1998 Barolo & Barbaresco – A 20-year retrospective

What do we really want as collectors of Barolo and Barbaresco? We like to search for that perfectly matured wine, yet when we find it and we’re faced with stocking up versus investing in the next best vintage for the cellar, we often choose the latter. I can’t fault anyone for thinking this way, as I’ve been guilty of the same thing. As I look back on my last retrospective tasting of the 1998 vintage (in 2010), I find that I was very happy with the progression of the wines, yet when I look at my cellar, I see that there’s very little of it to speak of. I’m beginning to wonder if it’s the chase that truly drives us, as we open bottle after bottle of immature wine in hopes that one day it will be ready and we’ll experience elation.

The 1998 vintage in Piedmont has always gotten lost in the shuffle. When I started collecting, it was considered a vintage that you could drink, even though it was still showing gruff and grippy tannin at the time. The darker-toned and fleshy fruit of ‘98 always managed to balance the structure of the wines. The biggest thing going against 1998 was being in the middle of a string of vintages which received much better press. The region was still reeling from the classic 1996 vintage, when the highly hyped (and mistakenly so) 1997 vintage came out. Then came 1999, a sleeper vintage, which has shown to be one of the best of the decade. Next was 2000 (again overhyped) and finally 2001, which was highly acclaimed as another classic year and is still maturing at a snail’s pace.

The result was that 1998s sat on retailers’ shelves for a very long time. Even in 2005, when I started collecting, there were regular offers for ‘98s, and each of my trusted retailers had them in quantity to sell.

If Only I Knew Then What I Know Now

I wish that I had made the investment in ‘98 Barolo and Barbaresco back in 2005. In typical Piedmont collector fashion, I had my eyes set on the more structured vintages that I could cellar for decades. I consumed the few ’98’s that I purchased, as I didn’t consider them to be wines that I should hold onto for long. Unfortunately today, as I review my notes and look to add my favorite wines to my cellar, what I find is that most ‘98s are either no longer available or have escalated dramatically in price (due more to the popularity of the region and its producers than it being a result of the vintage).

This thought process makes me think of how slow the 2012s have moved, which is a vintage that I believe will be absolutely gorgeous in 15 to 20 years. With the constant increase in pricing and popularity of the region, there’s no telling how hard it will be be to find them in a decade. That said, I’m hoping to one day have a 20-year retrospective on 2012 that is anywhere near as enjoyable as the one I just had for 1998.

How Is the 1998 Vintage Faring?

The 1998s are drinking beautifully, and possibly better than ever. In general, I found the wines to be quite giving, yet perfectly refined and balanced–oh so balanced. Their textures are enveloping, their acids are balanced, and their tannins (in most cases) are perfectly resolved. They don’t come across as ripe (1998 was a consistently warm year), nor do they seem extracted. Instead, the ‘98s from my recent retrospective were exactly what I wanted from a mature bottle of Barolo.

There were a small number of wines that still required time, but we’re only talking five to possibly ten years. Of those, my money is on the Massolino Vigna Rionda, a wine that was tight and structured the night of our tasting. However, having been able to bring the bottle home for another taste the following night, it revealed an entirely different experience and one that I hope to recreate many years down the road.

Should We Be Buying 1998 Barolo & Barbaresco?

If you find a good price from a trusted source, then my answer is a resounding YES. However, the pitfalls are various, as many of these wines did spend a good amount of time on retailer’s shelves, and finding good prices will be difficult. The top wines of this tasting have more than doubled in price since their initial release, making the idea of reloading, difficult to consider.

However, if you find them, expect to be treated to a wine that is perfectly set in its drinking window and ready to deliver a lot of pleasure. The majority of the wines from our tasting were opened in the morning and tasted after eight hours of Slow-OX or more, with the exception of the two Vietti Barolo that were bought directly from the restaurant.

Deserving of Recognition

Before jumping into my notes, I would like to personally thank Mikhail Lipyanskiy for sharing the photo work throughout the evening and the beautiful work that he did. Also, to Ai Fiori for creating a perfect environment for us in their private room, and providing a meal for our group that received just as much praise as the wines themselves. Lastly, to the generous members of my beloved Barolo tasting group, which we formed through the Vinous forums, and to Ian d’Agata for taking a break from his hectic schedule to join us.

