2008 Barolo—An Ageworthy Vintage

Cool growing conditions in Piedmont produced impressive results

Excerpted from the April 30, 2013, issue

The long, cool 2008 vintage in Italy’s Piedmont region harks back to an earlier era, delivering classic-style wines.

“The 2008 vintage wasn’t typical of the last vintages—hot, with no trouble. It was a vintage like I remember when I was a baby,” says Giacomo Conterno, of Poderi Aldo Conterno, which he co-owns with his brothers Franco and Stefano.

The trio made three classic-scoring Barolos from the 2008 harvest: the round and fleshy Colonnello (96 points, $140), with pure cherry, raspberry and spice flavors; the refined yet structured, cherry- and tar-flavored Romirasco (96, $188); and the silky, Burgundy-like Cicala (95, $140).

After a trend toward warmer growing seasons over the past two decades, 2008 saw a return to the cooler conditions and longer harvests more typical of the 1970s and ’80s. This was an advantage for Barolo, made from Nebbiolo grapes, which ripen late and benefit from the autumn light and cooler temperatures at night.

Based on blind tastings of nearly 800 Piedmont wines since last year’s report, I give the 2008 vintage for reds an overall rating of 94 points, or outstanding on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale. The top-scoring group is dominated by Barolos, which represent nearly 35 percent of all wines tasted, with 180 from the 2008 vintage and another 75 late releases from 2007 and 2006, both excellent years.

There are also nearly 100 Barbarescos (also made from Nebbiolo) in this report, mostly from 2009 and 2008, along with more than 125 wines from the Barbera grape. The remaining wines include Nebbiolo Langhe and Roero reds and Dolcetto (another grape), as well as Arneis, Gavi and Langhe whites, plus Moscato d’Asti (reviewed by Alison Napjus).

In Piedmont, Barolo is king, with a deserved reputation for intense, muscular reds that take years to reveal their perfume and finesse. Along with its more elegant cousin, Barbaresco, Barolo has earned a spot among the world’s greatest wines, thanks to longevity and complexity.

Wine lovers who seek structured and expressive Nebbiolos with pure fruit flavors, reminiscent of the vintages of the past, will find much to like in these 2008 Barolos, the most recent vintage on the market. The fruit flavors tend to strawberry, raspberry and cherry, accented by notes of tar, tobacco, licorice and mineral. The “nervous” structures of the ’08s, a result of the wines’ vibrant acidities, require an additional year to five years to reach their peaks, allowing them to age beautifully over the next 10 to 20 years.

After a very cold winter, the growing season got off to a cool, wet start. According to Conterno, it was the period of warm days and cool nights from the end of August until the Nebbiolo harvest in late October that made the vintage. “But you still had to take a risk,” he adds. “The biggest concern was ripeness, so we made the decision to pick late.”

Other vintners agree that the 2008 season was all about waiting for optimum ripeness. The wait paid off for Elio Grasso, who made a racy Barolo Gavarini Chiniera 2008 (95, $57) and a lush yet well-structured Barolo Ginestra Casa Maté 2008 (93, $57). Other classic-rated 2008 Barolos come from Falletto di Bruno Giacosa, Conterno Fantino, Fontanafredda, Massolino, Giuseppe Rinaldi and Vietti. Also impressive are the 2008s from Schiavenza, where Luciano Pira and Walter Anselma are crafting beautiful wines with luscious Nebbiolo fruit that makes them appealing young.

While they don’t reach the heights of the ’08 Barolos, the best Barbarescos from the warm 2009 vintage show charming fruit and balance, with good structure. Elsewhere in the region, Barbera and Dolcetto are also worth your attention, with the most recent releases from the 2011, 2010 and 2009 vintages. These wines are the best source for red wine values from Piedmont. Though the 2008 and 2010 vintages appear to be a throwback to earlier climatic regimes, 2009 and especially 2011 bear the imprint of the more recent warming trend.

Currently, there are fine vintages of Barolo (2008), Barbaresco (2009), Barbera (2010) and Dolcetto (2010) available, in a range of prices. For Piedmont wine lovers, or fans of Italian wines in general, this is a good time to stock up on everyday reds and whites, as well as a few gems for the cellar.

Senior editor Bruce Sanderson is Wine Spectator‘s lead taster on the wines of Piedmont.

To learn more about the performance of other recently released wines from Piedmont, read the full article, “2008 Barolo—An Ageworthy Vintage” in our online archives.