Pointless Character or Characterless Points?

Notice a pattern here?

  • 2001- 95 pts. “Aromatic, structured and firm reds with racy character
  • 2000- 100 pts. “Rich and opulent reds”
  • 1999- 92 pts. “Balanced reds with firm tannins and bright fruit”
  • 1997- 99 pts. “Superripe, opulent, flamboyant”
  • 1996- 98 pts. “Textbook, structured, fruity racy reds”

What we learn from this is you get points for “superripe, opulent and flamboyant” and negative points for “aromatic, balanced, structured and textbook.”

Frankly that sucks, but actually it’s Suckling. The above ratings are the opinions of current Barolo and Barbaresco vintages by James Suckling as published in March 2006 Wine Spectator. I should stress these are only Mr. Suckling’s opinions as few people in the world share them and no respected source agrees with him. This is a strange position to take as generally a reporter would not report information that all of his most trusted sources says is incorrect.

What is clear is that Mr. Suckling painted himself into a corner with his wildly over-enthusiastic endorsement of the hot 1997 vintage that led to his preposterous “perfect” rating for the hot 2000 vintage. What is ironic is now he is giving the thumbs down to the hot 2003 vintage, which could produce better wines than either 1997 or 2000 simply because the winemakers had the experience of two hot vintages under their belts when the blazing sun of 2003 blasted the vineyards. They really knew how to handle the 2003’s, while the 1997, the first of the trio of scorching vintages, mistakes were made left and right by winemakers unaccustomed to such conditions.

It seems obvious from his descriptions of the wines that Mr. Suckling does not like nebbiolo unless it it bloated beyond recognition. His take on nebbiolo is like someone who douses pristine fresh oysters with Tabasco: thus making the raw materials pointless. His ranking of 2000 over 2001 would be laughable is it hadn't cost so many people money and distorted the true character of nebbiolo for countless wine drinkers new to the great wines of the Piedmont. What he is trying to do is to take the edge out of nebbiolo – the very thing that makes it unique. Nebbiolo without cut and precision is a wine that has no reason to exist.

Those who want to experience actual nebbiolo varietal character would be wise to focus their purchasing on the 2001, 1999 and 1996 vintages for aging, while stocking up on the lovely 1998’s for drinking while you wait for those three great vintages to spread their wings. Certainly there are many wines worth buying from 1997 and 2000, but they should be tasted with the understanding that these wines are atypical and not as highly regarded by the producers or press as the vintages listed above.

Notice a pattern here?

  • 2003 95 pts. Exotic and powerful

The Tabasco bottle is now pointed at Bordeaux.