Special Report – Barolo 2016 and Barbaresco 2017

A Great Time to Be Drinking Piedmont

By John Szabo MS

Several factors have collided to make Barolo and Barbaresco, two of Italy’s most sought after wines, especially attractive at the moment. That’s not a light statement, as I’ve been fascinated by the wines of Piedmont since 1994, when, in the region for the first time and wearing a backpack, I randomly selected a name from a list of unfamiiar wine producers provided by the Alba tourism office. I put some lira coins into a public payphone and called to set up an appointment. That visit to Bartolo Mascarello was, to understate the moment, transformative.

Fast forward to February 2020, and a massive tasting of 2016 Barolo and 2017 Barbaresco in New York City, in the calm before the storm. It was a first-of-its-kind event, also the largest gathering of Piedmontese producers outside of Italy, called the “Barolo Barbaresco World Opening” or BBWO in social media terms. The BBWO provided an opportunity to taste and talk with over 200 producers who had made the journey to the US, and highlight the latest releases and developments in the region. A couple of weeks later I was in Barolo for a short visit. The sum of this research has led me to the conclusion that it’s a great time to be drinking these wines.

The Commune of Barolo, Piedmont

The Holy Trinity: Quality – Price – Availability

Why? The holy trinity of quality, attractive pricing and availability have collided.

First, price and availability. Since the turn of the century, enthusiastic plantings of nebbiolo (the only authorized variety), especially in the Barolo zone, have led to oversupply. There is plenty of wine to go around, even with a short vintage in 2017 and strong worldwide demand. The consorzio has even taken the drastic measure of banning new nebbiolo plantings for the next three years to control output.

Oversupply, Falling Prices 

Ilaria Bertini, head of communications for the Barolo and Barbaresco Consorzio, is quoted in Drinks Business as saying: “We don’t want to be faced with the situation of a glut of wine, so the consorzio has taken the step to stop any new plantings of vines in the Barolo region for the next three years.” The new rule came into place in this past January and we will be reviewed in 2023. “It is a preventative measure to control the production of Barolo and preserve the landscape”, says Bertini, a move most producers have supported.

But it’s both a preventative and reactive measure. The price of the most basic quality bulk Barolo has already been falling over the last couple of years, down from its all-time high of over 9 euros per liter in 2016. The planting ban may help to shore up and stabilize prices, but the damage is already partly done.

The side story to this fact is that many of those recently planted vineyards are in less than optimal sites, according to several insiders. Prior to the boom of Barolo and Barbaresco, starting in the mid-late 1980s, nebbiolo was reserved for only the best (read: warmest, steepest, highest) sites where it was likely to ripen with regularity and express its best. But increasing pressure on supply encouraged producers to plant nebbiolo in sites previously thought suitable only for the region’s earlier ripening grapes, dolcetto and barbera, or sites that had never been considered for planting at all.

According to the consorzio, there are currently 2,100 hectares of vines planted in Barolo DOCG farmed by 378 producers, for an annual production of about around 14 million bottles. To put that in perspective, production of Barolo in 1996 was a mere 6.2 million bottles, rising to 8.2 million in 2000.

Barbaresco has been less affected, being a much smaller region in the first place, with currently 763 hectares of vines and 211 producers making about 5 million bottles of Barbaresco DOCG.

During my visit to Barolo in February I saw new nebbiolo vineyards on east and north-facing hillsides and in flatter, frost-prone zones with heavier soils, clearly not ideal for such a late ripening grape and top quality. Climate change has surely made some of these areas better-suited to nebbiolo than in years past, but certainly not all. This makes bottlings from older vines, 25-30 years old, planted almost by definition in optimum vineyards, all the more precious and a factor to consider when making purchase decisions.

