I recently wrote a post about 2007 Barolo; I sampled over 100 bottlings during my stay in Alba for the Nebbiolo Prima event in early May. That post focused on the qualities and characteristics of the 2007 vintage and how it compared to other years. I commented that while I believe 2007 is an excellent vintage, as the wines display lovely balance and impressive depth of fruit, I prefer the Barolos from 2006, which should prove to be a much longer-lived vintage. Several winemakers I spoke with agreed with me, telling me that 2006 is a “more classic Piemontese vintage” while 2007 is more of “an international vintage.”
This got me thinking the other day about a number of things. It’s one thing for myself to prefer a specific vintage, but what about everyone else? I’ve always said that wine is a sensory experience, which means that all of us will react to a particular wine in our own particular way. A wine I love might have levels of acidity that are too high for someone else, while a ripe wine someone else likes may be too one-dimensional for me.
This is hardly original material here, but what I’m after is that with wine, style matters. Not just the style of the vintage, but the style of the wine itself. Don’t just consider the vintage – learn about the approach taken by individual estates. Regarding Barolo, does the firm make a traditional wine, aged in large casks or do they produce a modern, more-forward wine, often aged in small oak barrels? Learning about the style of producers is more important in my mind than memorizing details about each vintage. What do you prefer? Discover that and you’ve gone a long way towards learning about Barolo (or many other famous wines).
Take as an example, the brilliant Barolos from Poderi Aldo Conterno in Monforte d’Alba. This is one of the finest of all Barolo estates, as the wines have outstanding depth of fruit, marvelous complexity and the potential to age for as long as 35-40 years from the finest years. The winery produces anywhere from two to five bottlings of Barolo per year; this depends on growing conditions (hailstorms sometimes cause problems in their vineyards, as with other estates). There is a regular Barolo, three cru bottlings (Romirasco, Colonnello and Cicala) and in exceptional years, a wine called Gran Bussia, a blend of these three vineyards. The wines are all aged in large casks of Slavonian oak known as grandi botti, which is the traditional aging vessel. To me, aging Barolo in large casks means that wood notes are not dominant and that the beauty of the Nebbiolo fruit emerges. When we speak of the terroir of Barolo, I find this emerges more often in traditionally aged wines.
Yet what about the wines of another excellent Monforte estate, that of Domenico Clerico? This is another famous Barolo producer, but their approach is quite different, as barriques are used here for the aging. The wines are of course different – very different – than those from Aldo Conterno or two other superb traditional estates in Monforte, Elio Grasso and Giovanni Manzone, whose wines I greatly admire. I prefer the wines of Grasso, Giovanni Manzone and Aldo Conterno to those of Clerico on a regular basis, yet I have enjoyed several excellent Barolos from Clerico over the years. Who makes the best wines? Part of the answer for each individual depends on what they think constitues the “best.” I generally tend to prefer traditionally aged Barolos, as that is what I have discovered I like (they also seem to me to be wines that better display a true sense of place), but I don’t rule out modern Barolos, simply because of the aging process.
Then there is the example of Luca Currado at Vietti, who ages each Barolo according to the approach he believes is proper. For example, he ages his Barolo from the Brunate cru in La Morra in small barrels, as he reasons that the soft tannins and delicate aromatics of this wine need a touch of new oak to give the wine more complexity. Yet for his Rocche Barolo from the famous cru in Castiglione Falletto, Currado ages this wine in large casks, as he wants to downplay the firm tannins that naturally emerge from this site. Thus Vietti makes Barolos that are traditional as well as modern. Here it’s not about an overall philosophy, but instead doing what’s proper for each wine. Currado told me once for an article I was writing that he compared this craftsmanship similar to a tailor making a suit of clothes for a man. Each customer is different, so the tailor has to alter each suite to make it fit just right; the same for Vietti and making Barolo.
Try various bottlings of Barolo from the La Serra cru in La Morra. Renowned producers such as Gianni Voerzio and his brother Roberto each produce this wine as does the Marcarini estate. The Voerzio bottlings are undoubtedly modern in their approach, while the Marcarini bottling is as traditional a Barolo as you can find. Each of these producers captures the elegance and deep fruitiness of this cru, but each does it in his own way. What do you prefer?
Then you have producers that combine a bit of each approach. At Fontanafredda in Serralunga d’Alba, winemaker Danilo Drocco uses a similar approach for two cru Barolo: La Villa from Barolo and La Rosa from the winery’s estate. He begins the aging in barriques, but then completes it in large casks. His reasoning is that small barrels can help deepen the color, but he needs to change to large casks in order to prevent the wine from becoming dominated by oak flavors. This is the decision that Drocco, a veteran of more than 25 Barolo vintages, has realized for his wines. Who would say he is wrong?
One of the great Barolo estates – and clearly one of my favorites – is that of Renato Ratti in La Morra. Renato Ratti was one of the key figures in mapping out the crus of Barolo and today, his son Pietro manages the winery, producing three excellent Barolos per year. Like Fontanafredda, these Barolos are aged in both barrique and grandi botti, so they are an in-between style. They are certainly not “international” wines, overburdened with spice and vanilla from small barrels, but neither are they old-fashioned wines with strong herbal notes. Rather, they are superb reflections of the specific sites where the grapes are grown. The Marcenasco, Conca and Rocche Barolos from Ratti each offer different characteristics and have different life spans; the Rocche, especially, is one of the most consistent, ageworthy Barolos I’ve enjoyed over the past decade- to me this is a classic Barolo in every sense. Some winemaking has changed as Ratti moved into a new, state-of-the-art cellar a few years ago. I won’t go into all the technical details, but Ratti believes the wines now have a richer mid-palate that makes the wines more complete. Perhaps the notion of modern versus traditional shouldn’t even be a consideration when we’re speaking of the sublime Barolos of Renato Ratti.
So there you have it – given all the approaches by various producers in Barolo, you have the option of many wines. Find a style you like, but also try other wines to appreciate everything that is available. Barolo is a magnificent wine for many reasons, not the least of which are the complexities inherent in these wines. These characteristics can emerge from a specific site or from the winemaking approach of an individual producer or it might come from a vintage.
Put all this together and you realize that this is another argument against points. Barolo is too singular a wine to be branded – awarding a 95 versus a 92 on another wine really means nothing; if it shows anything, it’s the preference of the individual or group that handed out the score. What can a number tell you about one of the world’s greatest wines?
Finally, in the case of rating vintages, it is important to note the style of wines emerging from a vintage. Yes, for me, 2006 is a superior vintage as compared to 2007, but that doesn’t mean that will be the case for someone else (and I do think 2007 is an excellent vintage). Let’s face it – when Pietro Ratti comments that for the 2007 Barolos, “the balance is fantastic,” doesn’t that say it all?
P.S. This is my last post for at least a few weeks. Between my upcoming trip to Soave, Valpolicella and Collio along with a few projects I’m working on, I’ll be busy (that’s the sound of me knocking on wood that you are hearing). So I have no idea when my next post will be up, but I’m guessing within 3-4 weeks.
The number of hits has been on the increase, so thank you to everyone that is checking in on my blog. Now I hope to read some nice comments from time to time. I don’t write controversial stuff, but I do hope it’s interesting and I’d love to hear your thoughts.