Vintage Retrospective: The 1978 Barolos and Barbarescos
For most observers 1978 occupies a hallowed place among the
legendary vintages in Piedmont. From a
purely historical perspective 1978 is also a fascinating vintage to study
because it is the last important vintage in which the wines were largely made
with traditional methods, both in the vineyards and in the cellar. These wines pre-date the arrival of the more
modern style of winemaking which in the 1980s would begin to change the way
many estates vinified and aged their wines.
A recent dinner in New York with a group of die-hard Nebbiolo fanatics
provided a great opportunity to re-visit many of the vintage’s benchmark wines.
As often happens, extraordinary vintages are the result of
unpredictable and unexpected climatic conditions. “1978 was a very strange year,” says Mauro
Mascarello. “The spring was quite damp,
which resulted in a delayed and irregular flowering. The plants were carrying only about one-half
of their normal amount of fruit. We
basically had no summer, as the weather remained cool, rainy and foggy all the
way through August. It really looked
like it would be a terrible vintage.
Then, all of a sudden, on the first of September the weather turned, and
we had uninterrupted heat all the way through to October, with our harvest
taking place in the second half of October.”
The hot weather fully ripened the little fruit that remained and the
naturally low yields gave some of the most concentrated, memorable wines ever
These 1978s show the extraordinary longevity that the best
Barolos and Barbarescos offer. I was
amazed at how youthful the wines were, an opinion shared by most, if not all,
of the other tasters. Many wines
displayed a lively, healthy color and appeared to be still full of life. Critics of traditionally made wines would say
that the 1978s are an example of how these wines are never really ready to
drink, and certainly the wines have required a great deal of patience. However, after having tasted more than twenty
wines from this vintage over the last few months I can only conclude that the
1978s have proven to be well worth the effort of waiting. Well-stored bottles will provide the
emotionally moving drinking experience that only a few of the world’s great
wines can offer. The wines were decanted
several hours prior to serving and were tasted non-blind. While researching this article I had the
opportunity to taste several other 1978s and also I include notes on those
1978 Produttori del
Barbaresco Barbaresco Riserva Montestefano—Lively red. A great way to kick off the evening. The Montestefano comes across a youthful,
with notes of spices, minerals, and dark cherry fruit, with a somewhat tight,
structured personality. Although it is a
wine of modest complexity, it is very enjoyable now and promises excellent
drinking for another 5-10 years, perhaps more.
Without question one of the best wines I have tasted from this top-notch
producer. I can only hope current
releases will age this gracefully.
92/drink now-2010, 11/05
1978 Guasti Clemente
e Figli Barbaresco—Medium red. The
first wine I have tasted from this producer.
More evolved than the Produttori, the Clemente is a soft, supple effort
that shows mature aromas of tobacco and leather, with perfumed, sweet fruit and
an accessible, pretty personality. It is
a wine to drink now and over the next few years. 90/drink now-2008, 11/05
1978 E. Pira Barolo
Riserva—The bottles of this producer are highly sought by lovers of
traditional wines. Pira was the last
producer to crush grapes by foot and his bottles have always been an object of
a certain fascination. Although color is
healthy, unfortunately the wine is oxidized.
1978 Pio Cesare
Barolo Riserva—Deep red. Pio Cesare’s
1978 Barolo is fully mature. It shows
slightly maderized aromas on the nose followed by evolved flavors of prunes and
plums with good length, soft tannins and a note of menthol on the finish. Clearly towards the end of its life, this is
a wine to drink today. 89/drink
1978 Vietti Barolo
Rocche—The Vietti Rocche is unexpressive on this day. It shows notes of dark plum-like fruit, with
notes of tar and minerals that occasionally appear in the glass, but my overall
impression is of an awkward bottle as the wine appears evolved and mature but
just not offering much. 89+?/drink
(Bartolo) Mascarello Barolo—Medium red.
Mascarello’s 1978 is an immensely appealing, delicate Barolo. Spiced and balsamic on the nose, it shows
beautifully nuanced, sweet fruit that blossoms on the palate with an ethereal,
perfumed quality, closing with great length and balance. You never know what you’re going to get with
Bartolo Mascarello, but when the wines are on, they are unforgettable. 95/drink now-2008, 11/05
Mascarello Barolo Monprivato—Dark ruby.
A great contrast to the Cantina Mascarello, G. Mascarello’s sensational
Monprivato is a huge, masculine Barolo that opens with a captivating nose of
truffles and underbrush, followed by masses of dark, ripe fruit in a
concentrated, long style. This
powerhouse must be tasted to be believed.
It is one of the more youthful wines of the evening, and appears to
still not have arrived at its peak.
