Fourth in a series on wines that arise from synergies between particular grapes and places:
Nebbiolo may not be Italy's greatest grape, but Barolo is certainly its greatest wine. This is something of a paradox, since Barolo is, by law, made entirely from Nebbiolo. However, considered in the abstract as a vine variety, Nebbiolo looks pretty iffy. It is notoriously difficult to grow and to make into good wine. It produces solid but unspectacular wines such as Gattinara and Ghemme in Piedmont, and a few serviceable wines in Lombardy and the Valle d'Aosta. Outside of Italy, it generally produces disaster. But in Barolo, it produces magic.
It is not easy to understand why Nebbiolo has been successful in Barolo and neighboring Barbaresco, two little zones in northwest Italy, but not elsewhere. (I profiled Barbaresco in my May 5 column.) Sure, we know that quality in Nebbiolo seems to correlate with relatively high altitude, moderate rainfall and full sun exposure. Also, the fog that frequently settles into the valleys in autumn may play a part, and some believe the grape's name is derived from nebbia, which is Italian for "fog." However, as this series of columns has maintained, there is an awful lot about great synergies between grapes and places that we simply don't understand.
Excellent Barolos are made in limestone soils but also in soils with more clay and sand. Outstanding renditions are made with brief fermentations but also with long ones. Some of the very best Barolos are bottled immediately after the two years of cask aging required by appellation laws, whereas other standard-setters remain in wood much longer. There are only about 3,000 acres under vine in Barolo, yet the complexities and variations in the wines are almost endless, since the hilly terrain makes almost every site unique and since these sites are mostly small plots tended by over 1,200 different growers.
Humility is always advisable but especially so when it comes to Barolo. We can't fully explain the magic of Nebbiolo in Barolo, nor can we replicate it elsewhere by means of science or art. Surely we will learn much in the future, and perhaps someday somebody will produce greatness from Nebbiolo from someplace else. But for now, it is much less important to speculate about the future than to taste the astonishing present.
The series of vintages running from 1996 through 2001 is -- without question and by universal consensus -- the greatest in history for Barolo. The 2002 growing season was catastrophically wet, so the party will soon be over. But there is more great Barolo for sale right now than ever before. I tasted more than 75 wines for this column that I could recommend with enthusiasm, so you can be assured that the very best wines are very good indeed. They are reviewed in order of preference, with approximate prices and D.C. wholesalers indicated in parentheses:
Falletto "Le Rocche di Serralunga" 1999 ($180, Winebow): Remarkably complex and intricate in aroma and flavor even at this young age, this shows gorgeous black cherry fruit supported by ultra-fine tannin that gives it an uncanny combination of power and delicacy.
Vietti "Brunate" 1998 ($75, Henry): Aromas of black plums and wood smoke are accented with notes of flowers and spices. Concentrated by soft in texture, this is open and immensely enjoyable already.
Mauro Sebaste "La Serra" 1999 ($60, Capitol): This features ripe, succulent fruit recalling berries and red cherries, along with smoky, earthy nuances.
Serio & Battista Borgogno "Cannubi" Riserva 1997 ($60, Constantine): Soft, sweet and juicy, with a very persistent and very soft finish. Like many of the 1997s tasted recently, this seemed capable of further development but is far too delicious to resist right now.
Aldo Conterno "Bussia Colonnello" 1999 ($130, Vias): This is still years away from its peak in terms of complexity, but it is already very impressive, with great depth of fruit and some of the finest-grained tannins I have ever experienced. The "Cicala" and "Bussia Soprana" bottlings are also excellent in 1999.
Carretta "Cannubi" 1996 ($40, Kysela): Delicious, essentially mature and conspicuously attractive in terms of value, this is robustly flavored with interesting earthy tinges -- but also a lot of class.
Fratelli Ravello 1997 ($40, Bacchus): Beautifully soft and expressive; balanced and very deeply flavored.
Fontanafredda "La Rosa" 1998 ($80, Washington Wholesale): This is too polished and civilized to fit the Barolo stereotype, which mischaracterizes the wines as forbiddingly hard and angular and needing decades of aging. Not so, and here's your proof, showing succulent softness and notes of blackberries, leather, smoke and spices.
Luigi Einaudi 1999 ($55, Bacchus): Ripe and soft in texture, with generous fruit and lovely aromas. Beautifully balanced and proportioned.
Prunotto "Bussia" 1998 ($57, Winebow): This complete, complex wine took several hours to unwind after opening, but that is more a function of how much was on the spool than of any overly tannic tightness. Likely to improve, but not likely to get the chance if I'm around. The straight 1999 from Prunotto is also very good.
Cavallotto "Bricco Boschis" 1998 ($45, Bacchus): This is very polished but also very concentrated, with excellent fruit recalling black cherries and blueberries, along with nice floral and spice notes.
Brezza "Bricco Sarmassa" 1997 ($63) and "Cannubi" 1997 ($59, A.V. Imports): I was very impressed with all the bottlings from this producer, but these two were especially wonderful. Both are extremely complex and well balanced, offering both power and accessibility.
Marchesi di Barolo "Sarmassa" 1998 ($60), "Vigne di Proprieta" 1998 ($60), and 1998 ($46): These three wines are all very modern (meaning, ripe and soft in texture) and very, very enjoyable. The Sarmassa is especially dark and rich and would be my first choice, but all three are excellent.
Rocche Costamaggia "Bricco Francesco" 1999 ($52, Siema): Many 1999s are still a bit tight, but this is very ripe and soft, with deep flavors and nice little complexities.
Fratelli Alessandria "San Lorenzo" 1999 ($50, Country Vintner): This shows lots of muscle and lots of wood, but the proportions are just right, and those with enough patience to wait a few years before cracking this will be delighted when they do.
Manzone "La Gramolere" 1998 ($50, Bacchus): Modern and very tasty, with fine balance between fruit and wood and nuances of flowers and spices.
Cogno "Vigna Elena" 1997 ($74, Henry): Another stunning 1997, this is open and expressive, with beautiful fruit and nice edging from spicy oak. The "Ravera" 1998 is also lovely.
Anselma "Vigna Rionda" 1998 ($50, Henry): Extremely ripe and fleshy, with deeply flavored fruit and soft texture.
Michael Franz will offer additional recommendations and answer questions live today at noon on washingtonpost.com.