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Best of Barolo 2012 Vol. I: Novello, Serralunga and La Morra
By Michael Franz
Jul 26, 2016
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The world of wine is marked so deeply by variations and nuances that there is almost no proposition to which everyone can agree.  Virtually every assertion needs to be hedged with qualifications, exceptions and caveats.  But not this one:  The great Nebbiolo-based wines of Barolo and Barbaresco are in the midst of a Golden Age that has no historical precedent.  Period.  For at least a century leading up to 1996, very good vintages occurred only two or three years out of each decade.  Since 1996, only 2002 was a downright bad year, 2003 and 2009 were just okay, but every other year has been either very good or outstanding.  And now, having tasted more than 600 wines from Barolo and Barbaresco during two trips in May and June, I can report that the astonishing winning streak continues.

This column is focused on Barolo, and is one of two--as implied by the title.  I’ll follow up with another column that will review the 2012s from the vineyards around the villages of Castiglione Faletto, Barolo, Verduno and Castiglione Falletto.

First, a quick report on the 2012 growing season in Barolo.  The winter months were extremely cold, including some heavy snows.  Water reserves were abundant as a result, but the cold weather delayed the onset of the vines’ vegetative cycle.  Wet weather in June affected both flowering and berry set, reducing the crop (not a negative development) and producing looser grape clusters that were less susceptible to fungal problems (no problem there either…nothing likes fungus except fungus).

Summer was on the hot side (though certainly cooler than 2011), but those water reserves from winter and spring prevented hydric stress, and the vines were quite healthy.  Harvesting of Nebbiolo didn’t start in earnest until October, which came as a relief to many growers who are alarmed by sharp changes in the region’s climate during the past two decades.  Average alcohol levels were down a bit from the norm since 2007, and the wines are certainly fresher in general than those of 2007, 2009 or 2011.  There’s greater variation in quality than in 2007, 2008 or 2010, but the best wines from 2012 can challenge be best from those three years.  And at this stage, my general assessment has 2012 ranked at least a little higher than 2005, 2006 and 2009, and on a par with 2011—with better freshness but less concentration.

For most consumers, the key thing to remember is that quality among the 2012s is strong but more varied than in the best vintages in the recent past.  It isn’t advisable to buy blindfolded (as was possible with the 2010s, now mostly sold out), but cherry-picking the best wines is strongly recommended.  Many 2011s are still clogging the supply pipeline (as are some 2009s), and it will be possible to get some good deals on 2012s that will be terrific.

Wines from Novello, Serralunga and La Morra appear in order of preference below, along with a few over-achievers that were blended from vineyards located in multiple sites with no cru designation.  Locations can be determined by looking at the verbiate in parentheses; the village appears first, followed by the name of the cru (which appear in parentheses, since there’s no legal classification of vineyard status as in, say, Burgundy).  When wines were given the same score, the order in which they appear is alphabetical.  Prices are approximate, based on actual asking prices for the wines in recent vintages:

Vietti (La Morra “Brunate”) 2012, $160:  When tasting this blind in a lineup of 117 Barolos on May 11, 2016, I knew immediately that it was a wine from a great site and a top producer, and that it would prove to be expensive…which would make me sad.  All of that proved true, which is a mixed blessing.  Vietti’s 2012 Brunate is a wine of supreme complexity and class, with essentially perfect proportionality and balance.  Sweet but also savory, and soft but still structured, it is highly expressive--but even more impressive on account of its detail and precision.  97

Mario Gagliaso (La Morra “Rocche Dell’Annunziata”) 2012, $55:  I’ve been following the wines of this producer very closely since tasting the fantastic 2008 release from the Rocche Dell’Annunziata cru, and visited the winery two years ago after tasting the equally thrilling 2010.  I wouldn’t have guessed that the same level could be attained from the 2012 vintage, but the fact is that this may be the strongest wine of this terrific trio.  It is a riveting wine that will strike some strict modernists as being a bit too dirty for their taste, and indeed there seems to be a bit of a brettanomyces issue in this winery, which is full of new and new-ish oak, but always seems to issue notably earthy wines.  With that said, I found the aromas of cured meat, wild mushrooms, aged leather to be totally alluring.  The concentration is admirable, and there’s a streak of pure, sweet fruit that offsets the earthy elements very effectively, making for a complete experience…at a very high level.  By the way, Gagliaso’s release from the steep, warm little cru of Torriglione (located just below the winery) was also very successful in 2012, scored at 94, and in some vintages is even stronger than the Rocche.  96

