Home > Editorial > Barolo 2020 vintage report


Published: 11th April 2024



Davy Żyw, Italy Buyer

This is the lockdown vintage. No cars, no planes, no pollution and no travel; Barolo’s winemakers stayed home and tended their vines. Despite the chaos in the world, Mother Nature prevailed.

The vines breathed and recharged as Mother Nature provided a complete growing season with defined seasons, a kind summer and ample rain. The result? A vintage of perfect proportions.

The wines have expressive perfume: juicy, complete and sensual, with svelte-like tannins that delight from release. There is freshness and transparency of primary charm at the core of this vintage, which is rare for Nebbiolo in youth. But let me assure you – it is a character that suits the grape very well.

Comparing the vintage

Many producers describe the 2020 vintage as a classical year for Barolo, due to the great balance and elegance of the wines. “Classical” styles typically depict a cooler year: one where freshness and tannins lead the wines in tandem.

Yet today, we need to appreciate “cooler” in the context of the modern climate. The general climate in Barolo is becoming warmer and warmer, drier and drier. So, despite the challenges that Covid-19 posed, many of the region’s producers look back favourably on the 2020 growing year, with its regular temperatures and rainfall, compared to the vintages which have followed.

Many producers we tasted the vintage with liken it to 2019 in terms of fruit profile, 2014 for its elegant, crunchy structure – currently receiving a lot of demand on the market – or 2018 with regard to freshness, although this is a little softer. One opinion did prevail amongst all producers: that the 2020 vintage is superior to all three. There is more balance, more elegance, and significantly more material on the palate than any of these previous “classical” years – all characters that prove the 2020s will cellar well.

The 2020 wines

The demanding edges of young Barolo are evident in most vintage releases. Yet in 2020, these famously austere tannins are not the driving character, as was the case in 2019. Even in the top vineyards from the strongest terroirs – particularly in some of the ancient soils of Monforte d’Alba’s highest zones, or Serralunga d’Alba’s steep white flanks – they are more restrained. The wines are indeed of their place: structured, with firm acid, minerality and energetic tannins. Yet even this early, there is a juicy composure to the wines, paired with a tangy freshness, which makes a partnership impossible not to adore.

We are in the midst of a trio of spectacular vintages from Piedmont. Last year, 2019 delivered gleaming fruit, paired with traditional tannic structures. Next year, we’ll see the super-charged 2021, which will combine time-demanding tannins with richer palates. But this year, in the middle of the three, 2020 gives us the best of both. These wines have expressive aromatics, good acidity and shape, with balanced and complete palates.

The growing season

2020 started with a mild winter, with very little rain or indeed snow at the start of the year. March came paired with the complications and trauma of Covid-19 in Italy, as the world went into lockdown. Yet, with it came a bright and sunny spring, which caused vineyards to spring into life early.

The consecutive back-to-back days of cool May rain pumped the brakes across the region’s vineyards, with isolated pockets of hail tearing through La Morra and Verduno. Luckily, most vines emerged unscathed.

From June, good weather prevailed. Piedmont saw a proper summer, with ample sunny days punctuated by occasional cooling rain showers, which replenished water. Temperatures were kept steady thanks to this, never peaking above 35°C. This beautiful weather continued from July into August – yet thanks to the wet May, summer storms and steady temperatures, the vines never shut down. This had been the case in 2019, which gave rise to the vintage’s austere tannins. So, vineyards arrived into their final maturation period in perfect shape.

At the end of August, a cool front descended from the nearby Alps. This provided the ideal environment for the all-important hang-time, where the grapes developed their phenolic maturity and ripeness in the midst of warm days and chilly nights. These also helped develop the Nebbiolo grapes’ signature aromatic and flavour complexity.

October brought with it a final day of rain, ahead of a month of high pressure, and the perfect conditions of harvest. Most producers started picking during the first two weeks of October, and harvested throughout the month. They had the benefit of being able to choose when to harvest for optimum quality, rather than this being dictated by unsettled weather.

This lengthier hang-time meant grapes arrived into wineries ready and relaxed, with good levels of freshness, aromatics, primary fruit characters and juicy fruit tannins from healthy skins. All of these brilliant characteristics can be felt in this year’s release.

The vintage advantage

The most defined wines of the vintage come from older soils, which have more free-draining marl and limestone in them. As the complexity of soils differs so widely across the region, we can find brilliant wines from all of Barolo’s comune.

Navigation is key with every release. With the 2020s, site selection is important in La Morra and the comune di Barolo – but we can also find a few of the vintage’s greatest wines if you know where to look. The general highs this year are in the Helvetian soils of Castiglione Falletto, much of Serralunga, and Monforte d’Alba.

The best wines – and there are many – have all the primary balance and pleasure of 2020, with a little more hallmark tension and unapologetic Barolo rigour. You can, simply, taste the beauty of the landscape, and the kindness of the growing season.

2019 was a great year, but not everyone achieved perfect phenolic maturity. Winemakers were challenged, and consumers will be too – if the wines were drunk too young. In 2020, winemakers didn’t face the same issues; instead, they were able to make expressive wines from a glorious, even crop. These wines burst with their makers’ personalities.

Final thoughts

We follow on from the vertical 2019 vintage, where there was a tannic, chiselled clarity to the wines, which needed further time in bottle to come into focus. With 2020, we find more balance and pleasure from release.

The wines are juicy, with svelte tannins and a tangy freshness, are of their place, and are perfectly proportioned for pleasure. Yes, the best wines will need time in cellar to reveal their potential – but not as long as the 2019s, nor indeed the 2021s to come. The defining character of this vintage is positive, joyful wines, which will delight purists, collectors and drinkers alike.