The net result is that bottle prices should lower, or at least remain stable, for all but the most sought after producers. In other words, it’s a great time to discover some of the less famous names in the region making superb wines, but who have to work harder to sell them. Some guidance here is recommended, however.  And all this is equally true for Barbareso, whose fortunes are so intimately tied to those of Barolo. Indeed, Barbaresco is a generally better value than Barolo at the best of times (bulk prices are little more than a third of those of Barolo), and this is one of the good times for nebbiolo lovers. If this is you, and you’ve got too much time on your hands, this youtube video will bring a smile to your face.


Then there’s quality. The technical improvements in viticulture and winemaking that have rippled across the greater wine world in the last couple of decades have likewise reached the shores of Piedmont. The exaggerated distinction between traditionalists and modernists (long macerations, long ageing in large old casks vs. short macerations, often in roto-fermenters and ageing in small, often new barriques), a starting point of producer and style discussions pre-2000, is by now a footnote in the regional history. Radical experimentation has largely stopped, and the pendulum come to rest in a happy, balanced mid-point. There are very few wines of unnaturally soft texture and new wood smells, nor many with hard, rustic tannins and dried out, fruitless flavours. That’s not to say that all wines taste the same – producers have settled into their own personal styles – it’s just that the spectrum is not as bewilderingly wide as it had been previously, and the wines are better and more consistent in general.

2016 Barolo: An Exceptional, Breathtaking Vintage

And all of this evolution has come sharply into focus with the current release of the exceptional 2016 Barolos, of which there are dozens of truly splendid wines of exceptional pedigree, a true Barolo-lovers vintage. I’m not fond of the overused word epic, but if ever it applied, this would be the year. Indeed, the depth of quality across the region is unparalleled, making this a vintage where you can comfortably explore lesser-known names and newer producers and find exceptional value. But of course, if you can get your hands on the marquee producers, don’t hesitate. Though there’s no need to obsess either, if drinking great Barolo, not famous labels, is your goal.

There’s not much to say about the weather itself in 2016. Temperatures were a little cooler than normal, and rainfall a little lower compared to the last ten years, but other than that, no significant weather events occurred. It was a long and late season with ideal harvest conditions in October, producing fully ripe, healthy grapes and resulting in what we’d call ‘classic’ wines, with impeccable balance, purity and density. Many producers extended their macerations to extract the maximum, a technique only possible in great years with ripe, healthy grapes. And as an additional bonus, and further to my earlier point, yields were also higher than average, so supply is abundant. These are wines for long term cellaring, even if the fruit is so pure they’ll be hard to resist in the near term. In time, they will likely prove superior to the (also classic) 2010s and 2013s.

See the Barolo buyer’s guide below for a collection of both well-known and lesser known names, all highly recommended.

2017 Barbaresco: Not-So-Stellar, but With Immediate Appeal

If parellels are sought, 2017 falls more in the style of 2007, 2009 and 2011, hot vintages that produced relatively soft and earlier maturing wines. I find the 2017 Barbarescos as a group far more heterogeneous than the 2016 Barolos, with the less successful wines showing excessively raisined or cooked fruit flavours, and hard, leathery tannins. The challenges in 2017 were many, including hail, frost, drought and an intense heatwave coupled with warmer than average nighttime temperatures, which shortened the growing season and stunted colour and aromatic development and tannin ripeness. Yields were pitifully low in some areas, especially Neive, where some producers reported a loss of up to 80% of the harvest.

There are good wines, of course, thanks to diligent vineyard work, careful vinification, and some luck, but it’s far from the general excellence of 2016. Hard tannins may give the impression of ageability, but I fear they will never soften, while raisined fruit flavours will turn even more leathery. The most successful producers understood the challenges and aimed for easier, softer wines for early drinking, pleasurable, if not monumental, with some exceptions. I’ve highlighted the best Barbarescos that I’ve come across to date in the buyer’s guide below.

All in all, it’s a great time to be drinking Piedmont.

Buyer’s Guide: Barolo 2016

97 2016 Brovia Barolo Brea Vigna Ca’ Mia

Ripe but classically styled Barolo here, with intense aromatic concentration featuring abundant, sappy red fruit shifting into the darker spectrum, maintaining poise and vibrancy. The palate is full and complete, with terrific intensity, freshness and genuine depth, perfectly sapid and succulent with extreme length, magical even, with iron filings and marked salinity. A superb bottle, best after 2024, or hold into the late ’30s.  Drink 2024-2040. Tasted February 2020.

