I’ve committed infanticide. Opening a Barolo five years after harvest is child sacrifice to traditionalists. Why? For the last century and a half this small commune in northwestern Italy has made wines that usually soften into something drinkable after a decade. But by the time the tannins and acids polymerize, the fruit might have already disappeared.
Blame Barolo’s dogmatic devotion to one grape and their method.
No other grapes are allowed to compensate for the slow ripening, recalcitrant nebbiolo. Barolo’s early winters often force picking it unripe. Maceration is long, which extracts truckloads of tannin (via skin contact with the fermenting juice). The years in large Slovenian oak casks do little to soften or flavor the wine, when compared to small, French oak-barrel aging in use worldwide.
Yet it was the French who started this. Widow Guilietta Colbert wanted her Barolo estate to make dry, ageable reds like those she grew up with in France. 1850s Barolo mainly made fizzy, sweet reds from nebbiolo. So she befriended Count Camillo Benso and stole his French winemaker, Louis Oudart. Only since the 1980s, have a handful winemakers modernized to make accessible (i.e. immediately profitable) Barolos.
But back to my child abuse and 2005: Barolo’s forgotten vintage.
It was a tricky year to grow nebbiolo, in a commune that doesn’t allow blending other grapes to compensate. After a cool summer and warm September, forecasts of October rain drove growers to pick grapes earlier than desired. This meant lower alcohol levels, edgy tannins and higher acidities.
After a media and marketing blitzkrieg that favored the ripe 2004 vintage, the US was flooded with overpriced Barolo. Then the recession set in. Most Barolo producers took the hit and didn’t ship their 2005s. When 2006’s less aggressive, more open and thus more marketable style emerged, American shelves were ready.
Yet Monte degli Angeli‘s 2005 squeezed across the Atlantic regardless. This vintage was in good hands. Antonio and Paolo Sperone – sons of sparkling wine icon Giacomo Sperone of Tenute Neirano – already had their fingers purpled with Pinot Noir in Monferrato (up the River Po from Turin), Sangiovese in Puglia (Italy’s hot heel) and other wines and spirits throughout Italy.
But their baby is Barolo. It is a small estate that they own and manage personally. With 2005, they picked early and selectively. Under 1,000 cases resulted. Following tradition, the wine aged for three years in large Slovenian oak botti. The extra year in cask, softened tannins and opened the tightly wound vintage for release. Five years later, the wine is correctly clear with a garnet, almost tawny tinge. Alcohol sits at 13.5%, much quieter than the 15% of its peers.
Unlike my review of Palmina’s 2005 Nebbiolo, Monte degli Angeli is far from that fruit filled Italian villa on California’s coast. This drink echoes quietly beneath impossibly high vaults and domes, while providing them with tannic structure. Tart cranberry and cassis cast brightly through small windows, cutting up the dusty cedar to glint off mosaics of golden anise and glass. This wine is the Haggia Sophia.
It seems hollow and light but is detailed and structured, begging closer inspection, balanced but on the verge of crumbling apart. It is both architecture and the light between, a whole of tantalizing parts, aged, yet ageless.
The wine opens beautifully over an hour, rewarding patience. It will develop in years to come but I doubt the fruit will stick around. Food fills its vaults like a congregation. Gnocchi al castelmagno (potato dumplings in cream sauce made from Piedmont cheese), Osso Bucco or risotto with truffles or cheeses should do the trick. For under $25, you won’t find a better way to visit Barolo in 2005.
Reviews of Monte degli Angeli’s Pinot Noir: