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April 3, 2024updated 04 Apr 2024 12:29pm

2019 Barolo: Much purity and refinement

Andrew Jefford, Bruno Besa, and Michael Palij MW taste the "classical" wines of a challenging vintage.

By Andrew Jefford

A topsy-turvy 2019 Barolo growing season set many challenges for growers who produced wines that are classical in structure, with firm tannins and high acidity but less of the density and richness of recent warmer years, says Andrew Jefford, who was joined by Bruno Besa and Michael Palij MW.

This is an extract from an article first published in WFW83. For full tasting notes and scores for all 47 wines tasted by the panel, subscribe to The World of Fine Wine.

Classical? Little in the modern wine world, save the existence of wine itself, bears a direct relationship to ancient Greek or Latin culture—so, the primary meaning of “classical” can be set aside. The secondary meaning, though, is a different matter. Barolo 2019 has been widely acclaimed as a “classical vintage”—meaning in this case that it’s reminiscent of vintages of the past. Why? Two main reasons. It was picked in mid-October, as the mists began to drape the hills; and the wines are pale, yet firmly and crisply contoured by both acidity and tannin. A close look at the growing season, though, suggests that 2019 has plenty of modern qualities to it, too.

2019 Barolo: A switchback season

Barolo finished 2018 in a sodden state—which was just as well, since 2019 (though cold, with snow in both January and February) began drily, with a delayed budburst. April was then wet and May still more so, including at flowering; the resulting coulure (shatter or flower abortion) is why 2019’s yields are up to 30 percent lower than contemporary expectations of what is normal. The overall 2019 weather pattern to this point was grouchy.

There was then a gear-grinding lurch into summer weather in June. This quickly became fierce, with a record-battering heat spike at the end of the month that affected the plants more than the fruit itself. July was then wet—the second wettest of the previous 20 years, often stormy, with another fierce heat spike (said to have reached 115°F [46°C] in Serralunga) at the end of that month, too. August, fortunately, was dry once again, and the testing heat eased. By September, though, the diurnal pulses were warm during the day and cool at night. Hail struck on September 5, particularly affecting La Morra (Bricco Manescotto and Serra dei Turchi), but with sites in Serralunga (Fontanafredda) and Grinzane Cavour (Raviole) also affected, and September overall was a wet month, too (the fifth wettest of the past 20 years). For all that, the thick skins forged in the heat of June helped the fruit lock healthily onto its maturation trajectory, and by the time harvest was under way in mid- to late October (and despite further rain on October 15 and 24), the grapes looked handsome, and few growers faced much of a challenge with the sorting.

So, yes, the season was extended—but when you look at 2019’s heat-summation figure of 3,800 growing degree days, you can see that this vintage was warmer than any between 2000 and 2010, save for 2003 and 2009. It was cooler than 2017 or 2018—but warmer than 2013, 2014, or 2015. The switchback season is typical of modern vintages, as are the daunting heat spikes; and storms and hail challenges are typical of the wild weather that climate change promises to make commonplace.

It wasn’t an easy vintage for growers to vinify, in the sense that it was clear from the outset that both tannins and acidity would be plentiful, and the fruit would therefore be crisply structured. Do you embrace the resultant tension in the wines, even at the risk of exaggerated austerity and cragginess? Or do you try to mitigate it and foil it by, for example, reducing maceration times and tweaking aging regimes to bring extra tenderness? This is a classical Barolo conundrum, it’s true, and grower responses varied. As Michael Palij MW points out, though, the growers were, in general, enthusiastic and excited about what they had created, and the wines’ critical reception has in general followed suit. We now know, too, the outline of the succeeding four vintages, which will be warmer and riper than 2019—and in 2022’s case, spectacularly so. If you consider yourself a “Barolo classicist,” 2019 should please.

