It’s time to put away the preconceptions and admit to the fact that Barbaresco can be just as great as Barolo.
I’ve been a fan of Barolo for as long as I’ve been into wine. It’s just something about its imposing nature and how Barolo makes you wait for it to blossom. There’s a challenge in loving Barolo, as you have to study and pay close attention to truly enjoy it. You don’t just open a bottle on a whim; instead you spend time deciding which bottle would be best at the moment and for the occasion. When you make the right choice and give Barolo the proper amount of air (in bottle, not decanter), you’re rewarded with an otherworldly experience. Barolo is in many ways about chasing those experiences. You won’t always find euphoria, and oftentimes you’ll be let down, but when you open a great bottle, it’s worth all the effort.
However, what I failed to understand is that the same experience can be found with Barbaresco, usually for less money and without having to wait as long as we do for our precious Barolo to mature. So you question if it can age as well as Barolo, and my response is a definitive YES! What it took to open my eyes was my involvement with a tasting group of friends who are all Barolo enthusiasts who met through Antonio Galloni’s website, Vinous. Often, the evening would call for a blind tasting, and in each of these a Barbaresco would manage to find its way in. Would it surprise you to know that in almost every instance, the Barbaresco came out on top?
What I find even more interesting is how often that Barbaresco is a Produttori del Barbaresco, which costs at least half, (if not less) than the Barolo it’s competing with. When you think about it, this makes perfect sense. The growing areas of Barolo and Barbaresco are only separated by the town of Alba, and both are made entirely from the Nebbiolo grape. The biggest difference, other than variations in soil and exposition of the vineyard which exist throughout the communes of both Barolo and Barbaresco, is the aging requirement. For Barbaresco, the wines need only spend two years in the winery cellar (nine months in oak), while Barolo still requires three years (18 months in oak). Some say this has something to do with the earlier accessibility of Barbaresco, yet many producers choose to keep their wines in wood for much longer than required.
Another major reason for our misguided shunning of Barbaresco is how only three names truly defined the region over the past 40 years: Gaja, Bruno Giacosa and Produttori del Barbaresco. While Gaja and Giacosa’s Barbaresco were selling at the top end, excluding most consumers, Produttori remained in the shadows, which are often cast upon cooperative wineries. Even with their access to the region’s best vineyards and extremely reasonable pricing, Produttori remained an under-the-radar Barbaresco for collectors in the know. Today, these shackles have been cast off, and the Produttori del Barbaresco is receiving the recognition it deserves. What’s more, many of the growers who were once part of the cooperative decided in recent years to bottle their own Barbaresco. Quality wasn’t always as good as it is today, but in recent years, Barbaresco as a region has shown it can compete with its big brother on the other side of Alba: Barolo.
This line of thought brought about an idea within the group to organize a Barbaresco tasting—and so that’s exactly what we did. It was a tasting that would contain the three top names from Barbaresco, namely, Gaja, Bruno Giacosa and Produttori del Barbaresco. We also included two other names from the ’85 vintage who are still around to this day: Pasquero-Elia and Castello di Neive.
So what were the results? The notes are below, yet I must expand on a few of my thoughts. Firstly, both Pasquero-Elia and Castello di Neive have made major improvements over only the last few years. In 1985, Castello di Neive was selling their best fruit to Bruno Giacosa (too bad we couldn’t compare the two of them), yet this wine still held its own. Second, The ’85 Produttori del Barbaresco showed yet again that they have always been a force to be reckoned with. This being the top wine of the first flight, and showing wonderfully, it would have been interesting to have an ’85 Barolo next to it. What’s more, the ’01 Produttori del Barbaresco Rabaja may have been painfully youthful, but it’s full of potential. As for the Gaja, it appears this wine has simply seen its best days.
Lastly, this truly solidifies in my mind that Bruno Giacosa is simply a master of his craft. Sourcing the perfect grapes and using them to make such towering expressions of their kind is truly remarkable. If you can find them—and afford them—then these are wines to have in your cellar. The ‘98s were spectacular on this night and will continue to drink well for many years, while the ‘01s are masterpieces which should go on for decades in our cellars.
