Sometimes, when I’m lucky, a bottle of wine is more than a beverage. More than fermented grape juice. More than delicious or complex. Sometimes, wine is a living memory, encapsulated in smells and flavors. And in a few, rare, ethereal examples, sometimes wine is living history. That’s how I felt when I opened this bottle of 1978 Giacomo Borgogno & Figli Barolo Riserva.
They say you should never ask a woman her age. I don’t believe that. I believe age and experience is never something to be ashamed of, and I will start by sharing that I was born in 1978. That’s what drew me to this bottle. There aren’t lots of wines from my birth year floating around, and I don’t imagine many of them tasting great.
A few, classic regions not only make wines for long aging, but had a very good to great vintage in 1978. For the past few years, I’ve been seeking these wines out. Bordeaux, Burgundy, Piedmont, and Napa were my best bets and as I started tasting wines from my birth year, I became fascinated. My first birth year wine? 1978 Heitz Cellars Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. I remember my shock and surprise at how alive the wine was. It made me hopeful that not only would I have more birth year wine in my future, but that I would actually enjoy the bottles.
So I was a little more than excited when I came across this wine.
But first, a little about the producer
One of the oldest names associated with wine in the Langhe, Giacomo Borgogno & Figli has a cellar founded in 1761. The estate has an extensive library collection, carefully stored for decades to allow select Barolos to age gracefully in their cellar before being sold. Cesare Borgogno changed the name of the estate in 1967 to Giacomo Borgogno e Figli, yet the winery continued making wines from the family’s land holdings following their traditions. The Borgogno family ran the estate for 247 years until they sold it to the Farinetti family in 2008. Today, Andrea Farinetti runs Giacomo Borgogno e Figli with help from Beppe Caviola. They are deeply committed to preserving the centuries-long legacy and traditions while celebrating and improving this historic wine. For this wine in particular, that means traditional fermentation and submerged cap maceration for about a month. The wine was then aged four years in Slavonian oak barrels. This is old school, traditional Barolo wine making.
About the vintage
Giacomo Borgogno e Figli considers 1978 an outstanding vintage. From their website, “the climatic course of this vintage was irregular with rainfalls during the flowering that reduced drastically the production. Really low quantities in terms of volume on the contrary has allowed a perfect maturation of the grape in spite of the weather.” By most accounts, 1978 is regarded as one of the great 20th century vintages of Barolo, and the last great vintage where most Barolos were being made in old school ways. By the 80s, new-school winemakers began modernizing Barolo vinification, most notably using smaller French oak barrels instead of the larger Slavonian oak.
Opening and tasting
When the time came to actually drink my bottle, I will admit I was nervous. The possibility of a wine being corked or flawed is always present, especially when you open an older bottle. I used my trusty Ah So because I had a feeling the cork would be soft and it worked like a dream. My first sniff/taste came with relief because the wine was sound.
The wine started surprisingly tight, primarily earth and mushrooms, but as it opened in the glass, dusty plums and cherries started coming through. Herbal underbrush, tobacco, and tea leaf started to express itself and the acidity was lively and very present. I adored this wine, but I will admit, it wasn’t for everyone. At almost forty years of age, those secondary and tertiary notes were the primary players while fruit played second fiddle. This is not a bottle that is going to get better with more age, but for lovers of aged wine, there is much to enjoy.
It’s hard to describe the emotional experience of consuming a great bottle of wine from your birth year. The knowledge that, like yourself, the wine has been evolving over your lifetime somehow puts that lifetime into perspective. The wine becomes more than wine, it becomes a physical manifestation of your lifespan up to that moment. It’s personal and for me, makes me appreciate life itself, time, and history, all the more. Our time on this earth is limited and at some point, like the wine in that bottle, my life will be gone. That makes me treasure the people and experiences around me, makes me thankful for the life I’ve had and the life I have yet to live. It’s been said before, but worth repeating. Life is short. Take the time to smell the roses, hug your friends, and drink the wine.