On To the Tasting Notes

1st Flight: Barbaresco & Nieve: What a place to start. By default, the Barbaresco flight was put out first, expecting the wines to be more giving and ready, but it was only when they were placed in front of me that I realized we had stacked the deck against ourselves. How does one go up from a group of wines like this?

1998 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Asili – The ‘98 Asili lifts up from the glass with a highly expressive and wonderfully pretty mix of earth tones and fruit, as rich black cherry came together with sweet spice, hints of olive, dusty soil and crushed stone. It washed across the senses like a veil of silk, lifted by its pure red fruits and zesty acids, as hints of brown spice and well-resolved tannin set upon the palate. The finish was long, showing tart red berries, sweet herbal tea, and pretty inner floral tones. This was so amazingly beautiful and in a perfect place for drinking right now. (96 points)

1998 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Rabajà – While the Asili was the vibrant and immaculate beauty, the Rabaja was the dark and muscled stallion. Here I found a slight restrained dark fruited bouquet with black cherry and hints of plum lifting from the glass, as dusty soil and mineral tones emerged. On the palate, it was rich and spicy, showing mineral-inflected black raspberry and tart cherry, while hints of slightly unresolved tannin settled on the senses. The finish was long and earthy with saturating black and red fruits, lasting minerality, and hints of tannin holding strong. (94 points)

1998 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Santo Stefano Riserva – In a way that only Santo Stefano seems to be able to achieve, the ‘98 was all at once impeccably balanced, wonderfully pure, amazingly floral, and sweetly spiced. The nose showed dusty dried roses with confectioners’ spice, fresh crushed cherries, and hints of floral undergrowth. On the palate, I found textures so soft that they seemed to envelope all of the senses, yet seeming almost weightless at the same time, as notes of dried cherry and spice gave way to inner florals, with brisk acidity adding vibrancy. Hints of tannin arrived through the long finish, yet only enough to provide a bit of grip, as notes of sweetly-spiced cherry and rosey florals tones lasted throughout. (95 points)

1998 Roagna Barbaresco Crichet Paje – The nose was dark and earthy, opening with crushed stone, dried roses and undergrowth, but then evolving to show spiced cherry and masses of dried florals. It was wonderfully soft upon entry, displaying fleshy black cherry and plum with saturating earthy mineral tones and a wave of balanced acidity. The finish was long, as the Chichet Paje flexed its remaining structural muscle with hints of grippy tannin, saturating tart cherry, and a lingering note of bergamont. What an amazing wine. (96 points)

2nd Flight: Barolo & La Morra: This represented a flight of highly pleasurable wines that showcased the inner-fruit sweetness of the vintage, as well as how wonderfully the wines are drinking today. There were no losers in flight two.

1998 Vietti Barolo Brunate – The ‘98 Vietti Brunate was my surprise of the tasting, knowing that even Luca speaks of this time period as a moment of experimentation, some of which he was unhappy with. I can assure you, he would not be unhappy with the Brunate today. Here I found a gorgeous display of dark, rich black cherry with sweet herbs, tobacco, dried roses and earth, as hints of dark chocolate and olive lingered in the background. On the palate, I found enveloping textures, which were perfectly offset by brisk acidity, as grippy dark red fruits washed across the senses with ease, leaving hints of brown spice and a balsamic twang toward the finale. The finish was long yet fresh and floral with dried cherry and spices lingering on. This is considered a modern-styled wine, yet it’s perfectly resolved, drinking beautifully and an immediate contender for wine of the night. (95 points)

1998 Luciano Sandrone Barolo Cannubi Boschis – The nose was restrained, dark and brooding, with notes of crushed red berries giving way to minerals and hints of cedary spice. On the palate, a soft wave of dark textural red fruit flooded the senses, as sweet spices and hints of baker’s chocolate emerged. The finish was long, showing tart black cherry, hints of gruff tannin, and the slightest twang of residual heat. (91 points)

1998 Paolo Scavino Barolo Rocche dell’Annunziata Riserva – The nose was gorgeous with dark red and black fruits giving way to soil tones, with lifting dried florals and dusty minerality. On the palate, I found velvety textures but with vibrant acidity creating a juicy and fresh expression, as balsamic spiced cherry and sweet herbs swept across the senses, leaving perfectly resolved tannin in its wake. It was long on the finish, lingering on fresh cherries, and with the slightest hint of residual tannin tugging at the cheek. The ‘98 Rocche dell’Annunziata was remarkably pretty, firmly in its drinking window, and perfectly balanced. (94 points)

3rd Flight Monforte: Our Monforte flight was the most difficult to work through due to an extremely odd performance from our Granbussia and the iron vault that is Domenico Clerico Ciabot Mentin Ginestra.

