Writing these articles about both well-known and somewhat obscure Italian wines has been fun. Now, however, it is time to shift it into high gear and discuss perhaps Italy’s greatest wine - Barolo. If there were a competition for the best wine in the world, and each country got one entry, my pick for Italy would be to enter a Barolo. Preferably, an aged Barolo, from a great vintage, made by a traditional producer. I would be comfortable matching these wines up against the best from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Napa or anywhere else in the world. Starting with this article and over the next few articles, the wines of Barolo will be examined including the traditional versus modern debate among producers and the vineyards themselves.
In the Northwest corner of Italy lays the Italian region of Piemonte. Piedi means foot and montania means mountains. In English this translates to Piedmont. Either way, this region sits in the foothills of the Alps. It shares its border with France to the west, the region of Valle D’Aosta (which was part of Piemonte until 1945) to the northwest and Switzerland to the north. To the south the thin strip of the region Liguria separates Piemonte from the gulf of Genoa and the Mediterranean. The capital of Piemonte is the city of Turin. Like most of Italy, this was a part of the Roman Empire. After the fall of Rome, this land was ruled by the various city-states most notably the French influenced Savoy’s. The French, under Napoleon, occupied this land during the early 19th century. After returning to local control, Piemonte was a leader in the unification movement of Italy in the mid 1800’s. In fact, after unification, Turin served as the first capital of Italy in 1861.
Winters are cold and there is frequently a heavy snowfall. Summers are hot with little rainfall. A fog habitually covers the vineyards in the fall, which allows the grapes to hang for a long time on the vine as the cool mists slow the final ripening stages of the grapes. In an area known as the Langhe (foothills), is the DOCG of Barolo. This is wine country with the annual production of Barolo exceeding half a million cases from 3,100 acres planted to vine.
Barolo first came to prominence in the Middle Ages. It was a favorite of Louis XIV of France. Other royalty also took to the wine. Partly due to this, Barolo has long been known as the King of Wines and the Wine of Kings. It is generally credited that the Marchioness of the village of Barolo, Giuletta Falletti, first developed the greatness of the wine in the 19th century. Up until this time, Nebbiolo was often used to make either bitter tannic wines or sweet reds. One of the leading politicians of the area, Count Camillo Benso di Covour was so enamored with the grape and the work being done by Falletti, that he not only served Barolo on his personal table, he participated in its production.
Cavour was the Prime Minister of Barolo and one of the leaders in the unification of Italy as a country. Count Cavour hired Louis Oudart, a French Onologist, to come to Piemonte and help him with the wines. Oudart, working with Galletti and Cavour fashioned wine from the Nebbiolo grapes, somewhat in the style of the Bordeaux wines of the day. Those wines were very much like the traditional Barolo seen today. The wine industry in Piemonte thus became established with Barolo leading the way. Many wineries can trace their roots back over a hundred years to this time.
The grape used for making Barolo is the Nebbiolo. The name is derived from the word nebbia, which means fog. This is the same grape used for making Barolo’s sibling, Barbaresco. Nebbiolo is an extremely tannic grape. Somewhat surprisingly, the grape, when crushed, produces a light ruby colored wine. Even the modern versions are not the purple monsters associated with today’s contemporary viniculture. With age, the wines develop a ruby orange tint to them. But don’t let the color or aromas mislead you. The aromas or nose of the wines can be extraordinary.
With scents of rose petals and cherry blossoms, there is a perfumed quality to the nose. At the same time, bouquets of fresh tar are often present too. And of course, cherry fragrances abound in all kinds (fresh, dried, macerated, etc.). Perhaps it’s just wishful thinking, but I also find mushroom or truffle qualities too. These wines are powerful wines, with heavy tannins and a great backbone of acidity. While they may be wines that offer contemplative qualities, they are at their best at the dinner table.
Due to its tannic nature, wines from the Nebbiolo grape, and Barolo in particular need time before they are ready to drink. The DOCG rules for Barolo require a minimum of three years of ageing before release. The wines must spend at least two years in barrels (either oak or chestnut) and a minimum of one additional year in bottle. The requirements for Barolo Riservas are even more stringent. Riservas require a total of five years of ageing. That is really just a beginning. My rule of thumb is that a Barolo should have at least 10 years from the vintage date and preferably 12 to 15 before it is opened. It is true that there are some Barolos being made that drink well young. To really get your money’s worth from the wine, and the most out of the Nebbiolo grape, it needs time to soften and develop. These are wines that easily last 20 to 30 years.
Barolo is wonderful wine to match with food. As I always recommend with Italian wines, look to the region to see what foods have developed over the centuries as accompaniments on the table with the wines. The most famous food from Piemonte may be truffles. The white truffle appears every autumn. They are harvested with the use of dogs that can detect the scent from these underground treasures near the roots of trees. The strong musky aromas, more than just mushrooms, are a perfect match with Barolo. However, if supply or cost is an issue, mushrooms work just fine too! Of course, there are always pastas, one of my favorites being potato Gnocchi. I also love to match Barolo with polenta dishes flavored with dry hard cheeses mixed in, perhaps a Grana Padano.
As a general rule, Barolos are expensive wines. There are, however, some nice Barolos still available for around the $30 price tag. Two of my favorites in the price range are Beni di Batasiolo and Stefano Farina. Both of these producers make authentic Barolos. Perhaps the style is a bit lighter and while they can still use a few years in a cellar, they are ready to drink off the store shelves. While some may say these wines do not supply the quintessential Barolo experience, neither is the price and in my opinion, they should not be discounted. From there, the nonspecific Barolos range from $50 to $150 on release. The Riservas can range from $100 to $300. Yet, for that special occasion, they are worth it. And compared to comparable levels of quality from Bordeaux, Burgundy and Napa, they are relative bargains.
I hope you all go out and try a bottle or two and let me know what you think.
Loren Sonkin is an IntoWine.com Featured Contributor and the Founder/Winemaker at Sonkin Cellars.