Rooting for the Underdog: Our Piedmont 2018 Trip

Rooting for the Underdog: Our Piedmont 2018 Trip

Tuesday 22nd March 2022
by Mark Dearing

After two years away, it was a great pleasure for us to be back in Piedmont last week to taste the new vintages in Barolo and Barbaresco.

However, initially at least, we were greeted by a few long faces, as producers bristled about the reviews some of the upcoming 2018s have received. Whether it’s a case of critics tasting the wines too young, or in the wrong season, or simply with the wrong mindset, we don’t know, but we at Justerini & Brooks are delighted to report that in our week in the region we tasted and will be buying a significant number of really delicious, archetypal Nebbiolos. Moreover, we feel that vineyard signatures are as clear as ever, and if the wines are not the powerhouses that are generally adorned with big scores, then so much the better for the Italian-lover seeking wines that they can enjoy in the early going.

Our tastings began in Castiglione Falletto with Azelia, Brovia and Paolo Scavino; a triumvirate of high quality estates that speak to the maxim that Piedmont never stands still. Alex Sanchez of Brovia declared that “this vintage is not for those who seek power, as it is one of harmony and purity – qualities we always seek in our wines. Some vintages are born with that balance from the outset and the integration of fruit, acidity and tannins this year means they can be approached sooner than others but will also have the capacity to age for a really long time.” One of the best Barolo Classicos we tasted, and three beautifully poised, transparent single crus served as good enough evidence for us. At Azelia, the gradual move away from smaller oak towards the more traditional Grandi Botti is now complete. All the wines see two years in large cask after adaptive submerged cap and stainless steel fermentation post-2016. Ditto at Scavino, where the ever-affable Elisa Scavino has dialled up the quality by reigning in the power and oak, seeking a more detailed style of single cru Barolo. She conceded that 2018 was not an easy vintage, particularly in Serralunga d’Alba, but that overall she feels that the wines are “subtle and charming”. 2018 will sadly be the last release of Carobric and Cannubi, owing to the lease on the vineyard expiring. 1985 – 2018. RIP.

In Verduno, our tastings with Vittore Alessandria and Mario Andrion of Fratelli Alessandria and Castello di Verduno gave rise to some our most memorable wines of the week. It’s no secret now that Alessandria’s Monvigliero is one of Barolo’s finest wines – the 2018 is no exception, but their Barolo Comune di Verduno is an excellent alternative for those who can’t get hold of the crus. At Castello di Verduno, their purview over both Barolo and Barbaresco makes for a fascinating tasting. We were swooning over Rabaja 2018 and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Monvigliero Riserva 2016. Andrion asserted that “2018 was really a vintage of green harvests, we had to control the crop to arrive with the right structure. I always aim for long skin maceration, but we reduced in 2018 from the standard 65 days to 40 days to keep fruit purity and finesse of tannin.” The resulting wines across the range have a svelte and lively tannic structure, soaring aromatics, and an overall crisp, traditional feel that delights at all price-points.  

In La Morra, the team at Roberto Voerzio were positively buzzing about 2018. With Sarmassa now back in the range after their extensive re-planting programme, and the inaugural 2016 release of a very special cuvee named RV350, they are set up for a very successful year! Famed for extremely low yields and high density planting, the 2018s here had a natural energy and caress of lithe, rounded tannins that bolder vintages at this estate can sometimes lack. La Serra 2018 was the star on the day. Often a vineyard that is overlooked in their portfolio, in 2018 it shines, with a very long seam of cool, dark fruits and a refined, sumptuous tannic structure. In the words of Cesare Bussolo, “2018 is a drinkable vintage and it was born with that. People think that means it’s easy but that’s not true. The wines have the stamp of the place on them and yet they are also wines that demand another glass. It’s rare to arrive with both of those qualities so early on.” At Figli Luigi Oddero, winemaker Francesco Versio was initially more cautious, as 2018 was his first full year in the cellar. Remaining undecided until late as to what to do, in the end they opted to make cuts in the cellar and bottle just 1,200 bottles of each of their single crus. Time in bottle however has borne out the quality of the vintage, and it’s fair to say they perhaps regret their early conservatism. “2018 for me is certainly fresh but it also has a top quality of tannins. The drier soils of Barbaresco and especially the white, stony soils of Vigna Rionda managed well and achieved excellent ripeness. In the end, September and October saw the perfect conditions for ripening Nebbiolo with huge perfumes.” Indeed, one of our main takeaways from this trip was the extent to which Luigi Oddero is so definitely an estate on the rise. Along with the 2018s, we were given an early look at some of upcoming 2019s and 2020s from bottle and barrel; wines that make crystal clear what a talent the young Francesco Versio is. Put simply, this is a producer to get in with now.

At Justerini & Brooks, we are confident that 2018 is a vintage to buy. One that will prove to be immensely rewarding in youth, but one that also has every potential to leave some of the more “blockbuster” vintages (and critics!) looking a little red-faced in ten years’ time. It’s an engaging, supple and nimble vintage that will appeal to all who genuinely love to drink Nebbiolo. At the same time, 2018 is the perfect vintage for anybody who in the past has felt intimidated by Barolo and Barbaresco’s high acidities and naturally bold tannic frames. All that, or perhaps it’s just our British tendency to root for the underdog. Taste the wines and decide for yourself.

 

Mark Dearing

Justerini & Brooks, March 2022.


More quotes from our visits

Elena Mascarello (Giuseppe Mascarello): “2018 is a vintage that expresses the delicate side of Nebbiolo in a really elegant, drinkable style. I really like these kinds of vintages and while it was obviously not easy for everyone, it is crucial that people actually taste the wines before they judge them.”

Barbara Sandrone: “2018 is not explosive but shy and discreet.”

Roberto Conterno (Giacomo Conterno): “2018 is an elegant year, 2019 shows more structure, 2020 is full fruited and 2021 a balance between 2019 and 2020. We’ve really had a great run of excellent vintages.”

Pierguido Busso: I consider 2018 an accessible vintage with good richness and finer tannins. It is easy to love and easy to drink. It was not an easy year given the hail and mildew pressures but with good selections and a reduced crop we have all that we need for a good vintage.”

Marco Marengo: “2018 is a classic vintage. We like the style a lot and especially for the Barolo Classico we are very satisfied. You see a big difference between producers but if you controlled your yield and selected well in the vineyard then definitely good wines were made.”

Silvia Altare: “For some time I felt like the younger generation, but there is a new wave of winemakers raising the bar of excellence in Piemonte. At Altare, we are ready to push forward and always make better wines. With this release, we are happy with the results of the 2018s.”