February 18, 2017

Vertical of the month: Renato Ratti Barolo Marcenasco 2007–1970

When speaking about terroir, Burgundy is without a question The Place: here the vineyards are mapped with stupefying detail by their potential to produce wines of extraordinary quality, based on their soil, climatic conditions and gradient of the slope. Nowhere else in the world have the different vineyards been so meticulously mapped and qualified by their capability in producing grapes of the highest quality. However, there are a handful of places in the world where the terroir's potential is acknowledged not only in regional, but also at more specific vineyard level: in Germany especially in Mosel, but also to some extent in other German regions as well, are famous vineyards that are known to produce better fruit than the others; Alsace adopted a Grand Cru system for their best vineyards in 1975; also some other French wine regions, like Northern Rhône and Loire have a small number of unique vineyards that are recognized even at the appellation level – most prominent ones being the monopoles of Château Grillet in Rhône and Clos de la Coulée de Serrant in Savennières, Loire. However, I argue that Barolo and Barbaresco are those two regions that would be in most urgent need of Burgundian level overhaul of their classification due to their geographical complexity.

In the 20th century the wine regions of Barolo and Barbaresco gained widespread recognition and currently are considered to be in the top echelon of both Italy's and the whole world's wine regions. Both of these regions have specific vineyards – the so-called Barolo Crus and Barbaresco Crus – where the effect of terroir is more pronounced and the grapes from these vineyards (especially Nebbiolo, the noble grape of the region capable of expressing the terroir noticeably) can produce wines of distinction and high quality. However, these regional Crus are not recognized at the appellation level nor is there even any widespread agreement on which vineyards are better than the others. This is despite the fact that many wine professionals agree how some vineyards just are not up to the level of the others, even though most of the Cru vineyards can produce distinctive wines – something not unlike the distinction between the Premier Crus and Grands Crus of Burgundy.

One of the biggest problems is that in Barolo and Barbaresco the vineyards can often span an entire face of a hill, from the top to the bottom; this is in stark contrast to Burgundy, where the Grand Cru level vineyards are normally situated mid-slope, often surrounded by Premier Cru vineyards towards the upper and lower parts of the hill and the hilltop and valley floor vineyards belonging only to the regional appellation. This means that in Barolo or Barbaresco some vineyards can produce spectacular wines from one specific part, but not from the others. A more detailed study of the vineyards with vineyard designations according to their quality could remedy this, but I understand why there are also producers vehemently against this: you might now have holdings in prestigious vineyards, but if this kind of study concluded that your specific part of vineyard wouldn't be eligible for a status equal to "Grand Cru" or "Premier Cru" (or whatever terms they might come up with), the value of your holdings could plummet considerably overnight. This kind of re-evaluation of the local terroir would undoubtedly benefit the consumer, but for a local producer this kind of vineyard research could be a serious gamble.

When talking about Barolo Crus, one can't leave Renato Ratti (1935–1988) unmentioned. This pioneering winemaker from Barolo's La Morra set out in the 70's and 80's to map the vineyards of Barolo. Not only did he map out the historic viticultural sub-regions and the Cru-level vineyards of Barolo, but also highlighted those relatively few vineyards (Brunate, Cannubi, Cerequio, Gabutti-Parafada, Lazzarito, Marenca-Rivette, Monprivato, Rocche dell'Annunziata, Rocche di Castiglione, Villero) he considered to be of the highest quality; the Grands Crus of Barolo, if you may. This "Cru map" of Barolo was vital to local producers in pointing out the most important regions of the region and it is still used extensively even today. Later on many have elaborated Ratti's map further, highlighting many more vineyards and other regions with several people trying to come up with their own "top tier of the best vineyards" – yet with noticeably little consensus on which vineyards truly are the best.

As a step toward officializing the Barolo Crus, the Barolo Consorzio introduced as late as in 2010 their own system of designating the sub-regions of Barolo as menzioni geografiche aggiuntive, or MEGA. However, with close to 200 different vineyards or village designations without any system for designating the possible differences in quality, this system might in the end be more confusing than beneficial for the consumer.

Then, back to Renato Ratti. In addition to creating the aforementioned first "Cru map" of Barolo, he also created one of the world's first single-vineyard Barolos, Marcenasco, already back in 1965. He set out to create a Barolo that would showcase the elegance and purity of Nebbiolo, yet with such longevity he believed only the grapes sourced from the Marcenasco sub-region could produce. By producing a remarkable Barolo of true distinction from a specific vineyard, many producers followed in suit, and now Barolo wines made from grapes sourced exclusively from a single, designated vineyard have become a staple of the region's wines. Apart for the youngest Marcenasco (vintage 2007), the following wines were enjoyed in a vertical tasting almost exactly two years ago and they showcase perfectly the remarkable longevity of Ratti's Marcenasco.

