The early reports on the 2014 vintage through much of Europe were not optimistic: rain, lots of it. In some places, it lasted through the spring. In parts of Italy, it carried on through much of the growing season.
Farmers depend on rain when it comes at the right time and in the right amount to keep their vines healthy. But too much, combined with warm temperatures and plenty of humidity, can be a disaster, leading to mildew, fungus and rot. Yields can be diminished and, without the utmost care, the quality of the wines can be harmed.
Yet to the surprise of many people who follow vintage reports as if they were the gospel, the wines from some areas where gloom was deepest have turned out surprisingly well.
The Piedmont region of northwestern Italy was one such place where pessimism seemed to have the upper hand. But early reports on the 2014 Barbarescos from those who had visited the region — and tasted from barrels and bottles — indicated that the wines were not at all bad. On the contrary, most tasters asserted, they were quite good.
At one time, perhaps as recently as 25 years ago, a vintage like 2014 might have been a total washout. Growers did not always have the resources or the know-how to combat such looming problems.
But today, regions where growing conditions were once on the cusp of being acceptable — like the Piedmont, Champagne or the Mosel Valley in Germany — experience far fewer bad vintages than they once did. The reasons include climate change, and an increased ability to manage vineyards under difficult circumstances.
When conditions are not ideal, the best producers know what to do. They have the equipment, philosophy and labor force to get it done. But it means a lot of hard work in the vineyard, examining vines and grapes, bunch by bunch, first trying to provide them with the best chance to prosper, and then looking for evidence of damage and eliminating problems.
With the 2014 Barbarescos beginning to show up in shops, the wine panel decided it was a good time to check in on them, and recently tasted 20 bottles. Florence Fabricant and I were joined for the tasting by two guests: Jenni Guizio, wine director at Maialino near Gramercy Park, and Joe Campanale, owner and beverage director of Fausto, which opened recently near Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn.
Barbaresco has sometimes been an overlooked and underestimated wine, especially when compared with the more exalted Barolo, its sibling to the southwest, which, like Barbaresco, is made entirely of the nebbiolo grape.
The Barbaresco region is slightly warmer, lower and more protected than the Barolo zone, and the soils tend to be sandier. As a result, the wines are often a bit more accessible at an earlier age than Barolo. They are required by law to be aged for at least two years before they can be released, as against Barolo’s three years.
Even so, these wines are never easy to drink young. Nebbiolo is notoriously tannic, with plenty of acidity, and regardless of how it compares with Barolo, Barbaresco is powerful in its own right. Even the most immediately appealing of the 2014s would benefit from another few years of aging before drinking.
In the tasting, we found many good bottles, characterized by freshness, expressiveness and a lovely balance. But the wines were inconsistent. Some were oddly green, or overly astringent. And we were all surprised by how oaky some wines seemed, enough so that the barrel flavors may never integrate.
Oakiness was a particular problem in the Piedmont in the 1980s and ′90s, when many younger producers began to age their wines in small barrels of new French oak rather than in the traditional big vats, made of Slavonian oak, which were used year after year.
The Slavonian oak allows minute amounts of oxygen to interact with the wine, giving it the structure and stability to age for many years. Since the vats are generally not new, they impart little in the way of wood flavors or oak tannins.
New, small barrels of French oak, by contrast, permit a faster exchange of oxygen, which softens the grape tannins more quickly. But the wines absorb oak tannins, which have a markedly different texture than grape tannins, as well as wood flavors. New oak also tends to fix the color of the wine at a darker hue. Some producers prefer that, as nebbiolo naturally fades to a kind of garnet color, which consumers sometimes mistakenly associate with weakness in wines.
By the 2000s, many of the producers who had adopted French oak had moderated their use, so the wines no longer had the extreme oaky character of some of the previous vintages. Perhaps that’s why we were taken aback by some of the wines in the tasting, in which the oak was overbearing and out of balance.
Oakiness was not an issue in the bottles we liked best. Our top wine, from De Forville, was a classic Barbaresco of the old school, with beautiful floral and anise flavors and an earthy minerality. It was a complete wine and, though accessible now, will only get better with age — say, five years or more. It was also our best value at just $30.