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High but very variable scores

How did we find the wines? Michael Palij admired the “moonshot mix” of “authoritative tannins and palate-cleansing acidity,” though he also felt that the tasting lacked consistency and “was surprised that there weren’t higher scores.” He was presumably looking across at his two fellow tasters at that point, since Michael himself found no fewer than six wines in the 97–100-point bracket (“Great wine of spellbinding beauty and resonance, leaving the drinker with a sense of wonder”), including a rare perfect score for Giovanni Corino’s Giachini from La Morra. “I really love the 2019 vintage,” said Bruno Besa, thinking notably of “the true Barolo character” and also observing the clarity of “village identity and character.” Bruno found two wines in the top-scoring 97-100-bracket, and I found one; while Bruno had eight wines scoring 95 or more compared to my three.

In general, this was a well-scored tasting, with only ten wines out of 47 failing to achieve an aggregate score of at least 90 points. It’s worth, though, noting the disparity of scores for some of the wines, holding averages in check: Eight wines had a difference of 9 to 13 points between the highest and the lowest score, suggesting a tasting for which individual taste played a larger-than-usual role. (I had jotted, immediately after the tasting and without having compared scores or seen the crib, that “what you go for this year is more than usually subjective.”) Only three wines did not win a score of at least 90 points from one of the panelists.

As the meanest scorer, my reservations center on a lack of concentration, succulence, pungency, and drama in a vintage where rain often came sweeping over the hill. There is much purity and refinement to enjoy, by contrast.

What of comune styles? Many (like Bruno) have suggested that these are unusually clear this year, but such a conclusion doesn’t seem fully warranted on the basis of our notes. The winner of our annual comune sweepstake this year is, as usual, Serralunga (aggregate score of 275.91), followed by Barolo (275.88), Castiglione Falletto (275), La Morra (274.84), Monforte (274.4), Novello (273), Verduno (268.66; perhaps the 2019 style doesn’t suit Verduno in the way that more generous vintages do), and finally panregional blends (267.25).

The Top Five: The best of 2019 Barolo

Luigi Baudana (GD Vajra) Barolo Cerretta Serralunga d’Alba (14% ABV) |95

Bruno Besa | Deep garnet to pink. Intense, deep, complex, impenetrable, yet super-clean nose, with menthol, red cherries, and licorice. Balanced, layered, rich, and youthful palate, with sweet red and black fruits and a long, mineral finish. A Barolo for long-term aging. 2035–50. | 98

Andrew Jefford | Clear, translucent, garnet red. As with many Serralunga wines, the volume of fruit aroma is significant and commanding, filling the glass, and the fruits this year in this comune have a profundity that always detains. Deep plum and pomegranate, forest floor, sap. Very concentrated wine, with drivingly pure fruit—and it is this fruit purity that commands the palate at present. Ample grippy tannins and ripe, perfumed acidity help shape that fruit. Pure and commanding wine for the long term. Note the perfect balance already, though—just add time. 2025–40. | 93

Michael Palij MW | The fruit here is very ripe, with stewed black-fruit notes of prune and fig. These are joined by cedar, licorice, and cigar box, while on the palate, the firm acidity and fine tannins provide a backdrop against which this wine will be able to pack on more complexity with time in bottle. 2028–35. | 94

Giovanni Corino Barolo Giachini La Morra (15% ABV) |95

BB | Garnet to pink. Broad, open, complex, and earthy on the nose: classic tar, black fruits, bitter cherries, and smoke. Medium- to full-bodied, with sweet black fruits, refined tannins, and a long, herbal, youthful finish. 2025–35. | 93

AJ | Deep black-red, with ample depth of fruit; just beginning to brick a little at the meniscus. Warm, refined cranberry and pomegranate, with dry copse and underbrush complexities: an admirable aromatic welcome. Graceful and welcoming on the palate, too, with the open arms and smiling eyes of most of the wines in this tasting. There is, though, better wealth and drive here than for many of its La Morra peers, and a sense of fleshiness to the tannins, which is very welcome. Outstanding in its comune. And totally delicious. 2024–34. | 92

MP | The nose on this is just about perfect, with a huge range of aromatics including red fruit (strawberry, cherry, currant, and cranberry), black fruit (currant, cherry, and plum) alongside licorice, hay, rose petal, and forest floor. Wow—the palate is flawless—with mountains of fruit, a huge vein of acidity, and the most delicate of tannins. A real achievement. Complimenti! 2030–45. | 100

