I know that will be considered to be rather inflammatory, but it is the truth. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, as I’m sure many of you have. Fortunately, depending on your point of view, I am the most apologetic in my wine tasting groups, which is to say that everyone else is ruthless and most people would require a safe space to retreat to during a typical wine tasting dinner. Mind you, these are my friends; they are not the rag tag assemblage of wine geekery that strains my nerves at so many of the wine focused off-lines I am no longer invited to. I respect them because they tell it like it is, even if going a bit over the top is de rigueur in this crowd.
So what is it I’ve wanted to share? Simply that I am done buying very old Barolo. What a shock, I know. But here’s the thing. I’ve been drinking these wines for years, certainly two decades for the older wines, and I have noticed 2 distinct phenomena intersecting over those years. Massive price increases, and fewer good bottles. The price increases are simple to understand. Barolo, and Barbaresco for that matter, is hot, and yet needs a decade in the cellar to even begin to reveal its potential. The wines are produced in smaller quantities, with even smaller quantities being produced in decades past, much smaller. There are relatively few bottles of the wines remaining and an ever increasing pool of thirsty buyers so Econ 101 is sufficient for explaining the price increases.
The second part of the equation though is a bit more complex. The hit rate for good bottles is going down, and not in preparation for some sort of soft landing as might be expected if we were simply dealing with the wines getting older. Make no mistake that the simple age of the wines is playing some role here. How can it not? The older a wine gets the more likely any given bottle has succumbed to a bad cork or improper storage, but this can’t account for what is going on in my tasting. Where a decade ago three or four bottles out of five of these old wines were giving some pleasure, today it's more like one out three. Given the increasing prices these bottles are commanding, those odds suck.
As I said this is not simply due to these wines getting older, it’s also directly related to their becoming more valuable. The marketplace is seeing wines coming out of passive storage in home and restaurants now that they are worth the effort of exhuming. The top wine retailers still have access to fine sources of older wines, for which you’ll pay a pretty penny, but so many bottles from secondary sources and in particular the auction markets are simply cooked. Slow roasted is probably a better characterization, shot to hell after spending decades in rooms that probably drifted from close to 80 degrees to under 60 over the course of each year.
So I am out, with an asterisk. Some arbitrary line needs to be drawn to delineate what is too old, and where the value proposition ceases to be favorable. That’s where the asterisk comes in. If the price is right I will continue to buy the odd old bottle now and again, but I have decided that I am generally no longer in the market for wines produced prior to 1970. That’s an arbitrary line, I know. But it’s my line. 1970 is a quite decent year, still generally offered at an attractive discount to a better vintage such as 1971 so it seems a fitting place to call it quits. It also seems to be close to the demarcation line that separates the wild days of post war make-doism and something more closely resembling modern winemaking, but that is a story best left for another day.
With my wine-buying prowess so restrained I can imagine that there will be no effect on the market for these older wines. When they are good, bottles from the 1950s and 1960s can be quite special, but the truth of the matter is that I generally prefer my wines a bit younger. The bottlings from the 1970s and 1980s are right in my wheelhouse today, and while they are far from immune to market driven pricing, at least with these wines I’m still finding the vast majority to be more or less sound.
Of course, buying on release and storing the wines properly can be the best plan of action, though many wines in the 1970s and 1980s suffered through unrefrigerated shipments, and I am beginning to reap the rewards of having bought these wines, from the late 1970s and through the 1980s on release. This makes it a little easier to turn my back on the older wines that have been a staple of my wine consumption for two decades but nothing makes it as easy as the tasting I attended just a few weeks ago.
So many bottles gently cooked, as if subjected to a few hours of sous vide. The color of raspberry iced tea, the nose of Sherry tipped into a glass that still smelled of Madeira. And before you object that the wines may have needed more air, a decade ago I converted everyone at these dinners to the 12-24 hour double decanting that I prefer. No, these were just dead, or sadly clinging to life, but undrinkable in any event, which is not technically true but since they were devoid of pleasure, we had other wines, and there was no compelling reason to simply get drunk, there was simply no reason to drink them. To wit:
1964 Filippo Sobrero Barolo - Corked
1964 Ceretto Barolo Riserva Annata - Expired
1964 Franco Fiorina Barolo - Deceased
In an effort to break the spell I threw in a pair of wines that would have surprised us with their liveliness, as both would be expected to be on their deathbeds if not already delivered from this mortal coil.
