Barolo - A Noble Wine

Buying Barolo, whether to drink now or cellar to enjoy its imminent, spectacular maturity, has suddenly become a no-brainer. Thanks to the superb vintages spanning 1995 through 2000, Italy's noblest red wine is enjoying unprecedented prestige.

Barolo is an Italian wine, one of many to claim the title "Wine of kings, and king of wines". It is produced in Cuneo's province, south-west of Alba, within the southern end of Piemonte. Barolo borrows its name from the small hamlet (population 760) that lies near the center of the wine's growing zone. The zone itself is a more self-contained microcosm than most Barolo fans may realize. While wine in Italy is timeless, Barolo came about in the 1800s when the Marchesa Giulietta Colbert Falletti started making wine out of Nebbiolo grapes. There are only about 3,000 acres of nebbiolo under cultivation here -- not quite as much vineyard land as in Margaux, a single Bordeaux commune.

Barolo is produced in the communes of Barolo, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d'Alba and parts of the communes of Cherasco, Diano d'Alba, Grinzane Cavour, La Morra, Monforte d'Alba, Novello, Roddi, Verduno, all in the province of Cuneo. Only vineyards in the hills with suitable slopes and orientations are considered adapted to production, and the terrains must be primarily clayey-calcareous in character. The wine is produced solely from the Nebbiolo grape variety. The Lampia, Michet and Rosè types are authorized. It matures at the end of September for the most part. Nebbiolo thrives during prolonged summer seasons. The clusters are dark blue and greyish with the abundant wax that dresses the grapes.

Barolo wines are typically a deep red and can take on an unusual orange tinge with age. Their flavor is thick and complex. Barolo typically smells of tar, violets, and roses. But also fruit, licorice, and/or oaky. The initial nose of a barolo is often that of the pine tree. When subjected to aging of at least five years, the wine can be labeled a Riserva. Barolo should be drunk at 60F and can age for 5-10 years.

For connoisseurs it is Italy's most collected wine; for beginners it can be a difficult one to understand.

In the past all Barolos used to be very tannic and they took more than 10 years to soften up. Fermenting wine sat on the grape skins for at least three weeks, extracting huge amounts of tannins; then it was aged in large, wooden casks for years.

In order to meet the international taste, which preferred fruitier, more accessible styles, the "modernists" cut fermentation times to a maximum of ten days and put the wine in new French barriques (small oak barrels). The results, said traditionalists, were wines that weren't even recognizable as Barolo and tasted more of new oak than of wine.

The controversies between traditionalists and modernists have been called the Barolo wars.

The war has now subsided. Though outspoken modernists are still committed to new oak, many producers are now choosing the middle ground (like Elio Altare or Roberto Voerzio with long macerations combined with barrique), often using a combination of barriques and large casks. The more prestigious houses, however, still reject barriques and insist on patience only for their exceptional wines. These are auction staples, sought after by aficionados in Italy, Germany, Japan, Switzerland and the United States.

Barolo is all about the soil. The terroir. The road that runs south from Alba through Monforte d'Alba and on to Dogliani roughly divides the two dominant soils: to the west lies the Tortonian, a blue-tinted marl mixed with sand and marked by the presence of elements such as magnesium. To the east, the sandier Helvetian loam is lighter in color and texture and is relatively rich in limestone, iron and phosphorous. The wines springing from the western-sited, Tortonian-nourished vineyards have generally been described as soft, fruity and aromatic, while those from the eastern, Helvetian sites are perceived as bigger, more structured and longer maturing. These broad distinctions are often blurred and sometimes completely obliterated, however, by the combination of clonal variation and winemaking techniques. More detailed analysis has also revealed that these two soils are layered throughout the region. In summary, of the towns in the area, the "left" hills have compact soil and produce long lasting wines. The "right" hills have softer soil, making a wine that should be drunk more quickly. Both vineyards are regulated - Barolo vineyards can only grow around 3200k of grape/acre.

LEFT HILLS: Diano d'Alba, Grinzane Cavour, Serralunga, Castiglione Falletto, Monforte d'Alba

RIGHT HILLS: Roddi, Verduno, La Morra, Novello, Cherasco

Barolo alcoholic content is set at 13%. There are two grades of Barolo: Standard Barolo, aged two years in the barrel, one in the bottle. Riserva Barolo, aged three years in the barrel, one in the bottle. Of note is that Barolo, due to the small supply, large demand, and labor intensive and delicate crop (much like Pinot Noir) can also be a bit pricey compared to other wines of Italy.

Benchmark Vintages: The majority of producers count 1982, 1989, 1990, 1996 and 1997 as the five greatest vintages of the past 20 years. A significant number also favor 1998 and 1999. A run of middling years preceded a disastrous 1994 vintage, wherein heavy rains ruined the harvest. Only a few makers produced a wine that was even drinkable, and most of those are already fading fast. In most instances, the less said of this vintage the better. Wine Spectator denotes 2000 as one of the best years ever noting rich and opulent reds, with round tannins and exciting fruit; perfection in Nebbiolo. 2001 was also a very noteworthy year with structured and firm reds with very nice racy character. 2002 was a washout. If you have some of this around drink it now. It should not age well. 2003 is just being tasted and although there are many unbalanced wines, due to an extremely hot growing season, there are some nice surprises to be found.

Looking for a few to try? Check out - Bricco Rosso 1998 - $33: Approachable and traditionally styled, Brezza 1998 - $37: Very fresh, and ready for drinking this minute, or Ceretto, Zonchera 1998 - $45: Elegant, as is the Ceretto hallmark, classic and concentrated. Great quality for the price.

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About The Author, Vino Vixen
Jennifer de Jong is a long time wine drinker, enjoyer of wine, and non-wine-snob. She is the founder of Vino Vixenz. A snob-free zone to learn wine tasting.