Friday, 28 February 2014

A week in Piedmont - 2010, 2009 and Barolo "Classico"

Posted by Giles Burke-Gaffney, Buying Director

Last week was one of the most enjoyable and exciting trips to Piedmont I can remember having. My schedule was fuller than ever before, including 20 of the region's top producers and upcoming stars. There were as many new faces to meet as old and plenty of wine to discover. At a time when Italy is in the doldrums, Piedmont seems to be positively buzzing. Not only is demand and quality of wine sky-high, but also the region is teaming with budding young winemakers. What a difference to 30 years ago when Barolo was being given away for free with more sought-after bottles of Dolcetto.

My main purpose was to taste 2010 Barolo, but first 2009. Understandably less homogenous, hot vintages are often pigeon-holed as bad and incapable of lasting very long. However this is an injustice. 2003 makes the case strongly. The successful ones still provide delicious drinking today, offering exotic vintage traits together with fresh, clear fruit flavours that keep you coming back for more. Who'd have thought it? And so it is likely to be with 2009. I tasted many this week. They were aromatic, seductive and eminently drinkable now already. They will probably not be in as fine fettle as the 2010s or 2008s in 25 years’ time but who cares? 10 years plus is well within their capabilities and at least we will have something to drink while we wait. Gaja's Sperss, Giuseppe Mascarello's Monprivato, Vietti's Castiglione were highlights. Marengo, Scavino and Azelia also excelled. 2008s, 2006s and 2004s have not really awoken yet and 2007s are still seductive but it would be a shame to approach the best right now.  Thankfully we have vintages to drink in 2003, 2005 and 2009.

2010 is the vintage on everyone's lips, though. I will spare the meteorological report, we have had quite enough of "weather" in the UK already this year, but in short 2010 was a very late vintage characterised by a late, poor flowering with resulting low yields; a cool and wet start to the summer; a return to good weather in September with big day night temperature differences that built freshness and aroma in the grapes; culminating with fine October weather in the run up to and during harvest at the end of the month. The wines are crisp and offer a refined intensity. The tannins are evident but distinctly sweet, smooth and weave deftly through the fruit. They give the initial impression of a gentle austerity which precedes long, floral and fruity notes. These are hallmarks of great Nebbiolo. There is a deep concentration in the wines but they remain streamlined, restrained and alpine-pure. As impressive as they are to taste however, to getting the most out of drinking them will require great patience. A benchmark vintage for laying down. I tasted with the good and the great: amongst many others the three Gs - Conterno, Mascarello and Rinaldi; Altare; Clerico; Giacosa; Vietti; Voerzio and Scavino just to name drop a little. Brovia and Elio Grasso were two firsts for me that greatly impressed. However the 2010 range that I kept comparing everything back to was Azelia. This is an estate that has been making bigger strides in quality than any other over the last few years. Their 2010s are simply brilliant and among the vintage's very best wines.

Surrounded by old, dusty bottles at almost every estate I went to, the one thing I was consistently reminded of during each tasting was how Barolo was traditionally always a blend. The pinnacle of production. Crus are a relatively recent phenomena and designed to not only be brilliant but also reflect the special characteristics of an individual terroir. Most Domaines worth their salt make a Barolo blended from Crus, as it was traditionally in the past, rather than use it as an outlet for young vine production or a hiding place for wine unsuitable for the Cru ine. In general considerably more of these blended Barolos are made than the individual Crus, the quality gap to the Crus is therefore often much smaller than the much lower prices suggest. Scavino's Barolo "Classico" as they call it, their ode to tradition, is one of the finest examples. I was struck by the quality of their 2010, its complexity, impeccable balance, vibrancy and completeness. Progression has brought Piedmont a long way in a short time but let’s hope the best of tradition is not forgotten in the process.