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The Nebbiolo grape

Barolo was the big seller of the nineties. A favorite of wine writers and wine importers, the Piedmontese Nebbiolo wine was so spoiled by sales luck that it soon became scarce. Scarce and expensive: from 1990 onwards, its price climbed every year with Medoc-like persistence, without customers being deterred. However, since just under a year ago, in the middle of a series of great vintages, the boom is obviously running out of steam. Nobody is talking about a crisis yet, but in the growing area, many producers are sitting on Barolo, which they bought in 1998, at the height of the euphoria, for a horrendous price and with which they will lose a lot of money in the next few years. And while the cellars are slowly filling up, the new Barolo vineyards are going into production...

As late as at the end of the seventies, a vintner received more for a kilo of Dolcetto grapes than for a kilo of Nebbiolo. The fate of the two wines separated as late as when Barolo started its career, and Dolcetto - wrongly - started its shadowy existence.

Matteo Bosco, director of the large Barolo cellar cooperative Terre del Barolo, remembers how as late as in the eighties Dolcetto was popular among customers, while the cellars were full of unsold Barolo. "At that time, a bottle of Barolo", Bosco says, "hardly cost more than a bottle of Dolcetto, but still nobody bought it!"

At the Castello di Barolo

It was not until the late eighties that the wine-interested public began to turn its attention to Barolo. The trio of vintages 88, 89 and 90 then gave the wine its first breakthrough. Names unknown until then, like Altare, Clerico, Conterno-Fantino, Elio Grasso, Parusso, Sandrone, Scavino, Vajra, and Voerzio, suddenly became famous and were soon pronounced with similar respect as well-deserved Bordeaux châteaux or Burgundy domains. The early nineties brought prestige to Barolo, then the second half of the decade brought big money.

The Barolo boom of the late nineties, which caused vintners and traders to snatch everything that was called Barolo out of their hands, led to an increasingly voracious appetite of producers for Barolo grapes. Not only the grapes, but also open wine, vineyards, and even fallow land became more and more expensive during those years.

Since a few months ago, this boom seems to have stopped. Even though the word "crisis" is doggedly avoided by the producers, the decreasing demand for expensive Barolo and expensive Barbaresco makes the Langa vintners belly ache. Aldo Vacca, director of the Produttori del Barbaresco, is calming down: "Crisis is certainly not the right term, let's rather talk about a slightly slowed down euphoria". According to Mr. Vacca, the current decline in sales is ten percent on average, in the USA it is about 25 percent.

Decimated orders

The wine-growing region Piedmont

Even though Piedmont is trying hard to avoid pessimism, vintners are talking about sales losses not only in the USA but also in classical markets like Germany and Switzerland. In Italy's wine centers, people are currently talking worried and alarmed about the sales problems of the Piedmontese top wines

The fact that the buying frenzy of Barolo fans is rapidly cooling down is also shown by the latest figures provided by the Cuneo Chamber of Commerce. To explain: DOCG wines like Barolo and Barbaresco need a state control strip in order to be put on the market. Producers have to obtain and pay for these control strips at the chambers of commerce of the responsible province - in this case Cuneo - according to the production declared in the harvest year.
As a rule, the vintners get the official seals only at the moment when the bottles are prepared for the shipping company, i.e. labeled and packed into boxes. Thus, the number of seals sold allows a direct conclusion about the amount of the corresponding DOCG wine actually sold.

In the first half of 2000 (for the 1996 Barolo vintage), Barolo vintners purchased 3.9 million control strips; in 2001 (for the highly praised 1997 Barolo vintage), the figure was almost 4.9 million. If now in the first six months of this year - for the '98 - only a scant 4.2 million strips were obtained, then this is an unmistakable sign of a trend reversal.

Matteo Bosco, Terre del Barolo: "The situation is not dramatic, but it is becoming more and more acute. We have been observing sales declines for a year now." Piero Quadrumolo, director of the large Terre da Vino cooperative consortium in Barolo, describes the same situation, albeit with positive signs: "Just because we have been selling a little less Barolo for a year, I wouldn't call it a crisis."