Did show some gravelly soil notes with sweet oxidative tones covering a gently corked core of dark fruit.
1985 Bartolo Mascarello Dolcetto
Finally! Wine! Not very good but sweetly leathery, earthy and yet interesting. No fruit left but drinkable with impressive length. Very pleasant if old and indistinct with some rubber tire notes growing with air. Throw 73pts at it and be done with it, though in this company it was both a surprising showing as well as the first wine that actually could be drunk, not that much of it was.
Back to Barolo
1964 Pico della Mirandola Barolo
Shy on the nose with sweet oxidation notes that are subtle but present. Bright with some fruit in the mouth, a fairly smooth texture soft with resolved tannins, plenty of acidity, receding flesh revealing simple but pleasant licorice length. Simple, a bit told, but moderately well preserved. 82pts
1964 Fratelli Minuto Antico Pertinace
Which is a very fine Nebbiolo, which in this case is corked.
Oxidized on the nose with predominant aromas of butterscotch light coffee, and wet tobacco. High acid, lean, and ungenerous on the palate. Lots of licorice emerges on the nose and gently on the backend but this is a shadow of what it should be. Drinkable, but there is no pleasure here. 80pts
1967 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Riserva Pora
Tar, fennel pollen and a touch of meatiness emerge on the nose which is generally a little on the spicy side. Lovely in the mouth with nice hard candy fruit on the palate and decent length. A touch grippy and only with modest length but this is decidedly alive. 86pts
Produttori rides to the rescue once again. Amazing how consistent and reliable these wines have been over the years.
1967 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Riserva Rabaya
Once again the nose is graced by subtle fennel seeds notes along with spicy little red berries in a meadow of aromatic herbs. A touch of mustiness emerges on the entry, and while a bit raw and lean in the mouth this shows solid length with the tannins showing a subtle firmness. Finishes slightly medicinal with the herbal note of the nose being quite dominant. 83pts
1964 Vallana Spanna Castello San Lorenzo
A bit sweet and smoky on the nose with lovely bbq aromas accented with a hint of fennel pollen and mint. Really a lovely nose but sadly one with which the palate can’t compete. Light but balanced in the mouth which is driven by lots of acid and shows good length but with very little complexity and nuance. A fully aged Barbaresco which still shows that it was well made but has lost much of what made it interesting and enjoyable. 84pts
1967 Francesco Rinaldi Barolo
Sweet fruit on the nose which is a bit baconny with it’s smoky and slightly meaty undertones. Air brings out an additional floral element here but this remains gently perfumed. Supple and fine in the mouth, a bit tarry with a nice core of fruit up front and decent follow, through a bit dry and austere. Air lends this a real sweetness on the palate with a lovely burst of red fruit that gains length and depth with air. Another remarkably reliable producer, at least in my experience. 88pts
1964 Cappellano Barolo
Floral, earthy, leathery, and complex on the nose which remains moderately fresh. Over the course of an hour this really opens up nicely with medicinal and floral notes. Fully resolved and lacking some midpale but not old or oxidized lively with a lovely red fruit flavor that is subtle but persistent. 89pts
So that was it. An evening of disappointments, which seems to occur every couple of years. I cannot lament, for I am blessed with far more great nights than disappointments such as this, but I can endeavor to make nights like this fewer and farther between. Younger wine is the answer I tell you!
While I will actively be pursuing this younger wine path, and of course I'm simply talking about virile middle aged wines, let me just conclude here by reiterating my point. Old Piedmontese wines are not by nature all dead. There are too many exception to make that point. What I am saying is that the market for old Piedmontese wines is so strong that it is pulling all sorts of trash from poorly stored sources and no longer represents a good value for me. I will drink what I have, and perhaps buy a few more, but today the risk simply outweighs the reward!
What do you think? Still buying? Having great luck? Been burned and not venturing back? We would love to know how other people are approaching this problem. leave a comment and let us know!