A while back, I polled a number of experienced Barolo collectors for their choice of the best vintage of the ‘90s. These days, we seem to have a great vintage every year, if not every other year, with ‘06, ’08, and ’10 being reported as great and ’05 tailing close behind. Notice that I didn’t really mention the highly acclaimed 2007 vintage, as I’ve found these wines to be far less impressive than originally expected. However, back in the nineties, Barolo only saw two decent vintages between 1990 and 1995. It wasn’t until 1996 when they hit their vintage streak with ’96, ’97, ’98 and ’99. These were all good-to-very good years, but there is only one vintage of the nineties that each of these experienced collectors believed to be the best vintage, and that’s 1996!
The Barolos from 1996 showed that perfect unity of tannin, acid and alcohol with a core of rich fruit, that spells “cellar worthy.” Most Barolo lovers look for the next 1989 or 1978 that they can squirrel away in their wine cellars and enjoy in their magnificent maturity; it’s a big part of what draws people to Nebbiolo, the heights it can reach with proper aging. All signs lead us to believe that 1996 is the next great vintage. The only question is, when do we start drinking them? It was with this in mind that we recently organized a “blind” 1996 Barolo dinner.
The biggest surprise for me was how open each of these wines showed. At all of my recent ’96 tastings, the wines continued to display gripping tannin, which would restrain the fruit on the palate. Although their bouquets were developing well, I began to fear that these wines would never come out of their shells. This tasting was a perfect example of how unnecessary those fears truly were.
Granted, this tasting contained quite a few modern-styled wines, which confirmed a different notion that I’ve been toying with—that the structure of 1996 Barolo lent well to the better modern producers of the time. Imagine my surprise when a bottle of Azelia Bricco Fiasco came out on top, a wine that I would have assumed to be clunky and showing remnants of dark oak. But that was not the case. In fact, the Fiasco vineyard within the commune of Castiglione Falletto reigned supreme on this night, as Paolo Scavino’s Bric del Fiasc, found the third place spot.
Another interesting reoccurrence is the inclusion of the Cappellano Barbaresco, which held its own in the company of Barolo. Yet again we find a Barbaresco inserted into a blind Barolo tastings and showing tremendous potential and longevity.
In the end, I firmly believe it’s time to start digging into our cases of most ’96 Barolo. I’m sure the top traditional producers are years away from their peak (possibly our next tasting), yet from the modern camp, there’s no shame in pulling some corks.
On to The Tasting Notes:
1996 Alberto Voerzio Barolo La Serra – The nose showed tart berry, dark fruits, woodland tones of undergrowth and dark soil, along with a hint of cocoa powder and green stems. On the palate, I found tart, dark berry, cranberry, and hints of espresso with angular yet not tannic textures. Notes of soil, leaves and saturating dark fruits lingered on the finish. This was an enjoyable wine, yet its modern leanings were obvious and hindered any expression of pure Nebbiolo fruit. (90 points) website Italian
1996 Luciano Sandrone Barolo Cannubi Boschis – The nose was, at first, restrained, showing waxy red fruits, yet it blossomed in the glass to reveal dusty soil and spice and ripe, almost candied, cherry. It showed soft, luxurious textures on the palate with mouthwatering acidity driving flavors of dark fruit and plum. Hints of tannin lingered on the finish with dark, resolved red fruit and licorice. (92 points) website
1996 Azelia Barolo Bricco Fiasco – This showed a gorgeous bouquet with earth and forest floor up front, followed by red berries, minerals and dried spice. On the palate, it displayed silky textures with dark red fruit, spice, herbal tea and inner floral notes. Long and dark on the finish with perfectly resolved tannins in an expression, which can only be described as classic. On this night, the Azelia Bricco Fiasc stole the show. (94 points) website
1996 Giacomo Brezza & Figli Barolo Castellero – Rustic at first sniff, the Brezza Castellero showed overripe cherry, undergrowth, tobacco, herbs and a hint of exotic spice. On the palate, it had an initial note of saturated wood with dark berries and mineral tones. Wood, soil and herbs lingered throughout the finish. (87 points) website
1996 Podere Rocche dei Manzoni Barolo Riserva Vigna Cappella di Santo Stefano – The nose showed dark red berries with a hint of funk, wood, spice, mint and plum sauce, along with hints of undergrowth and soil. On the palate, it displayed rich textures with dark fruits spice, cocoa, espresso and hints of cedar. Dried red fruits with a hint of spice lingered on the finish. Modern to be sure, yet ultimately enjoyed. (91 points) website
1996 Cappellano Barbaresco – As I read my notes and think back to this wine, it’s interesting to think how many descriptors can sound negative, yet were truly enjoyable all the same. The ’96 Cappellano Barbaresco showed green herbaceous notes up front with notes of parchment, yet somehow came to life to reveal dried fruits, potpourri and mineral tones. On the palate, it was pleasantly rustic with dried fruits, herbs, minerals, and a hint of old barrel. It was long on the finish, showing tart fruit and earth tones, leaving the impression of a wine beyond its 18 years of maturity—yet still quite enjoyable. (N/A as the Cappellano’s request not to have their wines scored) website
1996 Fratelli Brovia Barolo Villero – Unfortunately, this wine had seen its better days. The nose showed dried red berries, herbs and mint. On the palate, I found dark red fruits, which dried out through the close. In the end, this seemed disjointed and acid-driven without the fruit to support it. (N/A) website
1996 Giacomo Borgogno & Figli Barolo Storico Liste – The Storico Liste showed a bit beyond its years yet pleased around the table all the same. The nose showed dark berries with cedar box, exotic spice, and hints of tobacco. On the palate, I found acid-driven textures with still-lively tannin giving way to dried red fruits, undergrowth and soil tones. Tannin mounted in the finish, as the fruit dried out and saturated the senses. This seemed somehow youthful, yet mature—or possible mis-stored for a short time in its life. In the end, it was a good showing. (92 points) website
1996 Paolo Scavino Barolo Bric dël Fiasc – The nose was, at first, worrisome—as I initially found a whiff of tomato and celery, yet air was all this needed to come to life. With time in the glass, I found dark rich red berry, balsamic notes, and spice with a hint of dark soil. It was concentrated yet balanced by a fresh vein of acidity on the palate with red fruits, dry spice and inner floral notes. Intense dark fruit and notes of tobacco lingered through the finish. (93 points) website
1996 Marcarini Barolo Brunate – The nose showed red berry complemented by cedar, spice and balsamic tones. On the palate, it started with angular, acid-driven textures but quickly fleshed out, gaining body and richness. Flavors of dried cherry and citrus lingered on into the finish. This was enjoyable, yet a bit simple, and it would have probably been much better served on its own. (88 points) website
Article and Tasting Notes by: Eric Guido