1998 Aldo Conterno Barolo Granbussia – It’s always a shame when a Granbussia is off, something that has happened to me too often in my time as a collector. The ‘98 was muddled, showing dark moist wood with balsamic spices, hints of mint, and sweet herbs. On the palate, I found a soft expression yet lacking focus, with fleshy cherry and sweet herbal tones. The finish was medium-long, resonating on bitter herbs, balsamics and hints of gruff tannin. Whether it was the bottle or the vintage is hard to determine here, as the wine is drinkable, simply not very enjoyable. (84 points)

1998 Domenico Clerico Ciabot Mentin Ginestra – Here I found a restrained expression, which opened over time to reveal blackberry, raspberry and dried florals giving way to a cooling mix of menthol and mint. On the palate, I found silky, dark, cool-toned textures with a polished sheen, as ripe black cherry washed across the senses, leaving a mix of minerals, savory herbs and youthfully grippy tannin in its place. The finish was spicy, resonating on dark fruits, tannin and the slightest hint of heat, yet throughout, the ‘98 CMG came across as beautifully refined, still quite young, and balanced. (93 points)

4th Flight Serralunga: I expected Serralunga to be the most structured but also most focused of the flights, and in most cases I was correct. While Cascina Francia didn’t deliver its best performance, there was still a lot to like, and the combination yet complete opposite performances of the Bruno Giacosa and Massolino left me in awe.

1998 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia – The ‘98 Cascina Francia showed well, yet I still find myself looking to recapture the image I had years ago of what I thought this wine would mature into. The nose was dark and earthy with mineral-infused black cherry and sweet dusty florals, as dark soil tones emerged along with hints of tobacco. On the palate, I found silky textures, contrasted with zesty acids and cherry tones, as saline-minerals came forward and hints of tannin slowly set in. The finish was long, shaking off its structure to reveal herbal cherry and earth. I enjoyed every sip of the ‘98 Cascina Francia, as it’s firmly in its drinking window. (93 points)

1998 Bruno Giacosa Barolo Falletto di Serralunga – The nose showed spicy cherry and sweet florals with textbook Giacosa confectionery spice, contrasted by notes of undergrowth and hints of animal musk. On the palate, I found soft, juicy textures with energizing acidity, as fleshy spiced cherry and sweet herbs washed across the senses, leaving a hint of round tannin. The finish was long, displaying light tannin with tart red fruits and inner floral tones in a moderately structured, yet perfectly open expression. (93 points)

1998 Massolino Barolo Vigna Rionda Riserva – At first the bouquet was restrained, showing only crushed stone and a hint of animal musk, yet with time in the glass, notes of dried strawberry and roses with dusty soil tones and undergrowth began to waft up from the glass. On the palate, I found a cool, classic, savory and refined expression, with dark red fruits and hints of balsamic spice giving way to saline-minerals and unbelievably youthful tannin. The finish was long and structured, showing mineral-laden black cherry, balsamic spice, and earth tones. The ‘98 Vigna Rionda was amazingly classic, years away from its drinking window and full of potential. (94 points)

1998 Vietti Barolo Lazzarito – The ‘98 Lazzarito has seen better days. The nose was dark, a bit murky, and muddled, showing ripe red fruits, sweet herbs, spice, and a hint of olive. On the palate, I found a soft, plush expression with fleshy cherry fruit, brown spices, and quirky acidity. The finish was medium-long with dark cherry tones and earthy minerals. I would like to think this was just the bottle, but it’s not the first time that I’ve experienced the ‘98 Lazzarito aging unevenly. (87 points)

Credits and Resources

Article, Tasting Notes, & Partial Photography: Eric Guido

Additional Photography by: Mikhail Lipyanskiy

A Special thanks to the team at Ai Fiori

Thanks to my fellow Barolo lovers at Vinous Message Boards

For more information on Decanting and Slow-Ox: Click Here

Read Eric’s previous 1998 vintage retrospective at: The V.I.P. Table

For another take on this evenings wines, and one of my favorite wine bloggers, check out: Wine Without Numbers