2015 Barolo : Deceptively classic wines from a warm vintage
Following a week-long trip to Piemonte in February, it is clear that the 2015 Barolo vintage has delivered some truly notable successes, but divergent styles and qualities. In Piemonte, where the unique nature of vineyard sites, the differing topography, altitude and aspect are so considerable – not to mention the differing approaches to winemaking – uniform success is seldom the result of any vintage. The modern-day (Bordeaux-fuelled?) obsession of proclaiming a vintage as either excellent or not – and often just after harvest and even before a wine has been tasted – can prove to be very misleading, here more so perhaps than elsewhere.
Given the plethora of new names and resurgent estates, there is probably no more exciting region to visit than Piemonte. Greater global interest seems to land here with each passing year. Barolo and Barbaresco are winning favour in the market, with more and more consumers recognising the quality and value on offer. All of this is leading to greater investment in cellars and vineyards across the region. Compared to when I first visited the region twenty years ago, so much has changed. While some may bemoan the speculative angle that has been felt at the top of the tree, and others may point to rapidly accelerating vineyard prices, this fascinating region is on the up. It is clear for all to see that quality has never been higher: Barolo is in rude health.
Across the five days in Barolo and Barbaresco, Atlas visited 13 addresses to meet the winemakers and taste the vintage. These made for fascinating discussions, indeed. Luca Currado of Vietti, commented that he ‘wouldn’t swap a 2015 for a 2014, although it is likely some critics scores might suggest differently.’ 2014 was a tricky vintage in Barolo some single Cru wines simply were not made in 2014 and a number of growers blended all of their fruit to produce just one Barolo. That is not to downplay the handful of notable successes of 2014, it is simply fact that 2015 is a far finer vintage. 2015 presented far fewer challenges and the resultant quality is far higher across the board. At Cantina Giacomo Conterno, proprietor and winemaker Roberto Conterno stressed that there would be a 2015 Barolo Monfortino Riserva. He does not make Monfortino, a selection from within the Francia vineyard in Serralunga d’Alba, in every vintage, choosing instead to only produce this wine in years where the quality is sufficiently high. When I quizzed him on the hype that was already building for the 2016s and whether it was warranted, he added that he was currently more impressed with the quality on show in the 2015 vintage. A telling comment if there ever was one.
Wine critic Antonio Galloni did well by growers when he championed the 2014s when released, yet he concluded his recent piece on the 2015 vintage in Barolo with the somewhat surprising line; ‘While the finest 2015s in this article are well worth seeking out, long-time Piedmont connoisseurs are likely to find as much or more pleasure in the best 2014s and the 2016s.’ Having discussed this at length with the growers with whom we work, it was clear that they disagreed and rated 2015 over and above the 2014s, although understandably they were proud of what they were able to achieve in the trying 2014 vintage, as it is in such conditions that a grower can demonstrate their skill. I am glad I am not obliged to score wines and vintages for a living, but I have no doubt that if I did, 2015 would rate higher in general.
Some critics have come out with surprisingly simplistic comments, characterising 2015 as a hot vintage. Indeed, too much has been made of the hot July, yet little attention has been drawn to the fact that September and October were notably cooler than the ten-year average. Additionally, various growers cited the diurnal shift in temperatures as being a key feature in retaining freshness to aromatics and acidity. So, while July may well have one of the hottest on records, that factor alone did not shape the nature of 2015. Stylistically, the 2015 does not fit into the hot vintage category along with 2003, 2007, 2009 or even 2011 for that matter. Why is this the case? Heavy winter rain and significant snowfall had established good ground water reserves so that vines did not struggle under hydric stress in the summer heat. Crucially, temperatures dropped considerably at night as we moved from August into September, offering the vine much needed respite. Despite the summer heat, there were no dramatic spikes in temperature. Timely rains and cooler periods, notably as we approached harvest, ensured that ripeness did not accelerate too quickly. Consequently, harvest took place later than many would expect of a typically hot, dry vintage. A good, healthy Nebbiolo crop was brought in without concerns, largely in the first week of October.
I was pleased to find a whole host of impressive wines in the 2015 vintage. Of course, styles vary from estate to estate and site to site, but that is what makes this region so fascinating. Overall, I found the 2015s to exhibit fine aromatics, darker fruits and good richness on the palate. The tannins were ripe and well-veiled by the concentration of fruit, and the best examples were underscored by a fine line of acidity. I was intrigued to see just how well wines from cooler sites performed, whether that be the leading sites of Monforte d’Alba (Ginestra and Gavarini at Elio Grasso) or the exposed slopes of Ravera in Novello. There has been plenty of commentary on the latter, as Ravera, which is only bottled as a single vineyard Cru by a handful of growers, including Vajra and Cogno, seems to be a site that is performing well in warmer Piemontese summers. There is a cooling effect from the Alps which influences this westerly location, given that no physical barrier lies between the vineyard and the mountains themselves. This, coupled with the significant altitude that this Cru possesses, sets Ravera up to benefit from the warmer summer temperatures that are increasingly becoming a feature of the climate. I think there is some logic in expecting these kinds of sites to excel in a year like 2015, but successes are by no means limited to these zones. To illustrate the point, one success would appear to be central Barolo Cru of Cannubi, from which we tasted a particularly impressive example from Francesco Rinaldi as well as a glorious Aleste (formerly labelled ‘Cannubi Boschis’) from Luciano Sandrone. La Morra is also worthy of a mention; notably Renato Corino’s Rocche dell’Annunziata, a full south-facing site, which captured exuberant ripeness without coming across heady in any shape or form.
As I have mentioned before, Piemonte has enjoyed an unprecedented run of fine vintages. Yes, summers have presented warmer conditions and ripeness is more easily won than it was in the early 1990s, for example, but the ability of growers to adapt in the vineyard is key to this success. Wind the clock back and all the talk was of increasing exposure of the bunches to maximise ripeness. Today, we have come full circle and growers work hard to manage the vine canopy to provide sufficient shade to the fruit. An old technique of weaving the canes of the vine into the canopy to form one continuous shade is also increasingly employed. De-leafing only takes place on the northern side of the vines to maintain air circulation. Cover crops are used between the rows of vines, not only to provide competition for soil moisture, but also to reduce reflection onto the vines and to maintain humidity. It is this adaptive approach that has enabled growers to benefit from the warmer climate that is encountered in Piemonte today, and benefit they have.
A word on Barbaresco
So often deemed to be ‘that other’ wine-producing region of Piemonte, Barbaresco is emerging from the shadows. Barbaresco lies to the north-east of Barolo, separated by the town of Alba. Styles are subtly different, often exhibiting redder fruit profiles and slightly softer tannins. Harvest is invariably a touch earlier in Barbaresco, which is, in general, a warmer and more sheltered zone. We have certainly been spending more time tasting here and many of the comments about Barolo on climate and winemaking made above also relate directly to Barbaresco. Please note that Barbaresco is, in the main, released sooner than Barolo on account of the fact that legally it only needs to be aged for two years prior to release (9 months of which need to be in oak) compared to three years for Barolo (one year of which must be in oak). Therefore, a number of estates are releasing their 2016s at the same time as Barolo 2015s are coming onto the market. 2016 is already regarded as a vintage with fine potential, the product of an extended growing season. We first offered the 2016 Barbaresco from La Ca Nova in November 2018. Other estates, such as Marchesi di Gresy, adopt a different release schedule, producing a number of Riserva wines. We will do our best to keep you updated on the release schedule.
Simon Larkin MW
Atlas Fine Wines Ltd.