by Franco Ziliani

There is great news for Barolo fans from wines this year's Alba Wine Exhibition, the prestigious annual presentation to the Italian and international wine press of Piemonte's great Langhe Nebbiolo wine. Held May 7-11 in Alba, the fair featured 160 Barolos from 2004, a vintage that has emerged as a classic. The weather allowed optimal ripening of the Nebbiolo and yielded wines with complex aromas, elegance, and structured tannins, with high quality the rule rather than the exception.

Barolo production has shot up, topping for the first time 10 million bottles (10,252,133), an increase of 18 percent on 2003, with 10.5 million slated for 2005 and 11,277,000 for 2006. More important, the Barolo 2004 tastings make clear that its production zone encompasses areas very different in climate, geology, elevation, orientation, and ripening times, its 1,803ha (4,455 acres) spread through La Morra (450ha [1,112 acres]), Monforte (351ha [867 acres]), Serralunga d'Alba (311ha [768 acres]), Barolo (238ha [588 acres]), Novello (137ha [338 acres]), Castiglione Falletto (136ha [336 acres]), Verduno (90ha [222 acres]), Grinzane Cavour (49ha [121 acres]), Roddi (21ha [52 acres]), Diano d'Alba (14ha [35 acres]), and Cherasco (2ha [5 acres]).

As one would expect, the best results came from the villages that fired the best arrows from their terroir quiver, with characteristics that afford them a potential quality edge and wines whose impressions remain almost monumental over time: Serralunga d'Alba, above all, followed by Castiglione Falletto, Monforte d'Alba, Barolo, and Verduno. Lower down, but still with some excellent showings, were La Morra, Grinzane Cavour, Diano d'Alba, and Novello.

Granted, many of the most highly reputed La Morra producers were absent -- Altare, Batasiolo, Boglietti, Corino, Andrea Oberto, Eraldo Viberti, Roberto Voerzio. But thinner ranks are not a convincing explanation for such unsatisfactory performances from this village, with many unbalanced and boring wines. Most seemed stamped from the same mold: seemingly produced from jam rather than fruit; artificially concentrated; extracted to the nth degree; difficult to taste, let alone to drink; lamentably betraying outmoded philosophies and techniques. They displayed not a hint of terroir, being aggressive, clumsy, and occasionally dirty, with highly improbable, saturated hues and far too much oak and toast. Their apparent purpose is to impress, to convey a character that is, after all, alien to the qualities traditional to the region.

There were, of course, honorable exceptions: Gianfranco Bovio's Vigna Arborina and Vigna Gattera; Michele Chiarlo's Cerequio; Mario Gagliasso's Rocche dell'Annunziata and Torriglione; Rocche Costamagna's Rocche dell'Annunziata and Bricco Francesco; Aurelio Settimo's Rocche and standard Barolo; and Vietti's Brunate. Not far behind were Eugenio Bocchino's La Serra Lu, Gianni Gagliardo's Serre, and Stroppiana's Vigna San Giacomo.

The results were generally much stronger, however, in the communes of Barolo and Castiglione Falletto. The latter offered wines of considerable elegance, fragrance, supple tannins, earthy depth, and exemplary harmony. I have in mind Brovia's Rocche, Cavallotto's Bricco Boschis, Giacomo Fenocchio's Villero, Livia Fontana's Villero, Fratelli Giacosa's Vigna del Mandorlo, Fratelli Monchiero's Rocche di Castiglione, Sobrero's Ciabot Tanasio, and Vietti's Rocche.

Turning to Barolo, we typically expect more power from this commune in the more classic vintages, and this year its wines showed more even development and overall quality. Producers who have not always turned in great performances emerged from the pack this year: Brezza's superb Bricco Sarmassa and Sarmassa, Sergio Barale's Cannubi, GB Burlotto's Cannubi, Bartolo (now Maria Teresa) Mascarello's Barolo, Beppe Rinaldi's impetuous Brunate Le Coste, and the rediscovered wines of Luciano Sandrone, with my nod going to his Le Vigne on Cannubi Boschis.

Verduno's offerings were few but more than solid: GB Burlotto's Acclivi, Castello di Verduno's Massara, and Fratelli Alessandria's Monvigliero. Monforte d'Alba lacked Clerico,

Conterno Fantino, and Elio Grasso, but still provided aromatic, expressive wines, with no-nonsense tannins. Some were better than others, some were a tad hot, but they were consistent and well rooted overall. Kudos to Tenuta Arnulfo Costa di Bussia's Campo dei Buoi and Coste di Bussia; Silvano Bolmida's Bussia and Vigne dei Fantini; Bussia Munie from Franco Conterno's Cascina Sciulun; Giacomo Fenocchio's Bussia; Fratelli Alessandria's Gramolere; and Mauro Veglio's Castelletto.

Serralunga d'Alba takes us into the realm of real complexity and pedigree. Many of the wines are deep, expansive, and resonant, with plentiful, powerful tannins, but never tough, unbalanced, or unknit. The best have a mineral edge, a dark charge of licorice, a pungent whiff of underbrush, a subtle dash of spice. In a word, perfect synergy between Serralunga and this classic 2004 vintage. These huge, savory, stately wines have a thrilling future if given the necessary time.

The list of triumphs is impressive: Ascheri's Sorano Coste & Bricco; Luigi Baudana's Baudana; Brovia's Cà Mia; Cascina Cucco's Cerrati and Vigna Cucco; Eredi Virginia Ferrero's San Rocco; Fontanafredda's La Rosa; Ettore Germano's Cerretta; Bruna Grimaldi's Badarina; Paolo Manzone's Meriame and Serralunga; Massolino's Margheria; Palladino's Serralunga and Vigna Brolio; Luigi Pira's Vigna Margheria; Guido Porro's Lazzairasco and Vigna Santa Caterina; Gigi Rosso's Arione; and Giovanni Rosso's Serralunga. So, even without top producers such as Cappellano, Giacomo Conterno, Bruno Giacosa, and Schiavenza, who did not present their wines in Alba, there was an embarrassment of riches and overall quality at an exhilarating level.