It Was a Very Good Year: Looking back at Barolo

by Jim Clarke
April 2009

Another barrage of Barolo is upon us, with the highly-touted 2004 vintage grabbing headlines and high ratings from critics of all sorts. Indeed, the wines are tremendous, despite the fact that 2004 follows a couple of clunkers—the preceding two vintages, 2002 and 2003, were mixed. Although in retrospect we can see a string of winners that date all the way back to 1996—the type of consistent streak that gives Europe a feel for the conditions California’s vineyards enjoy.

Notably, the vintages that received the most hoopla upon release, 1997 and 2000, are by-and-large the least interesting come 2009. Exuberant, big, and rich, they haven’t gained much from cellaring; and though still enjoyable, many of them haven’t developed the elegance and finesse that we hope for in an aging Barolo. 2003 and 1999 are similar to those highly-touted years in character, although the former does not share the same level of quality. While many producers talk about managing their vineyards to compensate for 2003’s excessive heat, the truth remains that many of this year’s vintages have the raisinated, heavy, dark-fruit and low-acid character that tells the story just as clearly as a thermometer would. 1999, while not “classic” in style, favors power over lushness; and while well-regarded upon their releases, 1996, ’98, and 2001 have proven to be more classic in character and are aging beautifully.

2002 remains a blip of unpleasantness, which brings me to the one caveat concerning these generalizations: every producer and every vineyard experiences and handles the conditions of the vintage differently. Conditions that ruin one vineyard (e.g. hail, rain) may bypass another, an exceptionality that’s true with almost everything in wine. Generalizations are a useful learning tool, and while it’s easy to remember that most Barolo producers had a bad 2002, it pays to be well aware of exceptions.

In the long run, vintage variation should be about each vintage having its own character, with less emphasis on which years are best and more on understanding, and perhaps appreciation, of each vintage for what it offers. Here is a summary of several Barolo vintages and what each has to offer:

2004: Will it age well? We’ll see, but 2004 is an unusual year. Typically, a Barolo vintage this enjoyable upon release will tend toward a fruity and lush character. However, 2004 is drinking well already-with firm, ripe, and surprisingly gentle tannins, along with abounding classic floral, licorice, and earth notes. This Barolo vintage is a real blessing for restaurants in particular, especially those without the means and space to age wines extensively (finding a ready-to-drink Barolo can be a chore). Without looking to the grey market, library releases, or auctions, you can buy 2004s right now and still get a wine that’s ready for your guests to enjoy.

2003: While the best 2003s are in the lush and fruit-forward mold, I find fewer of these around than wine marketers would like to believe. Most likely an awry harvest will lead to two possibilities: cooked, overripe wines that suffered from the heat, or harvests that waited too long and got caught by October rains, further diluting the already low acids and wine flavors. Taste carefully.

2002: Extensive rains in September made things very difficult this year. However, with wetness subsiding by the middle of the month, producers who harvested late and took great care in selecting and sorting their fruit to avoid rot were able to make some good, classic wines, albeit in smaller quantities. At the same time, with the press so far down on the year as a whole, many producers didn’t bother to market their vintages, or they de-classified them into their Langhe Nebbiolo. With several highly regarded vintages still on the market at the time, it was difficult to swim against the tide of preconceptions that had consumers convinced 2002 was a disaster. Nevertheless, there are still some good 2002s out there and often at good prices. Pick carefully and be aware that many Barolo drinkers will look askance when they see this vintage on the list—moving the wines may take some work on the floor.

2001: A classic vintage with good acidity and backbone, perfect for cellaring. Early on these wines were pretty inexpressive; many are just now opening up and revealing their character, and they will certainly last a great deal longer. Another good point: since the preceding vintage received such great press, the 2001s came into a market that was growing tired of Barolo’s praise. As a result, many of this year’s vintages are available and are even well-priced.

2000: A Californian vintage big on fruit and lush, with higher alcohol levels. Good to have on hand for mixed tables where one guest is a Barolo fan and the other favors big New World reds.

1999: Another ripe vintage but with more earth and power. In this sense it’s slightly more classic, although on the whole it could use a bit more elegance, more floral aromatics and perhaps a touch of acidity. Barolo fans will enjoy, but as a variation from the traditional Barolo expressions.

1998: Very hard to generalize, but on the whole 1998 is fairly ripe leaning toward powerful, although not to the same extent as 1999. Some producers released more traditional wines with more acidity and backbone. In comparison to the very distinct, consistent characters of 1996 and 1997, this vintage suffers from an acute identity crisis: while many of the wines have aged well, the vintage retains an “under-the-radar” character.

1997: The first of the big fruit, high-alcohol vintages of the 1990s, and much heralded for that reason. Tuscany also received great acclaim for its 1997s, pleasing many Italian wine fans who appreciate being able to say, “1997 is a great year,” without qualifying the statement for different parts of the country. By and large, these wines are drinking well but haven’t evolved or developed much; some are even fading a bit.

1996: Tough to drink when they were young, these wines have finally revealed their greatness with finesse, tremendous aromatics and great length. Overshadowed by 1997, many of these wines are fortunately still floating around. Grab them if you can.
A few additional older vintages to look out for:

1990 – Beginning to fade
1989 – Classic and showing well
1988 – Drinking well
1985 – Fading
1982 – Showing well
1978 – Many still (still!) need time, but classic