Nebbiolo Grape News from the Source

On the 2013 & 2014 Vintages in Piedmont


News travels very fast in our hyper-digital age—sometimes too fast. Or maybe it’s not so much the speed of communication as the nature of the news itself. Here’s an example: In the fall and winter of 2014, articles, tweets and posts began circulating about the disastrous weather in Europe and the toll it was taking on European winegrowing areas. And Barolo was one of them.

Now there was some truth behind the reports: The spring in Piedmont was cool and wet, and the summer wasn’t much better. The precipitation continued, causing big problems with peronospora (downy mildew) and frequent incidents of devastating hail. And, while it warmed up in July and August, there were none of those really big bursts of heat that push the vine into a full-throttle growth spurt, accumulating sugar and other components that develop into phenolic complexity as the grapes mature.
Based on these early reports some wrote the vintage off before fermentation was even finished. But not all grapes are created equal. The difficult conditions of 2014 did have a significant impact on early ripening varieties like arneis, dolcetto and (in some cases) barbera. But nebbiolo is not an early-ripening grape, and this made all the difference.

Following a tepid August, summer seemed to arrive in September with dry sunny days and temperatures in the ‘80s. While it was too late to make much of a difference the other varieties, the nebbiolo grapes still had a way to go, and luxuriated in the hot days and cool nights as they coasted to full maturity.

I was there for harvest in late October and was amazed at how beautiful the clusters of nebbiolo looked in spite of everything that had transpired: sugar levels were a bit low but certainly adequate, and the remaining clusters (many growers had passed through the vineyards to remove any that had been damaged by hail or mildew, while others had snipped off the lower tip or the ‘ears’ at the top to promote ripening) were tightly packed, darkly colored and rot-free.

We got a first in-depth look at the outcome of 2014 on day 2 of Nebbiolo Prima with a tasting of Barbaresco and Roero. [Because Barbaresco and Roero require a minimum of only two years of aging compared to three for Barolo, they come out a year earlier and act as a sort of early-indicator of what’s in store from Barolo.]

Overall, I was rather impressed as well as pleasantly surprised and relieved. [See tasting notes.] In general, the wines had a darker color with brownish orange highlights, subtle aromas and soft dense palate, moderate fruit and alcohol and supple tannins in the finish. Nothing extraordinary, to be sure, but well balanced, very accessible and quite pleasant indeed.

All of which augurs well for Barolo 2014. But a word of caution: several winemakers told me that, while the two areas are very close to one another and share the same basic meteorological conditions, Barolo was hit much harder in 2014 than Barbaresco was. Davide Mongè of Boroli winery in Castiglione Falletto said “We’re happy with the results so far, but it was a very difficult vintage. It’s one of those years where every single choice you make in the vineyard and the winery makes a big and possibly critical difference. You can expect to see a wide range in the results from one winery to the next.”

Vintage 2013 was the complete opposite of 2014. Many producers I spoke with characterize it as a classic or even a perfect vintage from a climatic standpoint. “Everything in 2013 was just right, that is, within the parameters of normal,” said one winemaker. “It rained often in the spring but not too much [though farmers had to spray frequently to prevent rot and mildew]. July and August were hot but not excessively so, and it always cooled down at night. Everything ripened fully and right on schedule, with one variety following another.” Harvest took place 10-14 days later than usual compared to recent vintages, but this created no real problems; some people even said it reminded them of the olden days when harvest used to take place later than it usually does today.

But what is good for the grower does not necessarily make for superlative wines. Based on what I tasted at Nebbiolo Prima, as well as a number of others sampled outside the tasting, 2013 Barolos are pleasantly approachable, full-bodied and well-balanced with dark maroon colors, delicate aromas, a solid core of ripe fruit and firm yet supple tannins. Pleasant but a bit lackluster, without the layered aromas, acidic tension and finely chiseled, even initially somewhat overbearing, tannic structure that distinguishes a truly exceptional vintage that not only benefits from time and patience but demands it.

Out of curiosity, I checked back over my tasting notes of Barbaresco 2013 from last year’s Nebbiolo Prima and they were quite similar to my impressions of 2013 Barolo. Let’s hope this parity of performance also holds true for 2014.

That I found the 2013 Barolos I tasted pleasant but not stellar should not be taken as a criticism of the wines or a characterization of the 2013 vintage as a poor one. On the contrary. Often the years that get highly praised by critics are the age worthy (and needy) ones that have an exceptionally long threshold of development ahead. But how many people actually buy wine to cellar for 5-8 years or more?

Not every year can, nor should, be the ‘vintage of the century’ — or perhaps maybe they are in their own unique way.

When it comes to wines like Barolo and Barbaresco, every year is different and so is the wine that results from it: some need lots of time to loosen up and show what they’ve got while others are immediately approachable; some are big brawny blockbusters with multifarious elements vying for attention, while others are delicate and subdued.

What’s more, it seems that nature likes to mix it up for us so that the fruit-forward readily accessible vintages often come in between the big tannic ones — recent examples are 2005 between ’04 and ’06 and 2000 between ’99 and ’01 — so we have something nice to drink while waiting for the tighter ones to come around. Sometimes there are even pleasant surprises, like the ‘simple’ 2009 squeezed in between two stellar years that over time developed some star appeal of its own that was not initially apparent.

There are a few useful takeaways from this: When it comes to Barolo and Barbaresco, there are no bad vintages; each year is different and has something different to offer. A good producer will always make good wine, year in year out, making the most of the natural conditions of that particular growing season, perhaps declassifying a cru or riserva to a regular Barolo, or a Barolo to a Langhe Nebbiolo if necessary. And one should never underestimate the slow ripening slow maturing nebbiolo grape, both on the vine and in the bottle: it may — and often does — surprise you.

Tasting Notes

Moccagatta Barbaresco “Bric Balin” 2014: Dark (yet still transparent) garnet color with a brownish tinge; a subtle whiff of new wood followed by a soft full palate of stewed plums and roasted fig with a touch of balsamic, ending in supple tannins.

Castello di Neive Barbaresco “Santo Stefano” 2014: Lovely bright red transparency in the glass yield pretty aromas of wild berries, flower petals and fine leather, with nice sour cherry flavors and refreshing acidity in the finish. From the Santo Stefano vineyard Albesani MGA subzone.

Silvano Bolmida Barolo “Bussia” 2013: Intensely dark ruby red color with nice shine and big aroma of hibiscus, black cherry and Mandarin orange peel with a touch of alcohol. Full-bodied with ripe black cherry, strawberry and black pepper framed by a firm tannic structure. Note: while the classic Bussia area was greatly expanded in 2010 from the Castiglione border all the way up to the village of Monforte, Silvano Bolmida’s winery and vineyards are located in the original Bussia Soprana area.

Gemma Barolo Serralunga d’Alba 2013: Appealing if slightly muted aromas. Beautifully balanced in the mouth with ripe cherry, pomegranate and dried currant with just a hint of lively acidity, with fairly soft tannins and a moderately long finish.

Note: Nebbiolo Prima is an annual three-day invitation-only event of recent releases the three nebbiolo-based DOCG wines of the area around Alba in Piedmont: Barolo, Barbaresco and Roero, in both regular and reserve versions. While the townships and geographical mentions are indicated, the names of the wineries are not provided until after the tasting. 310 wines were presented in the 2017 edition.

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