressive, even punchy aromatics show ripe, intense red fruit scents backed by commensurately intense scents of oak. This was among the most dramatic of the 2010 Barbareschi, with very ripe and flavorful fruit that also shows real complexity, with balsamic and savory undertones. Despite the dramatics, the wine isn’t heavy or hard, showing phenomenal depth and intricacy without a lot of weight. Extremely impressive. 95
Adriano Marco E Vittorio, Neive, Barbaresco “Bassarin”: Complete and convincing, with excellent balance and complexity from the first whiff to the conclusion of the very persistent, impressively symmetrical finish, this is an outstanding wine. Wood and fruit are very well integrated already, and there are lots of other nice little nuances peeking out from the perimeter. Not among the most powerful of the 2010 Barbareschi, but a model of balance and proportionality, with superb balance and depth. 94
Bel Colle, Barbaresco “Roncaglie”: Promisingly dense pigmentation offers an accurate indication of what is to follow, as this wine delivers exceptional depth of flavor. The fruit is quite ripe, with a pleasantly stewed tinge, and tones that are predominantly reminiscent of red fruit, but with a hint of black as well. Nuanced and very persistent in flavor, this is a very well made wine that will perform very well early on but also for years to come. 94
Fontanabianca, Neive, Barbaresco “Serraboella”: Sweet aromatic notes lead into a soft, open, deep set of flavors. Balanced and perfectly--I mean perfectly--symmetrical, this shows both sweet and savory notes that are nuanced and lovely. Powerful and persistent in flavor, with interesting intricacies as well, this is a stunning wine that shows just the slightest alcoholic heat in the finish. 94
La Ganghija Az. Agr. Di Rapalino Enzo, Treiso, Barbaresco: Of the various generic Barbaresco bottlings from 2010 with no indication of a specific cru, this was perhaps the single most impressive. Deep color and expressive aromatics suggest that the wine will pack a punch on the palate, and indeed it does, with excellent depth of flavor and an alluring sweetness to the fruit. That sweetness is key to the wine’s success because it is also quite structured, and indeed quite “masculine” in character for a Barbaresco, though firming tannins rather than oak seem to lie behind the grip in the wine’s finish. Very impressive. 94
Giacosa Fratelli, Neive, Barbaresco “Basarin Vigna Gianmatè": Dense in feel and very deeply flavored, with very impressive intensity and length, this is nevertheless not a standard-issue powerhouse. It shows wonderful proportionality, with restrained oak and virtually perfect balance of acidity, tannin and fruit. I found it to be one of the most impressive wines of the Barbareschi in this year’s Nebbiolo Prima tastings for sheer power and breeding, as the wine seems natural and direct, yet it also shows real dimension in addition to its palpable depth and density. 94
Cascina Morassino Di Bianco Roberto, Barbaresco, “Ovello”: This was among darkest, deepest, most brooding of the Barbareschi tasted at Nebbiolo Prima this year. Dense and strikingly intense, with hints of black raspberries on a core of red-toned fruit, this is marked by great inner strength that enables the fruit component to blast past the oak and remain predominant through the finish. This will need time to show the full measure of its excellence, but there’s no questioning the superb quality. 94
Negro Angelo E Figli, Neive, Barbaresco “Cascinotta”: This very complex wine shows just a whiff of oak that is appealing without seeming overbearing, and the fruit is soft and strongly alluring. Somehow managing to seen both soft and firm at once, this is as complex in texture as it is in aroma and flavor. 94
Pertinace, Treiso, Barbaresco “Nervo”: Pertinace clearly got things right in 2010, as the “Marcarini” bottling (reviewed below) is also outstanding. The Nervo shows scents of sweet, ripe, succulent fruit, and the flavors deliver these same attributes in spades. Pure and perfectly balanced, this is remarkably open and delectable at this early stage. There’s acidity and tannin and oak to be found here, but only if you “look” for it, as these structural components are enveloped in gorgeous fruit. 94
Rattalino, Barbaresco, “Ronchi”: The deep, rich, aromas of this wine are quite arresting, and though it is very ripe in character, there’s nothing raisiny about it, suggesting that the timing of the picking was spot on. Dense and deeply flavored, this is braced by spicy oak that accents the fruit without ever taking over. It shows lots of potential for improvement, but make no mistake: It is already superb. 94
Ressina Az. Agr. Di Ressia Fabrizio, Neive, Barbaresco “Canova”: This wine is a model of subtle excellence, with years of positive development ahead of it. Brooding and backward, but still loaded with nuances and delicate accents, this is terrific already and potentially a great wine. 94
Cascina Saria, Neive, Barbaresco “Colle Del Gelso”: This wine has many things going for it, but foremost among them is a gorgeous, sweet-savory nose featuring ripe fruit intertwined with notes of wild mushrooms, leather and cured meat. Marked by sensational complexity and expressiveness on the palate as well, this would merit an even higher score if not for a hint of harsh oak and a tough of heat in the finish. Both of those characteristics may diminish with ageing, in which case this will become one of the very best wines from an outstanding vintage. 94
Albino Rocca, Barbaresco “Ronchi”: Very sexy aromas show spices and toast along with fresher, more primary notes of bright red fruit. The texture is soft and the flavors are open and generous, with good depth and persistence, and very low overt oak. 93
Battaglio, Neive, Barbaresco: This wine features a fabulous bouquet with subtle balsamic, floral and spice notes on a core of red-toned fruit. The wood is admirably restrained, enabling the wine to display outstanding complexity and symmetry. For a straight Barbaresco bottling with no designation of a particular cru, this is seriously impressive. 93
Cascina Delle Rose, Barbaresco “Rio Sordo”: Quite dark in color, with very inviting aromas of ripe fruit with a depth and density that can almost be smelled. There’s also enough smoky new oak to make it advisable to lay this down for several years, but there’s no question that the fruit will prove up to the challenge of outlasting and absorbing the wood component. Although the fruit is quite powerful in its concentration and intensity, there’s still a sense of delicacy to this wine that is appropriate to Barbaresco. 93
Molino, Alba, Barbaresco “Toerema”: This shows impressively dark color and quite expressive aromas, as well as fine concentration but no hardness on the palate. The soft tannins and restrained wood allow the wine to show fine depth of flavor that seems to match its density. Oak is notably is present, but very nicely balanced, firming the finish but not seeming to shorten it or render it astringent. 93
Giordano Luigi Giuseppe, Barbaresco, “Cavanna”: This shows relatively thin pigment concentration and even some signs of oxidation, which reinforces the impression of a wine that was crafted in the traditional manner. Tasters who are unaccustomed to such wines might dismiss this one based on appearance, but that would be a bad, bad mistake, as it offers up a lovely, highly expressive bouquet of floral and savory notes along with alluringly ripe fruit. The finish is long and symmetrical, with excellent balance between pure fruit and exotic accent notes. 92
Moccagatta, Barbaresco, “Bric Balin”: This is a boldly, even aggressively oaked wine at this stage in its development, but the balance works, as the sweetness of fruit never tires beneath the onslaught of the oak. This will need time to fully integrate and really express itself, but it is a daring wine that will pay big dividends, as the proportions seem just right. Although it is not made in the style that I initially find most appealing, there’s no begrudging the excellence this promises for the future. 92
Pertinace, Treiso, Barbaresco “Marcarini”: Impressively dark color and a deep, earthy, expressive bouquet get this wine off to a smashing start, and it fulfills its promise with deep flavors and lovely sweetness. However, there’s no sense of over-ripeness, and the dose of wood is tastefully restrained, enabling the gorgeous fruit in this wine to really shine. 92