Following its undeservedly maligned predecessor, 2019 beckons welcome acclaim and widespread success in Barolo, marking the first triumph in a forthcoming tri-vintage three-peat. Broadly hailed as a ‘classic vintage’, 2019 Barolo confounds the nervous anticipations of visitors and locals scorched in summer heatwaves or pelted by September hail, amidst what was an undeniably modern vintage. Importantly, even if ‘classic’ intends to capture the flavour of the vintage, its use belies 2019’s most crucial insight, that classic wines were made despite a distinctly modern vintage; astute winemakers appear to be successfully adapting viticultural and winemaking practices, such that they are increasingly capable of confidently navigating progressively less ‘classic’ vintages. And, despite mounting shared concerns about the impacts of a warming climate—particularly drought, its associated ailments, and resulting fruit composition—regional winemaking prowess is rapidly maturing.
The growing season and vineyards
2019 began with a prolonged drought lasting until April, which was defined by cooler temperatures and wet weather. Despite the year’s first three warm and dry months, grapevines did not generally struggle; saturated soils soaked from 2018—which started and ended resoundingly wet—provided ample nourishment. Following April showers, temperatures dropped considerably, relieving many traumatised growers still haunted by 2018’s rampant outbreaks of peronospera and oidium. While widespread disease pressure never materialised, early shoot and leaf growth began unevenly between communes and vineyards.
‘There was a change of scenery with the arrival of the summer … we remember a remarkable heat wave at the end of June’ recalls Simone Fiorino, whose 2019s were particularly brilliant, ‘fortunately the berries were still very small, so there was no damage’ he relieved—smaller berries have a lower water content and are less prone to dehydration under extreme heat. Isabella Oddero remembers the same heatwave ‘it reached almost forty degrees at the end of June, the plants stopped for a little while, and there was hail a few days later’, similarly, she recorded no serious damage. Following a warm June, a second heatwave arrived at the end of July, and whilst winegrowers were unphased, the same heatwaves wreaked on citizens in many European nations; Italian authorities placed 16 cities under high alert for dangerous temperatures, a national record high temperature of 46.0 °C was recorded on 28 June in Vérargues, and excess deaths were recorded by most European health authorities.
Both heatwaves arrived amidst an already warm period, in Barolo the change in heat summation between May and June was the largest surge of any vintage this millennium, followed by the sixth warmest June, July and August. Examining only total annual heat summation won’t immediately reveal this obvious departure from a sensible notion of classic, nevertheless, 2019 does fit neatly on an ascending trendline of warmer vintages. Fortunately, many growers have begun mitigating sun exposure by maintaining a larger canopy and raising trellises for more shading, as well as pruning judiciously for maintaining airflow. June and August were also both dry (each the eighteenth driest of the past twenty vintages); fortunately, July rains (the second wettest of the past twenty vintages) replenished soils, and equitable rainfall, albeit scarce, in the surrounding months kept grapevines nourished, prolonged ripening and restrained pH. These days cover crops are commonplace, which surely helped retain soil moisture by shading soil, reducing evaporation and improving water infiltration and retention by enhancing soil structure and porosity.
Temperatures fell in September, ushering in a tumultuous month of storms, rain and damaging hail. On September 5th a violent hailstorm hit Bricco Manescotto and Serra dei Turchi in La Morra, Fontanafredda in Serralunga d’Alba and Raviole in Grinzane Cavour. ‘Our Camilla vineyard in the Raviole MGA was badly damaged, we didn’t harvest any fruit’ Simone Fiorino laments. A week later, heavy rain fell (2019 was the fifth wettest September of the past twenty vintages) in many communes, ‘some producers were scared, but the rains were important, they slowed the berries down a bit’ and maintained good pH, Pietro Oddero recounts. Alas, many producers did note that September rains increased potassium intake from the soil, which resulted in small pH increases. Managing pH is one of the most significant challenges amidst a changing climate. In the vineyard, more growers have ceased trimming the apical shoot, which is thought to promote even ripening and lower overall berry pH.
Between 2007 and 2016, harvest generally began around the 7th of October, regularly lasting more than 20 days. In 2019, it came later and took place over ten days, notwithstanding a handful of producers who habitually pick early. Two episodes of significant rain informed picking dates for most producers, the first on the 15th of October and the second on the 24th. Many were satisfied with their fruit and chose to pick before forecasted rain fell on the 15th (Bartolo Mascarello, Oddero, Bruna Grimaldi, etc.), while some gutsier growers stayed the course, ‘we finished picking Saturday morning and rain came that same afternoon’, Fabio Alessandria recalls. Yields were generally lower than in 2018, partly caused by temperature and hail, and not helped by uneven flowering influenced by 2018’s poor conditions, ‘our yields were 15 to 20% lower than usual’ Pietro Oddero remarks, and ‘September hailstorms destroyed a portion of our crops’ says Simone Fiorino.
