Having just returned from visiting three dozen wineries in Piedmont I sit ready to start processing all that I’ve learned but to be honest I have come away from my annual visits distinctly confused. Perhaps it’s the vintage I’ve just tasted, 2009 in Barolo, a wildly inconsistent and unusual vintage to say the least. Then again perhaps it’s the producers themselves, a cross section of styles that span from the most modern to the most traditional. Before I get into the styles it’s worth spending some time on the vintage itself to help frame what is to come.
2009 is being described as a vintage much like 2007, a product of a warm season reflected in the wines. That is a lazy way to go about describing 2009, easy to explain yet essentially meaningless as the two vintages produced crops that were quite disparate, and for notably different reasons. Today the fashion is to simply split the vintages in Piedmont into two categories, conveniently denoted by the year. Even years since 2004 have been cooler and more classic while odd years have been hotter and more opulent. This description of the character of the weather is relatively accurate, but the wines each vintage has produced are distinctly different.
If you speak with winemakers you’ll hear a broad diversity of opinions on 2009, with each winemaker speaking of their own experiences, but if you take the time to pull all the details together a clear picture emerges. 2009 was irregular, born of a cool damp spring issues at flowering emerged later in the year, and were surprisingly exacerbated by fine weather towards the end of the growing season. A better way of separating the even and odd years might be along the division of work that went into making great wines. In the even years the quality of the wines could be made in the cellar, but in those odd years if you didn’t get everything right in the vineyards you were toast.
I don’t want to go into too much detail about the 2007 vintage, what I wrote two years ago still stands as correct and my opinion of the vintage remains largely unchanged, though some wines have managed to avoid the excess of that year and are evolving quite nicely. In contrast the harvest in 2009 occurred under warm skies, and in fact under weather that was almost perfect allowing for an extended hang time, which worked to some producer’s advantage, but not all.
To begin with it’s worth noting that the winter of 2008-2009 was one of abundant snowfall, which lead to a cool damp spring, which interfered with flowering. Here is where the story really begins. Rains in 2009 came right during flowering, along with cool temperatures. This resulted in an unusually long and in effect two phase flowering. Unlike in 2007 when flowering occurred a week early, in 2009 the flowering occurred relatively on schedule. Temperatures throughout May and June were typical for the season then towards the end of July the heat set it in, an unrelenting heat that was not far above normal but was uninterrupted leading to an accumulation of heat that tightened up the diurnal shift that is so important for maintaining freshness in Nebbiolo. That heat that stressed the vines to their limits but in most cases the vines did not suffer significant hydric stress. All the water reserves from the previous winter’s snows and spring’s rain proved sufficient to get the vines through the worst of the heat, which included ten days of very hot weather towards the second half of August.
Interestingly most producers seem to feel that while the season was hot it was not the heat in and of itself that formed the character of the vintage. More than one producer commented on the unrelenting sunshine that was both unusual and posed problems for them. Skilled canopy management was of the utmost importance in 2009, and not everyone was up to that task.
Two things happened in late August that began to shape the character of the vintage. The first was that the weather began to break. Producer’s recollections vary but towards the very end of August or early September the nights in particular began to cool down and the weather returned to the typical end of summer pattern that featured seasonally warm days and cool nights. The second was that split flowering in the spring began to pose problems for producers with vineyards bearing two crops, one in line with the season, another lagging behind by a few weeks. How producers dealt with this odd hand ultimately determined what their wines would be like.
Here’s where things gets a bit sticky. It’s worth noting that some producers really nailed the 2009s. Those who harvested a bit early, ten days seems to be their average, produced lovely wines, ripe and full of fruit, but with good acidity and fine tannins supporting that fruit. Others, who missed the mark, and in this vintage that seems to mean most producers ended up producing a range of wines that featured low acids, hard tannins, high alcohols, and amazingly immediate and sweetly fruited wines.