1985 Mixed Barbaresco
1985 Paitin di Pasquero-Elia Barbaresco Sorì Paitin – In what appeared to be an unsound bottle more than a wine that’s over the hill, the ’85 Pasquero showed madeirized, sweet cherry joined by herbaceous notes, stewed tomato, and soy. Dried red fruit with muddled, old wood notes marred the palate. This finished with a somewhat enjoyable cherry and brown sugar note, but it was ultimately a flawed bottle. (N/A)
1985 Castello di Neive Barbaresco Riserva Santo Stefano – A classic old Nebbiolo nose with a rustic feel, showing dried cherry and flowers, with animal musk, barnyard, a hint of cinnamon, and in the background, musty parchment, which was possibly a slight hint of TCA, yet didn’t hurt the experience. On the palate, it was lean and tart with herbal cherry and soil tones, leading to a dry finish with notes of spice and tobacco. Very rustic, still enjoyable, yet a bit dried out. (91 points)
1985 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Riserva Pora – The ’85 Produttori Pora Riserva was a different animal entirely from the rest of the flight. Here I found an initially restrained nose which blossomed in the glass with dark red fruits, soil, dusty coco, wood smoke, and hints of animal musk. On the palate, it was fruit-focused with rich red berry, drying out a little, yet still elegant and refined. Soil and savory herbal tones added to the experience and faded to a medium-long finish of red berry and earth tones. An absolutely beautiful wine in its maturity and still kicking with both feet. (94 points)
1985 Gaja Barbaresco Sorì San Lorenzo – The ’85 Sori San Lorenzo appears to be past its prime. In ’85, Gaja was using French barrique, and the nose, while still interesting, simply didn’t show any characteristics of Nebbiolo. I found dark red berry, baker’s chocolate, tobacco, licorice and a hint of dried flowers. It was pliant on the palate, yet herbaceous more than fruity and muddled, with notes of white pepper and dried spice. The finish showed a bittersweet personality, as ripe berry turned tart, than sweet again. (88 points)
1998 Barbaresco + One 2000 (Drinking beautifully)
2000 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Rabajà – My initial worries about this wine were settled with time in the glass, as a dominating note of fresh celery was replaced by an exotic mix of spiced red berry compote, mineral stone, roses, undergrowth and a hint of orange zest. On the palate, it showed rich, velvety textures with cherry and strawberry fruit, tobacco and sweet inner floral tones. It finished with focused hints and ripe tannin as a note of dark red berry lingered throughout. (92 points)
1998 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Rabajà – The ’98 Giacosa Rabajà was much more pretty and elegant than I had expected as it opened in the glass to reveal a beautiful bouquet of dried flowers, red fruits, tobacco and undergrowth. On the palate, it was elegant, focused, and dare I say ethereal in its feminine structure. Dried red fruits were made juicy by its brisk acidity and lasted long throughout the finish. (93 points)
1998 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Asili – The nose of the ’98 Asili was pure Nebbiolo seduction, showing dark red fruits, cherry tobacco, cedar, roses, and a grounding note of earthy mushroom. Silky textures contrasted by ripe tannin tempted the senses and delivered ripe flavors of dark-red fruit, which turned tart toward the mid-palate, with hints of earthy and blueberry skins. The youthful and intense finish showed dried fruits and tobacco. It’s exciting to think about the potential in this glass; what a beautiful wine. (95 points)
1998 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Riserva Santo Stefano – Frankly, I find it amazing how silky, perfumed and utterly feminine Giacosa’s Santo Stefano is. The ’01 has always been a favorite of mine, and this experience showed how Giacosa manages to capture the terroir of the Santo Stefano vineyard. Perfumed floral notes lifted from the glass with notes of ginger, minerals, crushed berry, mushroom and tobacco. It was like silk on the palate, as layers of focused, dark red fruit coated the senses in a sweet yet savory expression of Nebbiolo with inner florals and hint of menthol. Long and structured on the finish, this wine finished with a ringing note of pure balance. (96 points)
2001 Barbaresco (Masterpieces for the cellar with decades of maturity ahead)
2001 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Riserva Rabajà – The nose was youthful with its exuberance, showing sweet perfumed fruit, exotic spice, savory herbs, notes of roasted meat, and moist earth. Tart red fruit saturated the palate with acid-driven textures and hints of dark earth. The finish was dry and structured with lifting inner floral tones. Years away from maturity and difficult to gauge now, the ’01 Produttori Rabajà is in need of time in the cellar. (92 points)
2001 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Asili – Giacosa was firing on all cylinders in ’01, as comparing the Asili and Santo Stefano was like splitting hairs, yet the Asili won out in the end for its balanced richness. The nose showed beautiful dark floral tones, ripe berries, holiday spice, chalk dust, and undergrowth. On the palate, it entered silky, yet turned tart toward the middle with ripe tannin clenching the senses. Red berry, spice and inner floral notes lingered into the finish. As youthful as this is, it’s still enjoyable now for its yin yang effect, like silk versus sand, and never grows tiring. (94 points)
2001 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Santo Stefano – This showed a lifted and elegant nose of pretty rose, strawberry, minerals, and licorice with a hint of orange peel and dusty spice. On the palate, it showed silky textures, in a focused and very pure expression of red fruit with hints of spice and zesty acidity. The finish was clean and youthful, yet it held back, as the fruit dried slightly and a tannic grip completed the experience. (94 points)
2001 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Riserva Rabajà – I had a truly moving experience with the ’01 Rabajà Riserva, as the nose opened up to reveal dark raspberry, cocoa powder, dusty spice, floral rose, a lifting hint of menthol and crushed fall leaves. It was so imposing and rich yet fresh and lifted at the same time. On the palate, rich red fruit and spice saturated the senses and nearly enveloped this wine’s massive structure, causing me to wonder just how much better it will be down the road—it’s still so enjoyable now. Tannin coated and clenched the palate through the finish, yet its intense berry fruit continued to prevail; simply gorgeous. (98 points)
Article and Tasting Notes by Eric Guido