Manzone Barolo Gramolere Monforte d’Alba (14% ABV) |95

BB | Garnet to tawny. A touch closed yet clean and complex on the nose: earthy, black fruits, tea, and hazelnuts. Full-bodied, layered black fruits, lively, and clean. Very long, herbal, spicy finish. 2025–35. | 94

AJ | Clear, limpid, scarlet, black-red. Sweet and warm, the brambly, warm, autumn fruit of Monforte in evidence: very enticing and attractive, and a great success this year. Draws you in like a magnet. A super-aromatic profile. Exuberant, extrovert, and welcoming on the palate: a banquet of fruit, just asking the drinker to waltz in. It is not the most refined or tight-grained wine in our tasting, but for sheer drinking pleasure, I don’t think many can challenge it. A Barolo to fill your glass to the brim with. (And yes, the tannins and extracts do keep up.) 2024–36. | 93

MP | Difficult to deny the attractions of this subtle, aromatic, and complex red, showing cool-climate notes of currant, cherry, plum, pomegranate, and dried herbs. Even better in the mouth, this has layers of red and black fruit, supported by fresh acidity and the silkiest of tannins. The finish is huge, driven by the weight of fruit but equally by the structure. Difficult to imagine that 2019 could be encapsulated more succinctly than this. 2030–40. | 99

Ca’ Rome’ (Romano Marengo) Barolo Cerretta Serralunga d’Alba (14.5% ABV) |94

BB | Garnet to pink. Fairly closed and a touch overripe on the nose, with black fruits, earth, prunes, and smoke. A full body, huge tannins, sweet fruit, yet quite a challenging finish. Needs a few years in the cellar. 2030–40. | 93

AJ | Dark, dense, garnet-red at the core, out to oxblood red and tile at the rim. A lovely, creamy, leathery nose here, with notes of herb and lavender; very refined and secondary already, with no overt fruit notes. But nothing thin, skinny, or dry… so I’m sure that the backing fruits will be there on the palate. And they are: This is terrific. A huge wealth of warm, teased, nuanced ripeness, the cranberries and pomegranate arils just bulging with sweet-fruited force; then all the finesse of the élevage amply on show, fissuring the palate with aromatic nuance (dried citrus peel, honey, sweet tobacco) as the whole slowly settles in the mouth. Soft, suede tannins and skin extracts bring profundity, and the relatively modest acidity just glows fruitily, illuminating the whole palate. Grand, beguiling Serralunga. 2024–40. | 96

MP | Highly aromatic and developed, with notes of clove, coconut, cedar, blackberry, plum, cherry, cranberry, cooked fruit, leather, earth, and tobacco. Most of the aromatics indicate a tertiary character, and it is unlikely that this will make old bones, because the tannins are formidable and the fruit is developed. 2024–28. | 92

Rocche Costamagna Barolo Rocche dell’Annunziata La Morra (14.5% ABV) |94

BB | Light garnet to tawny. Elegant, lively, cedarwood, orange-peel, wild-strawberry, and rosewater nose. Balanced, clean, lively, and inviting, with refined tannins, superb acidity, and a long, herbal finish. A class act. 2025–40. | 96

AJ | Slightly paler than most of its peers; bright, light garnet. Scents of dry straw and hayloft, with some light strawberry fruits. On the palate, too, relatively soprano in style, with all its fruit in the upper register. But there’s a comely gentleness to it, which is very appealing. And you can’t call it unbalanced, either. The vintage has left almost all the wines soundly balanced and, to a greater or lesser extent, classical and refined. 2024–33. | 88

MP | An exceptionally floral wine, with rose petal, acacia, and hawthorn alongside tobacco, forest floor, and wild strawberry. The palate is equally compelling, with fine, dusty tannins held in check by the fruit and a nice streak of acidity to keep everything on the boil. A great ambassador for the vintage, this has both style and weight. 2026–35. | 97

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