Barolo’s golden age

It’s been an exceptional start to the 21st century for Piedmont’s Barolo producers. Michael Garner finds out what’s behind this unprecedented string of strong vintages and homes in on the producers and wines to seek out

By the turn of this millennium, Barolo’s golden age was underway. From the second half of the 1990s, a span of successful vintages leading up until the most recent in bottle, 2010, was interrupted by only two consecutive harvests – 2002 and 2003 – which were sub-standard; the rest are classified in varying degrees between good and outstanding.

This is hardly typical: even as recently as the 1980s, an average of three or four good years per decade at best was the norm. With no historical precedent for such a favourable run, clearly some sort of explanation becomes necessary.

Changes in the field

Climate change is certainly a factor. Whether higher temperatures in recent years can be attributed to global warming or the cyclical nature of weather patterns remains uncertain. However, growers agree that the warmer weather has been a bonus as the Nebbiolo grape typically ripens in mid-October, and historically even later.

A more considered explanation points to a much improved approach to viticulture, particularly throughout the 1990s, from which growers are reaping the benefit. Better clonal selection; treating each vine individually rather than systematically; a general shift from the use of chemical treatments and fertilisers to more environmentally friendly farming methods; and finally widespread use of bunch thinning have combined with dramatic effect. Bunch thinning, in particular, has helped ripen fruit more quickly, though some argue that the practice promotes a surge in sugar levels for the harvest, with a corresponding drop in acid levels and little benefit for the phenolic maturity of the grapes.

Earlier ripening does, however, allow the crop to be harvested before the arrival of the unpredictable weather that hits the area around mid-October onwards. Growers recount how their fathers would be a bag of nerves leading up to harvest time, never knowing whether or not the grapes would ripen before the bad weather set in.

Barolo’s golden age