Paolo Manzone (Serralunga “Mariame”) 2012, $70:  This designated cru wine from Serralunga standout Paolo Manzone is the one to buy from the 2012 vintage if you can afford the somewhat higher purchase price, as it shows greater overall complexity and dimension.  On one hand, it is even silkier in texture and more elegant in character than the village wine from Serralunga, yet the fruit shows darker tones and more grip and firmness in the finish, suggesting a longer period of positive development ahead of it.  Billowing, sexy aromas and impressively dark color draw immediate attention, and things only get better from there, with gorgeous notes of cola and dried black cherries accented with savory hints but virtually no overt oak at all.  Both Manzone wines are stunning from 2012, and both should be bought without a moment’s hesitation, but this is the one that should make you take a hammer to your piggy bank.  96

Palladino (Serralunga “Ornato”) 2012, $75:  The most famous wine from the Ornato cru in Serralunga is made by Pio Cesare, but in 2012 I found this rendering from Palladino to be superior, and indeed one of the strongest efforts in a year when Serralunga really excelled overall.  As complete as it is convincing, it shows wonderfully expressive aromas and flavors that interweave notes of dried fruits, subtle floral impressions, and nascent meaty accents.  The balance of fruit, tannin, wood and acidity is so precise that the wine seems impeccably refined even though it is highly expressive and even striking.  Impressive in every respect.  95

Guido Porro (Serralunga “V. S. Caterina”) 2012, $47:  I do not recall having been struck by a wine from Guido Porro previously, but this one sure proved striking.  The bright cherry topnotes are unusual but very appealing, and the flavors likewise prove clean and delicious, with super-fine tannins and not the slightest sense of any extraneous, un-integrated wood.  The texture of the wine comes off ultimately as soft and sexy, in counterpoint to the bright, fresh initial notes, making for a wonderfully interesting overall impression.  Excellent Value.  95

Michele Reverdito (Serralunga “Badarina”) 2012, $65:  Barolo wines from Serralunga were particularly successful as a group in 2012, and this is an especially impressive case in point.  Already very showy but not seeming over-developed for its age, it is highly expressive in every important respect.  The sheer density and weight is impressive for starters, and the flavors prove as intense and lasting as the wine’s physical properties suggest they will be.  Beautifully balanced between fruitiness and savory character, this is a complete wine that will provide great near-term enjoyment and continue to impress for a decade.  Based on this eye-popping performance, this is surely a producer to watch in coming years.  95

Aurelio Settimo (La Morra “Rocche Dell’Annunziata”) 2012, $60:  The spectacular success of the Rocche Dell’Annunziata cru in the village of La Morra extended so broadly that even producers who have escaped my notice in past years--such as Settimo--were able to make fabulous wines.  Never again will I fail to check on wines flowing from this estate, as this wine is almost magical in its combination of power and earthiness--on one hand--along with freshness and purity on the other.  The style is definitely traditional, with some faintly rustic and animal notes suggesting larger, older oak may have been involved in the vinification and/or ageing processes, but these are accents that enhance the overall complexity of the wine, rather than indications of a rogue element like brettanomyces that could threaten to overtake the wine’s character.  An absolutely terrific wine, and one that I will buy immediately if I see it offered in the USA.  Other wines from Rocche Dell’Annunziata to watch for:  Rocche Costamagna (which I’ve already purchased), Andrea Oberto and Trediberri.  95

Mauro Velgio (La Morra “Rocche Dell’Annunziata”) 2012, $70:  The Rocche Dell’Annunziata cru in La Morra was apparently perfectly attuned to weather and growing conditions in 2012, as these wines totally stood out as a group when tasted blind.  Veglio’s rendering of Rocche is just a little oakier than the other most successful wines, but it has more than enough concentrated, sweet fruit to counterbalance the wood, and is already delicious.  Firm but still fleshy, this will be terrific in just a year or two, and will surely improve for a full decade.  95

Giacomo Anselma (Serralunga “Collaretta”) 2012, $50:  This terrific wine from Giacomo Anselma is very impressive aromatically, with notes of ripe fruit beautifully intertwined with impressions of cured meat, wild mushrooms and exotic spices.  This strong expressiveness is followed by deep flavors and a soft, sexy texture.  The only element that brought me up short from awarding an even higher score is just a whiff of alcoholic heat, but that doesn’t detract from the wine’s vast appeal, which will surely last for another 5-7 years at a minimum.  94

Paolo Manzone (Serralunga) 2012, $55:  My blind-tasting scores for the wines of Paolo Manzone were already rising for the past couple of years, prior to my first meeting with him in May of 2016, and it is perhaps also worth noting that this wine was also tasted and scored prior to my first encounter with this infectiously enthusiastic man.  This is a terrifically impressive “village” wine with no cru designation, showing the overall attention to quality at this estate.  Soft and sexy and very deep in flavor and texture, this shows wonderful integration of its fruity and savory and woody elements.  Terrific!  94