Renato Ratti Barolo Marcenasco
DOCG Barolo
  • Renato Ratti
  • Country: Italy
  • Region: Piedmont, Barolo
  • Grape(s): Nebbiolo (100%)

Introduced with the vintage 1965, this is one of the original single-vineyard Barolos, although not the very first one (as Vietti's Barolo Rocche di Castiglione and Prunotto's Barolo Bussia were already made from the vintage 1961). Originally Barolo Marcenasco was a single-vineyard Barolo made from a vineyard located in the historic Marcenasco sub-region, next to the hamlet of La Morra. However, after Ratti increased his holdings in this sub-region during the 1970's, including plots in the famed vineyards of Rocche dell'Annunziata and Conda dell'Abbazia, the wine was no longer a single-vineyard Barolo, but instead an "imaginary Cru", made from the best grapes harvested from several different vineyards in the Marcenasco sub-region, yet still considered as a Cru Barolo.

In 1969, Ratti's nephew, Massimo Martinelli, joined the winery and they perfected the vinification of Marcenasco. As opposed to the zeitgeist, when maceration times were long and aging regimes even longer (in an attempt to tone down the harsh tannins resulting from the prolonged maceration times) in Barolo, Marcenasco's fermentation was hastened, maceration time cut shorter and pre-release bottle aging was favored over long oak aging. Currently the maceration time of the wine is about 7–10 days, which is very short compared to the traditional maceration period that could last well over a month. After having completed the maceration and fermentation, the wine is first aged for 24 months in oak casks of 2500 and 5000 liters and finally for at least another 24 months more in bottles before release.


Renato Ratti Barolo Marcenasco 2007
  • Tasted on: 17th of February, 2017

A very warm vintage that begun with a mild and dry winter, followed by an atypically warm spring. The second half of the year was hottest for the past two centuries, resulting in one of the earliest harvests in the region. Some regions suffered from the hot weather resulting in grapes that were picked too early to keep them from becoming overripe, but the best (aka coolest) Barolo sites fared tremendously well, letting the grapes reach optimum physiological ripeness and develop their flavors fully. At Renato Ratti winery the vintage is considered as annata eccenzionale ("exceptional vintage"), resulting in wines of remarkable complexity, concentration and longevity.

The wine's concentrated, almost opaque dark cherry color has a slightly developed maroon hue. The nose is incredibly rich, complex and profound with rather pronounced sweet oak character of cola, chocolate and cocoa nibs, but enough fruit to offset the oak with juicy aromas of ripe dark cherry, some floral rose petal notes, some smoke and a hint of sweet volatile acidity. Unlike the sweet nose, the wine is a lot drier on the palate with full body and very ample, but also very ripe and slowly gripping tannins. There are rich flavors of dark cherry, sour cherry, sweet oak spice, some sweet tar notes, a little cola and chocolate, a floral hint of roses and a touch of sweet volatile lift towards the aftertaste. The acidity is pretty high, which is really vital for a wine showing such concentration. The finish is very rich, ripe and concentrated with pretty lengthy and rather oak-driven flavors of tar, sweet oak spice, dark plummy fruit, a little dark cherry and a hint of volatility.

Overall Marcenasco 2007 seems very big, rich and impressive wine, but its oak characteristics still seem too pronounced – 10 years of age have done pretty little to the oak, so most likely it will need at least 10–15 more years to integrate the wood character better with the fruit. But even though I am not a fan of oak-driven wines, I found this wine surprisingly enjoyable and satisfying, all due to its impressive structure and that wonderful harmony between the body, the acidity and the tannins.

Summary: I have never understood why some people are so eager to describe wines "masculine" or "feminine", but if one were to use this kind of sexist terminology, I can imagine this wine would be a stereotypical example of a "masculine" Nebbiolo: big, rich, concentrated and rather oak-heavy with muscular tannins and imposing presence. Although the wine feels rather modern with its polished new oak sheen, it still shows that good Barolo structure beneath its glossy surface. I can imagine this wine will turn out to be tremendous with enough age (at least 10 more years), but currently it's quite a bit too heavily oaked for my taste. Still, the high quality of the wine is obvious even under all that new wood.


