Alan Tardi, an American chef living in Piedmont and a longtime contributor to W&S, attended the 2015 Nebbiolo Prima in Alba, an annual five-day invitation-only tasting of recent releases of Barolo, Barbaresco and Roero wines. In the coming weeks, we’ll post his reports.
When it comes to winemaking—and by that I mean real winemaking with minimal intervention where vine-growers work in sync with nature and make the best of what each year brings—there are easier vintages, where all the pieces seem to fall right into place. And there are more challenging years. Based on Tuesday’s tasting of 102 Barbarescos, 2012 seems to be one of the latter.
Many of the 2012 Barbarescos had a murky red-black appearance (some with a brownish-orange hue), an absence of perfume (or, in some cases, muddy or stewed prune aromas), and a concentrated texture that, with the absence of pronounced fruit flavors to articulate it, made the wines seem hollow, finishing in astringent, sometimes bitter, green tannins. Several of the wines had a slight fizz.
Many others, however, were quite lovely; dark, yes, but with a distinct transparency, an appealing aroma of dried flowers and Maraschino cherry, and a solid core of fruit framed in not overly harsh tannins.
What happened? I spoke with a number of producers and here’s what I pieced together: It snowed a lot in the winter and rained a lot in the spring; this created an abundant reserve of moisture in the subsoil, which is good, but the spring rains also interfered with the flowering of the grape clusters. A poor flowering creates a bad bud set resulting in small clusters with irregular berries some of which are tiny and never fully ripen (a condition known as ‘millerandage’ or ‘hens and chicks’).
It never got really warm in July and August, which is when most of the ripening usually takes place. Though it did warm up a bit in September, the heat was too little, too late. Some producers tried to compensate by letting the grapes hang longer before harvest but this sometimes resulted in a loss of acidity and freshness. While no one admits to it, some producers probably tried to compensate for the lack of ripeness by using a concentrator, to remove water from the wine, which would explain this sensation of “empty concentration.”
That afternoon I went to a tasting of six 2011 Barbaresco ‘crus,’ or registered vineyard designations, where I got some more insight. In a cool year like 2012, a full south- or southwest-facing vineyard can make the most of what little sun there is; loose sandy soil and steep slopes can aid excess water drainage and good ventilation (like that coming off of the nearby Tanaro river) can prevent rot.
But when it comes to things like how much leaf cleaning or green harvest to do and precisely when to pick the grapes, vine growers must rely on past experience, luck and a bit of intuition.
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