Enticing maxims aside, the best winegrapes are seldom grown in extreme environments. Whereas mild water and nutrient deficiencies can help reduce excessive vegetative growth—which may compete with fruit and buds for resources—severe climatic perturbations make grapegrowing impracticable. Intense rainfall encourages rampant canopy growth, promoting disease and retarding ripening; meanwhile, prolonged, intense drought limits photosynthesis, delays ripening, reduces bud fruitfulness and may result in sudden vine collapse. Challenged by increasingly abnormal and unpredictable weather events, Piedmontese winemakers hope for regularity, namely, uneventful vintages defined by an absence of trepidation and turmoil. Following two distinctly challenging vintages, 2019 Barbaresco marks a welcome return to normality, a ‘classical’ Barbaresco vintage yielding charming, structured, and age-worthy wines.
2019 began with what Luca Pasquero Elia of Paitin describes as a ‘modern winter’, defined by a distinct lack of precipitation and erratic temperatures. From February, temperatures flattened and remained cool until mid-March when they rose predictably; however, heavy rain and cooler temperatures in April delayed budburst by as much as two weeks in some sites—a welcome change from recent vintages, when deleterious weather events have damaged prematurely burst buds. Following a dry winter, April rainfall also helped stock Barbaresco’s dry soil, without risking the excess vegetative growth often associated with heavy rainfall the month after. Mild temperatures continued throughout May, delaying the annual growing cycle by two weeks compared to recent vintages. Albeit atypical of modern Barbaresco, these timeframes are indeed reminiscent of ‘traditional’ Piedmontese growing cycles.
Warming temperatures in June coupled with ample soil water reserves induced fervent vegetative growth, demanding sagacious management to contain disease. Martina Culasso of Piercarlo Culasso—now working their fifth vintage as a winery—believes that 2019 suited small, artisanal growers who were able to respond to sporadic rains and disease risk quickly. During late June and late July, two temporally distinct heatwaves set all-time highest temperature records across Europe and the United Kingdom. A long-lasting anticyclone caused June’s heatwave, and by the 28th of the month, Italian authorities had placed 16 cities under high alert for dangerous temperatures.
Fortunately, the Alps—their form helps dissipate weather events—sheltered Piedmont and mitigated high temperatures elsewhere. Luca recorded only three days of extreme weather, peaking at 43°C in Sorì Paitin for an hour between 15:30 and 16:30. Albeit short-lived, risk of further heat spikes made canopy management difficult; too much leaf removal—vital for managing disease pressure—may have risked exposing sensitive flowers, resulting in potential crop loss.
The second half of 2019 was more regular, fleeting scattered showers alternated with bright sunny days, which Dave Fletcher of Fletcher Wines says helped maintain extending the overall growing season. Barbaresco’s classic hot July days arrived but were followed closely by a powerful storm. Again, disease pressure demanded growers apply further treatments; Fletcher also remembers having been careful not to remove too many leaves—bunches are particularly sensitive to sunburn mid-veraison. Nevertheless, this battle with oidium and Peronospora characterised summer, demanding ongoing attention. Copper sulphate is most common among organic Piedmontese growers; however, copper accumulation might reduce long-term soil fertility, which may hint at Piedmont’s next major challenge.
Following scattered showers in summer, some growers chose to perform ‘tailored green harvesting’ on a small number of ‘overloaded’ plants. Despite reasonable weather, the storm risk continued until early September; ‘I was scared by a thunder strike that hit an aluminium pole ten metres from me in Vigna Rionda’ Luca recalls. Hail and rain did fall on Gallo (between Serralunga and Alba), sadly flooding the village. Fortunately, this storm evaporated between Alba and Treiso, missing most of the Barolo, Barbaresco and Dogliani growing areas.
The rest of September was ideal; cool temperatures at night preserved crucial acidity and further extended the growing season. On October 4th, weather stations in Barbaresco recorded night-time temperatures of 4°C, initiating the beginning of the Nebbiolo harvest. Picking generally took place between the 4th and 15th of October, almost three weeks later than 2017 and roughly one week later than 2018. Further showers were recorded in the Barbaresco zone shortly after harvest concluded. Claudia Cigliuti recalls completing the ‘delayed harvest’ just one day before rain fell. Overall, yields were down, though this is not universally true; some growers report yields that no longer follow local cycles, presumed to result from prolonged organic farming. Fruit arrived at wineries ripe with ample acidity and comfortably low Brix. ‘Acid and pH were good, and the ferments were clean and consistent’, Dave Fletcher recalls. Meanwhile, finished alcohols are moderate, varying by site but generally less than 14%—Paitin recorded a single tank at 12.8%.
So, in 2019, sufficient rain fell in April to nourish vines through budbreak and flowering; meanwhile, moderate temperatures delayed budbreak by two weeks. After that, flowering and fecundation were timely; then, gradual warming encouraged a successful end to vegetative growth and the beginning of veraison. Then, a long warm growing season, wide diurnal variation, nubilous mornings, and timely rainfall prolonged maturity and preserved acidity. Finally, despite localised storms and heatwaves, Barbaresco’s vines escaped damage. For most growers, it was business as usual in the winery; ripe, clean fruit entered cellars, and fermentations kicked off fervently.
Contemporary savoir faire continues to benefit Piedmont, in both the vineyard and the winery—the wines of today are vastly improved on many of those made several decades ago. For this reason, though, critics are confined to a relatively small period from which to draw suitable comparisons. 2019’s charming and bright aromatics will remind readers of 2016, albeit a more spritely rendition with generally lower alcohol. These more moderate alcohols evoke 2013, with a little less savoury from the get-go. Finally, astute readers with more extensive tasting experience might draw comparisons with 1999’s balance and firm tannic structure. Albeit an immediately rewarding vintage, with its ripe, plush tannins, assertive acid structure, and enveloping fruit profile, 2019 Barbaresco, will most please readers with ‘classically-orientated palates’, who I’m certain will want to allocate considerable space in their cellars.