Article By: Fred Bouchard
Yet styles have evolved demonstrably in both regions over the last generation, due to economic constraints as well as contemporary taste evolution. Since the wine industry's watershed 199Os, certain vintners are sidestepping traditional austerity seeking for an easier complaisance. Moreover, the millennium vintage of Barolo, as elsewhere throughout Europe, was considered a rich, ripe vintage, touted widely as the 'best' since 1997. With hue and cry both loud and persistent on these wines, they have arrived on these shores as hot items and are expected to sell rapidly. 'Hot' is literal as well as figurative: Barolos are rarely envisioned for immediate drinking pleasure, but both the 1997 and 2OOO vintages have been regarded as forward, ripe and open.
Here's how Brookline Liquor Mart in Allston ran a Barolo tasting. This brief report talks more to the tasting process than prognostication on the wines' rose-y (if not tar-ry) futures.
the SET-UP Elizabeth Kane explains how the tasting came about. "When I arrived at MS Walker from Veuve Clicquot in Manhattan last year, I came with the understanding that to move an expensive portfoilio of wines, you have to crack eggs to make an omelet, so to speak. We were going to have to run tastings to move in retail. MS Walker has a large Italian portfolio, and our Piedmont selections are huge. I had about 3O Barolos to choose from!
"Claudia Davis is national brand manager for Mark di Grazia; they created the job for her, and she started last fall. She'd worked at Skurnick, a well-respected wholesaler/importer. She'd worked with these wines for years.
"We chose to partner with a few stores around the state. Not only was BLM willing - Roger Ormon and his team were enthusiastic about working with us - they also had a really good client base that cellars wine, and also a great tasting space out back. It was really a perfect store.
"We also partnered with Hingham Wine Merchants. Dick Graham has a lovely big house, and we held a walkaround tasting for 8O of his clients. Both Dick and Roger know how to speak to their client base. Both tastings really worked and we sold a lot of wine - and built some great partnerships. We decided to make them a special offer to grease the kitty."
BLM's veteran salesman, taster and newsletter writer, Roger Ormon announced a tasting of eight newly released 2OOO Barolos via email to his customer base. Those interested prepaid, by phone or by web, a $2O fee by credit card. The 3O projected slots filled up in a day or two. Even though most of the wines had been landed and warehoused at MS Walker, BLM offered them at the tasting itself at 'pre-arrival prices', about 2O% less than the wines would be advertised the following day in the newsletter and the same price as they would be on the floor, if indeed they had not been all snapped up before they could be binned.
TASTING CONDUCT and COMMENTARY At 6pm on a Wednesday - typically a slow day in the slow week following Valentine's Day - tasters assembled in BLM's spacious showroom, and were led to the back room for a tasting of eight of the crop of 2OOO Barolos. Sharing emcee duties were Ormon, MS Walker representative Elizabeth Kane and Claudia Davis, whose firm (Mark di Grazia) imports several of the wines. BLM staff had laid out platters of cold cuts, cheeses, fruits, olives on a sideboard, and placed baskets of baguette rounds and communal spit buckets at strategic points on the extensive connected tables. Tasters were both seasoned BLM clientele and new faces, such as two enthusiastic interns at Harvard Medical School. The wines were presented in approximate ascending order of weight, complexity, price, and Wine Spectator point count. Prices and ratings are omitted from this report. One Riedel glass was afforded each taster; since servers poured the undecanted but lightly aired wines at about one every 5 to 7 minutes, alongside interesting running commentary, tasters had to make relatively swift assessments. The genial commentators competed neither with each other, nor with the wines. Kane drew some general notes, remarking on the Barolo region's typically cool summers and its never-over-the-top fermentations, increasingly done in stainless steel among the younger generation. She noted that the law dictates 24 months minimum of barrel aging, but that various producers may opt to age their Barolos longer; further variables are whether the oak is old or new, large or small (botte versus barriques). Ormon, an ardent follower of Barolos since the 197O, waxed eloquent about the 1982 vintage (lovely, not powerful) and its softer tannins. Davis was particularly adept at calling attention to the characteristics of the various villages' terroirs. She also had had sufficient firsthand exposure to Piemontese lifestyle to mention the softening of social relations among centuries-old winemaking families that may well parallel such directions in winemaking. "The youngsters talk to each other," she noted, in contrast to the longstanding stuffy antipathy widely attributed to brothers Aldo and Giacomo Conterno - or, to the Northeast, Livio and Marco Felluga. "They hang out, hold weekly tastings, discuss their new winemaking toys." There were even intimations that communication fault lines are forming in Barolo, as elsewhere, along generational rather than family lines: as youngsters exercise more contemporary tastes and styles, they're likelier to irk their own fathers than annoy their peers in the neighboring vineyard.
The DEAL The sweet, on-the-spot-only discount deal favored big spenders, as it was offered only on full case orders. Several modest purchasers (this writer included) banded to cobble together a mixed case order. The ad-hoc coalition provoked continued amiable discussion on the relative merits of the two Grassos, Ratti, Vietti, and Alessandria. While the staff cleared the tables and husbanded the leftover wine, we munched cheese rinds, pate, and grapes, plumbed the dregs of the pre-tasting Barbera, and talked when the wines' dumb periods (elegantly termed by Davis as their 'cocoon phase') would kick in and how long they might last. Meanwhile, Ormon retired with carefully preserved portions of the bottles to taste in peace and write up his own notes for BLM's on-line newsletter; some of these are excerpted below.
AFTERTHOUGHTS In years past, Barolos were considered blockbusters of alcoholic, but today many of them are being tamed and refined, carrying their 14 to 15% with considerable grace, especially vis à vis recent olfactory onslaughts of Amador and Cucamonga Zinfandels and heavenly hosts of Aussie Shirazim.
Ormon said in his tasting summary, "As a group, they showed considerable saturation and black hues, ripe fruit aromas and flavors, and broad mouth-feel rarely found in just-released examples of the 'king of wines'." I recalled that, mid-tasting, Davis, though preaching to the converted, couldn't resist telling us insiders that her dictum to uninitiated Barolo-tasters - "Trust me! It'll taste great in ten years!" - usually met with blank stares. Ah, yes, we think piously, ten years must seem eternity to America's pop-'n'-pour culture. And yet the burning question for those of us who traditionally hold traditional Barolos ten - yea, verily, even twenty! - years before popping their corks remains: "Will these modern Barolos age as well as their forebears?" The consensus opinion was tantalizing, maddening: "We'll have to wait and see!"
Barbera, La Spinetta "Cadi
Barolo Castiglione Village
Ratti Barolo Marcenasco
Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia
Alesandria Barolo San Giovanni
Grasso Barolo Giachini Village: La
Grasso Barolo Manzoni Village: La
Spinetta Barolo Vigneto Campe