This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
See our tasting notes in Does Barolo 2010 live up to the hype? and Other Piemontese on offer….
Now that the world's wine collectors are no longer falling over themselves to stock up on bordeaux en primeur, Britain's traditional wine merchants are having to think of different ways to fill the large hole left in their annual receipts. Burgundy seemed the obvious alternative and there is certainly no shortage of interest in it from wine lovers, but volumes are relatively small and there is only so much that even the most experienced burgundy-buying merchant can acquire, and practically nothing a merchant new to Burgundy can get their hands on.
Many UK merchants and fine-wine traders have been doing their best with the Rhône, albeit on very different cycles, but some of the pinstripe-suit brigade have been - wait for it - venturing outside France! Prime among these daredevils are the two big wine merchants of London's St James's Street, Berry Bros and Justerini & Brooks. Berrys are now so committed to Italy that they have a family member, David Berry Green, stationed permanently in Piemonte. (You can read about Walter's admiration for Berry Green's selection in his 2012 article St James's Italians - an audit.) But Hew Blair of arch-rivals Justerini & Brooks has also been assiduously establishing relationships with Italy's top producers in the Langhe hills.
Blair claims to have been cosying up to many of the big names for 15 or more years, initially through Italo-American wine broker Marc de Grazia and recently, since de Grazia has been concentrating more and more on his own Etna estate Terre Nere, going direct. He reports that he was given a huge boost eight or so years ago when the American market, the most important for Piemontese wines, went a bit quiet. Since then J&B have been buying ever more substantial quantities of some of Italy's finest wines and Blair reports that Barolo 2010 has been a watershed vintage for them.
So enamoured of the idea of investing in 2010 Barolo have his private customers become, he claims, that J&B have sold three times as much of this vintage already as of the softer, more forward 2009s - representing record interest to date. This is without having held a big tasting - the usual major sales mechanic - although admittedly one or two of their Barolo principals such as arch-modernist Roberto Voerzio have made trips to London recently for winemaker dinners under the aegis of J&B.
Barolo 2010 is not being shown to the world's media officially until May, but according to Blair, many of the UK allocations at least, have already been sold. Vinitaly, the international trade fair which took place in Verona last weekend, is traditionally the time when allocations are made to various importers, but J&B were so keen to ensure that they got their hands on what they had been promised that they took care to have their purchases collected from the relevant cellars before Vinitaly.
Back in the 1980s, it was the Germans and Swiss who were the most important buyers of the top wines of the atmospheric, monocultural Langhe hills south of Turin. They would load up their Mercedes and BMWs with the latest vintage and could generally afford much greater quantities than the average Italian buyer.
Germany's economic woes eventually took their toll on German demand for these wines but by the mid 1990s American wine merchants such as Mannie Berk of The Rare Wine Co in California had discovered the haunting appeal of the apogee of terroir-driven Nebbiolo grapes, thanks to the twin vintages of 1989 and 1990. In the 1990s it was wine critic Robert Parker who beat the drum loudest for these wines. This time around, his ex-associate, Italian specialist Antonio Galloni, has been doing the same for the promising 2010 vintage.
'But there's something different this time', says Berk. 'I think it's become clear to many European and UK merchants that they can't rely quite so heavily on Bordeaux as they did in the past. And with Burgundy also becoming increasingly challenging, Barolo is looking to be the most attractive portfolio addition. This is not to say that the same merchants haven't been happily selling Barolo all along, but that was perhaps more as brokers to satisfy demand from the US.'
No, this time, much to my delight, it seems as though an increasing proportion of Barolo and its smaller neighbour Barbaresco will remain on British shores and, as fervent new convert Joss Fowler of Fine + Rare reports enthusiastically, 'just like in Burgundy you have hand-made wines with a story behind every slope'. His customers are buying to consume rather than speculate - in stark contrast to recent developments in the Bordeaux market.
But they are having to compete with increasing demand in Scandinavia, Asia, and also in the US. Nebbiolo-phile sommelier-turned-podcast-host Levi Dalton has his finger on its pulse: 'There seems to be the feeling in the market that Barolo is simultaneously something new to explore and something with a long history. The perception that Barolo has very traditional producers helps in an era when very traditional is very hip. There is also the reality that for the price of comparable Burgundy, you could be drinking Barolo with age on it. This isn't lost on anybody.'
Sergio Esposito of Italian Wine Merchants in New York, who admittedly has championed investment in fine Italian wine, echoes this financial aspect but is rather more prosaic about it: 'The 2010 vintage is a true sign of times to come as availability is scarce and prices climb. But buyer beware as this is just the tip of the iceberg given that most great Baroli still trade under €250 compared with their French counterparts' trading north of €3,000. That gap will surely be narrowed in the coming years, so buying into Barolo today may be the best investment opportunity in the wine market.'
Not every British merchant is finding Barolo an easy sell to the British, however. Fine-wine buyer Nick Dagley of Lay & Wheeler has long been an enthusiast himself and has assembled a fine offer of 2010 Barolo and Barbaresco, but describes trying to sell it to his customers as still 'frustrating'. And Stephen Browett, owner of Britain's largest fine-wine trader Farr Vintners and a self-confessed Italophobe, answered my query about his company's policy on Piemonte - from Bordeaux - with tongue firmly in cheek: 'What is Barolo?'
When I asked David Berry Green from arch-traditionalist merchant Berry Bros of London whether his colleagues in London and Asia had at long last 'got' Barolo, he laughed and said firmly 'no, not yet'.
SOME FAVOURITE 2010 BAROLO PRODUCERS
My colleague Walter Speller and I had a foretaste of more than 100 Barolo 2010s recently in London thanks to Fine + Rare and Lay & Wheeler. Our favourites came from these producers.
Cordero di Montezemolo
E Pira di Chiara Boschis
G D Vajra
The image above is taken from the Consorzio delle Langhe website.