Renato Ratti Barolo Marcenasco 1989
  • Tasted on: 12th of February, 2015

A superb vintage regarded as annata grande ("great vintage") in Marcenasco by the Ratti winery. Considered as one of the classic Barolo vintages of the past few decades, although often overshadowed by the exceptional and noticeably warmer vintage 1990 that followed.

Pale, translucent cherry red color that is already slightly bricking with a deep orange hue. Quite dry, savory and rather restrained nose with complex aromas of red cherry, tart cranberry, some dusty earth, a little leather, hints of sweet rosy floral nuances and a touch of something slightly animal. Although the nose lacks a bit power, it really doesn't lack depth. On the palate the wine is full-bodied with rather soft acidity and quite modest, even a bit mellow tannins. The flavors are quite dry, although revealing attractive ripe red cherry notes and some tarry earthiness, supported by understated nuances of leather, stony minerality, some rather bitter spiciness and a touch of very sweet strawberry. The finish is very gentle and more sweeter than the midpalate with very complex of cherry marmalade, Asian spices, ripe strawberry, some smoke and tar and a hint of bitterness. The tannins give a slight tug to the aftertaste.

No wonder 1989 is considered as a fantastic vintage of Barolo: this wine showcased all the characteristics of an aged Barolo with remarkable fruit concentration – although the wine showed some signs of age, it would've been very easy to guess it as a lot younger vintage, if served blind!

Summary: As the wine was more about developed, sweet fruit and remarkable complexity than about stern, tightly-knit structure, this wine was definitely a treat on its own, but much less so with food – it lacks the brightness to cut through. Bear this mind, if you happen to come across this wine. Even though I love the sharp acidity and grippy tannins of Nebbiolo this wine didn't really showcase, it was still nothing short of fantastic to me.


Renato Ratti Barolo Marcenasco 1985
  • Tasted on: 12th of February, 2015

Overall this hot year is not considered as one of the region's better vintages, as both the yields and alcohol levels were high, 1985 was considered as annata eccezionale ("exceptional vintage") by Renato Ratti, producing wines of remarkable character, structure, length and intensity in Marcenasco.

The wine's color is translucent but quite dark cherry red with slightly maroon hue towards the rim. The nose betrays slight hints of oxidative characters like raisin and stewed fruit, yet it also shows lots of life and nicely aged notes of red cherry, dried dates, sweet floral aromatics, a little almond and a hint of strawberry jam. The wine is quite rich and full-bodied on the palate, but even though the overall flavors suggest quite a lot of sweetness, overall the wine still feels quite dry, spicy and savory. There are flavors of cherry and even cherry marmalade, powerful exotic spice character, some raisin and a hint of dried dates. The structure is really impressive due to the high acidity and very firm tannins that still show quite some grip after 30 years. The wine finishes with a really long, complex and developed aftertaste of exotic spices, dried red berries, sour cherry, syrupy molasses, some nuttiness and faint mushroomy tones. The tannins give the aftertaste good, somewhat astringent grip.

The vintage 1985 hasn't stood up to the test of time as nicely as many of the other vintages tasted here, but it still drinks very nicely, eventually turning out to be a lot nicer than what the somewhat over-developed notes initially suggested.

Summary: This is definitely a lot more impressive wine on the palate than what the nose led to expect. The wine shows remarkable acid and tannin structure, so even though this is a 30-year old wine, it's still more of a food wine than a smooth and silky meditation wine. Very lovely effort, but somewhat overshadowed by the two surrounding vintages.


Renato Ratti Barolo Marcenasco 1983
  • Tasted on: 12th of February, 2015

A vintage Renato Ratti considered (only) as an annata buona, "a good vintage", for Marcenasco, whereas it is otherwise considered as quite a weak vintage in Barolo, due to cool spring, uneven weather during the early summer and high humidity throughout the growing season, resulting in high occurrences of rot. The wines aren't normally considered as ageworthy due to their modest acidity and tannin levels.

Translucent, but quite dark cherry color with somewhat developed, maroon hue and rather obvious bricking towards the rim. The nose is really fragrant, surprisingly sweet and immensely attractive with deep, rich and floral aromas of roses, cherry marmalade, beautiful and elegant volatile lift, a little smoke and lovely, developed fruit aromas of raisin, caramel and plum marmalade. The nose has even a slightly sticky quality to it, giving it almost a red Beerenauslese-kind of character. On the palate the wine feels full-bodied and velvety with quite intense flavors of sweet spices, dried cherries, leather, sweet plummy fruit, some tangy sour cherry and a hint of raisin. Despite the modest vintage the wine shows good, balanced acidity and ample, but quite ripe and mellow tannins. The finish is long, complex and delicate with a kaleidoscope of developed flavors: cherry juice, prunes, bitter sour cherry, tart cranberry, some earthy tones, a little exotic spices, a hint of raisin and a touch of mushroomy character.

