A few days ago we had a special night, with a few wine-aficionado friends coming over to our house for dinner, including fellow wine blogger Anatoli who authors the excellent blog Talk-A-Vino. Needless to say, several great bottles of wine were opened, some coming from our cellar and some that were graciously brought by our guests.
Today I would like to focus on a bottle that we opened that night and really was quite special: a 1969 Barbaresco! That’s right, as in 44 years old! More specifically, it was a bottle of Marchese Villadoria, Barbaresco Riserva Speciale 1969 DOC ($22 for current vintages).
The bottle had been given to me a while ago by my father, who had forgotten all about it and recently “re-discovered” it in his own cellar. Clearly, with all those years of aging, much could have gone wrong, like the cork could have gone bad (which would mean an oxidized wine) or simply it could have been corked. But still… worth a shot, right?
The Bottom Line
Overall, I very much enjoyed tasting such an evolved Barbaresco: it has been the longest-aged wine I have ever had and it has been a pleasure to the eye, the nose and the mouth. Regarding the quality of the wine itself, I cannot vouch for the contemporary vintages of Villadoria’s Barbaresco, as this was the first bottle I had from such producer, who is a little bit out of the limelight. But there is no doubt that that 1969 Barbaresco held his own: sure, the bouquet could ideally have been a little more complex, but hey – today you can buy a bottle for $22 (granted, I am not sure how much it went for back then): what more do you want for that kind of money? 😉
Rating: Very Good, considering the excellent QPR – $$
(Explanation of our Rating and Pricing Systems)
If you are interested, let’s now briefly talk about Barbaresco and the grape Barbaresco is made from, which is Nebbiolo.
About the Appellation
Barbaresco is a wine that is made in the northern Italian region of Piemonte in an appellation that earned DOC status in 1966 and was then “upgraded” to the top DOCG status in 1980. The appellation encompasses a small area in the vicinities of the town of Cuneo comprising three smaller towns (Barbaresco, Neive and Treiso) and a village named San Rocco Senodelvio. The regulations applicable to the appellation require that Barbaresco be exclusively made from Nebbiolo grapes grown in that area and that the wine:
(i) be barrel-aged for a minimum of 26 months (at least 9 of which in wood barrels) plus an additional 10 months in bottle for “plain” Barbaresco wines; or
(ii) be barrel-aged for a minimum of 50 months (at least 9 of which in wood barrels) plus an additional 10 months in bottle for Barbaresco Riserva wines.
About the Grape
A few notions about Nebbiolo, without a doubt Piemonte’s most world-famous grape variety. Researchers have recently been able to trace back the origins of (or at least the first documented reference to) Nebbiolo to 1266, at which time the grape was called Nibiol. This makes Nebbiolo one of the oldest grape varieties in Piemonte. While Nebbiolo is definitely an Italian indigenous variety, doubts still remain as to whether it originated from Piemonte or Valtellina (a mountainous district in the neighboring region of Lombardia, where Nebbiolo is still grown nowadays and locally known as Chiavennasca).
The name Nebbiolo comes from the Italian word “nebbia” (fog) – some say because of the fog that in late Fall generally enshrines Piemonte’s hills where Nebbiolo is grown. Nowadays, three main different Nebbiolo clones have been identified: (i) Nebbiolo Lampia; (ii) Nebbiolo Michet; and (iii) Nebbiolo Rose’. Interestingly enough, however, DNA profiling has shown that, while Lampia and Michet have identical DNA profiles, Rose’ does not share the same profile, which has recently led to consider Nebbiolo Rose’ a different grape variety altogether rather than a clone of Nebbiolo.
Nebbiolo is a late-ripening, very finicky variety in terms of the terroir it requires to produce quality wine, which means that Nebbiolo successfully grows only in very few places on the entire earth – Piemonte and Valtellina sure being two of them, along with certain of California’s AVA’s. Nebbiolo grapes generally have robust tannins and high acidity, which make it a variety that is very suitable for long-term aging. In Italy, Nebbiolo’s best expressions are in varietal wines such as Barolo and Barbaresco in Piemonte or Valtellina Superiore and Sforzato della Valtellina in Lombardia’s Valtellina district (all of them being DOCG appellations).
(Note: information on the grape variety taken from Wine Grapes, by Robinson-Harding-Vouillamoz, Allen Lane 2012)
Our Detailed Review
Now on to the wine we had last week: it was a Marchese Villadoria, Barbaresco Riserva Speciale 1969 DOC (13.5% ABV). Current vintages of this wine retail in the US for about $22.
If you have read the preceding notions about the Barbaresco appellation, it will not come as a surprise to you that our bottle was designated “DOC” instead of the current DOCG designation which, back in 1969, did not exist yet.
Two peculiar features of our bottle (that I had never observed in any other bottle before) were that it came completely wrapped in coarse cloth to which one end of a string had been affixed using sealing wax while the other end had been stapled to the cork! The two snapshots to the right should give you an idea of what I am talking about. While I can only offer conjectures as to why the producer went through the hassle of doing all that, I would imagine that the idea behind the cloth wrap was to protect the wine from light exposure (and therefore harmful UV rays) while the string connecting the cork to the cloth was maybe an anti-tampering device of sort?
