Let’s be honest about the 2017 vintage in northern Italy: a breathtakingly candid dispatch from a Barolo icon.

Above: Barolo Castle, photo taken January 17, 2020, on my last trip to Italy before the pandemic shut down global travel.

In an era when truth and fact seem to have become relative terms, it was remarkable to read the breathtakingly candid assessment of the 2017 vintage in Barolo circulated last week by legacy grower and winemaker Alberto Cordero, the current generation of the historic Cordero di Montezemolo winery in La Morra (disclosure: I contribute to his importer’s blog).

An “intense frost… hit not only Piedmont but practically all of Europe,” in April of that year, he wrote, “causing extensive damage in every wine-growing area from Tuscany upwards [northward]. One of the largest and most devastating frosts ever recorded.”

He includes in his a report a photograph showing one of the affected vineyards on his family’s historic estate.

In its entire history, he writes, his family had never seen “damage so huge from spring frosts.”

His notes hardly jibe with the notes issued by the Barolo, Barbaresco, Alba, Langhe, and Dogliani consortium.

“The 2017 vintage growing year will be remembered,” wrote the authors of the report, “for its hot climate, and in particular sparse rainfall.”

There was “some frost damage,” they added, “though in the Langhe only the bottoms of the valleys and cooler slopes were affected.”

Alternate facts?

Italian wine trade observers generally concur that the 2017 vintage represents a climatic anomaly, even for a decade when climate change delivered a string of extraordinarily extreme weather events.

Above: 2017 Barolo in cask at the Cordero di Montezemolo winery.

“2017 – Hail, Frost & Heat…,” wrote Antonio Galloni on Vinous: “Whereas 2016 was an extraordinarily benign year, pretty much anything that could happen did happen in 2017.”

The editors of Jancis Robinson’s site have called the vintage “fairly dismal.”

“The 2017 vintage for Piedmont was difficult, to say the least,” wrote the editors of WineSearcher.com.

In November 2017, shortly after harvest had been completed, one of the consortium’s most prominent and politically active members wrote that the Piedmontese hadn’t seen such an extreme frost in half a century (I don’t want to name the winemaker, whose report still appears on their blog, for the sake of not pitting them against the growers and bottlers assocation).

Many years ago, I had the remarkable opportunity to ask one of Piedmont most celebrated growers about their impressions of Langhe vintages stretching back to the 1950s (again, for the sake of comity, I don’t want to name names).

They talked about how market concerns have often compromised vintage assessments. This was especially true, they said, in the 1970s and 80s, before the time of global warming, when Piedmont vignaioli were lucky to have one great vintage per decade, let alone a string of good if not exceptional harvests (a trend that began in the 1990s).

It wasn’t so long ago that a celebrated Langhe cooperative created a stir when it reclassified its 2006 cru-designate wines. The vintage was called “promising” at the time. But the release of the wines coincided with the peak of the financial crisis. The episode, controversial in some quarters, was the inverse of what typically happens: the bottler talked down the vintage because they wanted to justify the decrease in price.

Traditionally, February is the month when Italian wine pundits begin publishing their vintage notes for the year’s releases. And we should start seeing the 2017s from Langhe in the U.S. by May or so.

Some of the wines will be good, others very good, and some even exceptional. These days, it’s rare that a winery releases wines it doesn’t like (and given the technology available to those who choose to use it, it’s challenging to make bad wine).

In the case of the Langhe 2017 releases, there will just be less wine. As a famous Tuscan grower once noted, there are no bad vintages; there are just vintages when we make less wine.

It’s inspiring to read the brutally honest words of a grower like Alberto. Maybe it’s because he has a longer-term perspective that allows him to see this anomalous vintage as just one piece in a much larger puzzle.

Or maybe it’s because he knows that honesty is a key element in authenticity. This is especially true at a time when nearly everything in the world’s “constitution of knowledge” has come into question.

I applaud Alberto (who’s a really nice and extremely thoughtful guy, btw) for the candor and the earnestness. His report kind of reminds me of a “rare menu that tells the truth.” Please pass the orange beef.

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