The Langa cellars are filling up

The barrel cellar of Braida

The main reason for the decreasing Barolo thirst is, besides the international economic situation, the too high prices of Barolo and Barbaresco. This is now also recognized in the production area itself: On August 8, Luigi Cabutto, president of the Enoteca Regionale del Barolo, sent a warning circular to the vintners, in which he pointed out the dwindling interest of wine tourists in Barolo. The 200,000 annual visitors - eighty percent of them from abroad - give weight to the voice of the "Enoteca Regionale del Barolo".

Cabutto writes that at first it was believed that the dissatisfaction of visitors with the high Barolo prices and the declining sales were temporary phenomena, but the negative trend has been going on for eighteen months now: "A rethinking of the price policy is necessary, albeit in a moderate way and designed for the long term, let's do it before it's too late"

If wine customers are less and less willing to pay the proud Barolo prices, this is also due to the fact that the argument "vintage of the century" is beginning to wear out. 1995: big! (At least, it was sold as "great" at the time.) 1996: great! 1997: big! 1998: even bigger! And 1999, 2000 and 2001 are also great

The Cerequio vineyards

The feeling of having enough Barolo in the cellar comes to every wine lover at a different time. Many Barolo buyers have already filled the Barolo compartment in their cellar with the 97. Now, in view of the proven quality of the vintage, quite tireless fans have bought the 98. But now at the latest is the end.

There are - it is to be feared - no more adjectives and no more superlatives that can bring the '99, the '2000 and the '2001 out of the cellars and to the man in satisfactory quantities at today's prices. Besides the stagnating sales, another phenomenon is responsible for the increase of the Nebbiolo level in the Piedmont cellars: The past five years - 1997 to 2001 - were problem-free, good vintages, they allowed the vintners to harvest the allowed maximum amount - 8000 kg/ha.
Radical thinning out was unnecessary, as the generous sunshine also brought a full crop to maturity. In view of the exemplary state of health, it was not even necessary to cut out rotten grapes at harvest time. The result of these sunny years is not only a high quality, but also a high quantity. The mayor of Barbaresco, Giancarlo Montaldo, summarizes it like this: "Our vintners harvested in five years practically the amount of six normal years. If the average production capacity of Barbaresco is 2.5 million bottles, the past years yielded an average of three million bottles."

But it's supposed to get even worse, because compared to the situation the Langa vintners have got themselves into for the future, today's sales stagnations are harmless.

Increasing production

The Briccolina vineyard

Not only did the Barolo boom cause prices to soar to outrageous heights in just a few years, it also triggered an unprecedented planting fever in the Langa. During the years, producers ran out of Barolo prematurely. Wine tourists were lucky if they could get hold of a few bottles of Barbera and Dolcetto during their visit, the Barolo was sold out or was ready to be shipped to distant countries on pallets wrapped in plastic foil. The vintners could not keep up with bottling, labeling and raising prices, the world's thirst for Barolo seemed unquenchable to them. Thus, every corner of the Langa was filled with vines, and Nebbiolo was also planted in areas that had not been considered suitable for Barolo so far. That first Barbera, then Dolcetto were cleared and in their place supply vines for Barolo were planted. That forests disappeared and hazelnut plantations were uprooted.

In the past, however, dolcetto, hazelnut bushes, and forests were everywhere where the nebbiolo was not able to ripen sufficiently. If you talk to older vintners, they only shake their heads uncomprehendingly when you ask them about some new plantings. In view of some new Nebbiolo vineyards, there is only the hope that climate change will help and that the qualitative deterioration of Barolo will not have to be prevented by reverse osmosis, vacuum evaporators, and drying of the grapes alone.

The Barolo vintners rearmed, convinced that the Barolo fashion, which had first brought them deserved self-confidence and then increasingly prosperity, was everlasting. There are estimates according to which the cultivation area for Barolo and Barbaresco will have reached 2500 hectares in 2005. This would correspond to an increase of one thousand hectares since 1995. In a few years, the first wine of the boom new plantings will be put on sale. Piedmontese observers expect the total production of Barolo and Barbaresco to swell to fifteen million bottles at full yield of the new plantations: ten million bottles of Barolo and five million bottles of Barbaresco. This would almost correspond to a doubling of the production before the boom (about eight million bottles B&B).

