Vintage quality is an important factor to consider whenever you buy fine wine, but when you buy Barolo, it’s absolutely essential. That’s because the quality of Barolo significantly impacts its aging potential, and a fine aged Barolo is truly a special experience. A well-made wine from a top-quality vintage will taste astoundingly complex at age 20 or 30. Even some of the best wines from the 1950s and 1960s are still drinking well today. However, for Barolo to be this long-lived, it must be high in quality and perfectly balanced. Wines made in hot vintages are less age-worthy and wines made in cool vintages can be astringent. Only a handful of vintages are considered legendary, and they’re highly sought-after.
This is why, even if you’re just looking for a wine to lay down for a few years, vintage matters. Top-quality Barolo ages more gracefully and predictably than Barolo of lesser quality or provenance, and if you plan on reselling your wine, you’ll make the best return on investment if you only purchase excellent vintages. Our guide to the best Barolo vintages will help you find the perfect bottles to add to your collection.
What Makes a Great Barolo Vintage?
A truly great Barolo vintage is rare and is determined by the weather conditions and soil composition in the vineyard, which affect the overall quality of the wine from year to year. Barolo is located in the Italian wine region of Piedmont and like most of northern Italy, it has a continental climate. However, Barolo is generally much cooler than neighboring regions because its vineyards sit at a higher elevation. The soil composition of the different terroirs in the area also varies significantly. Since soil density and composition can change how the weather affects each vineyard, this means that in a given year some producers will have a more successful vintage than others.
To understand what makes a great Barolo vintage, it’s important to consider how the weather and soil affect the flavor of the wine:
How Weather Impacts the Vintage
The cool temperatures in Barolo make these wines very acidic and tannic, which helps them age for decades. The trouble is that the area is also prone to rain, especially during harvest season. When it rains heavily, mildew may infect the grapes. If producers don’t harvest them in time, the grapes may also become too diluted.
Generally, the best Barolo vintages are made in warm years with little rainfall. This may help explain why some of the finest Barolo vintages have been made in the past 20 years. Climate change is causing temperatures to rise in the region and winemakers say that this is improving the quality of the grapes in some vineyards. In 2017, Barolo experienced one of the hottest, driest seasons in recent history. Azienda Agricola Rocca Giovanni’s owner Giovanni Rocca told The New York Times, “The grapes are beautiful, the heat’s good for them.” Nebbiolo, the primary grape used to make Barolo, is slow-ripening. When it’s exposed to ample sunshine and heat, it becomes very complex and concentrated.
Some winemakers worry that if temperatures rise too much in the area, traditional tart Barolo will disappear completely.
However, while some heat benefits Nebbiolo, too much of it makes the wine taste unbalanced. Heat increases sugar and alcohol levels in wine. Great Barolo should taste elegant, with a perfect balance between acid and sugar. This can only happen in years when the grapes were exposed to a combination of warm and cool temperatures. Diurnal variation (when it’s warm during the day but much cooler at night) provides the perfect conditions for Barolo’s Nebbiolo grapes to develop as they should. Some winemakers worry that if temperatures rise too much in the area, traditional tart Barolo will disappear completely.
The best Barolo vintages were made in years when temperatures were warm, but not excessively hot (less than 100 degrees during the day). Some rainfall early in the harvest season helps to produce wines with great acidity, as long as the water doesn’t dilute the grapes. You can glean important information from the harvest date as well. If the grapes were harvested early–in September or early October–they are likely very ripe and the resulting wine could potentially taste hot. If the grapes were harvested on time or late–in mid to late October–the wine may be better balanced.
How Terroir Impacts the Vintage
It’s impossible to say how high or low in quality a Barolo vintage will be based on weather conditions alone. Soil type also plays a role in flavor development. For example, Barolo vineyards that are located close to neighboring commune La Morra usually have soft calcareous clay soils that stay cool and absorb water. This dilutes the grapes somewhat, making them taste fruitier and less intense. It also means that they have less aging potential, especially in years with heavy rainfall. The best vintages in these regions come from years when the weather was hot and dry, as the soil keeps the vines cool and watered even in times of drought.
In general, the most collectible Barolo comes from Monforte d’Alba and Serralunga d’Alba.
In other areas of Barolo, like Monforte d’Alba, the soil is sandstone-based. This type of soil is fast-draining, so grapes never become too diluted. The wines in these areas are more intense, structured, and acidic than those made from grapes grown in clay-based soil. Sandstone does store some water deep underground that the vines can reach in especially hot, dry years. The grapes in these areas fare well when the weather is sunny and warm, but the vines can also withstand more rain due to the fast-draining soil.
In general, the most collectible Barolo comes from Monforte d’Alba and Serralunga d’Alba, both of which have sandstone-based soils. This means that, if you’re looking for the very best Barolo wines, you should seek out years when the weather was perfect in these areas. Warm summers, cool nights, and some mild harvest rains are the recipe for spectacular, age-worthy Barolo in these regions.
