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The Perfect Vintage - Barolo and Barbaresco 2000

By Craig Camp
Monday, November 24, 2003

IN FRONT of me are three glasses of wine. Wine for thought? Indeed.

They are all from the same producer, same grape, same region, but different vintages and vineyards. All are from a winemaker renowned for his classic style.

These are my tasting notes on each wine:

Tasting notes -- Wine 1: Bright ruby/scarlet with garnet hints. Just translucent. Closed at first, but opens into floral, rose dust, and firm ripe plum aromas. Firm on the palate, but the tight flavors slowly grow to a delicious layered intensity. Tarry, bitter cherry flavors grow into warm ripe raspberries on the palate. The finish is extremely long with full tarry, bitter cherry flavors that fade into firm but well-rounded tannins. An excellent wine that needs 2 to 3 years aging and should be at its best by 2006. (A-)

Tasting notes -- Wine 2: Ruby with garnet hints. Translucent. The aromas are quite round, with a hint of overripe plums and spices with earthy hints. There are also bright floral notes with violet hints. Round and ripe on the palate with quite a load of very ripe fruit. Dark canned cherries and raspberries followed by very apparent but well integrated tannins. Compared to other vintages, I would put it as just a bit overripe. Although still too young, I think it will mature quickly and drink between 6 and 8 years old. (B+)

Tasting notes -- Wine 3: Bright scarlet/ruby with hints of garnet. Translucent. Smoky dried porcini aromas slowly open into tart raspberry fruit. Closed and intense on the palate with layers of flavors: mushrooms, leather, cherry, and raspberry. The finish is concentrated, long, and very tannic. Truly an outstanding classic wine destined for long-term greatness. Needs at least ten years of aging. (A+)

Each of these wines clearly shows the characteristics of the vintage from which it was produced and raises the question: Is there such a thing as a "perfect" vintage. Recently The Wine Spectator announced it was rating the 2000 vintage in Piemonte a perfect score of 100 points. Is such a thing possible? Can Mother Nature ever be perfect?

Rating a vintage as perfect is, of course, controversial and indeed that probably was The Wine Spectator's intention: nothing like controversy to sell a few more magazines. However, the real controversy here is not the perfect rating of the 2000 vintage, but the fact that the producers themselves almost universally prefer the two vintages on either side of 2000: 1999 and the vintage perhaps most highly regarded of all by growers, 2001.

So, why does a magazine like The Wine Spectator prefer a vintage like 2000 while the producers prefer 1999 and 2001? The answer may lie in the three wines above.

These three wines are all from the nebbiolo grape and produced by the exceptional Poderi Colla estate (one of my favorites). The wines of Poderi Colla are made by the highly respected Colla family, who make wines with great respect for the vine and vineyards from which they come and reflect a strong sense of history. In other words, the nebbiolo wines of Poderi Colla actually taste like nebbiolo and accurately reflect the character of the vintage in which they were produced.

The three wines were:

- 1. Poderi Colla, Nebbiolo d'Alba, 2001

- 2. Poderi Colla, Barbaresco, Roncaglie, 2000

- 3. Poderi Colla, Barolo, Bussia, Dardi Le Rose, 1999

Each of these wines was very good, but the super-ripe flavors of the Barbaresco from the 2000 vintage stood out clearly when compared to the other two wines. These ripe flavors intensified when matched with food. The Nebbiolo d'Alba and Barolo stood out for not only their balance, but for the complexity that balance allowed to show through. The super-ripe flavors of the Barbaresco seemed more one-dimensional and to overwhelm the myriad of nuances that the other two wines promised to deliver in the future.

I don't want to pick on the Colla Barbaresco, which is a fine wine, and when I say super-ripe I am not talking about the super-overripe flavors you get in many southern Italian and Spanish wines. However, in relation to the other two wines, its riper but less complex flavors clearly stand out. What also stands out is that the Barbaresco is much easier on the palate for drinking right now. The intense nebbiolo flavors and tannins of the Nebbiolo d'Alba and Barolo require years of aging before they can share their inner secrets.

What makes 2000 a perfect vintage in today's marketplace is that it's a perfect vintage for offering pleasures easily attained. Super-ripe vintages produce soft, early maturing wines, so the focus for great vintages today always seems to be only on ripeness. Certainly, grapes that are under-ripe will not make good wine, but overripe grapes do not make good wine either. Just like a vintage can lack sun, a vintage can have too much sun: ripeness alone does not determine quality.

Too often wine consumers seem to equate quantity of flavor with quality. The more money they spend, the more flavor they want. Yet the quantity issue for wine should be how much complexity they can get into the wine, not how much power they can pack in.

A recent tasting of the modern-styled Moccagatta Barbaresco wines showed their 2000s to be soft, round, fruity, and once again just a shade on the ripe side. However, in the forward, oaky style of nebbiolo produced by this estate, the soft and ripe character of the 2000 vintage seemed to enhance the gentle, round flavors of this style as contrasted to the more classic Colla style. In more balanced vintages like 1999 and 2001 new-wave wines like Moccagatta often seem to be straining unnaturally to hide their natural nebbiolo tannins: like someone wearing a too-tight girdle. What is a great vintage for one producer in one style is not necessarily a great vintage for another in another style.

What makes a great vintage is simple:

-Enough sun, but not too much.

-Enough wind, but not too much.

-Enough rain, but not too much.

-Enough fruit, but not too much.

Then if all of that works out: enough winemaking, but not too much. Too much of anything is bad when it comes to wine.

The Piemonte region has been blessed with a now famous and unprecedented string of wonderful vintages. These vintages can loosely be grouped into classic nebbiolo vintages for long-term aging and more forward vintages for earlier (not early) consumption. Those vintages are:

Classic long-term vintages

1996, 1999, 2001

Riper, more forward vintages

1997, 1998, 2000 (and probably 2003)

Which of these is the best vintage, the perfect vintage? That depends on you: if you like softer wines or wines for aging; if you store your wines in your warm closet or in temperature-controlled luxury; whether you like the classic or modern barrique style; and a long list of other personal preferences. Every authoritative source declares each of these vintages to be top quality and rates them within points of each other: the differences in the scores so narrow that they are statistically insignificant. Great wines were made in all of these vintages, and you just have to find the ones that fit your taste, storage conditions, and your wallet.

The last point is another factor to take into account when choosing what vintage to buy. Now that The Wine Spectator has declared the 2000 vintage to be perfect, you can bet they will be perfectly expensive.

Too much press makes for rich producers and importers, like too much sun makes for rich wine.