Great vintages are a tango. Nature leads the grower, and the dance is certainly strenuous, but she seems ultimately to want to create something beautiful. Some growing seasons, however, are 15-round boxing matches, with Nature doing her damndest to leave her much smaller opponent utterly crushed. And in 2014 in the Langhe, Mother Nature was Joe Frazier in his prime. She fought the hapless Piemontese ruthlessly, unleashing three separate vicious hailstorms in rapid succession, overwhelming them with unrelenting rain, and wearing them down with cold temperatures and gray skies. A late-season attack of the devastating suzukii—a fruit fly that punctures grapes and causes rot—felt pointedly mean-spirited.
To “go the distance” in boxing is to last an entire bout without being knocked out. Make it through 15 rounds, and all you can do is wait for the referee’s decision while you ice your bruises and wipe your cuts. Simply going the distance and getting wine into bottle was a commendable feat in a season such as 2014, with quite a few notable crus experiencing total devastation and loss. Many growers who went the distance and bottled all their wines as they would have in a less-brutal vintage were left with diluted, anemic Barolo that speak all too clearly of the year’s stupefying challenges. It doesn’t require too skilled a referee to award Nature the victory in these cases.
Our friends at Brovia—deservedly among the most legendary and beloved of Barolo estates—certainly were not spared a tough match in 2014. However, the wine they pulled off may well be one of the great upsets in the history of Rosenthal Wine Merchant. Great boxers know when to dodge and duck, and Alex, Cristina, and Elena realized before the final bell that they were likely not going to want to bottle all four of their great crus as usual. They stood a better shot with a single strong fighter than with five compromised ones, and thus they produced but one Barolo in 2014.
As arduous as the growing season was, the post-harvest rounds were equally exhausting, with Alex and the sisters executing multiple double-blind evaluations of over 30 different blends of their holdings. In the end, they used the lower sector of “Brea” in Serralunga d’Alba—containing the best-exposed and oldest vines—plus portions from two other crus in Castiglione Falletto, the details of which they refused to reveal. As curious as we are to know, we respect their decision to try and avoid the perception that the crus they included are necessarily superior (rather than simply being better suited to this particular blend). They christened the result of this difficult birth “Unio,” a Latin word meaning “union” and referring to the marriage of crus that constitute the blend. 50% of their total Barolo harvest ended up being sold off in bulk.
Some producers battled the vintage’s inherent lightness by practicing saignée in the cellar to gain color—the equivalent of wearing bigger boxing gloves in order to seem stronger. Nature wasn’t fooled, and nor will be the referees. Brovia, on the other hand, treated their grapes with the usual trust and respect, allowing fermentations to proceed naturally and without temperature tweaking, employing a three-week maceration as per usual, and aging the wine in their colossal old Slavonian-oak botti—vessels so large they require a ladder to draw samples from.
Evaluating the 2014 “Unio” blind, one would be hard-pressed to declare it from anything less than a stellar vintage. Brovia’s late-round strategy of assembling one great wine paid off enormously, and the end result is not just good—it is shockingly gorgeous. The nose soars, laden with the beautiful, complex, almost philosophical spice of great Nebbiolo, and anchored by dark, savory fruits. “Unio” is a densely-boned fighter whose musculature makes up in definition what it lacks in size. The vintage’s lightness is felt not in any sense of dilution but in a sense of mesmerizing clarity—the kind of clear-eyed freshness that the heft of riper vintages sometimes masks. In the absence of excess flesh, the wine’s profound minerality is positively arresting, reading as chiseled and foundational rather than as an undertone or a grace note. Furthermore, the family’s remarkable feel for well-judged extraction is on full display here, as the tannins are as perfect as could be imagined—neither coerced past their natural potential nor buffed into insignificance. They are downright sexy tannins, in fact—the lower-lip bite at the end of a kiss that manages to be both tender and suggestive.
A well-executed tango is pretty to watch, sure, but a great boxing match becomes the stuff of legend—especially a great upset. In 2014, Alex, Cristina, and Elena went the distance, and—just as we still speak in awe of those great fights from decades long past—we will be opening bottles of the one-of-a-kind “Unio” for years to come. And we’ll marvel at the time Brovia emerged victorious against a seemingly unbeatable opponent.