Despite not being a vintage that'll set no hopes up, Marcenasco 1983 manages to seriously impress. I mean really. Wow. Incredible complexity, depth and harmony. Although the age has concentrated the fruit so that it starts to veer into that quite sweet, dried fruit territory, that sweetness is wonderfully offset by the wine's balanced structure.

Summary: One of the best Marcenascos I've had, easily. The wine is drinking really nicely right now with its completely resolved tannins and although the wine will probably keep still for some good years, the developed dried fruit character is starting to signal that it should be drunk preferably sooner than later. Infinitely attractive effort and really a positive surprise from a generally poorly regarded vintage.


Renato Ratti Barolo Marcenasco 1979
  • Tasted on: 12th of February, 2015

An above average vintage: the spring had some frosts and the late summer and early autumn light rains, but overall the weather was quite warm and pretty easy for the growers. The biggest problem was rainy October, diluting especially the later-harvested wines (ie. the majority of Nebbiolo). The best wines from this vintage were harvested early enough before the rains fell. According to Renato Ratti, 1979 was an annata ottima ("optimum (very good) vintage") – a bit better than just "good", but nothing really stunning. 1979 Marcenascos should show both elegance and intensity.

The wine has a translucent and rather pale red color with a luminous Campari hue. The nose isn't that expressive, but instead very elegant and attractive with nuanced aromas of dried cherry, orange peel, some oxidative nutty notes – even borderline hints of bread – and dusty earth with a slightly funky animal undertone. On the palate the wine feels full-bodied, smooth and rich with rather modest acidity and ripe, mellow tannins. The flavors are starting to veer into that rather sweet, aged fruit territory, revealing interweaving nuances of red berry marmalade, dried figs, some sweet spiciness and hints of sour cherry bitterness. Just like the nose, also the flavors are quite subtle and mellow, lacking the youthful intensity. The finish is quite soft and round as well, yet lengthy enough, with flavors velvety, slightly sweet flavors of cherry marmalade, allspice, some leather and a hint of dried figs.

Compared to some of the other vintages tasted in this vertical, the 1979 vintage was obviously lighter and more delicate in flavor, yet showing really lovely, aged complexity.

Summary: I guess this is the kind of vintage some people would love to describe as "feminine" – it is more delicate and mellow than many of the other vintages tasted. Although the wine shows lovely balance and captivating flavors, it is reaching the far end of its peak and probably will fall apart – probably sooner than later. As the structure has resolved itself to the point of feeling very soft and round, this wine is obviously one to be enjoyed on itself, not with any dishes requiring wines of great structure.


Renato Ratti Barolo Marcenasco 1974
  • Tasted on: 12th of February, 2015

After a late spring, 1974 was a quite optimal vintage for the winegrowers, with warm, steady weather allowing the grapes to mature easily throughout the region. On average the wines showed less acidity than normal with ripe, rich fruit and firm tannins. Renato Ratti agreed that 1974 was also an annata ottima ("very good vintage") for the Marcenasco wines. The grapes for Marcenasco 1974 were sourced exclusively from the Cru vineyard Rocche dell'Annunziata.

Despite the wine's cherry red color is quite dark-hued, it is also remarkably translucent and almost watery clear towards the rim. The nose shows quite powerful, funky and dirty aromas suggesting that the wine might have seen a bit too much oxygen over the years; there are intense and quite naughty aromas of animal rusticity, moist soil, root vegetables, some mushroomy notes, a little bit of rainy forest and a hint of dried salt-cured meat. On the palate the continues down the funk road with robust and also somewhat sweet flavors of cherries, dried figs, pronounced bitterness, some Mediterranean spices and a little smoky earth. The wine has full body and quite stern and grippy structure with good acidity and very ample, although somewhat resolved tannins. Overall the wine seems slightly musty and it takes a slightly volatile turn to "wild" aromas with air. The finish is very bitter and acid-driven with robust tannic grip and long, rough flavors of sour cherries, loamy soil, some toasted spices, light animal notes and a hint of old furniture.

Despite the good vintage, 1974 Marcenasco failed to impress. Most likely it's more about bottle variation than how the vintage should be drinking right now, so the score is not really representative of the vintage, but only this bottle.

