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2020 Barolo: quarantine, balance, and a growing contrast

In 2020, amidst a growing global pandemic, quarantined winemakers in Barolo enjoyed the second vintage in an impressive trifecta, concluding for some with next year’s 2021 release. Following treacherous heatwaves and damaging hail the year before, 2020 was comparatively mellow and mundane, despite being warmer overall, and only marginally drier. Importantly, the vintage was defined by constant progress toward maturity mediated by a bursting water table and ample rain, with none of the extremities of 2018 and 2019, or the extreme heat and drought of 2021, ‘22, and ‘23. The best resulting wines are vibrant, ripe and plush; nevertheless, there is some heterogeneity between producers, mainly resulting from vineyard management and harvest dates. Following 2019’s ‘most crucial insight’, quality continues to improve, as does winegrowing prowess, with some common themes emerging at historic and nascent estates. And, expanding on last year’s recognition of the proximate blossoming of a nascent revolution in viticulture, winemaking, identity and commerce, the most challenging takeaway this year is that these changes force thoughtful drinkers to confront a growing contrast between the very best contemporary wines, and those predictable wines falling short of rising standards. 

The growing season and vineyards

January and February 2020 were the warmest of the past twenty vintages, following a wet final quarter in 2019 which saturated soils. Pre-dormancy water availability and warm temperatures induced early bud break at the end of March—fifteen days earlier than expected at Chiara Boschis. Following bud break, April and May were both warmer than usual with sustained, steady rains, as well as some scattered storms. There were also brief frosts which caused minor damage for some growers. Spring growth proceeded evenly without unwanted acceleration and with some rain pre-flowering. Despite rain and warmth, disease pressure was low with only small outbreaks of downy mildew (when vegetation is advanced early season hail can damage leaves which release water and catalyse germination of fungal spores). Crisis notwithstanding, COVID allowed growers—who were subject to harsh travel restrictions—to attentively track rain and apply treatments ahead of time. Those who missed these windows paid the price in final yields and fruit quality.

Above-average rain continued through May and June, followed by significant rainfall post-flowering—some growers report that this extended the vegetative cycle by 5-10 days, lasting around 120 days post-flowering, 5-10 days longer than normal. Other growers reported that heavy rain during these months disturbed flowering, marginally reducing final yields—production was down 30% at Chiara Boschis.

After a warm April and May, temperatures were modest through June and July—ranking among the bottom quartile for heat summation the past 22 vintages. Storms were abundant, and a rogue hailstorm on 15th July damaged delicate, young fruit in vineyards between Verduno and La Morra. Subsequently, Burlotto did not produce Acclivi this vintage. Besides this event, fruit set started regularly with plenty of vegetation fuelled by abundant water stocks amassed during the prior three months. Many growers, even those who chose not to trim their apical shoots, were forced to remove abundant laterals to increase airflow and temper disease pressure. 

Come harvest, 2020 had been slightly warmer than 2019; however, the year’s dramatically different distribution of heat and rain from the beginning of the growing season made for very different wines. In 2020, heat arrived sooner than in 2019 but increased gradually and continued rising until August. Then, a narrow mid-season diurnal variation meant mild evenings, limiting respite from daytime warmth. This persistent progress toward maturation resulted in abundant but resolved, ripe and plush tannins, helped along by rain in late August (which had been absent the prior year) and early September which pushed the fruit further toward its final plush profile. September also featured cooler nights, which preserved acidity before picking began later that month.

After the impactful rains of August and September, harvest arrived as normal, beginning late September and concluding by mid-to-late October—most producers were finished by October 7th. Nevertheless, further rain on October 2nd and 3rd complicated matters, dividing harvest dates (between producers and parcels) neatly between those picking before, and those holding out for the rain to pass. Some producers invariably waited too long; overripe fruit characteristics are not uncommon in some finished wines, an unsurprising outcome if tanning maturity remains one’s sole determinant. Kiwi talent Tom Myers (whose 2020 Barolo Preda ranks with the very best wines this vintage) was among the first to pick, starting 25/26th September, Maria Teresa harvested her crop the first week of October, Nicola and Stefania (Trediberri) picked some plots before the rains (their Rocche dell’Annunziata is among the outstanding 2020 wines) and others after (Berri, the most westerly vineyard in Barolo), and Bruna Grimaldi began their harvest without concern October 7th.

In the winery

Following a long, warm growing season with plenty of water from start to finish, moderate bunches with large, ripe berries entered local wineries after modest sorting. “The berries we harvested were big, with thin skins and a large pulp-to-skin ratio” Simone Fiorino remarks as we taste his delicious 2020 releases. Despite large berries, constant warmth day and night meant plenty of dry extract and ‘high-quality’ skins packed with desirable phenolics and flavour precursors—Chiara Boschis’ impressive Via Nuova (always my favourite of her wines) clocked 31.5 g/l dry extract. Perhaps unexpectedly, total acidity (including a lot of tartaric, which can enhance fruit flavours) and pH were reasonable; despite mild nights and consistent ripening—3.5/6 pH and 5.5 total were quite common, a little higher and lower than in 2021 and 2019 respectively, but winemakers are not without tools to correct shortcomings. In some cases, canopy height, density, tressage, and pruning decisions inevitably helped maintain acid freshness, squaring the circle between that, ripeness, and texture. Consequently, ferments went largely without complication, which is more than can be said for vinifications the following year. 

