Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Barolo: In the land of giants

I taste a lot of Barolo. When I think back, I find that I often compare much of what I taste today to the wines I’ve loved from the past. These wines become your benchmark. Sometimes they are uprooted and moved down the list by new wines, and sometimes they are forever immortal. I still remember, as if it was yesterday, one of my first experiences with a bottle of ’96 Aldo Conterno Bussia Soprana. Over time I realized that this bottle wasn’t a great bottle of Barolo, although at the time, it was magical.

With that in mind, I thought it was time to list my current top ten, or maybe, fifteen, which I say because I purposely tried not to repeat too many producers. For instance, my unedited top ten would include three different Bruno Giacosa Red Label Riservas. I feel this list is much more useful to my readers or someone looking to start down the path toward great Barolo. Some are hard-to-find gems, but there are also some surprisingly affordable and available bottles to be found here. I know there are a number of aged wines here that are very hard to come by, but if you take nothing else from this list, at least take my word that it is worth buying Barolo on release and cellaring it to maturity. It’s one of the main reasons I started my own cellar.

2001 Cavallotto F lli Barolo Riserva Bricco Boschis Vigna San Giuseppe

Imagine my surprise when in the company of some pretty stiff competition that the 2001 Cavallotto Barolo Riserva Bricco Boschis Vigna San Giuseppe came out as one of the top bottles of the night. What's more is that this isn't a $100+ bottle of wine. If you can find them, buy them.

The nose showed deep, rich red fruits, poppy and menthol with a zesty, almost tropical note of tangerine. On the palate, it was velvety and rich with sweet, spiced red fruits. The finish was intense, structured and long. This wine is just starting to drink well but could use a few more years. A must have!  Find it on Wine-Searcher!

1999 Poderi Aldo Conterno Barolo Colonnello

1999 is shaping up to be one of the greatest years of Piedmont's vintage streak of ’96 through ’01. They are still very young and only starting to show what’s in store for the future. With that said, I was pleasantly surprised to find the ’99 Colonnello assessable after a few hours in decanter. Aldo Conterno is considered one of the great houses of Piedmont; in recent years, there has been some upset over generational changes, which I hear may be evening out. I seriously hope so, but the quality in this bottle was astonishing. 

The nose was dark and seductive with cherry tobacco, plum, dusty potpourri, a hint of musk and medicinal herbs. On the palate, it was velvety and perfectly balanced with masses of fruit. Sour cherry sauce and a hint of cedar filled the senses and warded off the silky tannins that were still present but not out front. On the finish, the fruit turned dry yet was still intense with hints of sweet spices. Find it on Wine-Searcher!

1998 Paolo Scavino Barolo Bric dël Fiasc

This was the wine that sold me on Paolo Scavino’s style. Here was a producer that I often disregarded as too oaky, too extracted—too modern, yet one that was suddenly catapulted to my top-ten to watch list. Where ’97, ’00 and ’03 are drinkable yet clumsy in their own ways, ‘98 is a year that has become very assessable in a refined and graceful way.

The Bric dël Fiasc initially showed cherry and dusty potpourri, but with time it transformed into something more with cherry compote, allspice, hard red candy, roses and cooked sausage. The palate showed a good amount of structure and intense cherry fruit with herbal tea and mushrooms. The finish presented silky tannin that lent to a brilliant aftertaste of sour red fruit.  Find it on Wine-Searcher!

1996 Luigi Pira Barolo Marenca

This bottle totally took me by surprise. As any Barolo lover knows, '96 is a vintage to watch. The wines are still babies and show so much potential over the long term. The last thing I expected was that a producer that's known for its modern style would have made such an intense yet graceful wine. In the end, it made its way onto my top ten list.

Initially, the nose showed roses with new leather, tar, anise and sour red fruit hiding behind it all. The palate was very tight with savory beef broth, minerals, old cedar and cranberry. The finish showed sour red fruits with cheek-puckering tannin lingering toward the end. As this bottle approached the fifth hour; the nose retained many of its initial qualities, but a rich (not sweet) cherry tobacco had moved to the front along with dusty dried flowers. The palate had taken on more body, as a mix of red berries, cinnamon and sauté mushroom led to a slightly gravely tannin on the tremendously long finish. At the seventh (and last) hour (only because we couldn't stop ourselves from drinking it) this bottle had become almost impossible to ignore, as the cherry took on darker, woody and mentholated tones in the nose. The roses had become sweet, and the tar faded to the rear. On the palate, sweeter red berries with cherry liqueur, spice, and soil took over. The tannins on the finish had faded to a slight drying sensation and left me with cranberry and cedar which lasted for a full minute.  Find it on Wine-Searcher!

2004 Vietti Barolo Riserva Villero

I know it's hard to spend so much money on wine, but if I had to choose one 2004 to put away, I believe it would be Vietti's Villero Riserva. This wine showed so much intensity mixed with balance that I just wanted to stop everything and admire it for as long as possible.

The ’04 Villero Riserva was one of the most intense yet balanced young Baroli that I have ever tasted. The nose showed rich elegant cherries, medicinal herbs, sweet spices and a subtle sheen of vanilla. On the palate, pure red berry fruit gave way to tar and menthol as this elegant wine turned to a structure that coated the entire palate in silky tannin and staying red fruits until the long close.  Find it on Wine-Searcher!

2001 Elio Altare Barolo Vigna Arborina

2011 was the year that I was properly introduced to the wines of Elio Altare, and I sure am glad that I opened my mind to them. For years I shunned them due to Altare's reputation as a modernist, but no more. These wines are silky and structured with a deftly applied layer of oak. They are nothing like the traditional Baroli that I love, but they are a great experience all the same.

