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.
There are two explanations for the character of the vintage, and they seem to fit together seamlessly. The first was that split flowering. Producers, like Aldo Conterno for example, who made multiple passes through the vineyards dropping fruit managed to discard the fruit that was lagging and ended up with an evenly ripened crop. Other producers who chose not to be as diligent had two choices, pick early when the main crop was ripe, or later when everything was past a certain measure of ripeness. Neither choice produced great wines. Those who chose the first option produced medium bodied fruity wines with big everything, fruit, acids, and tannins, many of which where green. Those who waited until everything was ripe ended up with high alcohols and low acids, and even some green tannin since their crop loads were a bit high.
Interestingly this was not a vintage that favored those who cropped too low. Many producers managed to achieve higher alcohols in 2009 than they did in the so-called cool vintage of 2008. When asked how they managed such a feat I was repeatedly told that they got through the season with more canopy and higher yields, which allowed the vines to stay in balance given the heat, sunshine, and water that was available to them.
The party line on 2009 is that it is a warm vintage, fruity with supple tannins, but honestly nothing could be further from the truth. There really is no way to generalize about this vintage. Those who nailed it produced rich wines, full of fruit but with good acidity and plenty of ripe tannins for support. Not the stuff legends are made of but very complete in a somewhat softer style, a successful warm climate wine that is perfect for early consumption, and yet should age well for up to three decades. There are plenty of tannins to these wines, the question I have as to their ageing is more related to the powerful rich fruit which may not stand the test of time.
Now it’s the time to take a look at the style of wine, loosely placed on a spectrum from modernist to traditionalist for whatever that might be worth. There comes a point when a wine has to stand for something. As it turns out the modernist-traditionalist spectrum is no longer a satisfactory way to identify wines that seem to stand for Barolo, another gradation is needed. We as Barolo lovers need to identify what marks Barolo. For me it is simple, the wines need to taste like Nebbiolo grown in a certain place, and there are quite a few wines that simply taste like Nebbiolo, Nebbiolo grown in any place. Simply put that is not enough to be great Barolo. There are many wines that continue to be intriguing examples of Barolo but I won’t be putting them in my cellar.
I’ve struggled with the issue of how to deal with these wines. They are well thought of and highly regarded but they just don’t taste like Barolo to me. In large part it is the same old problem with the extreme modernist wines, very short macerations and excessive use of oak. To say that these wines are difficult to taste in their youth is an understatement, and that was the goal of the modernists at their outset. In that regard they have failed miserably. Perhaps they will age into something more resembling Barolo, which is entirely possible, but I am not convinced, though I remain open-minded. In fact I’ve already begun organizing a blind tasting of the 2001 vintage which will include two dozen producers, both my favorites as well as these most modern of modernists.
In an effort to put the notes that follow in context I’m including a brief synopsis of the house style for each of the wineries I visited on this trip. I’ve placed them in an order of sorts using imprecise yet familiar nomenclature.
Giacomo Conterno – A traditionalist producing classic wines.
Giuseppe Mascarello – A traditionalist producing classic wines.
Brovia – A traditionalist producing classic wines.
Cappellano- A traditionalist producing classic, old school Barolo
Elvio Cogno – A traditionalist producing classic elegant wines.
Produttori del Barbaresco - – A traditionalist producing classic wines.
Domenico Clerico – A modernist producing powerful wines closely tied to their terroir.
Giuseppe Rinaldi – A traditionalist producing classic wines.
Bartolo Mascarello - A traditionalist producing classic wines.
Luigi Baudana (produced by Vajra) – Traditional wines that blend in some modernist softness and purity yet retain the rusticity and power of their terroir
Francesco Rinaldi – A traditionalist producing classic if sometimes delicate wines.
E. Pira - A straddler moving from more modern to more traditional producing elegant, refined, aromatic wines.
Gianni Canonica – A traditionalist producing exceptionally pure and transparent wines.
Elio Grasso – Another stylistic straddler producing surprisingly elegant and bright wines.
Cascina delle Rose - – A traditionalist producing classic wines.
Fratelli Oddero - A traditionalist producing classic, old school Barolo
Vietti – A winery that now straddles the line between modern and traditional, with wines that are elegant and perfumed.
Barale – A traditionalist producing classic, old school Barolo
Guido Porro – A traditionalist who coaxes tons of fruit from his vines that conceal big structure and rarely obscures terroir.
Rivella Serafino – A traditionalist producing classic old-school Barbaresco.
Cavallotto – A mostly traditional producer whose wines have been irregular but are true to their terroir
Massolino – Moving back to the traditionalist camp, these are fine, somewhat fruity and supple examples from Serralunga with a new Barolo from Castiglione that is a powerhouse in 2009.
Aldo Conterno – A straddler producing remarkably fruity wines that have significant terroir fingerprints and some classic Barolo character.
G. D. Vajra – Mostly a traditionalist whose wines are pretty and easy but lack some depth
Luciano Sandrone – More modern that not, these are well made wines that lack some complexity for me
Luigi Pira – A bit of a modernist with the rotofermenters wines that can make the wines seem over extracted and clumsy at times.
Josetta Saffirio – Modern approachable wines that are curiously fruity and on that level a success.
Cantina del Pino – A straddler producing elegant, delicate wines.
Tenuta Montanello – A straddler producing elegant wines where the oak seems a bit obvious.
Cordero de Montezemolo Monfalletto - A winery that produces fairly soft, modern wines using fairly traditional techniques. Their Enrico VI Barolo is a step above the rest of the wines produced here.
Marchese di Gresy – Another straddler where the use of oak can be inelegant
Scavino – A modernist producing soft, supple wines that lack some typicity
Elio Altare – A modernist producing light, perfumed wines that are very fruit forward.
Roberto Voerzio – A modernist producing powerful fruit driven wines.