Friday, August 03, 2007

New and Old Style Barolo: A Comparison

It's probably quite obvious to anyone who reads what I write that though I can (and do) appreciate a well-made international-style wine, given the choice I prefer well-made traditional, or old-style wines. This is especially true for Barolo and Barbaresco, where the new or modernist current carried things to extremes in the 1990s, aiming for concentrations and color that could rival those of new-world reds, coupled with ready drinkability from the time of release, or pretty close to it.

To obtain the color and the concentration the modernists had to extract as much as possible from the grapes, and to do this they employed what are called rotofermentatori orizzontali, horizontal fermentation drums that almost look like they could come from giant washing machines: The must goes into the drum, which slowly rotates, thus eliminating the need for pushdowns or pumpovers, while the seeds, which settle to the bottom of the tank, drop into an underlying tray. With the seeds, and the greener, harsher tannins they contain out of the way, the winemaker sees to extracting as much as possible from the must in the tank, jacking the temperature up to 36-37 degrees. This is enough to draw most everything from the skins, while the fermentation runs its course in just a few days. The new wine is inky purple, but if left to its own devices will rapidly shed the color - color extracted this way is inherently unstable.

Unless the wine goes into small oak, which releases substances that interact with and fix the color, and therefore those who use rotofermentatori at high temperatures are then obligated to put the wine into barriques, where it acquires the smooth oaky overtones of bouquet and fruit, firmly controlled acidity, and smooth velvety sweet tannins that are hallmarks of the new style.

To be frank, new-style Barolo and Barbaresco are much more approachable when young than traditional Barolo and Barbaresco, which are fermented for longer periods at lower temperatures, in tanks that do not drop the seeds out; the newly fermented wines generally then go into botti, large oak casks that allow micro-oxygenation but have much less impact upon the wine they contain. Upon release the tannins of the traditional wines tend to be much more aggressive than those of the new-style wines, there's considerably more acidity, and the fruit is usually nowhere near as lush.

However, with time the traditional style Barolo matures, the tannins smoothing and becoming velvety while the fruit becomes gracefully ethereal, the acidity helps maintain longevity, and the transformations can continue for decades.

The new style Barolo and Barbaresco?
The first great vintages to be made with the innovative techniques were the 88, 89 and 90, and in the early 1990s they garnered considerable praise and acclaim from the wine press. However, by the middle of the decade there were worried mutterings about how well the wines were holding up, and by the end of the decade many were falling apart -- just as the traditionally made wines of the same vintages were beginning to come into their own.

Commenting upon the situation a few years ago, a well-respected American colleague remarked to me that he thought the modern style and its proponents were the worst thing that had ever happened to Piemontese winemaking.

I filed his comment away for further thought, and the opportunity presented itself this year during an afternoon tasting held in Barbaresco in the course of Alba Wines. Among the producers was Rocche dei Manzoni, whose rotofermentatori greatly impressed me when I visited them in 1997, as did their bariccaia; I'm certain I've seen greater numbers of barriques in one place since then, but it struck me as palatial at the time. And I much liked the wines, which were quite international in style.

They were pouring three vintages of the Barolo Vigna Cappello Santo Stefano Riserva, which were quite interesting:

Rocca Dei Manzoni Barolo Vigna Cappello Santo Stefano Riserva 1997
Lot 007 19
Deep almandine ruby with almandine rim. The bouquet is fairly rich, with earthy notes and underbrush mingled with balsam and savory accents; the impression is big, almost hulking. On the palate it's ample, and quite smooth, with full rich berry fruit supported by clean slightly leathery tannins and moderate acidity that flows into a clean lengthy tannic finish with moderate acidity to keep it up. Though it is elegant, I got the impression that it had peaked, and was in the holding pattern that precedes decline; if I had a bottle I would therefore drink it sooner rather than later.
2 stars