96 2016 Vico Luigi Barolo Prapò

Luigi was the top great discovery from my tastings in February, a long-time grape grower-turned-wine-producer bottling a small portion for himself with this inaugural 2016 release, just a few thousand bottles produced. It’s pale-medium garnet red with bright, high-toned red fruit aromatics, floral, fresh and dried resinous herbs, showing fine complexity in the regional idiom, and terrific finesse. It’s really the palate that shines with its sapidity and salinity that drives additional sips. Tannins are very fine grained and firm as they should be, ensuring positive evolution. Excellent length. A very fine wine that’s neither modern nor old school, just excellent nebbiolo, well-made from a top site, and a spectacular debut to be sure. Drink 2022-2030. Tasted February 2020.

96 2016 Cantini Ascheri Barolo Sorano

Sorano is shared by the communes of Serralunga and Diano d’Alba. The cru is given a longer maceration than Ascheri’s other Baroli, over two weeks, with one part given over a month. The fruit of this 2016 is very ripe, fleshy, dense and extracted, another abundantly tannic wine so nicely coated with masses of fruit and spice. The palate is equally dense and dark, with terrific structure and excellent length. Outstanding, highly structured wine, best after 2024, or cellar into the late ’30s. Tasted February 2020.

96 2016 Cantini Ascheri Barolo Coste Bricco

From Serralunga, essentially two sub-parcels within the Sorano vineyard, from the “Bricco” (top of the hill), and Coste, the sloping parcel with the best exposure. This 2016 is tightly wound, but with massive potential, a hugely tannic wine but with so much fruit extract  to balance. Acids are terrifically succulent and juicy, coiled and energetic, with and length is . This should hit prime sometime round 10 years of age, though should also prove to be a very long-lived Barolo, lasting beyond the ’30s. Tasted February 2020.

95 2016 Marcarini Barolo La Serra

Pale colour. Delicate aromatics in the classic La Morra style, from the high elevation, cooler La Serra site. 45 days post fermentation maceration serve to soften and round out tannins, making this very fine and elegant, supple, also very fresh and poised. My style. Gorgeous stuff. Tasted February 2020.

95 2016 Renato Ratti Barolo Rocche dell’Annunziata

A very perfumed, almost Pinot-like Barolo here from Renato Ratti in 2016, from the always-excellent Rocche dell’Annunziata cru in La Morra, one of the top bottlings from his range. The palate shows delicate wood-fruit balance and supple, velvety textured, very silky, with fine depth and length. A top notch example, best 2021-2040. Tasted February 2020.

94 2016 Massolino Barolo Parafada

Medium red-garnet. Modest intensity aromatics; seems to lack the thrust of the best, but all the usual elements are in place. The palate delivers more than expected, indeed there’s a high degree of succulence on offer, pretty, fresh, tight red fruit and the savoury herbs of the place/grape. Length and depth are very good. Ultimately very good wine, best after 2022, when the aromatic complexity will have filled out. Drink 2022-2030. Tasted February 2020.

94 2016 Carlo Revello & Figli Barolo RG

Lovely perfume, fine and elegant, red fruit driven. The palate is fleshy-firm, with abundant tannins coated in dense fruit extract. Length and depth are very good to excellent. Juicy, sapid, succulent in the regional idiom. Fine and refined. Drink 2022-2030. Tasted February 2020.

94 2016 Viberti Osvaldo Barolo Serra dei Turchi

A Barolo on the riper end of the spectrum, even for the vintage, with wide-ranging aromatics, crossing from tar to dried roses, dried herbs, ripe red and even black berry fruit, and more – highly complex. The palate is plush, dense and rich, generously alcoholic but in balance, a big, bold, hugely satisfying wine all in all, best after 2023. Excellent length. Fine wine, traditional in the modern sense.  Drink 2023-2035. Tasted February 2020.