The Altare Arborina showed a classic Barolo nose of red fruits, plum skins, roses, tar, a hint of animal musk and undergrowth. The nose pulled me in and reminded me somehow of childhood autumn days with dried leaves and pine nestles. On the palate, it showed an elegant, full body backed by a balance of tannin and acid. The fruit was rich but not over-ripe with sweet spice and an airy, refreshing note of menthol. The finish was long with red fruits, tobacco and a hint of brown sugar. This wine needs more time and is truly stunning. It reminds me very much of some of the best '96s I've tasted.  Find it on Wine-Searcher!

1990 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia

I tasted this wine in a lineup of Giacomo Conterno that spanned over three decades, and it was the best drinking wine of the night. Don't get me wrong, the '89 was amazing, but it wasn’t quite ready, and the '96 and '01 obviously needed time. However, the 1990 was firing on all cylinders--enough to make me buy some the very next day. It's a beautiful bottle of wine that's worth every penny.

The nose was utterly explosive and captivating, as earthy tobacco and tar with raspberry wafted up from the glass. With further exploration, musky notes with roses and a hint of black olive tempted the senses. On the palate, this wine showed its rich yet massive structure with dark ripe strawberry, tar, savory broth, graphite and lead fading to a long staying finish. This wine is drinking beautifully yet should continue to improve for many years. It’s absolutely stunning.  Find it on Wine-Searcher!

1974 Vietti Barolo Rocche

The 1974 Vietti Rocche was one of my WOW wines of the last five years. Never did I think that a '74 could be so young and vibrant. This wine was literally bursting with juicy Nebbiolo fruit and layers of mature complexities. As of this writing, I know The Rare Wine Company still has a few of these left, and frankly, I'm surprised they do.  If you can't buy up to the '74, check out the '01, '04, '06 or '08 and bury them in your cellar for the next decade or two.

What a pleasure it was to drink the 1974 Vietti Rocche. The nose showed floral undergrowth, fresh-turned soil with strawberry and, as time passed, a sweet, almost caramel note which added outstanding complexities to the already beautiful bouquet. On the palate, it was juicy yet balanced and still showed youthful notes of fresh red berries, cinnamon and sweet floral notes. The finish swung toward the savory side as broth and brown sugar lingered for over 30 seconds.  Find it on Wine-Searcher!

1989 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia

I know, I know that I have the 1990 as one of my top ten Baroli, but the '89 deserves a spot up here too, maybe even more so. These two bottles of wine are so different yet both so amazing. In comparison, the '89 is still a tween, while the '90 is roaring into its young adult life.

The nose showed dried red fruits, tar, mushroom broth, a bit of black strap molasses and a hint of barnyard. A gorgeous structure showed on the palate that gives the impression that this wine will last the ages. It was still a little tight with a tannic grip but giving none the less with dark red fruit and a mineral core. The finish was long and fine, showing sour cranberry. This was the wine of the night for me.  Find it on Wine-Searcher!

1990 Bruno Giacosa Barolo Collina Rionda Riserva

There it is again; 1990 Barolo. Some people have it out for 1990 Barolo. It was a ripe year, and the wines were big with high alcohols. A lot of people said they wouldn't age, but I invite you to give them a try. These wines might not be drinking as well in 15 years, but they are fantastic right now and should continue to impress for some time. This bottle was one of my favorites, and I know it's expensive, but you don't have to buy up to a Bruno Giacosa Red label to experience 1990.

This wine was everything I ever wanted in a glass of Barolo. It was sweet yet sour, earthy yet fruity, and rich yet with razor-like focus. The nose showed masses of ripe red berries with hot dried spices, gravelly moist earth, mushroom and hints of green stems. On the palate, this showed silky, sweet, ripe strawberry, yet it also had savory warmth, full with earth, menthol and leather strap on a beautifully structured frame. It was amazing how young the Collina Rionda seemed, as silky tannin washed across the palate and soothed me into a long, seductive finish that begged for the next sip.  Find it on Wine-Searcher!


  1. Hi Eric,
    Is it the Vietti Rocche or Villero? You have Rocche in your text but the picture is of the Villero.

  2. That '74 is indeed the Rocche. You're not the first person to question it either but I did confirm with both the supplier (Rare Wine Company) and through Vietti. I'm wondering where the confusion is coming from, like I said, you're now the second person to question it.

  3. Hey Eric,
    Thanks for the quick reply. I took a second look at the picture and it does say Rocche.

    Vietti has always made custom art for the Villero series, but not for Rocche, Brunate, Lazzarito etc. Those have the same graphic every year. That's why when I saw the custom art next to the Rocche 74 description, I thought you posted the Villero label for that year. But now I read the fine print. You're totally right.

    Perhaps they used to do custom graphic for Rocche in the past or perhaps they made an exception for that year. Would be interesting to know. :)

    Thanks again for the write up.


  4. What's your take on the 01 Rocche? I tried one two years ago but it was in a weird state, shut down, dense, and not giving...

  5. It's been a very long time since I taste the '01 Rocche, so long that I don't have a tasting note to look back on. However, I do recall it being very withdrawn but mostly due to its structure. With that said, I think must of the '01s are still in a backward stage. The recent tasting I did in December showed painfully young wines in need of more time. Recently, I read some reviews that said the '01s are in their early drinking window but for my palate, they need more time. From my experience with Rocche, I believe the '01 will be amazing, when it finally emerges from its youthful state. I'll have to open one soon to see just how well it's coming along.

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