1995. Little did we know what an inflection point this would be for Piedmont. Looking back, it’s easy to forget the fanfare that greeted the vintage, mostly because nobody was really paying attention to the wines. That is not entirely true of course, but Barolo and Barbaresco were still a mystery to the vast majority of the wine buying public at that point.
A long history of rough, tough and far too often simply defective wines had left the public with a not altogether favorable impression of these noble wines. The vintages immediately preceding 1995 didn’t help things out much. 1991 and 1992 were lean, ungenerous vintages with 1993 a relative bright spot that led to 1994, another rusty, austere vintage that offered little excitement and helped to continue to douse the interest that the great trio of vintage 1988 to 1990 had created in Barolo and Barbaresco.
And then along comes 1995 and the fans went wild!
Yes the fans went wild. Not because it was a great vintage, but rather because it was a good vintage. If the professionals had had the ability to see what was coming – the run of vintages that followed 1995 – they may have tempered their enthusiasm some. Funny thing though, after the vintage and in the shadow of the great, greater, greatest vintages that followed, many writers did just that.
The newfound love for Barolo, particularly big, fat, fruity, juicy Barolo and Barbaresco, caused many writers to look at these 1995, with its modest body, austere tannins, relatively high acids and clear red fruits, and say to themselves and anyone dumb enough to listen: “We were mistaken. These wines are clearly not as good as the more recent wines.”
This love affair with hot vintages, voluptuous vintages, opulent vintages, was simply a sign of the times. Traditional wines were anachronistic. Cellaring wines was for suckers, and anyway these great big wines always cellar well, so why not enjoy them in their youth too? Well, the answer is quite simple, actually. If you want a big, young, fruity red you have a world of choices. If you want the greatness that makes Barolo one of the finest wines on earth, you’re gonna want to wait.
In the rush to “demystify” wine (we’re all trying to demystify wine by the way, though some of us are willing to say that some mystery is going to remain no matter what), some other writers prefer to dumb down all wine to prove their mastery on this infinitely complex field. Nowhere was that more prevalent than with Italian wines, where top scores all of a sudden had to be opaque, smell of mocha and vanilla, and be lush.
Back to 1995. These were not lush wines; in fact, they were rather classically structured. Yet another cool start to the season had growers thinking they might never see another successful harvest. The cool summer allowed for a slow and even maturation of the grapes, but with rain during the previous four harvests many growers were concerned about the chance of another crop being ruined during these crucial final weeks. Some producers opted to harvest early and secure a successful crop.
Fortunately for those who waited it out, the end of the season was warm and dry, allowing for the grapes to ripen well, though the tannins remained a touch dry. The wines are totally typical wines with plenty of dark fruit and a slightly rustic structure, yet with the balance to age well. That, of course, is no longer enough. Wines need to explode and soar now. They need to blow the top of your head off in a tasting, food be damned. Let me tell you sir, these wines are no 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 or 2001!
Yes, that is all true. One of the great features that both cursed and blessed 1995 was the fact that they were immediately lost in the shadow of the vintages that followed. The austere giants of 1996 that received a very lukewarm reception on release; the fat, jammy 1997 that caused many a critic to swoon; the 1998s with, what was termed at the time, a return to a more typical profile. The curse was that these wines were lost in the ensuing PR hoopla; the blessing was that they were lost in the ensuing PR hoopla and were heavily discounted for years!
No, the die was cast, the powers that be had decided to alter the paradigm by which Nebbiolo was to be judged and they were aided and abetted by the modernist movement, a loose band of winemakers who generally agreed. Barolo should – no, could – be made in a style that was more appealing at an early age. More internationally styled (code words for slathered with vanilla and spicy oak). Of course, much of this was action and reaction.
The sad truth is that points sell wine; the more points the better. The wines that had been getting the most points were – wait for it – the darkest, most international wines coming out of the region. You can’t fault producers. They are in this business and yes that is what it is, to make money, to earn a living. If you can make more money by changing your winemaking style, why wouldn’t you?
I do have to add that I fully supported much of this experimentation, and even today see much value in learning what works and what doesn’t. Sadly much of what was done doesn’t work for me. Shorter macerations, new wood and the use of additional modern techniques does produce a wine that is easier on the palate early in its life, but it also robs the wines of their potential for greatness. It all boils down to what you want out of your Nebbiolo.
It seems to me that most professional writers seem to want to preserve their access to producers more than anything else. Almost no one will actually tell you what they prefer. The wines get better every year and these days if your Barolo doesn’t get 93 points or more, you’re trailing the pack.
Of course, if today’s wines are getting 93 points, the lowly wines of 1995 should be firmly in the mid-80s. Yes, some of these wines are disappointments; but many of them are wonderful today and in my book outperform similar wines from vintages, such as 1993 and even the more highly acclaimed 1997 and 1998 vintages. Don’t agree with me? That’s fine, but let’s take a look at the wines and see what they tell us.
Photo by: Eric Guido