94 2016 Icardi Barolo Fossati

Pale garnet red-garnet. Open and perfumed, in the classic register, with plenty of rusty iron, dried flowers, bright red fruit, dried herbs and more. The palate really delivers a wallop of flavour, high intensity, with succulent acids, light but firm, dusty-grippy tannins, in check by fruit extract. Very good length. I like the leaner, more angular profile here, a modern interpretation of tradition. Drink 2022-2030. Tasted February 2020.

94 2016 Marchesi di Barolo Barolo del Comune di Barolo

Pretty nose here in the varietal register, Damson plum-driven, fresh and dried, with additional rasined fruit character, dried herbs and the like in typical fashion. The palate is ample, generously proportioned, structured and firm, with great flavour development and expansive finish. A broad and solid mouthful. Quality, best after 2024. Drink 2024-2030. Tasted February 2020.

94 2016 Vite Colte Essenze Barolo del Comune di Barolo

Classic perfume: floral, tar, dried herbs, fresh and dried red and black fruit, menthol, dried mint and more. I love the succulent palate, balanced with acids and tannins fully in check, although abundant. Excellent length. Quality wine here, neither modern nor traditional, a juste milieu. Fine stuff. Drink 2022-2030. Tasted February 2020.

94 2016 Cantini Ascheri Barolo Pisapola

One of the highest vineyards in Verduno, from the more elegant side of the appellation, Pisapola also has lighter soils  but that’s not to say that there isn’t structure here. Indeed the tannic structure is quite impressive, framed by ripe acids and masses of fruit extract in this excellent vintage. Tannins are however well managed, polished, firm but fine. Length is excellent. A top notch example. Tasted February 2020.

94 2016 Cantina Ascheri Barolo Ascheri

Not to be confusing, but Ascheri is both the name of the commune and the name of the vineyard, all in La Morra, with southwest exposure and heavier more clays. Ascheri seeks to enhance the tendency towards a more muscular expression of nebbiolo from this site, and indeed the wine is a little more tight on the nose than his softer Pisapola, also thick with extract on the palate, with abundant tannins hidden under waves of savoury dark fruit. This is 3-5 years away from prime drinking to be sure. Very tightly wound and with excellent length. Best after 2023, or hold into the mid-’30s. Tasted February 2020.

94 2016 Giacomo Fenocchio Barolo Bussia

From the communes of Monforte d’Alba and Barolo, Giacomo Fenocchio’s 2016 Bussia is crafted in the traditional, old style, with perfumed aromatics redolent of dried, resinous herbs,  and dried red fruit, but still lively. The palate shows great presence and depth, with expansive flavours and very long finish. Very fine wine, best after 2022 or hold into the late ’30s. Tasted February 2020.

93 2016 Gemma Barolo del Comune di Serralunga

A ripe but tightly wound, notably reductive example of Barolo, showing some cracked pepper and hair perm character that will need some time to resolve in bottle, but there’s enormous potential underneath. The palate is firm, darker fruit flavoured, sapid, concentrated, with very good length and depth. Tannins are tight; again, another 3-5 years at least are necessary to resolve this firm and muscular wine, but balance is there. Fine, more modern-leaning Barolo. Drink 2024-2035. Tasted February 2020.

93 2016 Manzone Paolo Barolo Meriame

Deep garnet red colour. Big, expansive, evolved, more old school style Barolo here, featuring little fruit, but plenty of herbal, pot pourri, licorice, dried bark, earth, dried mint, dried flowers – complexity is high. The palate is fleshy, generously proportioned, richly tannic but not hard, with more than enough flesh to see this through. Not for fruit lovers, but fans of classic Barolo will find happiness here. Best after 2023. Drink 2023-2035. Tasted February 2020.

