& 2017 – A Tale of Two Vintages
BY ANTONIO GALLONI | NOVEMBER 07, 2019
Piedmont fans will find plenty of new releases in the market
this fall. The 2016s confirm all of the promise they have always shown. It is a
stunning, brilliant vintage across the board. Mother Nature was not as kind in
2017, a year that is going to require a much more selective approach.
Bruno and Danilo Nada made some of the most compelling
2016s in Barbaresco
2016…It’s a Wrap
Releases are always staggered in Barbaresco. I reviewed a
number of 2016s last year, and complete my coverage of the wines this report. Just
as I had expected, 2016 has turned out to be a truly magnificent vintage. Last year, I wrote, "The 2016s, wines from a potentially historic vintage, may very well put Barbaresco on the map big time. As I traveled from producer to producer, I experienced that sense of excitement and energy I always feel when in the presence of important vintages and wines." I feel exactly the same way today.
is hard to say what normal is these days," Bruno Nada told me. "But
in 37 harvests I have never seen a year with no heat spikes, rain at just the
right moments and low humidity. The real challenge was keeping yields from
being too high.” One of the things I remember most about 2016 was the extraordinary luminosity of the summer and the low humidity, which, among other things, yielded spectacularly
clear views of the countryside that are far more typical of winter. The late
harvest, in October, yielded Barbarescos of extraordinary aromatic intensity,
depth and structure that will repay cellaring. Moreover, the wines are deeply expressive of site, which,
in my view, is one of the pre-requisites for a truly great Piedmont vintage.
Gaja’s 2016s are among the great successes of the year
2017 – Hail, Frost & Heat…
Whereas 2016 was an extraordinarily benign year, pretty much
anything that could happen did happen in 2017. A warm, dry winter led to early
bud break. That, alone, would not have been a problem, but it left vines
unusually vulnerable to a brutal hailstorm on April 15. The damages were
especially severe in Neive, where a number of vineyards were practically wiped
out. “Yields are down 60% for Barbera and 75-80% for Nebbiolo,” Claudia
Cigliuti explained. As if that was not enough, Barbaresco was affected by the same late April frost that was an issue for other regions in Europe. Neive in particular was especially hard hit in the hillside that encompasses Basarin, Fausoni and Currà. "Hail wiped out 60% of the crop on the Basarin hillside, and frost took out the rest pretty much in the same spots," Andrea Sottimano told me. "At that point, my dad and I decided the best thing to do was just prune the vines for the next year." Whereas Dolcetto and Barbera can give some fruit from second generation buds, Nebbiolo is trickier because there is a risk the fruit won't fully ripen, and the lower quality of that fruit is not worth the risk of compromising the next vintage. As readers will see in the producer commentaries, some growers did not bottle their Neive Barbarescos from the hardest hit sectors. Warm, dry weather resumed and carried
through to harvest. Conditions in Piedmont often change around mid-August, when evening
temperatures start to retreat, but that was not the case in 2017. Diurnal
shifts during the last month of ripening are considered essential for the
development of color, aromatics and full maturity of tannins, and that did not
happen in 2017.
Martinenga, with Asili and Rabaja above
In tasting, the 2017s are light in both color and structure,
which suggests that the shocks of 2017 were very hard, if not impossible, to
overcome. Many 2017s are dried out, gritty and lacking in depth. Moreover, as is
often the case in warmer years, vintage speaks more loudly than vineyard, because
so much site detail is baked out by the heat. This report includes notes on
some bottled 2017s, but I also tasted many more wines from cask that generally
share these attributes. There will be some fine 2017 Barbarescos, but not many.
Marco Rocca at La Ca’ Nova made a set of profound 2016s
What These Reviews Are, and What They Aren’t…
It may seem hard to believe today, but when I first started
writing Piedmont Report, in 2003, with the exception of perhaps Bruno
Giacosa and Gaja, Piedmont wines were only really appreciated a handful of
hardcore aficionados. That’s it. Most wineries needed several calendar years to
sell through a vintage, and no wines were allocated, with the exception of Gaja
and the Nebbiolo-based blends that had their heyday in the mid-to-late 1990s.
The average interested consumer could easily visit any producer, taste any wine
and buy whatever they wanted, just as I did. Those days are long gone.
Let’s start with what
these reviews are. They are the result of 23 years of visiting growers in
Piedmont, asking questions, tasting, walking the vineyards, and then asking
more questions. They are the result of years of buying, collecting and drinking
the wines across a wide range of styles. They are the result of a deep
immersion into understanding all the major vineyard sites, which included
interviewing all the major growers about their vineyards, consideration as to how these vineyards should be
classified and ultimately creating the first-ever digital and interactive map
to the vineyards of Barbaresco, work that led to two invitations to visit Google
headquarters in Mountain View and made Vinous a case study for the Google Maps
A view of the Cole and Montestefano crus in Barbaresco
Why am I telling you this?
More recently, the wine reviewing world has become populated
by tasters who award wines absurdly high scores that those wines have no chance of
ever actually living up to. Score inflation may help garner attention in the
short term, but pretty soon people become fatigued and can no longer
distinguish between droves of wines that are all rated within a compressed range
at the upper limit of the ratings scale. I believe it is critical to spend time
on the ground, which is why in a typical year I visit Piedmont 2-3 times.
Vinous readers would be shocked to learn how rare that is among professional
writers and critics. Tasters with virtually no experience who discovered
Piedmont wines yesterday are now reviewing them because the category is surging
in popularity. That’s what these reviews are not.
I tasted all of these wines during a trip to Barbaresco in
late August and early September. As is my usual custom, I retasted many wines
in my New York office in the subsequent weeks and months.
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