Why Barolo? A Drill Down on Piedmont’s Leading Wine Region

June 6 – 9, 2016

What’s Nebbiolo?

Italians might be prone to exaggerate, but when it comes to wine they have every right to brag — after all this is a land with 20 wine regions and 350 wine varieties. While Veneto and Tuscany are world famous regardless of their wines, Piedmont in Italy’s northwest corner, without some big time tourist attractions, receives relatively little foreigners. But fans of this region start to drool when they hear this name — it is home to the white truffle, hazelnut, and arguably the most famous wines in Italy — Barolo and Barbaresco.

In today’s globalized world where almost every wine growing country is hopping on the Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon bandwagons, seasoned palates are increasingly looking for local varieties that differentiate from the mainstream. Piedmont’s Langhe region is home to one such type of grape — the Nebbiolo — a brittle indigenous variety that has yet found commercial success outside of its homeland and a few tiny pockets in Northern Italy.

The calcareous marls in hilly Langhe is too impoverished to grow any kind of crops besides grapes; Nebbiolo in particular thrives here. Its name, derived from the Italian word for fog, signals the strong tie between the grape and the local microclimate — a dense fog descends upon the Langhe’s steep slopes around the period of annual harvest in October. To prevent the late-ripening Nebbiolo from being stunted by the autumn fog, most vines are planted on south or southwest facing slopes at an altitude between 250 and 450 m to ensure the grapes receive an adequate amount of sunshine. (More flexible varieties like Barbera take up the rest.) Along this line, the best vintages are usually those with dry weather in September and October.

Why Barolo?

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The world’s most renowned Nebbiolo wines are produced in Barolo and Barbaresco, two areas in the heart of the Langhe. Distinguished by their high tannin, acidity and earthiness, these are not your typical easy-to-drink happy hour wines, and their premium price tags show they command legions of fans who can never get enough.

The difference between Barolo and Barbaresco is slight — the former ages for one more year (3 vs 2) and is generally regarded as the more powerful because of its steeper slopes. Both areas mostly grow two Nebbiolo subvarieties — Lampia is more popular and reliable while Michet is believed to provide more structure and power.

Despite the similarity, Barolo is in my opinion the more interesting area because of an array of factors. First of all, Barolo’s 1984 hectares of vineyards (as of 2013) are three times the size of Barbaresco’s. This has two major implications — more producers and a larger geographic variance. The latter is especially notable; wines produced from grapes grown in the central section of La Morra can have a surprisingly large difference to Monforte to the south, for example. Barolo is also more accessible — its communes and crus are generally more well-known and more information is available both online and in print.

“Barolo War”

Anyone with a faint interest in Barolo would have heard of the so-called “Barolo War” in the 1980s, when a group of producers including Elio Altare and Paolo Scavino introduced an international style to Barolo that’s less tannic by shortening the time frame for maceration and fermentation and aging the wine in smaller French barriques. Some, including Mauro Mascarello and Bruno Giacosa, fiercely opposed these foreign elements and believed the resulting wine shouldn’t be labeled as Barolo. To these traditionalists, two decades of aging is a minimum prerequisite; anyone who catered to foreign tastes was betraying the essence of Barolo.

The battle line is not so cut and dry anymore. The debate rages on, but the process of winemaking is constantly evolving; nowadays most wineries prefer the middle ground, incorporating some modernist elements while preserving traditional winemaking methods like aging in large oak casks. Almost everyone has introduced green harvest and cellar temperature control to their process.

Which communes to visit?

Although not a large area, Barolo has 11 communes, including the entirety of Barolo, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba and parts of Cherasco, Diano d’Alba, Grinzane Cavour, La Morra, Monforte d’Alba, Novello, Roddi and Verduno. Knowing where and who to visit is quite a daunting task.

Before the 1970s, Barolo was produced with a mixture of grapes grown across the zone and consumers attached their loyalty almost strictly to the producers. But since then the prevalence of single-cru Barolo has elevated the understanding of each parcel of land into an imperative — there are now publicly available maps and geological findings which allow both producers and wine lovers to have a deeper knowledge of the soil formation and how this might interplay with the vines.

Another factor in play is Barolo’s rapid expansion; the total area of vineyard has grown more than threefold since 1967. Much of these new parcels are not suitable for Nebbiolo — their elevation are often too low or they do not receive enough sunshine year-round. Simply slapping a Barolo label on a bottle of wine doesn’t ensure its quality and it is up to the consumers to drill deeper to understand more about the producers and their vineyards.

To complicate matters further, like many other wine regions, global warming has a huge impact on Barolo and generations of winemaking practices. The communes of Barolo and La Morra, the zone’s classic core, are home to prestigious crus like Cannubi and Brunate, traditionally viewed as the best the area has to offer. The reason why they are so highly regarded, besides their soil composition, is because in the cold Piedmont climate these crus are able to receive a stable amount of sunlight year in, year out. Temperature has risen sharply since the turn of the millennium and in warmer years these best vineyards can give birth to wine that’s uncharacteristically jammy. Understanding the land takes on an even greater importance.

During my few days in Barolo I visited the following wineries: Giovanni Rosso, Aldo Conterno, Pio Cesare, Ceretto, Pablo Manzone and Paolo Scavino. None is based in Barolo or La Morra. In fact I didn’t even step foot in those two communes as I mostly spent my time in Serralunga, Monforte and Castiglione Falletto. Located in the Serralunga Valley on the zone’s eastern side, these communes share a soil mixture of calcareous marl and red sandstone from the Helvetian epoch which has a looser composition compared to the western side. High in iron and phosphorus, these are generally the area’s most powerful and full-bodied wines, and offer what I believe is the most compelling path into the intricate world of Barolo.

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4 thoughts on “Why Barolo? A Drill Down on Piedmont’s Leading Wine Region

  1. I recently took a wine class here in California and your article was more interesting and useful than 3 weeks of classroom study. Thanks! Check out our wine country blog and follow us if you like what you see.

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