93 2016 Reva Barolo Cannubi

A ripe, fruity, forward, wood-inflected wine, mentholated, immediate and inviting, but not in a classic style. On the palate the wine delivers a similar raisined fruit-forward profile, with very firm and dusty tannins- this will need some time to resolve, but I believe it has the stuffing to do so over the next 2-4 years. Stays just on the right side of the balance scale. Drink 2024-2032. Tasted February 2020.

93 2016 Borgogno Fratelli Serio e Battista Barolo Cannubi

A lovely Cannubi here from Borgogno Fratelli Serio e Battista in 2016, given a long 35-day maceration, and 30 months in large old botti. It’s one of the more ripe, lightly candied examples of the vintage, though remains firm,  succulent  and juicy on the palate. A classic but yielding style all in all, which should be ready to enjoy within a couple of years even if there’s no rush to drink; cellar into the ’30s without concern. Tasted February 2020.

Buyer’s Guide: Barbaresco 2017

95 2017 Oddero Poderi e Cantine Barbaresco Gallina

One of the great successes of the vintage. Pale-medium red-garnet. Aromatically closed at the moment, but this shows attractive and typical orange peel, tart red fruit and herbal character, quite tonic in fact, refreshing. The palate is full, succulent, boldly flavoured, balanced on the larger end of the scale, with perfectly ripe fruit and excellent length. A top notch example, Best after 2022, or hold into the early ’30s. Well-crafted wine, from a great site. Drink 2022-2030. Tasted February 2020.

94 2017 Renato Fenocchio Barbaresco Starderi

Properly pale red garnet. Gorgeous nose, so perfumed and elegant, exuding classic floral notes, dried rose and lemon blossom, bright, fresh red fruit. Complexity is moderate for now but this is a sheer pleasure to smell. The palate is silky and transparent, with very fine, dusty-grainy tannins supported by fresh, succulent acids. A wine crafted in the finessed idiom, a grand success for this hot and often unbalanced vintage. The perfume lingers nicely – deceptively long indeed. Textbook Barbaresco. Drink 2022-2030. Tasted February 2020.

94 2017 Adriano Marco e Vittorio Barbaresco Basarin

Medium red-red-garnet. Partially open but complete nose, with solid if not extraordinary complexity on offer for the moment. Fruit is sappy and red, ripe but not overripe, mixed with resinous herbs and rosewater perfume. The palate is solidly structured, sappy and showing genuine old vine vinosity, density and concentration, a genuine low yielding mouthful of wine. Tannins are ripe and supple – balance was hit nicely here, and the length is excellent. Best after 2023; should develop into an exceptional bottle. Drink 2023-2035. Tasted February 2020.

93 2017 Pietro Rinaldi San Cristoforo Barbaresco

Pale garnet red. Clean, fragrant, delicate in the nebbiolo idiom, with fruit shifting into the savoury dried red berry category; complexity is moderate for the time being, but will surely develop in time. Indeed the palate is grainy-firm,  quite expansive, with terrific density and length. A fine and classic example. Drink 2022-2030. Tasted February 2020.

93 2017 Castello di Neive Barbaresco Albesani Santo Stefano

Fine, typical colour. Youthful nose with damson plum fruit off the top, sweet baking spice, nutmeg, some candied red berry character, Turkish delight and more in a familiar idiom; complexity is developing. The palate is thick, richly flavoured, succulent, with high but integrated alcohol and abundant, grippy, almost chewy tannins, raw and unpolished. This will need some time in bottle to come around, 2-3 years minimum I’d suspect, a big powerful, muscular Barbaresco. Drink 2022-2030. Tasted February 2020.

91 2017 Massimo Rattalino Barbaresco Currà

Proper pale garnet colour. Still somewhat closed on the nose but showing underlying sweet red fruit and floral tones, an attractive resinous side, also classic fresh tar and rosehips. The palate is juicy and succulent, a very sapid wine indeed, and although depth and concentration are moderate, this is a solid representation, true to region and variety. Rest another year in the cellar, but drink over the near horizon – it’s not a wine for long-term ageing. Drink 2022-2028. Tasted February 2020.