2018 Barolo: challenging conditions and gratifying wines

The vintage maketh the wine, at least perhaps in part. It is, of course, true that the growing conditions of any given vintage—as well as those of the previous year—impact grapevine development, stimulate disease pressure and influence berry chemistry. The ‘ideal’ growing season is absent of extremities and irregularities. Reasonable precipitation between December and March, preferably snow, stocks soil water reserves and moderate temperatures keep budburst at bay. Early and timely flowering and fecundation increase the chances of a healthy yield and homogenous ripening. Hydric stress at fruit set limits the growth of the young berries and influences their potential tannin content. Then, a successful end to vegetative growth before veraison encourages the vine to direct resources to productive fruit growth. Finally, a long growing season marked by broad diurnal shifts and sparse rainfall facilitates complete maturity. The late Denis Dubourdieu, professor of oenology at the University of Bordeaux, outlined similar criteria as constituting a ‘great vintage’, which critics and journalists have subsequently reframed. Additionally, Orley Ashenfelter purported to have demonstrated that most of the variation in mature wine prices can be predicted by key weather data from each associated vintage. Ashenfelter’s model—using mature wine prices as a proxy for quality—also showed that immature wine prices are inefficient and poor predictors of future returns.

Considering both Dubourdieu’s criterion and Ashenfelter’s ‘model’—which later faltered under closer scrutiny—it might be tempting to assume that one might reliably predict a wine’s desirability by simply observing a given year’s weather events. However, ‘quality’ is complex, and not every wine buyer is speculating possible returns, many seek immediate gratification or vary in their determination of quality. Further, growing conditions are but one variable in a complex, multivariate equation, a truth wholly realised tasting 2018 Barolo from bottle.

Tantalising 2018 Barolo at Chiara Boschis, testament to adept management

In 2017, harsh spring frost hit low-lying vineyards in Barolo’s core communes, followed by intense drought and scorching temperatures for the remainder of the year. Generally, severe frost reduces crop size the following season; however, while frost damage was fierce in 2017, it was a patchwork that failed to notably lower yields. 2018 began with a long winter with plenty of rainfall, each month, from January to April, recorded rainfall above the 2007-2016 average. This prolonged rain restored much-needed moisture to famished soils, starved of rain the year prior—weather stations recorded below-average precipitation each month, only 14 inches in total, 13 below the median. 2018’s winter extended until the beginning of March, with temperatures below the 2007-2016 average until April, which was warmer than usual. Mild temperatures meant a slow start to the vine’s vegetative phase, which turned out to be abundant, albeit uneven. Bud break was one of the latest of recent vintages, and spring continued with frequent rainfall and ordinary temperatures, suggesting the vintage might develop ‘classically’, opposed to the previous year when the harvest had begun almost two weeks earlier than usual.

Sadly, the end of May and the beginning of June were marked by heavy rain and intense storms. Growers recorded 24 consecutive days, totalling more than double the median monthly total. This induced significant and widespread outbreaks of peronospera and oidium. Heavy rain also made tractor access impossible, thus, intervention was manual, and those privileged with larger workforces responded swiftly; others were less fortunate. Fabio Alessandria recalls investing vast resources in responding to fungal challenges. Those unable to treat promptly observed uneven flowering. Disease pressure notwithstanding, perhaps the most significant observation, at least in my estimation, is that this heavy rain encouraged rampant vegetative growth across the Barolo zone, which continued well into the growing season. Excess vegetative vigour can result in excessive shading and slow ripening; fruit generally matures less when a vine invests more energy in shoots and leaves. Studies have also shown that the skin-to-volume ratio goes down when there is more vigour in red grapes, meaning less concentration. Of course, well-draining vineyards are less susceptible during rainy years. So, the extent to which fruit was less concentrated is site-specific.

Inaugural vintage of Castelletto (Monforte) at Burlotto

Flowering and fruit set was uneventful, taking place in optimal climatic conditions; rainfall fell below average, and heat summation was above average each month until the end of the year. For many producers, it was necessary to drop fruit to curb production, perhaps a function of severe drought the previous year. Readers should note that final yields were not high for all producers; Cesare Benvenuto Pio reported below-average yields at Pio Cesare. Further, it might be tempting to conclude that higher yields produce diluted wines; however, the reality is complex. Temperatures rose considerably from mid-July, and maturity was gradual through summer until September, when temperatures peaked above 30 degrees centigrade. Additionally, diurnal variation was tight until September 25th. Alessandro Masnaghetti coined shift as a ‘benediction for the Nebbiolo’. These conditions facilitated ample sugar ripeness, possibly at the expense of acidity.

September was also wet; then, overzealous weather forecasts predicted rains for the weekend of October 7th—which subsequently failed to materialise—encouraging producers to begin picking earlier than might have been preferred, with many starting between the 2nd and 6th of October. Nevertheless, many picked later, whilst the final average start date was October 8th. Those who picked post-10th October were hit by further heavy rain on the 11th. Coupled with heightened vegetative vigour, rain close to harvest likely increased potassium uptake for many producers. At Bruna Grimaldi, Simone Fiorino tells me that their decision not to hedge helped mitigate this uptake. Trimming the apical shoot opposed to braiding can encourage a generally undesirable vegetative response, particularly in wet periods.

Discussing vintage challenges with Giacomo at Aldo Conterno

In the winery, those winemakers fermenting in a single, large vat or those producing single-vineyard Barolo are more exposed to challenging vintages and have fewer options in the cellar. As such, several producers opted not to bottle their single vineyards in 2018, including Oddero and Trediberri. Interestingly, while we tasted her 2018 Barolo, Maria Teresa Mascarello remarked that the essence of her estate’s tradition promotes a more consistent and complete wine, particularly in challenging years. It may be true that increasingly unpredictable weather might curtail the single-vineyard crusade more frequently in future. Others treated their wines more gently, reducing fermentation times, shortening élevage and treating the cap with care. Some were forced to acidify, as Fabio admirably and unashamedly admitted during my visit to Burlotto this month.

In summary, in 2018, early rain promoted disease, uneven flowering and vigorous vegetative growth, creating more shade and diverting resources, which meant fruit was slow to ripen physiologically. Large, vigorous canopies increased shading and may have inhibited tannin development, while warm days and nights in September encouraged sugar ripeness at the expense of acidity. Finally, rain before harvesting likely increased potassium uptake; increasing must pH, while earlier than ideal picking sacrificed additional days of physiological ripening. However, while each vintage is indeed a puzzle, 2018 might well be a tangram. Challenges notwithstanding, the finished wines are an altogether more positive picture than their contributory climatic components might suggest. A gradual, warm summer and substantial diurnal shift immediately before harvest saved ripening. Meanwhile, well-draining sandy sites withstood the early rain, and winegrowers made intelligent decisions in the vineyard and the winery.

Predictably enchanting 2018 Barolo at Bartolo Mascarello

Albeit challenging, 2018 is not a vintage I note to be marked by extreme variability or unique risk. In fact, the wines are surprisingly pleasant. Generally, tannins are soft and plush, less imposing than one might expect of Nebbiolo, a fitting ‘segue vintage’ for Pinot junkies. The same is true of both the nose and palate, which are nimble and fragrant, though far from flimsy. Admittedly, few wines possess the depth, core and layers required for long ageing. And, in some cases, alcohol is a touch awkward. Producers were honest when tasting and many were surprised that the vintage had been so prematurely written off. Far from trying to ‘pass off’ their wines, the resounding message is that 2018 Barolo are sprightly, accessible and immediately gratifying; readers should buy with this assessment in mind.

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