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Facing Facts

facing facts If you tell a big lie enough people will begin to believe it. That has been the case with James Suckling of The Wine Spectator who has repeated over and over again his ranking of the 1997 and 2000 vintages in Piemonte as great vintages. The winemakers there averted their eyes when this topic would come up, all to willing to take his PR blessing to help sell these wines at higher prices. On the inside the story was very different with “off the record” comments on how problematic these two hot vintages were. Most producers admitted that these two years produced extreme wines, atypical in character that exhibited overripe flavors and aromas, which overwhelmed the classic characteristics of nebbiolo. In other words the growers themselves didn’t consider these to be great vintages and felt the wines themselves had serious deficiencies. By no stretch of the imagination could 1997 and 2000 vintages have been considered great in Barolo or Barbaresco. Suckling was wrong.

Perhaps now those wines are long sold out, producers are more relaxed and open in their assessment of these two artificially hyped vintages.  In the Grape Radio video linked to below, Danilo Drocco, the excellent winemaker at Fontanafredda in Serralunga d’Alba in Barolo, leads a group through a vertical tasting of his wines and with a refreshing honesty, which is typical of Danilo, comments on the well known faults of these two vintages.

http://www.graperadio.com/podcast/GR-V-ENG-USA-2008-09-01.m4v

Hot vintages that produce big, soft wines that don’t age gracefully are not great vintages. Good vintages sure, but great vintages never. Too hot can have as many problems as too cool. Suckling incorrectly rated these two vintages and should fess up and adjust The Wine Spectator vintage chart to reflect a more accurate and widely held ranking. Ranking the 2000 vintage a perfect 100 points and 1997 an almost perfect 99, while rating more highly regarded vintages lower only damages The Wine Spectator’s credibility.

The reason for these dysfunctional ratings can be seen in Suckling’s own description of the vintages:

  • 2004 - Harmonious, perfumed reds, with fine tannins and lots of freshness (89 to 93 points)
  • 2001 - Aromatic, structured and firm reds with racy character (95 points)
  • 2000 - Rich and opulent reds with round tannins and exciting fruit; perfection in Nebbiolo (100 points)
  • 1997 - Superripe, opulent, flamboyant wines (99 points)

Once again, an American writer is seduced by opulence and flamboyance, while missing the beauty to be found in wines defined by harmony, aromatics and a lively, racy character. You’d be hard put to find a producer in Barolo and Barbaresco that will tell you that 1997 and 2000 are superior nebbiolo vintages to 2004, 2001 and 1996, which most producers believe to be truly great vintages for Barolo and Barbaresco.

Successfully avoiding strike three, Suckling rates 2003, another hot, over the top vintage, only 88 points and comments, “Many unbalanced wines due to an extremely hot growing season, but some nice surprises.” Oddly enough most winemakers, now better trained in how to handle hot vintages after dealing with 1997 and 2000, probably handled the heat in 2003 more deftly then they did in those two previous difficult vintages. You can see why serious collectors of Barolo and Barbaresco have fled The Wine Spectator in search of more reliable advice.

The video above from Grape Radio is a great piece of work and is well worth watching for the graphics and information offered. Danilo Drocco is perhaps one of Piemonte’s most underrated winemakers and he has transformed Fontanafredda into a reliable producer that often makes exciting wines. The Fontanafredda Barolo Serralunga is widely available and has been one of the best values in Barolo for years.

There is no shame in making mistakes when rating wines and vintages. With time, wine changes and you have to be willing to change along with it.