The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Giving the Traditional Gift of Barolo

Posted on | December 14, 2015 | Written by IWM Staff | No Comments


The hills of Barolo

The traditional gift of respect between Italians, Barolo is a metaphor of elegance, longevity and excellent taste. One grape–Nebbiolo–interpreted multiple ways within a narrow perimeter of vinification makes Barolo, the wine often hyperbolically referred to as the “King of Wines and the Wine of Kings.” Magically evocative of tar and roses, flavored by dried red fruits, haughty and thoughtful, and requiring  protracted aging, Barolo is arguably the most famous, most collectable and most celebrated of all the Italian vintages. Situated in the Langhe Hills, just southwest of the town of Alba, Barolo DOCG covers a surface area of 4,285 acres or an area approximately five-by-seven miles. Although this geographical area is relatively small, it holds multiple microclimates that create variations in quality and style of Barolo, and its many individual producers extend Barolo’s range of expressions even further.

The Barolo district comprises 11 communes; the five most famous—La Morra, Barolo, Serralunga d’Alba, Castiglione Falletto, and Monforte d’Alba—produce 87% of the wine. These communes form the larger Central and Serralunga Valleys, where differing soil types lend varied characteristics to the wine. To the east is the Central Valley where the communes of La Morra and Barolo are situated. The Central Valley is comprised of compact Tortonian soil with calcareous marl, and it creates soft, elegant, approachable wines with exceptional fruit character and aromatics. To the west is the Serralunga Valley, where lie the Serralunga d’Alba, Castiglione Falletto, and Montforte d’Alba communes. This area consists of the poorer, chalkier Helvetian soil, and it creates long-lived, powerfully concentrated and structured wines. Of course, all of these generalities are problematized by the range of ways that producers themselves craft their wines.

Maria Teresa Mascarello in her cellar

Maria Teresa Mascarello in her cellar

Arguably more than any other wine (the exception possibly being Chianti and the Super-Tuscan movement), Barolo epitomizes the changes that the twentieth century has wrought on winemaking. In early Barolo production, all winemakers blended grapes from various vineyard sites. To a certain extent, necessity demanded this choice because vineyard ownership was extremely fragmented, and négociants, or wine merchants, created the majority of Barolos. However, people also believed that the “perfect Barolo” derived from multiple sources because the varied influences modified and enhanced one another: for example, La Morra (for fragrance, softness), Barolo (for grace and earthiness), Castiglione Falletto (for boldness and richness), Serralunga (for depth and power), Monforte (for concentration and structure). This ideal served Barolo producers until the early 1970s, when single-vineyard bottlings or crus began to appear from single producers, replacing the blends of the more dominant négociant houses. This development brought brand recognition to individual producer estates, and this change nudged Barolo into the modern era.

As Barolo production met the wine-drinking world of the mid-to-late twentieth century, changes in vinification techniques came to disrupt the previously peaceful–and staunchly traditional–Langhe Hills. To employ an essentialist split, and a divide that has become increasingly inaccurate as time has passed, traditional producers held on to traditional methods that made a Barolo more reflective of its specific terroir, while so-called modernists embraced technology that would make the often austere Nebbiolo conform to contemporary palates.

To be classed as Barolo DOCG, wines must be monovarietal bottlings made from Nebbiolo, a grape requiring high altitude, exceptional exposure, unique soil composition, and a cool climate. Outside Piemonte, the difficult Nebbiolo rarely finds its identity, for it truly is a vine of terroir: the Langhe’s growing conditions seem to be the ideal place for this thin skinned, late-ripener that is capable of delivering wines of exceptional power, intensity, complexity, and longevity. To obtain optimal ripeness in Barolo, harvest often takes place in mid-October or even November, when the nebbia, or fog, has begun to settle on the valley floor. By law the minimum ageing requirement for Barolo Superiore is three years, with at least two years in cask. Barolo Riserva, possessing stricter regulations, requires a minimum of four years aging, with at least three years treatment in cask.

Botti at Giacomo Conterno

Botti at Giacomo Conterno

Traditional-style producers like Bartolo Mascarello, Giuseppe Rinaldi, and Giacomo Conterno use extended maceration periods and aging in large oak casks to emphasize the leaner, more tannic side of Nebbiolo. However, other producers looked outside of Italy for inspiration, and these innovators—for example, Clerico, Sandrone,  Scavino, and Voerzio—adopted new production techniques such as shorter maceration periods, aging in new French oak barriques, and individual cru bottlings to create more approachable wines that were easier for many foreign consumers to understand and appreciate. This school quickly established a highly respected following, and its methodology is now accepted as a legitimate alternative to, or accompaniment of, traditional production. Whether modern or traditional, Barolo is the epitome of a “thinking wine,” one that privileges finesse and complexity.

IWM’s 2015 holiday gift guide has beautifully presented bottles of Barolo–along with many other fine gift selections.


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