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The Wine That Time Forgets

TIMES WINE WRITER

Mention Barolo to a group of wine lovers and watch their faces. Nearly all will react with either disdain or ecstasy. (Those who say, “What?” are really out of it.)

Some of the wine lovers who turn their backs on Barolo are traditionalists who savor Bordeaux and Burgundy, an occasional California Cabernet Sauvignon and little else. These are folks who think all Italian red wine comes in straw-covered bottles and smells like a stagnant bog, that all Italian white wine is called Soave and that all Italian wine is not worth the trouble to learn about.

I asked a world-famous wine collector how many bottles of Italian wine he had in his massive collection. He replied, “None. Why would I want to?”

But Italian wine lovers, especially people who have experienced both young and aged Barolo, know of the beauties of this hard-when-young, joyous-when-aged wine. And they accept the drawbacks of its youth.

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There are far fewer Italian wine lovers than Bordeaux lovers, but those who are familiar with the best red wine of Piedmont in northwestern Italy know it can be a massive wine that is intensely flavored. It is these people who are committed to buying these wines and then forgetting them . . . until they are ready to drink, which may not be for a long time.

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A Barolo from a great year and a great producer arguably ages longer than any red wine on the planet. And a well-made, well-aged Barolo, some people will tell you, is greater than any Bordeaux. Period.

This is a point for French traditionalists and Barolo lovers to debate. And now is a good time, since there are two vintages that offer the ultimate chance to test the concept. The 1989 and 1990 vintages in both Barolo and Bordeaux were among the best ever, producing exceptional and long-lived wines.

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Bordeaux from those vintages sold well when first released. Since they are usually made in large amounts, they remain among the most popular red wines for collectors. Many are still widely available.

However, when the same vintages of Barolo first started to be sold here in the middle of last year, the best wines, which are made in far smaller amounts than top Bordeaux, were snapped up so quickly by the small force of Italian wine lovers that many producers’ wines never hit the store shelves. They seemed to go directly from shipping containers to car trunks.

A few merchants who were not quick to react to the demand never got many of the better Barolos (if they got any at all). And a few who did get them never sold them; they stashed them in their own cellars.

A large percentage of the sale of Barolo last year was on a pre-release basis. Pre-release or futures sales of Bordeaux are common and have existed for decades, but it’s a new phenomenon for Italian wine.

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The first year any Italian wine made news by selling before release was 1980, when Angelo Gaja began to take orders for his 1978 Barbarescos. There were small ripples of interest in pre-release Barolo after the 1982 and 1985 vintages, but the pre-release frenzy buyers exhibited for the 1990 vintage Barolos outstripped all other crazes for Italian wines. (Oddly, despite pre-release publicity praising the 1989 Barolo vintage, pre-release sale of them was nothing like 1990, making some ‘89s better values.)

Barolo and its slightly less powerful sister, Barbaresco, are entirely the product of the ancient vine Nebbiolo, a late-ripening linebacker of a grape that makes a wine so firm when young that even its fans often recoil after witnessing its resolute rigidity.

“Toughness is indeed the essence of Barolo,” wrote Jancis Robinson in her book “Vines, Grapes and Wines.” “There is no other grape that is quite so cussedly high in tannin, acid and dry extract. . . .”

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Yet after my first bouts with Barolo--four or five years of complete disgust with the tannin, with many battles lost--I finally reached a point where we were on level footing. I didn’t win many fights with Barolo, but neither did the wine. Call it a draw.

And in the last decade, I have discovered that it’s possible to make an end run around the tannins by serving the wine with the right food: fatty, protein-laden dishes that tame tannin and allow the core of fruit to come out from behind the clouds.

When the wine takes on bouquet, that core of fruit is what we savor. The faded, dried rose petals; the faint hints of tar and pepper; the violets and truffles and nutmeg. It’s all there in the great wines, and even in lesser wines, you can find enough to give joy.

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In the past, though, the impenetrability of young Barolo left much of it on shelves for years, unbought by the unconvinced masses. However, influenced by the late Renato Ratti and latter-day gurus such as wine broker Marco di Grazia of Florence, winemaking has become far more sensitive to Barolo’s hardness. Many have begun to tame the tannins by winemaking techniques that make the wine friendlier when young.

The result is a “modern-style” Barolo that is more accessible when it is young, yet seems to age just as well. The major difference in the last decade has been the move by some new thinkers to the aging of the wine in barrique --small French oak barrels--rather than the traditional giant upright oak vats. Barrels, in addition to adding the flavor of oak that the vats do not, also allow the winemaker to splash the wine around a bit, knocking down some of the rough tannins.

The old style wine can also be tamed by leaving the wine in the vat for five years, but the economic impracticality of that is obvious.

Those who prefer the old style of wine feel the new style is not only wimpy but has an oak-y taste that is not typical of classic Barolo. Those who like the new style of wine say it’s cleaner than the old style, but they admit it’s still pretty tannic.

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How well does Barolo age? That’s another debate. Some people are three-decade advocates, arguing that a great Barolo from a great producer needs 30 years or thereabouts to reach a peak.

I don’t buy it. I have had far too many dead soldiers that old--though I will admit that one of the single greatest bottles of wine I have ever tasted was 1964 Marcarini Barolo in 1990. (But that’s an unfair example, a legendary vintage from a great house.)