Ranking the Best Barolo Vintages of the Past 20 Years
Vintage quality may vary from vineyard to vineyard, but you can still use overall vintage rankings to help you find the best wines for your collection. Below is a list of the best Barolo vintages of the past 20 years, according to The Wine Advocate. These wines received a score of 96 points or higher:
- 2010 (98 points): A fairly cool year. The wines are elegant, structured, and have great aging potential.
- 2006 (97 points): Another cool year produced well-balanced, structured wines that will age for many decades.
- 2001 (96 points): Hot afternoons and chilly nights gave these wines firm tannins and lively acidity.
Because these wines are still very young for Barolo, they’ll benefit from a few years of storage before being opened. The youngest of these vintages, the 2010, may take decades to reach its peak. Some bottles of 2001 Barolo are beginning to show maturity; read recent tasting notes for your specific wine to decide when to drink this vintage.
Experienced wine critics can usually spot a top-quality Barolo vintage when it’s still young, but some high-quality vintages may fly under the radar.
Another factor to consider when you invest in young Barolo is that it is difficult to tell exactly how these wines will mature over the decades. The Wine Advocate’s scores tend to be reliable, but Barolo changes significantly in the bottle. Experienced wine critics can usually spot a top-quality Barolo vintage when it’s still young, but some high-quality vintages may fly under the radar, especially if they are high in acidity or very tannic in their youth. If these flavors integrate more with age and the wine becomes more balanced, it may receive much higher scores later in life than it did upon release. In other words, this list of the best recent Barolo vintages isn’t definitive or permanent. Vintages with slightly lower ratings by wine critics (between 93 and 95 points) may get better with age. Keep a close eye on the 2013, 2007, and 2004 vintages in particular, as The Wine Advocate considers these vintages “outstanding,” meaning that they received a score between 90 and 95 points.
Ranking the Best Older Barolo Vintages
Many collectors choose to invest in older Barolo vintages because they don’t have to wait as long for these wines to mature. Below is a list of the best Barolo vintages made prior to 2000, according to The Wine Advocate:
- 1996 (97 points): A perfect growing season that produced structured, fruity wines with great acidity.
- 1990 (96 points): Warm weather gave these wines ripe fruit flavors. They also have firm tannins and long aging potential.
- 1989 (97 points): A warm summer made these wines opulent and very ripe. They are intense and well-balanced.
- 1982 (96 points): Diurnal temperature swings and hot afternoons produced powerful wines with high acidity and tannin.
- 1978 (97 points): Considered a classical year in Barolo. The wines have a perfectly-balanced combination of firm tannins, lively acidity, and complex fruit.
Many wines made between 1980 and 1999 are beginning to reach full maturity, although some may still benefit from a few more years in storage. The best wines made in the 1960s and 1970s are drinking exceptionally well now. There are even a handful of wines made prior to the 1960s that aren’t over the hill just yet. However, the aging potential of Barolo does have limits. It’s difficult to find a quality Barolo that’s more than 50 years old. This is primarily because it’s rare to find a wine that has been stored perfectly over its entire lifetime, and even small storage problems can negatively impact a wine’s aging potential. Moreover, while the very best vintages will last 50 years or more, lower-quality Barolo wines will stop developing in complexity within two or three decades and many wines will decline in quality if they’re left in storage for too long. This is yet another reason why it’s important to invest in the best vintages you can find.
How Long Should You Keep the Best Barolo Vintages?
If you want to collect Barolo, you must be patient. Dan Berger of the Napa Valley Register describes opening a bottle of 1987 Barolo after it had spent more than 27 years in storage. The wine was only just starting to open up. When great Barolo is young, it often tastes tannic, astringent, and tight. However, as it matures, it transforms into some of the most complex, delicious wine in the world. Berger said, “Even storied Bordeaux, with its grand traditions dating to the middle of the 19th century, usually doesn’t have the power to deliver this much flavor at age 20 and 30.”
To give your Barolo the chance to achieve its potential, don’t open it too soon. The Wine Advocate gives the following drink times for each of the best Barolo vintages:
Since some bottles mature faster than others, use these recommendations as general guidelines, not as hard-and-fast rules. You’ll want to read tasting notes for specific wines and producers to determine the best drinking window for your bottles.
When you invest in wines from the best Barolo vintages, always keep them under ideal storage conditions. Professional storage is a good idea for Barolo since it is able to age for so many years; a storage warehouse will precisely regulate the temperature and humidity around your bottles. Another benefit of professional storage is that you won’t be tempted to open your bottles too early. One of the biggest mistakes that Barolo collectors make is that they lose patience and open the wine before it’s ready. Just a couple extra years of aging can make a world of difference when it comes to the balance and flavor integration of a great Barolo wine. By ensuring your wines are stored properly and for the right length of time, you’ll experience the best Barolo vintages at their very finest.
Whether you are starting your high-end wine collection or adding to an established portfolio, Vinfolio is your partner in buying, selling, and professional storage. Contact us today to get access to the world’s finest wine.
Image source: Alessandro Vecchi [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]