Attempting to assign a drinking window seems superfluous, as this Barolo
is likely to offer superb drinking for another few decades. Stylistically it reminds me of Mascarello’s
new luxury bottling Ca’ d’Morissio. A
great effort. 95/drink now-2015, 11/05
1978 Aldo Conterno Barolo
Bussia—Dull red. Shows evolved notes
of beef broth and marsala. Clearly, this
wine’s best days are behind it. 80/drink
1978 Aldo Conterno
Barolo Cicala—Lively red. Conterno’s
1978 Cicala is fresh, vibrant and full of life.
It displays a beautiful nose of roses, spices and licorice, along with
flavors of dark macerated cherries and tar on a structured frame. Though still youthful, this superbly
well-balanced wine is hard to resist today.
One of the finest wines I have tasted from this producer. 94/drink now-2008, 11/05
1978 Giuseppe Rinaldi
Barolo Brunate Riserva—Dark ruby.
Rinaldi’s 1978 is another of the evening’s great wines. It is a rich, dense Barolo, packed with
massive amounts of dark fruit, spice, licorice, and tar flavors with superb
length and a brooding, backward personality.
I found it absolutely irresistible, with a certain rustic
exuberance. It also appears to be quite
youthful, and will provide much pleasure to those fortunate enough to own
bottles. 93/drink now-2008, 11/05
1978 Valentino Barolo
Riserva—Medium red. I had never
tasted an older Valentino, so this wine was a revelation for me. Valentino’s
1978 Barolo opens with an incredibly perfumed nose of spices followed by dark
red fruit in a soft, approachable style with great length and overall balance. A
lingering note of cocoa on the finish rounds of this outstanding effort. Will this producer’s current releases be this
compelling at age 27? One can only hope
the answer is ‘yes.’ 94/drink now-2008,
1978 Bruno Giacosa
Barolo Riserva Collina Rionda—Medium red.
Another first for me, the 1978 Collina Rionda was without question the
most discussed wine of the night. All of
the elements of a great Barolo are there from the beautiful nose with its
promising notes of roses, violets, tar, and menthol to the wine’s great
structure, but for some reason things don’t seem to come together and this
wine’s potential is never quite realized in the glass. While most of the wines seem to have
responded positively to several hours’ decanting, this wine appears to have
been the exception. 90+?/drink now-?,
1978 Giacomo Conterno
Barolo Riserva Monfortino—Dark ruby.
Conterno’s 1978 Monfortino remains one of the greatest Barolos ever
made. It offers complex sensations of
spices, cocoa, leather, licorice and menthol followed by layers of dark fruit
that coat the palate with incredible persistence and length. This particular bottle seemed to show a more
pronounced alcoholic component than have other recent bottles and although it
is not the best bottle I have ever had, it still offered a great drinking
experience. The 1978 Monfortino is a
pure joy to drink today, and like the Monprivato, its aging potential appears
to be virtually limitless. 98/drink
1978 Brovia Barolo
Rocche—Deep translucent ruby. Rich,
alcoholic nose with aromas of sweet fruit and more evolved tobacco notes that
suggest this wine is fully mature. On
the palate it shows the classic Rocche profile of macerated red cherries, minerals,
and a lingering suggestion of sweetness, with superb persistence and
balance. This slightly rustic,
old-school Barolo is a real joy to drink.
91/drink now-, 10/05
1978 Ceretto Bricco
Rocche Barolo Brunate—Medium evolved red.
The 1978 Brunate is fully mature.
It offers aromas of spices, cocoa, underbrush and leather along with
notes of licorice and menthol that develop in the glass. On the palate it displays perfumed red fruit
with excellent length and a tannic structure that is still not completely
resolved. La Morra Barolos are often
described as early maturing, and I find it quite an achievement that this wine
is in such great shape after nearly 30 years.
That said, there is little upside in cellaring this wine further as the
fruit will fade before the tannins integrate.
92/drink now, 1/06
1978 Ceretto Bricco
Rocche Barolo Prapò—Medium evolved red.
The Prapò, from a vineyard in Serralunga, is on an entirely different
level. Initially the nose is potent and
backward, but with some time in the glass notes of spices, underbrush, tar,
licorice and cocoa appear, followed by sweet, dark fruit and a kick of menthol
on the finish. Serralunga Barolos
typically take longer to evolve and this wine comes across as more youthful
than the Brunate, with enough concentration and focused fruit to balance the
tannins, giving the wine a sense of greater overall harmony. I can’t imagine that this wine will improve
much with additional cellaring, but it doesn’t appear to be declining
either. My preference, though, would be
to drink it sooner rather than later. It
would be a shame to miss this wine at this very expressive, beautiful stage of
its life. 93/drink now, 1/06