Rocca Dei Manzoni Barolo Vigna Cappello Santo Stefano Riserva 1998
Lot 109 11
Almandine ruby. The bouquet is fairly rich, with leathery accents and some leaf tobacco mingled with spice; the overall impression is fairly direct, with not as much finesse as I'd have hoped for. On the palate it's ample, and smooth, with fairly rich leathery berry fruit supported by clean velvety tannins with some leaf tobacco overtones that also have savory accents, and flows into a clean tannic finish. It's elegant, and though its being not as rich as the 97 wasn't a surprise, I had hoped that the less charged nature of the wine would have allowed greater finesse to emerge with time. It doesn't seem to, however, and I again got the impression that it had peaked.
2 stars

Rocca Dei Manzoni Barolo Vigna Cappello Santo Stefano Riserva 1999
Lot 209 24
Lively ruby with ruby rim. The bouquet is delicate and fairly rich, with berry fruit supported by pleasant acidity and some smoky accents, and by comparison with the 1997 it's much more alive. On the palate it's ample, with fairly rich berry fruit supported by smooth sweet tannins that have leather accents and flow into a clean tannic finish that's fairly smooth. It displays considerable grace, but again isn't quite as refined as I might have expected form a 1999, it gives an impression of having been polished and buffed smooth, and this has flattened it. It's not failing, but I think it has gone as far as it will.
2 stars.

Taken as a group these were obviously very fine wines upon release, but with the passage of time they have begin to stumble in a way one simply wouldn't expect from Barolo, a wine renowned for its ability to age, after just 10 years. Of the three the 99 has held the best, both because it is youngest and because the 99 vintage, by comparison with the 98 and 97, is more elegant and yielded wines that display greater depth and finesse.

Traditional Barolo, you wonder?

At a nearby table Tiziana of Aurelio Settimo with the

Aurelio Settimo Barolo Rocche Riserva 1999
Lively garnet ruby with black reflections. The bouquet is powerful, with leaf tobacco and deft acidity mingled with rosa canina and some underlying berry fruit; though it's quick to write there's a lot going on, and one could swish and sniff it at length. On the palate it's full and rich, with direction of the fruit, berry fruit with some hints of goudron, coming from bright acidity, while the tannins are fairly sweet, and clean, with a warm burr that flows into a long bright clean finish. It displays great vitality and considerable depth, and is also very young, bringing to mind a teen who has grown enough that one can anticipate the nice picture the future will hold, but needs to finish developing. Most impressive.

Put simply, I find the modernist or international style Barolo and Barbaresco of the 90s to be rather like the hare engaged in the race with the tortoise: It was quick out of the blocks and more approachable at the outset -- smoother and less skittish. By comparison, a freshly released traditional wine was (and is) a bundle of nerves, and, like someone who is having a bad day, is best left alone. However, like the tortoise, it advances steadily towards maturity, and by the time a decade has gone by -- this isn't a race, and therefore there's no finish line -- it has surpassed the international style wine, and from that point on they're on divergent paths, one still climbing while the other slowly begins to descend.

Since I think Barolo and Barbaresco really become interesting with time, this is why I prefer wines made in the traditional style: They have the endurance necessary to go the distance. And to be quite honest, I think producers of the modernist school have reached the same conclusion; I found considerably less extraction and oak in the more recent vintages of many producers who were standard bearers for the modernist movement a decade ago. Some of their wines, in fact, now seem quite traditional.

Bottom line: if you collect Barolo or Barbaresco and have bottles from the great vintages of the late 80s-90s (88, 89, 90, 96, 97, 98, 99), you should consider drinking them if they are from producers of the international or modernist school, especially the older bottles. If you instead have bottles from traditional producers, the early ones will be ready, though they can also age longer, while the more recent vintages will be just beginning to blossom, and will richly reward those with the patience to wait for them to reach maturity.


Kris Prasad said...

My sentiments exactly-- you illustrate the conundrum of Barolo trying to be modern--case in point, Settimo Rocche 2001--difficult, challenging but only after assessing this wine after 48 hrs was I able to form a positive opinion of the wine, though I was initially questioning it's quality -- better than the modern Seghesio 2001 ( WHICH IS FAR LESS MODERN THAN HIS 1989). Good Blog/ serious.
My blog is (terrible name)

Kyle Phillips said...

Thank you for the complement! You're right about the Seghesio becoming more traditional with time. I think the 1990s will be remembered as a dark period in Piemontese winemaking, in many respects. Certainly many potentially beautiful wines suffered terribly in the cellars.