In the winery
Following a slightly protracted growing season, growers reported harvesting healthy, thick-skinned grapes with outstanding phenolic ripeness; locals joked there was ‘no way to make the crates dirty this year’, a local saying indicating healthy, robust grapes which remain intact even in picking creates covered by fruit. Luca Currado even remarked he had ‘never seen such beautiful fruit’ since he began working at his family’s former winery in 1991. In the winery, vinifications were spirited and clean; low pH (c. 3.6 at some wineries) musts generally finish quicker, more evenly and are less prone to microbial competition. Lower starting pH also means lower pH post-malo, making for a fresher, structured wine that ages more slowly in bottle.
Whilst total heat summation was lower in 2018, 2019 was extremely sunny, which inevitably contributed to the thick skins and high skin-to-pulp ratio observed by many growers. Most growers adapted vinification accordingly, ‘we didn’t do any submerged cap in 2019, only pumpovers, which lasted 30 days’ Maria Teresa Mascarello told me, ‘generally we do 30 days of skin contact, in 2019 we did around 25’, Simone Fiorino confirms. Crucially, this adaptation reflects a growing repertoire among increasingly talented winemakers. Some growers also commented that their wines were tight and closed during the first fifteen months in barrel, and benefitted from extended time in barrel, after which they became much more expressive. Similarly, having tasted many 2019s at the end of 2022, then again twice in 2023, time in bottle has freed pent-up potential.
Ultimately, 2019 yielded broadly excellent wines with vivid, powerful, and expansive fruit profiles, tamed alcohol, enviable structure, grippy, ripe and ample tannins, and sharp, plentiful racy acids. Comparisons are aplenty, and even if nothing truly reflects 2019’s unique profile, drinkers will be reminded of 2010’s density and texture, 2013’s bright and crisp fruit, 1999’s vigour and vitality, and 2016’s power and voluminous fruit. Interestingly, many growers share the impression that vintage comparisons are increasingly useless given the changing climate and resulting wines.
I’d be remiss to publish this report without commenting on the state of today’s market. Despite searing criticism, 2018 has been well received by drinkers—from a sample of 16 Barolo from benchmark producers, 12 wines score higher on Cellar Tracker than their 2017 counterparts, 50% outscore their 2010-2017 average scores, and four vintages display greater erraticism comparing scores between the same sample. Nevertheless, after bumper 2016 pricing, 2017 slumped and 2018 tanked, at least in part due to critical commentary. ‘Neither 17s nor 18s sold that well, even in the primary market’ Gilles Core of Asset Wines begrudges, ‘the market for 19s is quite slow too, but this is mostly true globally’.
While primary prices at many Piedmontese estates have indeed increased, roughly doubling in the past decade, secondary prices for some wines have grown much more. But even the most cultish wines have only experienced glacial growth, and remain comparatively cheap compared to those of popular Burgundian superstars, whose primary and secondary pricing have exploded, with more producers capturing growing proportions of their wine’s market pricing. For many reasons, Burgundy has attracted much greater speculation, not least because, young, courageous and enterprising growers have forged personal identities, embraced contemporary media and continued to improve production.
Arguably the second most important takeaway from 2019, is that it marks the proximate blossoming of a similarly enterprising epoch in Piedmont. Around 2019, a host of young new and foreign producers began making wine in Barolo. Simultaneously, new local producers rose to greater international prominence and younger generations assumed ownership at established local cantina. Together, these winemakers have catalysed a nascent revolution in viticulture, winemaking, identity and commerce, attracting greater interest from, and increasingly engaging with, popular, burgeoning importers (Thatchers, Keeling Andrew, etc.); hip, curious journalists; sommeliers; and international fine winemakers. Since 2019, astute observers will have surely recognised greater momentum, more authentic and stimulating conversations and greater interest in the region, particularly among Burgundy drinkers and younger enthusiasts. This evolution will have sweeping implications, not least for wine quality and pricing. And, while some some reputable commentators have argued that the future of Barolo relies on adopting the Burgundian model of bottling communal wines, these winemakers successes demonstrate that if Barolo need emulate any facet of contemporary Burgundian sensibility, most crucially it must be its commercial savvy, uncompromising authenticity and unabashed audacity.
2019 is a decidedly modern vintage, warmer than all but two between 2000 and 2010; however, a cursory glance at total heat summation obfuscates extremities that a more detailed analysis uncovers. The same can be said of the resulting wines, which are deceptively classic. Some growers believe this is a result of grapevines adapting to challenging conditions, and while grapevines can exhibit impressive phenotypic plasticity, I’m not convinced that this accounts for 2019’s overwhelming success despite heatwaves, record temperature changes, the sixth warmest June, July and August since 2000, and numerous distinctly dry months. Instead, 2019’s defining takeaway was that astute vigneron demonstrated their own plasticity, adapting vineyard and winery techniques to overcome challenging climatic conditions and produce classic wines. Further, 2019 marks the proximate beginning of a new era, spearheaded by bold, enterprising vigneron attracting greater interest from contemporary media and popular importers, and importantly, elevating wine quality—anyone fortunate to have been tasting 2020 and 2021 Barolo from barrel will surely attest to this observation. Tides are changing in Langhe, there has surely never been a more exciting time to buy into these wines.