The argument over which is the best Piemontese vintage in the string of exceptional harvests spanning 1996 to 2001 will probably go on forever. Which vintage you favor depends on your palate and the style of winemaking you prefer. As each of these vintages receives top scores from both winemakers and critics you can rest assured that when you purchase a bottle of Barolo or Barbaresco from a top producer from any of these years that you have obtained an excellent bottle of wine. Nebbiolo lovers are living in an golden age when good bottles are everywhere.
Up to now, out of this group I have had a personal preference for the 1996 vintage, but the more I taste the finished 2001 Barbaresco vintage, which is now ready for release, the more I am convinced that this vintage may even surpass the impressive 96s. Whatever the case, it is sure fun trying to decide.
2001 Sottimano Fausoni Barbaresco
all 4 Sottimano 2001 Barbaresco releases
(Fausoni, Curra, Cotta and Pajore)
Estimated retail price $65 - April 2004 release
Nebbiolo purists argue that using barriques for Barbaresco and Barolo is to destroy a grand tradition, but the Sottimano family in Barbaresco is proving that barrels themselves are not the enemy: it's what winemakers do with them. In a small village just outside of Neive in the Barbaresco zone is the tiny Sottimano cellar where Rino and Andrea Sottimano, father and son enologists, quietly produce some of the Barbaresco zone's finest wines.
Tasting their wines is proof positive that barriques can be used to produce nebbiolo while still maintaining every nuance that a vineyard can give a wine. Inspired by both the distinct characteristics of their four (soon to be five with the addition of Basarin) nebbiolo vineyards and the diverse "terroir" wines produced by Burgundy's finest winemakers, the Sottimano family does everything possible in the vineyard and cellar to bring out the character that nature gives their vineyards, the wines from which are each bottled under their own names. The results of their efforts speak for themselves in four superb Barbaresco wines that are excellent vintage after vintage.
The Sottimano family, as are the other Barbaresco producers, is now preparing to release their 2001 vintage. As excellent as the 2000 vintage wines are, the 2001 vintage looks to be an almost perfect vintage combining all the aspects required to make great Barolo and Barbaresco producing wines with every facet in harmony and balance and with fruit ripeness alone not being the major definition of personality. The 2001 vintage is for enthusiasts who love the both the power and idiosyncrasies of nebbiolo. In other words, if you prefer the austere pleasures of nebbiolo to the jam of shiraz, 2001 is a vintage not to miss and it challenges 1996 as the most classic vintage of this string of excellent vintages. As Andrea Sottimano noted during my recent visit there, "You have to love the purity of nebbiolo to love the 1996 and 2001 vintages."
The four 2001 Barbaresco releases from Sottimano are superb across-the-board, with each offering unique characteristics that are fascinating to compare as the wines are made in exactly the same way with their differences coming from the vineyards alone. Their wines spend their first year (the exact number of months depends on the vintage) in new, small French oak barrels then is racked into older small barrels for the last year of wood aging. This first passage in new oak helps "set" the beautiful colors and structure of the Sottimano wines, but as they are then moved into used barrels the oak flavors are a highlight and not the main theme. In fact, when tasting the 1996 Curra with Andrea it was hard to believe the wine had spent any time in barrique as no overt oak flavors marred the beautifully developing nebbiolo fruit. "I want people to think about the vineyards, not the barrels I used," explained Andrea. Four of the Sottimano Barbaresco vineyards fall within the Neive commune (Fausoni, Curra, Cotta, Basarin) while Pajore, one of the zones most respected vineyards, is located in the Treiso commune.
It is difficult to choose which Sottimano wine to drink as part of the pleasure is comparing the characteristics and development of the individual vineyards, but everyone has their favorites and for their current releases I will give a slight personal nod to the floral and spiced refinement of the Pajore in the ripe 2000 vintage and the smoky, deep black fruit intensity of the Cotta in the more structured 2001 vintage.
However, as my Raccolta Selection I am going to highlight the graceful and refined 2001 Fausoni not as the "best" Sottimano, as that choice is a personal pleasure, but because of the special characteristics of this vineyard. The need to age Barolo and Barbaresco is always a problem for restaurants and those without wine cellars and the natural characteristics of the Fausoni vineyard combined with intelligent vineyard techniques and winemaking used by the Sottimano family, produce a nebbiolo that can be drunk with pleasure in six or seven years - as always, when it comes to Barolo and Barbaresco the term "forward" is relative. The 2001 Fausoni Barbaresco is a rich ruby with garnet hints and is radiantly translucent. It is a graceful wine with a tannic punch at this early stage, but is already showing the classic "balsamic" character of vineyards in the heart of the Neive commune. Andrea Sottimano recommends at least 5 or 6 years of aging, but certainly more patience will be rewarded.
While it is one thing to make good wines in great vintages it is another to make good wines in difficult years and the excellent potential of the problematic 2002 and 2003 vintages still resting in barrel in the Sottimano cellar are a tribute to the winemaking skills of Rino and Andrea.
"What is most important is my terroir," explained Andrea -- a statement that truly lives in his wines.
A Marc de Grazia Selection - various importers including:
Michael Skurnik - New York
Vin Divino - Chicago