OK, expectations were low, like loooooow, low. I’ve had a few examples from the vintage in the past. Nothing lead me to believe that the generally accepted impression of the vintage was wrong or misguided. They were interesting, solid wines that offered excellent value. Perhaps a bit of a sleeper vintage in that regard. No one was getting rich off reselling these. In fact no one was really selling them. There was no market for them, which might help to explain their performance this evening. Unlike wines from great vintages, traded like assets, these wines were probably only ever sold two or three times in their lives, considered as ballast. That generally lowers the chance for mishandling. A factor in our favor but certainly not an explanation for the performance these wines put on.
Now, before I get carried away let me just set the record straight. 1980 is not a great Piedmontese vintage, but it is thisclose to being one. It lacks just a touch of the intensity and power of a great vintage, but it is very, very good. At least based on these wines. As a group the wines showed remarkable freshness. Brilliant clarity on the palate and detailed aromas and flavors. A bit on the higher acid side of things, but totally within expectations, and with rather rich tannins that have been softened by age.
I certainly expected less freshness, and way more autumnal aromas and flavors. These wines were still packed with zesty fruits, and were flat out delicious. I know that very few bottles of 1980 Barolo will show like these did. At this age there are only great bottles, but having so many show up in a single case makes a remarkable statement about the vintage. It was full of unrecognized potential, and in the hands of the top producers it has evolved into quintessential Barolo. Brilliant, complex and clear, intensely flavored yet free of any jaminess or cooked flavors that are often found in wines from ore highly acclaimed vintages.
This was simply the case of opening many bottles on the best day of their lives. I double decanted the wines about 3 hours before service and that seems to have worked perfectly for these wines. They were gorgeous when they were poured with only the Giacomo Conterno and Giuseppe Rinaldi needing more time to truly open up. The Rinaldi is also the only wine that would really reward significant additional cellaring. I can see it going for another decade with ease. It was that rich, powerful, and relatively unevolved.
Three standouts of the evening were the Giacomo Conterno, Sobrero, and Prunotto Cannubi Riserva. Filippo Sobrero, whose last vintage was 1983 or so, and Beppe Colla at Prunotto get little attention these days. Both were at the top of there game decades ago and the quality of their wines tonight was absolutely fabulous. Actually, it’s more than likely that there are bottles out there of all of the top 6 wines that are waiting to wow the unsuspecting consumer. Which is why, of course, I spend the time doing this. Yes, it is undoubtedly for my own edification as well, but I could just take my notes and be done with it. Which would also likely save me some money next time one of these comes to market,
Sharing this information is decidedly a double edged sword. I may pique interest in the wines. Bring long ignored specimens back to the marketplace, but at the same time i will undoubtedly pique consumer’s interest as well. The prices for most 1980 Barolo do not reflect reality. They reflect the reality of 1990 perhaps, when no one really cared much for these wines, but not the reality of today.
Hopefully some of you out there might even share some 1980s you find with me. That would be nice and much appreciated, but my reward is just adding to the knowledge out there. Correcting some impressions that have been lingering for years. Those impressions reveal our lack of understanding more than anything else. We don’t fully understand what makes a great wine, or a great Barolo in particular. When the vine needs heat to create the precursors that will deliver the profound aromatics that even wines from 1980 are capable of.
We don’t fully understand what happens in the bottle. How aggressive, hard tannins can eventually find the balance these wines have achieved. Plenty of voluptuous long chain polymers, yet enough edge to remain mildly and attractively austere in the mouth. Tastings like this help me to ask the right questions. They question common knowledge and inform our answers to and understanding of wine as a living thing. While this was a great tasting on a hedonistic level, it was great on an intellectual one as well. I am better prepared for my next visit to Piedmont, filled with questions that can only expand my understanding of the wines of the regions. An understanding I hope to continue to share with you.
The wines this evening were served in flights of three, with a missing wine that fell victim to the curse of the cork. The wines were served blind, and while I knew the wines in the tasting I did not know which wine was in each flight, except for the final flight since we unveiled the wines as each flight was finished.
And just for those who might be interested. The biodynamic calendar says it was a flower day turning into a leaf day. Yes, after this performance I had to check!
I’m listing the wines in the order that they were tasted.