Following the warm growing season, some growers were concerned their wines might lack aromatic freshness, and so a growing number added a portion of whole bunch to their fermentation vessels. At Oddero, roughly 15% was added to the estate’s Classico for the first time, and fermentations were spontaneous. Additionally, some growers also upgraded their destemmers, Oddero and Bruna Grimaldi opted for state-of-the-art machines which retain more whole berries (which are forklifted directly into tini) and can be adjusted depending on incoming berry size. Retaining whole berries also makes for a cleaner ferment and can contribute to enhanced perceived freshness. Cap management also differed dramatically to 2019 at many estates as higher quality skins and noble tannins made extraction more desirable; having been absent the year before; submerged cap returned at Bartolo Mascarello, where skin contacted totalled 55 days. Submerged cap was prolonged at Bruna Grimaldi too, and truncated vats were used for the first time. Following fermentation, élevage varied between growers, generally, wines spent a little less time in wood than usual at many estates—larger ageing vessels (vast botte grande from 2022 at Bruna Grimaldi) and less time in wood are proving useful tools in combatting climate change.

The landscape and market

In my 2019 report I highlighted the proximate beginnings of a new, enterprising epoch in Piedmont, spearheaded by enthusiastic and pioneering winegrowers at new and established estates in Barolo and Barbaresco. I also forecast this revolution would have sweeping implications, far more profound than any before it. Some of these ‘new’ producers released their very first Barolo in 2020, while other established growers produced their finest efforts. And, whilst overall quality is undeniably increasing, these particular wines—as well as classic, singular examples (Burlotto, G. Rinaldi, B. Mascarello, Cappellano, etc.)—forge a growing contrast between great and good, and force thoughtful enthusiasts to think deeply about tradition, regulations and Barolo itself.

For many years, the region’s producers have been unhelpfully categorised as either modernists or traditionalists, depending on their practising a narrow range of winemaking techniques. Today’s band of thoughtful revolutionaries eschew rigid boundaries altogether, instead opting to focus solely on maximising quality, inspired by the world’s finest wines—some have even considered labelling their wines ‘Vino Rosso’ to escape the wood-ageing requirements of Barolo’s DOCG, which can be unhelpful for producers aiming to craft a specific aesthetic. These clashes play out in rented vineyards too, where the same producers challenge pruning and viticulture conventions, aiming to grow fruit that when harvested is capable of making the wines they imagine—this can rarely be achieved with ‘standard’ vineyard management. Methods notwithstanding, the resultant wines are characterful, textural and compelling, standing out from those made by growers still resolutely committed to tradition or modernity at the expense of ultimate quality. Crucially, this growing contrast begs the question of whether in future, Barolo represents a way of making wine, or a place where quality wine is made—the Burgundian sensibility neglected most by past and present travellers.

Savvy communication is also proving decisive in these producers’ growing success, attracting dynamic importers to expand their portfolios, youthful media outlets to increase coverage, and sommeliers to pack their lists. All this translates to higher prices, at the cellar door and on retail, some young producers have already allocated their entire productions at prices far exceeding many established growers. Importantly, the principal talking point is quality. Meanwhile, branding is carefully curated, collaborators are judiciously chosen, presentation is honest and engaging (see Philine Dienger’s immersion days), and the wines find fitting homes in trendy restaurants. Suffice it to say, all this has more draw than belabouring the criticality of administrative communes. 

Thankfully, this evolving communication, compounded by excellent quality at classic wineries, is impacting the market. “Interest in Piedmontese wines is growing … on the whole, the picture is very positive” says Will Hargrove, Associate Director and Head of Fine Wine at Corney and Barrow, who also acknowledged a divide between longstanding followers who are no longer buying due to rising prices and those just starting who are less price sensitive. Additionally, Hargrove pointed to an ‘all in or all out’ buying pattern depending on vintage, which might reflect the regional dependency on vintage for producing great wines and communicating as such. Despite growing ‘intrigue’, Gilles Corre of Asset Wines notes that sales are still sluggish, mostly due to global market conditions. ‘If you can get 5 or 6% in the bank, why buy wine which is much riskier?’ Gilles remarks. Optimistically, Corre wonders whether with some buying power draining from inflated markets now may be the perfect time to stock up on undervalued Piedmontese wines. 

Conclusion

2020 welcomes another promising vintage in Barolo; the potential to make great wine was seized by many producers, some of whom bottled their finest examples to date. Nevertheless, others picked too late, failed to mitigate disease pressure, or suffered mild dilution resulting from overcropping. The best wines from this vintage are immediate, vibrant, and supple, tending toward sweet, fresh darker fruits and boasting perfumed aromatics with plush, plentiful tannins and appreciable acidity. With none of 2019’s extreme heat episodes, the vintage strongly emphasises site expression—the single-vineyard wines at Oddero have never shown so well. Finally, the wines have mid-term ageing potential but certainly won’t disappoint if drunk sooner. As I hope this report details, contemporary Barolo is bursting with talent; thoughtful farming, considered winemaking and entrepreneurial flair are paying dividends for its most compelling producers. The coming years will hopefully bring further quality hikes and even greater renown amongst mature and fledgling fine wine enthusiasts. 

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