Summary: Probably marred by some oxidation, this wine wasn't that impressive as the best vintages. You could easily taste the power, the concentration and the tightly knit tannic structure, but the funky and even somewhat unpleasant off notes distracted so much that the experience was actually rather modest.


Renato Ratti Barolo Marcenasco 1971
  • Tasted on: 12th of February, 2015

Usually 1971 is considered to be the vintage of the decade: both cold winter lasting long into spring and intermittent spring hails reduced the yields noticeably, whereas long, hot summer and dry, warm autumn ripened the remaining Nebbiolo grapes easily to perfect ripeness. Renato Ratti also considered 1971 to be annata eccezionale, an "exceptional vintage", for Marcenasco, resulting in incredibly perfumed and harmonious wines. The grapes for Marcenasco 1971 were sourced exclusively from the Cru vineyard Rocche dell'Annunziata.

Quite dark and ever so slightly hazy maroon-hued cherry color with lovely copper highlights and the appearance turning from orange to almost completely limpid towards the rim. Incredibly attractive nose with stunning depth and complexity; there are developed, perfumed aromas of leather, dried figs, wizened cherries, mocha, some oxidative sweet syrup notes and a little roasted nut character with a hint of Middle Eastern spice market. On the palate the wine is lively, full-bodied and incredibly rich with intense flavors of surprising power; there are notes of sweet red cherries, ripe red fruits, some exotic spices, a little leather and a hint of dried dark fruit. The structure is remarkable with both bright acidity and still quite firm and grippy tannins. The remarkably long finish is surprisingly lively and even youthful with complex, developed flavors of sweet red cherries, dark-toned fruit, sour cherry bitterness, some cranberry-driven tart red berries, a little exotic spices and a hint of peppery spice.

This is simply stunning stuff. 1971 Marcenasco is easily one of the greatest old Baroli I've had, offering a dumbfounding mélange of flavors both developed and remarkably youthful. Even at over 40 years of age, the wine seems that it hasn't reached its plateau of maturity, but instead it is still going up.

Summary: Obviously 1971 was capable of producing wines for the long haul in Barbaresco. Based on how this bottle was drinking, this fella is not going anywhere anytime soon. Definitely a wine you'll want to get your hands on – an archetype of a well-made Nebbiolo that has aged just like they should.


Renato Ratti Barolo Marcenasco 1970
  • Tasted on: 12th of February, 2015

Another stunning vintage that was very similar to the following year. However, 1970 is often overshadowed by 1971, which produced more opulent and structured wines. According to Renato Ratti, this was an annata grande ("great vintage") – the best kind of vintage there is, bar the few exceptional years you might have once every decade or two. The grapes for Marcenasco 1970 were sourced exclusively from the Cru vineyard Rocche dell'Annunziata.

By the appearance this 1970 is very similar to the 1971 next to it, only with very slightly paler hue; with its maroon highlights this looks like caramel-colored water with a reddish hue. The nose betrays some signs of oxidation, meaning that this specific wine isn't in optimal condition – if Marcenasco 1971 was so stunning, Marcenasco 1970 shouldn't be like a polar opposite to it. The nose is quite subdued and there are rather sharp and savory aromas of raisin, dried figs, sweet Tawny port, some dark-roasted coffee and hints of withered flowers. On the palate the wine feels full-bodied with grainy, resolved tannins and moderate acidity. The very developed, complex flavors reveal oxidative notes of dark syrup, sour cherry, dried dates, exotic spices, some raisin and a hint of nuttiness. The taste oxidizes quite quickly, becoming more dull and stylistically closer to tawny port with air. The finish is quite restrained and rather short with dépassé flavors of withered cherry, black tea, stony minerality, some roasted nuts and a hint of Oloroso Sherry tang.

Unfortunately this wine couldn't match the expectations; Marcenasco 1970 should be still going strong, but unfortunately after more than 40 years, bottle variations are an unfortunate fact. Obviously either the wine had been cellared in poor conditions at some point or the cork had started to let oxygen through, because although the wine wasn't completely dead and spoiled, it was obviously past its peak, lacking the fruit it still should show.

Summary: Although this wine has seen better days, it was still somewhat alive and pretty drinkable. If drunk without any other Baroli to compare to, it would have been easily a very enjoyable wine, but now, with stunning Marcenasco 1971 in a glass next to it, this wine failed to move me in any meaningful way. I'd still love to revisit the wine in the hopes of having a better bottle, because I've heard several times that Marcenasco 1970 is still drinking wonderfully – some people even say that they prefer this vintage over the 1971!

The wines: Marcenascos 1970–1989 with Rocche 1996.

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