I opened the bottle and decanted it about two and a half hours before the time we would likely taste it, following a proper handling and decanting procedure codified by the Italian Sommelier Association (I may write a post about it at some point). Fortunately, it looked like the cork had held up well throughout all those years, so that was a promising sign. Thanks to proper cellaring and handling, the wine poured clear into the decanter up to almost the end of the bottle, when unsurprisingly some sediment showed up.
Fast forward two and a half hours (during which we managed to keep ourselves busy with appetizers, a pasta course and plenty of other wine) and the time had come to pour the Barbaresco into our glasses and taste it!
As usual, I will use a simplified version of the ISA wine tasting protocol that we described in a previous post: should you have doubts as to any of the terms used below please refer to that post for a refresher.
In the glass, the wine was orange red in color, as expected after all those years of aging, and thick.
On the nose, it was intense, quite complex and fine, with aromas of spirited cherries, licorice, rose, vanilla and ethereal notes. The bouquet was not very broad, but it was elegant.
On the palate, our wine was dry, warm and smooth; quite fresh, quite tannic and quite tasty. If you are familiar with the ISA wine tasting protocol you might notice that our wine was a little shifted toward the “softness” side and therefore you might wonder whether it can still be classified as balanced. Well, considering that it is only natural that, after 44 years of aging, tannins and acidity recede a bit and that for a structured red wine being a little slanted toward the softness side is certainly not a “sin”, by all means I will go ahead and call it balanced. In terms of structure, our wine was between medium and full-bodied and its mouth-flavors were intense and fine, showing a pretty good correspondence with the wine bouquet: I picked up strawberries, cherries, vanilla and licorice. Finally, the finish of the wine was quite long and its evolutionary state was mature.
Oh dear, Nebbiolo is one of my favourite grapes ever. Barbaresco is a joy to drink. It’s often considered less refined than Barolo but I actually find them quite complementary. I do indulge in young Barbaresco bottles when I have a slightly creamier/more acidic pasta sauce for example.
In this instance it’s a pity your 1969 bottle wasn’t a Barolo, which usually bears age better than Barbaresco does, but still quite an experience I believe! 🙂
Thank you for the comment, Alessandro!
I agree with you: while of course Barolo is Barolo – no question about it, good Barbaresco may provide a solid, budget-friendlier alternative and still be very enjoyable.
As to our bottle, like I said in the review, we have been pleasantly impressed by how well it held up after all those years and by its bouquet and flavors!
I just love your wine reviews, Stefano. And am naturally wondering why I was not invited to the feast? 🙂 I would have declined the invitation, but still…what manners….;)
What a great experience. I love tasting old wines, especially when they come in weird shapes or packaging. What a hilarious way of wrapping the bottle. My initial thought about the cord stapled to the cork was that it was probably for hanging the bottle from a beam in your room as decoration…just kidding. Did they mean for you to pull out the cork with it?
And despite your qualms about whether the wine was balanced, I was happy to see that you called it so. It really seemed like it deserved that highest of all praises.
Hehehe, you are quite right, Oliver: where are my manners, I get to wonder?!? I will have to apologize for that when we finally meet up! 🙂
Wasn’t that wrapping hilarious??? I had never seen anything like that before! 🙂 For certain the stapling thing was not meant for pulling out the cork as it would have been to weak for it. I think most likely it was an ornamental thing of sort… Who knows!
And regarding your last comment, you know, I think that even your assessment of the various qualities of a bottle need to be adjusted based on what you are drinking: I mean, would I have called it balanced if it had been a young wine and tasted like that? Hell no, but you cannot avoid to consider that in 44 years the wine naturally evolves and the equilibrium among the various components shifts, so UNDER THE CIRCUMSTANCES I think it is fair to call it balanced. If you see what I am saying. It’s all relative, I think. 🙂
Thank you for your always delightful comments, my friend!
Oh, I totally understand what you mean with balance in this particular wine. I was just trying to express, and I think you picked up on it, that an older wine deserves a little more leeway once it passed the, say 15 year mark or so. Just like with old friends, we can be way more forgiving because they have been around for so long…
Precisely! So very well said!
I have never seen a bottle dressed like that before. Amazed that the bottle had the seal with the string attached, must have taken so long to do. I did wonder if the staple was strong enough that if the string was pulled it acted like a cork screw, but I am intrigued to know why. I was equally amazed that after 44 years there wasn’t a speck of dust on it! I don’t know whether I could have opened it, but I hurried down the page to see what you verdict was!
Thank you, Maria! Isn’t it the weirdest of things?!? I had never seen one before that either! Just like you said, there must have gone a lot of work into that. As to the stapled string, I can only imagine that it was either a decorative thing or may some sort of very basic “anti-tampering” device to show you whether the cork had been messed up with? I don’t know. I am still amazed myself how well the wine (and the cork!) had held up for so many years!