Negretti (La Morra “Rive”) 2012, $55:  Strikingly earthy and savory in aroma, this is perhaps the single most immediately exciting young wine that I’ve ever tasted from Negretti.  The earthiness is more balsamic and leathery than animal or bretty, and this impression is borne out by flavors that show purity and naturalness, with minimal oak but lots of complexity nonetheless.  Clearly outstanding.  94

Andrea Oberto (La Morra “Albarella”) 2012, $55:  I have admired this producer’s wines for years on end, but this is the first vintage in which I preferred this wine from the Albarella cru to the bottling from Rocche Dell’Annunziata.  Although the wine is boldly oaked, it is also very dense and quite deep in flavor, with plenty of sweet fruit to counterbalance the wood notes.  The tannins are abundant but fine in grain and easily supported by the fruit.  Accordingly, while the wine doesn’t need time to soften, it will benefit greatly from cellaring so that its elements can integrate and harmonize.  If I’ve missed with my score on this, I’m off on the low side, but that won’t likely become apparent for another five years.  94

Oddero (La Morra “Brunate”) 2012, $85:  This relatively large, notably traditional producer has enviable vineyard holdings…and really knows what to do with them.  This wine shows admirable concentration and depth, but it is just as impressive for its balance and intricacy as for its sheer size.  The wood element is muted, permitting the sweet fruit and subtle savory notes to hold center stage.  Already excellent, this will become far more complex if given another five years to age.  By the way, of the 500+ Nebbiolo-based wines that I tasted in the region during the second week of May in 2016, the single most impressive one was Oddero’s Barolo Riserva Bussia Vigna Mondoca 2008, a wine of phenomenal complexity that is still very fresh and actually still available from several retailers around the world.  94

Armando Parusso (Barolo DOCG; not cru-designated) 2012, $45:  This is a rather wild but nevertheless thoroughly exciting wine on the basis of its exceptional expressiveness and power.  The aromas show balsamic notes as well as floral tones and a mushroomy character that also shows on the palate.  Already rather developed for a Barolo from the 2012 vintage, this doesn’t seem likely to end up as one of the more long-lived examples from the year, but it is already so developed and delicious that there’s really no reason not to consume it with pleasure over the next five years.  A remarkable wine for a straight Barolo bottling with no cru designation.  94

Broccardo (Barolo DOCG; not cru-designated) “I Tre Pais” 2012, $45:  A clear over-achiever at this level in the Barolo hierarchy (meaning, wines blended from fruit drawn from multiple villages within the appellation), this shows excellent quality with lovely aromas that blend delicate floral notes with more earthy accents.  The flavors and texture are appealing soft, and the wine has a restrained, refined character in overall terms.  Not a wine that kicks down the door, but rather one with a much more seductive approach.  93

Renato Ratti (La Morra “Marcenasco”) 2012, $48:  Pietro Ratti’s entry level Barolo is terrific yet again in 2012--as it has been in 2011 and 2010.  It is easier on the wallet than the single-site Conca or Rocche Dell’Annunziata bottlings, which are always more age-worthy and intense, but also require considerably more time before entering their window of optimal drinkability.  This edition of Marcenasco shows a little wood but not in an overt or obtrusive way, and there’s more than enough sweet fruit to counterbalance it.  There are also some interesting savory notes, and though this is more about purity and balance than sheer power, that’s no knock on the wine.  A well grown, beautifully crafted wine.  93

Dario Stroppiana (Barolo DOCG; not cru-designated) “Leonardo” 2012, $40:  Dario Stroppiana has been making some terrific wines during the past few vintages, and they remain relatively little-known among consumers (at least in the USA), which means that there’s also an opportunity to buy them for less than they are worth relative to their peers--at least for now.  Conspicuously dark in color (especially for a blended wine, as opposed to a single-cru bottling), this follows through with impressive concentration and very good depth to the dark-toned fruit.  Definitely styled on the masculine side of the continuum, this may shut down at some point, but it was definitely open and showy in May of 2016.  Excellent Value.  93

Vietti (Barolo DOCG; not cru-designated) "Castiglione" 2012, $48:  The class of this wine was immediately apparent in the glass, and learning several hours that it was made by Vietti only confirmed an impression made by the wine’s classy, harmonious performance when tasted blind.  Although it wasn’t particularly “flashy,” it still stepped out of the pack on account of its sheer intricacy and proportionality, which isn’t to say that it isn’t deep in flavor and strong in overall intensity--which indeed it is.  Always among the best buys from Barolo’s top producers, this is a wine to buy yet again in 2012.  93