1996 Barolo Re-assessment

Yet another in a long line of 1996 Barolo vintage reassessments. We waited for everyone else to post theirs so our wines could get a little more age.

This line up is slightly different from the others–our tasting group has a price limit for our monthly tastings so we don’t get carried away, and to make it easier on those on a budget (eg the winemakers). So a number of obvious wines were not included.

Wines were stood up for a month, and double decanted 6 hours before the tasting. The tasting was not blind.

Overall the wines were very, very good, although probably not as wonderful as we all expected. A number of the wines were surprisingly ripe–almost a tad over-ripe. I personally thought several of the wines had somewhat coarse, clumsy tannins, although this is something that could resolve with time. Also several of the wines opened up markedly in the glass, so plenty of air is in order for these wines.

1996 Marchesi di Barolo Barolo ‘Cannubi’–

Many folks thought this would just be token taste before we moved on to the better wines, but it was actually very intriguing.
High toned red fruit, tar on the nose. Slightly tart red fruit profile, distinct saline, somewhat overt acid, good length. With time, the palate smoothed, and the fruit became broader and riper. Still very red and saline. Surprisingly good.

1996 Elio Altare Brolo ‘Arborina’–

Much darker, roses on the nose. Palate had darker fruit, sweet smoothness, fairly tannic but they wee fine, some finishing bitterness. Not a lot of overt wood, but I think some of the sweetness is from this. Very nice wine, still somewhat young. Feels a little less like Barolo to me than many of the other wines.

1996 Borgogno Barolo ‘Riserva’–

Mid-range color, less on the nose. Balanced pleasant, still young wine that seems to have a little less of everything in comparison to the other wines.

1996 Marcarini Brolo ‘Brunate’–

Ripe, almost a little over-ripe. Darker fruit and good density. A little softer than the previous wines, some deft oak on the finish. The most ready to drink of the wines so far. Doesn’t feel as “fine” as some of the other wines. Sort of a “middle class” feeling wine, but I think ready to enjoy.

1996 Elio Grasso ‘Casa Mate’–

Maderized/oxidized. Cork looked like it might have been creased.

1996 Vietti Barolo ‘Rocche’–

More serious wine, darker. Tar and a bit of a meaty component. To me a little flat on entry, and tannins in the finish a little clumsy and coarse. Also wondered if a little too ripe? Certainly still a bit young. I thought it a bit out of balance, but a couple of others were really pleased with it.

1996 Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo ‘Monprivato’–

Perfumed, nicely ripe, dark fruit but has a high toned feminine feel. excellent length. Still a background heaviness/bitterness to the tannins. Also slight oxidation. Very nice wine, but not quite as impressive as I remember it.

1996 Bruno Giacosa Barolo ‘Falletto’–

Much lighter, see-thru color. Charming, sweet, brown sugar type fruit and nice length. Delicious, but also had more evident VA than any of the other wines.

1996 Massolino Barolo Riserva ‘Vigna Rionda’–

Bigger, darker wine with broad dark fruit flavors and very good length. Tannins a little more refined than some of the other ‘big’ wines. Very nice–i’d actually give it a little more time.

Thanks for the report, John.

On the Marcarini, I don’t think they use any barriques. I think it’s all large vessels.

I was told at the tasting that during this time they were actually finishing the wine in barrique for a short while, which is an interesting thought. Don’t have any confirmation on this, but it came from Dan McCarthy, who tends to be generally accurate.

I very much doubt that Marcarini ever used barriques for their Baroli. Here’s a report by Tom Cannavan from the time the 1996 Brunate was released. No mention of any use of barriques, just an emphasis on them not being used.

Thanks, Anders.

Neither O’Keefe nor Belfrage (who barely mentions Marcarini) say anything about barriques, although O’Keefe does discuss other producers who adopted and then rejected barriques, including Cogno, the winemaker at Marcarini up until ~1991.

Interesting. I’ll have to have a chat with Mr McCarthy. I did think I noted a little oak when I tasted the wine, but it could be the power of suggestion. It is interesting, Anders, in the tasting notes from Tom Cannavan that he gets vanilla in the 1995 la Serra.

Yes but vanilla scents are not uncommon as an inherent ingredient in wine rather than as one added by the oak treatment (although the latter is frequently responsible). What were the specific scents that made you suspect the use of new oak in the 1996 Brunate?

Correct. I was going to point that out as well, but thought I’d let you do it. Certainly coffee, chocolate, cinnamon, dill and vanilla can appear in wines that have no new oak. we were having that discussion elsewhere in a thread about washington syrah.
Not really the scent, but the palate had a mild vanillin sweetness typical of oak–discrete and I didn’t think it detracted from the wine. the group assumed it was oak, then asked what the program at Marcarini was. Certainly could be that it wasn’t oak–I was just reporting on what I was tasting. I think most of us actually get fooled periodically on this issue (in both directions)

Just as a general comment on the wines, I tend not to write effusive notes, so I would like to say I would have been very happy with most of these wines if having the bottle in isolation (with food of course). My take is that it was a slightly off night for some of the wines. Also, I think the 96 vintage is a little like the 96 burgundies. I actually have high hopes for them, but they need some more age, and I also think they need a little special kind of love in some cases.

