2014 Barolo: "Few expected the wines to be so good"

David Gleave MW shares his thoughts on the surprising 2014 vintage in Barolo...

I was apprehensive when I arrived in the Langhe last November to do my annual tasting of well over 200 wines.  I generally taste the wines from the vintage that is due to be released in the early part of the following year, and 2014’s reputation was nowhere near as high as its recent predecessors.  It had been, as Franco Massolino put it politely, a ‘complicated vintage’.  Everyone hoped that a wet and cool winter and spring would give way to a splendid summer, but they waited in vain.  By the end of August, it looked like their run of good vintages had come to an end.  But then the weather in September took a turn for the better, and remained dry and sunny, with warm days and cool nights, until early November.  This proved to be the salvation of the late-ripening Nebbiolo.

Despite this good fortune, few expected the 2014s to be so good.  They were awkward children during their adolescence in barrels, overshadowed by the more precocious 2015s and the outstanding 2016s.  But part of Nebbiolo’s allure is its ability to confound expectations  by undergoing just the sort of transformation the 2014s have gone through. 

The tasting started well.  The wines of Giovanni Corino from La Morra were the best balanced I’d ever seen from this winery.  Given they had been among the top ten wineries tasted in both the 2012 and 2013 vintages, this was saying something.  A visit was quickly arranged, and by the end of the week we had a new Barolo to add to our portfolio.

The beauty of this tasting is that I get to see a panorama of the region.  It is as though I were standing in the Piazza Castello in La Morra, looking out over the zone and seeing which vineyards have performed best.  In 2014, the viticulturalists rather than the vineyards were the deciding factor.  “It was a year of cancelled holidays,” explained Giuseppe Vaira.  Those like him who stayed behind in July and August to do several times as much work as they would do in a normal year ended up in late October or early November with ripe, healthy grapes.  As a result, the wines have a wonderful acidity, great balance and the best will be prized for their perfumes.

While some may think this is a vintage for early drinking, I’m willing to bet that the best wines will outlive many of the more highly regarded years.  Roberto Conterno of Giacomo Conterno feels that way: he has made only Monfortino in 2014, and thinks it is a classic vintage. 

One of the joys of a week like this is to be able to visit people I admire but don’t work with.  In addition to Roberto Conterno, we also saw Angelo Gaja, Bruna Giacosa and the Cavallotto brothers.  Each gives different insights into the vintage.  Even a jaded old taster like me, who has been visiting Barolo annually since 1983, gets excited to taste two vintages of Monfortino, the Gaja wines or that magical Giacosa label. 

At the end of a week of tasting and visits, the highlight remained the quality and vivacity of the 2014 vintage.  If you’d told me that wines of such quality would emerge from a year like 2014 in 1983, I would have said you were deluded.  But that was before the viticulture and winemaking improved to such an extent that the best growers are now able to obtain such quality even in difficult conditions.  I will certainly be raising a glass to them when I open my first bottle of 2014 Barolo.