All over the world, in every winemaking area with at least 30 years of history, there is a squabble going on between traditional producers and modernists. As modern science has begun to understand some of the chemical reactions taking place in the creation of wine, some of the mystery has been removed. Universities all over the world (led in large part by the University of California at Davis) have become leaders in what many have termed the international style of wine.
Proponents of these techniques have found that certain procedures, in the vineyards and in the winery can lead to more consistent wines that impress both the critics and the buying populace as well. There can be no doubt that this movement has created more quality wines from more producers than ever before. One of these techniques is to allow the grapes to hang on the vines for a much longer period of time. This produces riper grapes, which in turn produces wine with bolder fruit and more alcohol, which makes a more full-bodied wine.
Others would argue that the growing internationalization movements have lost something along the way. Like the effect on indigenous foods cultures by the proliferation of McDonalds® or KFC® restaurants around the world, these wine purists wonder whether a glass of purple opaque fruit filled wine, that could be from anywhere in the world, means there an inherent loss of diversity that diminishes our wine drinking choices and culture.
I will leave that argument for another day. The fact is perhaps, nowhere is that clash of methodologies more acute than in the tiny northwest corner of Italy. In Barolo, in the heart of Piemonte, the same argument that has been playing out around the world is also a heated topic of debate. But in Barolo, we as consumers can and do get the best of both worlds. There is no reason for us to choose sides. We can buy both.
Traditionally, Barolo was made by fermenting Nebbiolo grapes in large wooden casks called botti. These were made of chestnut or Slovenian oak and could be quite large. The wine was fermented for long periods in these barrels and the skins left in contact with the must. This gave more color to the wine as Nebbiolo actually produces a light ruby colored wine. It also extracted the sometimes-severe tannins of the grape. Of course, in this older method, there was no temperature control and the chance of bacterial infection was great.
The wine was then aged in large casks and saw no new wood. In fact, these large casks encouraged a bit of oxidation to the wine. The final product looked like an aged wine with a ruby/orange color that had substantial bricking (the edges of the wine took a brick red color; an effect usually prevalent in older wines). The better producers took advantage of these qualities and their wines exhibited wonderful dried cherry and floral qualities to them.
Traditionalists were limited by the location of their grapes. The great producers who owned the best vineyard sites could make great wines. Even they, however, were limited by the weather. In maybe three or four vintages a decade those producers had a chance to make great Barolo. The best producers could also make decent wine in all but one or two vintages in the rest of the decade thereby ensuring their reputations. But those wineries with less desirable sites suffered. Even worse, some vignerons simply lacked the experience and the skill of the old masters and made wines that were thin, bitter and insipid. The heavy tannic quality of the grape overwhelmed the wines.
Toward remedying that end, and inspired by the growing international movement among wines, the modernists arose. The Modernists movement started in Barolo in the 1960’s but really got into full swing around 1985. This new crowd introduced controlled temperature fermentations to create more fruit driven balanced wines and to protect the wines from bacterial infections. In addition, led by Angelo Gaja, the modernists utilized new 225 liter French oak barrels. The theory being the sweet tannins found in the new oak would offset the naturally harsh tannins of the Nebbiolo grape.
The smaller size of the barrels allows the wines to mature faster while more of the fruit is still fresh and vibrant. Finally, the level of toast in the barrels adds to the wines color and vibrancy. Eventually the modernists also discovered that by shortening the time allowed for fermentation and maceration, the amount of bitter tannins could be reduced without sacrificing flavor or color. This created wines that are accessible at a younger age.Many of even the long time producers of Barolo adopted more modernist techniques.
Of course, it is not all or nothing. There is some middle ground. And while all this talk of traditional versus modern Barolos involved the winery, let us not forget that during this same period advances in the vineyard were being made worldwide. Clonal selections, new definitions of ripeness, green harvesting, and control of yields all came to be better understood in the last 20 years. In the hands of these masters, traditional or modern, the quality of the raw material had greatly increased. It is expected that the wines produced are also better.
But as I said, we are lucky in Barolo. There are great wines being made on both sides of the aisle. I like them both. An interesting quality too is that the older these wines get (and don’t forget these wines can easily age for 20 years and some for 40 or more), the more similar the wines become.
There are many good and great producers still making traditional Barolos. Perhaps the best producer in all of the Piemonte is Bruno Giacosa. His Barolos are very expensive and well worth it. Other good traditional producers include Giacomo Conterno, Marcarini, Bartolo Mascarello, Aldo Conterno, and Cavallotto.
Some of the producers making very good wines in the modernist style include Domenico Clerico, Mauro Veglio, Silvio Grasso, Luciano Sandrone, Eraldo Viberti, Roberto Voerzio, and Elio Altare. In addition Angelo Gaja, whose Sperss wine is no longer labeled as a Barolo (instead using the Langhe designation) is still pushing the envelope.
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.