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A Great Barolo Year: Already Supple in Youth

– by Terry Robards

Once upon a time, Barolo, the great Italian red, had a reputation for being undrinkable until at least age 10. The wines were filled with tannin, acidity and a general harshness in youth, and needed decades to achieve the round and friendly maturity that enabled them to live up to their splendid reputation for quality.

So it was with considerable interest that a New York group of wine journalists, the Wine Media Guild, recently staged a tasting of 25 Barolos of the fine 2005 vintage at the great Italian restaurant, Felidia, in Manhattan . A decade or so ago, such an event would have been difficult and frustrating for the tasters. But this time it was different. The wines were surprisingly open and supple in only their fifth year.

We all agreed that not a single wine was less than pleasingly drinkable and that the quality was uniformly excellent across the board. This does not mean that we felt they were at peak maturity by any means. But all were enjoyable, especially with the excellent luncheon served by Lidia Bastianich, the restaurant’s renowned chef/owner. A gastronomic highlight was Lidia’s gnocchi al castelmagno, potato dumplings in a lush creamy sauce made with Piedmont ’s best cheese.

It was clear throughout our tasting that the Barolo winemakers had learned much about how to deal with the nebbiolo grape to bring out its gentler qualities more readily in youth. It was also evident that the younger generations of enophiles, who had never experienced the old style of Barolo, would be able to do so hence forward only by reputation.

There are those of us who wonder whether the new style of earlier-maturing Barolos would ultimately achieve the quality peaks that the old style reached in great vintages after two or more decades. But it is a moot point. The new style will offer so much more pleasure over its life span precisely because of its early accessibility.

Pietro Ratti, our guest speaker, noted that the region’s modern winemakers are now using less new oak in the aging process, an important factor in the new style. The romance with new oak is dying, he said.

We also must ask how many of today’s consumers have the patience or inclination to stash quantities of young wine in their cellars for decades while they mature. How many even have cellars at all? The vast majority of wine today is purchased to accompany tonight’s meal, not to be squirreled away somewhere to await long-term softening and rounding.

It was also evident that the differences among the 25 Barolos had more to do with the style of individual winemakers as well as the terroir of the vineyards. Winemaking technology and techniques have come a long way in the modern world, and there is no excuse today for making a bad wine. Global warming has also meant that poor vintages due to bad weather are much fewer and farther between.

In 2005 the Piedmont region’s Barolo vineyards experienced a cool summer and a nice September, so that maximum ripening could occur. One week of rain came in early October, but those who harvested quickly got undiluted grapes because it takes time for rain to be absorbed through the clay soil that is typical of the area. The harvest totaled 10.5 million bottles, the largest ever recorded until that time, although the total has been surpassed three times since then.

The appellation is populated by numerous small growers, with the average number of acres per owner calculated at roughly 4.6 in 2005. Reflecting growing worldwide demand for the wine, the acreage under cultivation increased by 52 percent between 1995 and 2008, and total production climbed 86 percent.

It is probably misleading to single out the superior wines from the 25 in the tasting, because all of them showed considerable quality. But those that I found especially stylish and pleasing were the following: Vietti Brunate, Cascina Ballarin Bricco Rocca, Renato Ratti Rocche, Ascheri Vigna dei Pola, Fratelli Alessandria Monvigliero, Pietro Rinaldi Monvigliero, Giacomo Brezza Sarmassa, Bergadano Sarmassa, Cascina Adelaide Cannubi, Damilano Cannubi, E. Pira e Figli Canubbi, G.D Vajra Ricco delle Viole, Cavallotto Ricco Boschis, Cordero di Montezemolo Enrico VI, Aldo Conterno Cicala.

Also showing well were the Marcarini Brunate, Eugenio Bochino La Serra, Aurelio Settimo Rocche, Cascina Luisin Leon, Rivetto Leon, Luigi Vaira Baudana, Sordo Sori Gabutti, Palladino Serralunga, Ruggeri Corsini Corsini. In each case, the last word of the wine name is the cru, or vineyard. It can be seen that multiple ownership of each vineyard is common here, just as it is in the French Burgundy country.

Should you decide to buy a selection of Barolos and undertake your own tasting, be sure to prepare those gnocchi al castelmagno, the ideal food complement for these delicious and newly friendly wines.