Yep. But I think some of the suspects you mention are less common as inherent wine ingredients than others. Dill is something I associate primarily with American oak and in view of the wines I usually drink, I rarely encounter that kind of oak flavor. Vanilla I have learnt the hard way not to take as a sure sign of oak, particularly when there is not much else pointing in that direction. Same with cinnamon. Coffee, chocolate, cola, butter, and toasty/smoky tones in general are, I would say, the safest signals, although as you already pointed out, we are all likely to be mistaken from time to time.

I don’t have much personal experience with the 96 vintage myself. It was pretty much sold out before I had started to build my own Nebbiolo cellar, beginning primarily with the 01 vintage and backfilling with 98s, 99s, and 00s. But the impression I get from the many TNs on the 96s that I have read is a) that it is a very “hard” (late to come around) vintage, the hardest of them all in recent memory, and b) that it could be that it will eventually turn out not to be quite as great as initially thought. I recently came across the interview with Angelo Gaja on Langhe vintages to which I link below and found it quite interesting. Here is part of his take on 96:

“The wine showed very well in the cellar. It created all this expectation but when you retaste the wine, not all the promises are there. It was considered a classic vintage but the ripening process was not as perfect as we expected. It may be that we need to keep it in the cellar and wait to have the wine in the end.”

And here is his opinion on 98, a vintage which I know considerably better than 96, and where my impression is very much aligned with his:

“1998 is one of my favorite vintages. It is a vintage of balance, beautiful balance. But after 1996 and 1997, 1998 was forgotten. But it is one of the most drinkable wines in the last thirty years. Excellent balance.”

I did hear back from the person in question, and as you have pointed out, the information he provided was incorrect–he was confusing the Barbera regimen (which involves 8 months in barrique) with that of the Barolo.

I have always wondered why Barbera gets new oak treatment.

Had a 96 Sandrone Le Vigne about a week ago that was beautiful. As enjoyable as it was, it could probably go another 20 years.

Because the grape has very low levels of tannin and high acid levels. The oak supplies some tannin and the sweetness of the oak can offset the tartness of the grape. While I’m not keen on heavy new oak on many wines, I find a lot of oaked barberas quite nice.

Not surprised by the notes on Borgogno (I’m not a fan. Tannic beasts that don’t have the fruit to last until the tannins (ever?) resolve.)

OTOH Massolino are lovely wines and great value to boot.


Agreed. As we both know, many otherwise “traditionalist” producers put their Barbera (at least their more “ambitious” Barbera) in new oak (partly or wholly). Marcarini is just one example. In addition to the reasons you mention, I also think there is something about the aroma profile of Barbera that fits unusually well with oak. Consequently, I am more oaktolerant when it comes to Barbera than with just about any other grape. Still, I am not fond of Barberas that have seen a lot of new oak. To my mind, it works best when the oak treatment is such that it is pretty much unnoticeable (until you compare with completely unoaked stuff :wink: ).

FWIW we’ve had brilliant 1961 and 1971s from Borgogno (albeit a 1962 was a little disappointing - though not that surprising).
A big caveat though, is whether the wine is made in the same way as before. A few people have expressed concerns.

Would have been interesting, but the person who coordinated didn’t put Sandrone, Giacomo Conterno, and Giacosa red labels in to keep costs down.

Just to add on to the pile of reasons why Barbera sees new botti relates to the constraints in the winery, be they space, financial, and practical. If a producer goes out and buys a new botti quite often they have to make space to accommodate it. This space most likely comes from the botti that needs replacement. I’m sure some producers would have a schedule for botti replacement, others would wait until the current botti is unfit for further use. Either way the cost of their replacement is no insignificant purchase. And what do you have as a result? A new botti that needs to see wine to get rid of the newness of the wood (if you plan to use the botti for traditional production). I don’t think any of us would expect a producer to fill a large format botti with wine and then distill the results, or pour them down the drain, to get rid of wine that has seen new wood. So it makes sense to put Barbera in the new wood as it is more suited to new wood when compared to the other grapes in the region, as discussed above.

Every neutral barrique or botti was a new barrel at some point in its life. Unless you’re buying neutral botti second hand (if that’s even practical or possible) as a producer you have to have some sort of plan to take new wood in and neutralise it (for lack of a better term) if you’d like to make a traditionalist Nebbiolo.

As a little anecdote when we visited Cantina Mascarello last year I asked Alan what they do with new wood when it arrives. Interestingly enough the first thing they do is fill the botti up to the brim with salt water and leave it for two weeks. Apparently when the salt water is drained it comes out smelling like freshly cut oak. So given that I suspect there’s probably more to “processing” new wood receptacles than just filling them up with a new oak tolerant wine, at least for some producers.