Our No. 2 bottle came from Produttori del Barbaresco, one of the great wine cooperatives of the world and always a reliable producer. We found the ’14 to be impeccably balanced with flavors of red fruit, herbs and menthol. No. 3 was the Basarin from Marco e Vittorio Adriano, dense, tannic and powerful, yet pretty, with floral and mineral aromas and flavors.
I should note that this was in no way a complete tasting of the 2014s. Rather, it was a cross-section of the vintage, an indication of what may be found when more wines become available. We would not in any case have been able to include some of the most renowned wines, like those from Angelo Gaja or Bruno Giacosa, who died last month, as they exceed our $100-per-bottle price cap.
At No. 4 was the Rio Sordo from Cascina delle Rose, an elegant, relatively soft wine, with aromas and flavors of red fruits and flowers. No. 5 came from Luca Bosio, a producer whose wines I have not tried before. The 2014 was dense and substantial, and it will definitely take time before the flavors of dark fruit and anise reveal themselves.
Our No. 6 wine, the Rombone from Fiorenzo Nada, was clearly of a modern style, aged in French oak barrels. But unlike some of the wines we rejected, their presence in the Nada was not overbearing or heavy-handed, and the ripe fruit and oak should integrate well.
Other 2014s that were worth noting were the elegant Castello di Neive; the tannic Vallegrande from Ca’ del Baio; the subtle, earthy Ceretto and the somewhat oaky, but balanced Sottimano Pajoré.
In the end, we were inclined to like the vintage and look forward to drinking our favorites. Nonetheless, we were puzzled by the inconsistency in the tasting.
Jenni suggested that some producers may not have had the resources to manage 2014’s tricky weather conditions, which, as I said, would have required much labor-intensive work in the vineyards. It’s yet another reminder, after a year of devastating hurricanes and destructive wildfires, that nature still often has the last say.
★★★½ DE FORVILLE BARBARESCO 2014
Structured yet approachable, with pure, pretty floral and mineral aromas and flavors. (Rosenthal Wine Merchant, New York)
★★★ PRODUTTORI DEL BARBARESCO BARBARESCO 2014
Impeccable balance of fruit, tannins and acidity, with flavors of red fruit, herbs and menthol. (Vias, New York)
★★★ MARCO E VITTORIO ADRIANO BARBARESCO BASARIN 2014
Densely flavored and tannic, with pretty aromas of flowers and great minerality. (Monsieur Touton, New York)
★★½ CASCINA DELLE ROSE BARBARESCO RIO SORDO 2014
Soft, elegant and accessible, with aromas and flavors of red fruit and flowers. (Polaner Selections, Mount Kisco, N.Y.)
★★½ LUCA BOSIO BARBARESCO 2014
Densely structured and substantial, with underlying flavors of dark fruit and anise; needs time. (Quintessential, Napa, Calif.)
★★½ FIORENZO NADA BARBARESCO ROMBONE 2014
Modern style, with ripe fruit and well-integrated oak. (Martin Scott Wines/Winebow, New York)
★★ CASTELLO DI NEIVE BARBARESCO 2014
Elegant, with flavors of menthol and licorice and a touch of well-integrated oak. (Leonardo LoCascio Selections/Winebow, New York)
★★ CA’ DEL BAIO BARBARESCO VALLEGRANDE 2014
Powerfully tannic, with resolute floral aromas and flavors of dark fruit. (Omniwines, Flushing, N.Y.)
How do you tame tannins? I look for foods with meatiness and fat — and perhaps some bitter swagger — to keep in check the demanding dryness in wines like Barbaresco, especially young ones. In this dish, fresh pasta is tossed with pancetta, cremini mushrooms, and some tomato and red wine. Anchovy paste contributes a gloss of pantry-shelf umami. The meal is easily assembled in less than an hour, but, for the best outcome, it calls for some hand work. The pancetta should be diced by hand, the mushrooms are best chopped with a knife, and the tomatoes crushed with a fork. The upside is that you will not have to wash the food processor. Use tongs, instead of a colander, to drain the tagliatelle so some water clings to the pasta instead of going down the drain. Use extra pasta water if needed, to moisten the mixture before serving.