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I find that 10 to 15 years is all that’s needed to get at almost all Barolos, no matter how dense when young. True, some of the wines may still be thick, rock-solid and astringent at 15 years. But to wait any further risks losing all the fruit, at which time the browning will make the wine a poor dinner companion.

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I have one bottle remaining from a small stash of 1971 Barolo from Franco-Fiorina. The last time I had a bottle, in 1992, the wine was still marginally fruity and very complex, but still a bit tannic too. I promised myself I would drink the final bottle within two years. The fact I didn’t merely shows that my optimism often wins out over my common sense.

Buying young 1989 or 1990 Barolo today means understanding that most won’t be great drinking very soon. Still, for those who have never experienced Barolo from a great vintage, now is the best time to try. True, some of the best wines of the vintage are gone from the marketplace, sold to the speculators and the wine lovers.

However, there are two things that may be done. For one, dine at restaurants that have some of the best wines on their wine lists. (Calls to many restaurants produced only three with substantial stocks of both vintages: Campanile, Valentino and Peppone.) Prices will be high, but at least you’ll know the wine was impeccably cared for.

The second way to get 1989 and 1990 Barolo is to scan the shelves at various local wine shops to see which wines remain. Last Friday I called a few of the better shops in Southern California and asked for a listing of what remained in sufficient amounts to last a week or two. Below is the list with each shop’s price in parentheses. Names in quotation marks are names of special designations, usually vineyard names.

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* Bristol Farms, South Pasadena, (818) 441-5450: 1990 Ceretto “Brunate” ($40).

* Bristol Farms, Manhattan Beach, (310) 643-5229: 1989 Bruno Giacosa ($38.99).

* Briggs Wines and Spirits, Brentwood, (310) 476-1223: 1989 Fontanafredda ($22.50).

* Hi-Time Cellars, Costa Mesa, (714) 650-8463: large selection, including 1989 Clerico “Ciabot Mentin Ginestra” ($47.99); 1990 Aldo Conterno “Vigna Cicala” ($52.99), and many older vintages.

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* Manhattan Liquors, Manhattan Beach (310) 374-3454: 1989 Prunotto “Cannubi” ($27.99); 1990 Prunotto ($21.99); 1990 Ceretto “Zonchera” ($14.99).

* Los Angeles Wine Co., West Los Angeles, (213) 306-9463: 1990 Brovia “Rocche di Brovia” ($29.95); 1990 Marcarini “La Serra” ($24.95); Ceretto “Zonchera” ($15.95).

* Red Carpet Wine and Spirits, Glendale, (818) 247-5544: 1989 Angelo Gaja “Sperss” ($64.99).

* Vintage Wines Limited, San Diego, (619) 549-2112: wide selection, including 1989 Prunotto “Bussia” ($31); 1990 Aldo Conterno “Bussia Soprana” ($46.99).

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* Wally’s, Westwood, (310) 475-0606: 1990 Beni di Batasiolo “Vigneto Bosani” ($25.99); 1990 Paolo Scavino “Bric del Fiasc” ($45); 1989 Seghesio “La Villa” ($39.99); 1990 Clerico “Ginestra” ($45).

* Wine Cask, Santa Barbara, (805) 966-9463: Wide selection, including 1989 Aldo Conterno “Vigna Colonello” ($60.50); 1989 Luigi Einaudi ($41.50); 1990 Marengo “Brunate” ($35); 1990 Parrusso “Bussia” ($36.95); 1990 Paolo Scavino “Normale” ($29.95); 1990 Roberto Voerzio “La Serra” ($36.95).

* Wine Club, Santa Ana, (714) 835-6485: 1990 Brovia “Monprivato” ($29.59); Brovia “Rocche di Brovia” ($29.59); 1990 Ceretto “Bricco Asili” ($45.99); 1990 Ceretto “Bricco Rocche, Brunate” ($34.99); 1990 Ceretto “Prapo” ($34.99).

* Wine Exchange, Orange, (714) 974-1454: 1990 Ceretto “Zonchera” ($15.99); 1990 Aldo Conterno “Bricco Bussia” ($56); 1990 Ceretto “Brunate” ($39.99); 1990 Roberto Voerzio “La Serra” ($29.99); 1990 Ceretto “Prapo” ($36.99); 1990 Vietti ($24.99).

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* Wine House, Los Angeles, (310) 479-3731: 1989 Marcarini “La Serra” ($24.99); 1990 Giacomo Conterno “Serralunga” ($61.99); 1990 Marengo “Brunate” ($29.99); 1990 Beni di Batasiolo ($16.99); 1990 Roberto Voerzio “La Serra” ($31.99); 1990 Marcarini “Brunate” ($26.99); 1990 Parrusso ($20.89).

* Wine Expo, Santa Monica, (310) 828-4428: 1989 Giacomo Conterno ($39.99); 1990 Giacomo Conterno ($65).

Ask Dan Berger

* Talk Cabs and Zins with Times wine writer Dan Berger on the Wining & Dining bulletin board on TimesLink, The Times’ online service. For information on TimesLink, call (800) 792-LINK, ext. 274.

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* MORE BAROLOS ON H26


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