Don’t believe the hype.

So a quick review of first to market reports in the US and Europe on 2007 Barolo reveals gems such as “buy them fast as they will never be this cheap,” a litany of “best wine ever from this producer”-type comments, more gushing prose than a freshman English class and point scores that are through the roof.

Thanks to the great Nebbiolo Prima event, I was just able to try a couple of hundred and all I’ve got to say is: Are you kidding me?Now you might just love the style of wines from 2007; but for me, it’s an average vintage, which is unique in character, but full of pitfalls. To say this is a great vintage is a stretch at least and to not recognize the character of each commune (for that is one thing the vintage does not lack, variability) is to lead the consumer astray.

I’m not sure why many people write about wine. Is it to sell wine, sell themselves, or in some rare cases, to help the consumer? I’ll let you decide, but I thought long and hard about how to rate 2007 as a Barolo vintage and at this point, a point in time that is several years too early to be definitive, I see 2007 Barolo as an 86-88 point vintage.

Don’t believe the hype here, folks. Try some wines before you buy or you could be very disappointed.

The main reason that 2007 is being called great is because of the wonderful growing season the vines enjoyed. A very mild winter with virtually no precipitation allowed for the vegetative cycle to arrive almost a month early. The summer was warm but generally not hot, and the cooling nights of fall arrived a few weeks early, slowing the maturation cycle down just prior to and during harvest, preserving the acidity in the grapes that in turn delivered freshness to the wines, right? Well I’ll get to that later, but no, not really.

So it was a fine year temperature-wise, as everyone will happily tell you, but you know what, it really wasn’t. It was a hot year, not so much because of the temperatures during summer, but rather because of the temperatures during each cycle of the vines’ growth. Yes, it was a normal August, but having the vines almost a month ahead of schedule meant that what was happening among the vines was taking place in a normal August, not a normal September. I’ve put together a little graph just to help illustrate the situation.

This graph (see 'Related Imagery' above left) illustrates the 20-year average for median daytime temperatures over the period 1970-1990. I’d use more current information, but I couldn’t find any; and considering the way temperatures have been going, I think it would just further illustrate my point.

As you can see, I’ve broken down the vines’ growth cycle into five steps, roughly divided into budbreak, flowering, fruit set, veraison and harvest. The last two steps, veraison and harvest, are the crucial steps in this graph. As you can see, the precociousness of the 2007 vintage forced these two periods of vine growth into markedly warmer temperatures than a more typical vintage may encounter. 2007 simply was not so historically cool to prevent this shift from having a profound impact on the vines.

So where does that leave us? Well, in short, with many wines that show the effects of excessive heat: cooked, fruit flavors and flabby textures. The regional variation that makes Barolo’s villages distinct is fairly obvious in 2007, and the crus that are most famous have sometimes suffered from an excess of sun or heat due to their usually ideal exposition.

For example, in La Morra, the wines were, as a group, fat and sweet with cooked or roasted flavors and sadly low acids. At first I thought that this was indicative of a vintage that presented growers with a particularly narrow window in which to harvest. While this goes contrary to the cool temperature model claimed for the season, it would explain why so many of the wines suffered from low acid and cooked flavors – they were harvested too late.

In Castiglione Falletto and Barolo there was much greater variability, with some wonderful wines being produced; but many wines were very alcoholic, over 15% with pronounced acids and some green, unpleasant tannins. I had thought that this was due either to the drought nature of the vintage (which reduced yields by 10%-20%) or the heat of the vintage (a little raisining of the berries can concentrate sugar and acids, and cause the producer to pick even when the tannins are not fully ripe). But one producer gave me an alternate explanation: hail.

In late May and early June of 2007, there were some widespread, if patchy, hail storms that travelled through Castiglione Falletto and Barolo, with  particularly localized damage in the region where the vineyards of Barolo meets of the expansive Bussia cru. In the worst cases, some producers did not make any wine from certain vineyards. In other cases, the crop of the vineyards was greatly reduced. This naturally thinned crop may help to explain the concentration of both sugars and acids in the remaining fruit, not to mention tannin, as they ripened under unusually warm conditions.

So that brought me back to the idea that there was a particularly narrow window for harvesting this year. In fact, the more I tasted and the more I thought, it seemed to be that for many producers there simply wasn’t an ideal time to harvest. The compressed season simply threw the maturation cycle out of whack for many vineyards and the results are these wines with elevated levels of alcohol, acid and sometimes tannin, or cooked flavors and low acids with not inconsequential tannins.

In any event, the wines of these two villages (Castiglione and Barolo) were better than the wines of La Morra, but still regions with a troubling number of difficult wines. It was with these groups that I was struck by the vintage’s famed acidity. In talking with many producers, the fact that acidity levels in 2007 are equal to or higher than those in 2006 repeatedly came up, with almost everyone commenting on how this gave freshness to the wines. I think this is one of the interesting and misleading elements of the vintage.

The idea that acidity by its very presence lends freshness to a wine is a mistake. Wines with flavors of coffee and cola are simply, weirdly out of whack with these elevated acidities. Freshness comes from flavor and texture, and these acidities are only helping on the textural side of that equation.

Monforte and Serralunga are where I found salvation with the most successful wines in 2007. Both villages produced wines with rich, deep, balanced and fresh fruit. In Serralunga, in particular, the wines exhibited a great level of consistency in the raw materials. Each producer will do what they wish of course, and I liked some wines more than others, but I was struck by the freshness and aromatics here more than in any other village.

This is all good and fine, I hear you saying, but what about the wines? Well all my scores will be coming soon, so make sure to check out tomorrow’s email with my top 10 2007 Barolo. Most of these wines are not yet on the market (the Nebbiolo Prima event is designed to give people in the trade a preview of the latest releases), but many of the wines are already being offered on a pre-arrival basis.

Some extraordinary wines have been made in 2007 and many entry-level Barolos are above average due to the growing conditions, but there are far too many wines that don’t make the cut for me. I’ve always said it takes a decade to see the true character of a vintage and I think a lot of writers are banking on that – and hoping you’ll have forgotten what they wrote by then!

Click here for the 14 Top Picks from Nebbiolo Prima