Are you going to see a lot of hype about 2018 in Barbaresco? No.
Is it the vintage of lifetime? No.
Will most of the wines require patient cellarage before enjoying them? No.
Do great vineyards deliver quality in more mixed vintages? Yes
Are there some remarkable surprises at very fair values? Undoubtedly, yes, and this is one of them.
The wines of the estate of Giuseppe Cortese still remain somewhat under the radar, despite being firmly based on one of Barbaresco’s greatest vineyards, Rabaja. It is worth noting that a combination of topography, orientation, soil structure, amongst other factors, leads to some vineyards prospering when others struggle. Qualifying a vineyard as great requires a consistently fine track record. It should come as no surprise to regular tasters that Rabaja has overperformed in 2018.
The Cortese estate backs onto the slopes of Rabaja, where they own a stunning four-hectare plot with the vines approaching 70 years of age. This is a beautiful spot providing enviable views over two other notable Crus, Martinenga and Asili. It is largely based on calcareous clay soils, which, combined with an altitude of 300 metres, produces wines that combine both structure and elegance. The vineyard size may not sound particularly noteworthy, but when you consider that Giacosa, a much more famous name in Barbaresco, owns just 0.6 of a hectare, you rapidly understand the potential and opportunity.
The late Guiseppe Cortese’s work is being carried forward by a close-knit team led by his son Pier Carlo and his daughter Tiziana. Similar to many small Italian estates, Guiseppe started bottling his own wine in 1971, rather than simply selling off the production from his vineyards. Guiseppe has achieved so much on these few hectares of vines, and the family remains dedicated to preserving his legacy; that intention remains at the heart of the estate. The approach here is traditional, by which I mean the wines benefit from long macerations and are aged in large oak foudres or botti, as they are termed in Italy; no new oak, no French oak barriques. Antonio Galloni once commented: ‘as always the Guiseppe Cortese Barbarescos are classically inspired and built.’
I am pleased to offer a remarkably attractive vintage for Rabaja with an unusual degree of accessibility, which doesn’t change my view that it will age well. While the price point here is that of a humble, entry level Barbaresco, to call this such is a joke, since this is one of the three or four finest Crus of Barbaresco! Another serious point worth keeping in mind is that in 2018, Cortese did not make their flagship Riserva, which would be produced from their oldest vines. The fruit of their 60-70 year old vines therefore went into this wine in 2018, which was aged for approximately eighteen months in large oak casks before bottling.
I was really impressed by the purity and effortless nature shown by this 2018 Rabaja, which offers bright fruit of cherry and raspberry underscored by beautifully integrated acidity. While it has intensity, nothing is heavy at all – in fact the word that reoccurred in my note was ‘flowing’. This is a very graceful style which is very much in line with the traditional Cortese approach. They favour elegance and refinement over power and concentration, and frankly their Barbaresco are a joy with silky fine tannins. You can spend significant sums on Barbaresco from a handful of leading names; the range of recognisable growers is quite short, yet there is great value to be found by small, artisanal growers like Cortese. Artisanal is a word that can be bandied about without care, but it really applies here. You get a real sense of a close-knit family looking to get the best from the land and, for my palate, they are comfortably achieving that stated goal and their Rabaja is a bargain to boot.