Sluggish sales and doubled quantity: halved prices?

That there were sales problems on the horizon could be seen as early as last year. The bulk wine price for the 2001 Barbaresco dipped sharply in response to the lack of interest. The situation was similar for Barolo, whose bulk wine price dropped from ten euro for the (extraordinary!) 98 to four euro. Even though the bulk wine market for Nebbiolo reached only very small volumes during the past few years, the slump gives an unmistakable indication of the situation of the two wines

But: None of the producers interviewed by our editorial staff has the intention to lower their list prices. Like Cristina Oddero (Fratelli Oddero, La Morra) - "I assume that there will be no price increases for the next three vintages" - they are at best talking about price stability, but not about reductions. The '99 Barolo will not cost less than the '98. This is at least the producers' declared intention.

The decline in demand for expensive Barolo will - it is to be feared - be absorbed in another way: Instead of lowering prices, some cornered producers will sell their surpluses as bulk wine. In fact, there is talk that some large bottlers outside the growing area have already stocked up with large amounts of Barolo at rock-bottom prices, which - according to insiders - they will sell on the discount market.

One can at best speculate about the consequences of Barolo's lower class breaking away from prices. Piero Quadrumolo, Terre da Vino, is not shaken by this either: "We will have to get used to the fact that Barolo is a wine that, like others, is offered in very different quality and price levels. I don't see a catastrophe looming, but merely an extraordinarily happy period, which is now coming to an end."

2002: The first lean one after seven fat years

Langa winemakers were no longer used to rainy summers, downy mildew on leaves and the sight of gray rot on ripening grapes. Word began to spread as early as summer that the 2002 would probably not amount to much. The hail, which destroyed the top vineyards of Barolo and La Morra in September, killed the reputation of the vintage even before the first grape had been harvested. Giovanni Minetti, president of the protection consortium, refuses the general condemnation of the 2002 vintage: "This year, as in the past, we were forced to select strictly during the harvest and to cut out the rotten grapes. But our surveys show today that the young wines are not only of satisfactory, but partly even astonishingly good quality. 2002 is certainly not a great vintage, but thanks to the dry period at the beginning of September, it is at least a normal, if not good Barolo and Barbaresco vintage."

What the quality of the 2002s actually is, we shall see. In any case, the 2002 vintage is lean, even if it is only in terms of image and quantity: The protection consortium says that the loss of quantity is forty percent for Barolo and twenty-five percent for Barbaresco. The only positive thing: The 2002 will finally give the producers the possibility to lower the prices and to relax the situation without losing face. The only stupid thing is that the 2002 comes exactly three years too late

1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001
Area under cultivation 1185 1239 1253 1249 1283 1337 1456
Holdings 965 957 937 750 752 746 753
in million bottles 5.027 6.192 7.361 7.612 7.892 8.174 8.876


1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001
Area under cultivation 479 483 483 480 509 530 575
Holdings 435 424 417 363 371 377 384
in million bottles 1.988 2.406 2.736 2.859 2.659 3.035 3.412

Source: Consorzio Barolo/Barbaresco

Barolo: High prices. Low yields?

The Bofani vineyards

During my stay in Langa this September, I took a long walk through the vineyards. In the process, I discovered conditions that are usually hidden from the traveling wine lover.

In some Barolo parcels, some of them in famous sites, I observed conspicuously generous grape hangings. I took the liberty of cutting off and weighing some of these Nebbiolo grapes. The lighter ones weighed around five hundred grams, the heavier ones up to eight hundred grams. Of these grapes I counted an average of seven to eight specimens per vine plant, giving an average vine yield of about five kilos. If one multiplies this with a planting density of 2500 to 3000 canes per hectare, one arrives at a yield per hectare of between twelve and fifteen tons. This, of course, at a time when the yield control had already been completed.

If you consider that the maximum allowed yield is eight tons, and if you consider that wine from such plots costs as much as 25 or 30 euro per bottle, you can't help but welcome the prospect of greater competitive pressure on the Barolo offer.

The above article was kindly made available to us by the Merum editorial staff. Many thanks for this

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