Wine specialist Charles Foley is your expert guide to the potent, long-lived red wines produced from the Nebbiolo grape in the picturesque hill towns of Piedmont in northwest Italy
Piedmont, the land of grissini, white truffles and fog (nebbia), is also home to the beautiful wines, Barolo and Barbaresco. Crafted from the Nebbiolo grape, these robust, age-worthy reds are the perfect companions to rich Italian dishes of beef and game, risotto with mushrooms or truffle-flavoured pasta.
Navigating your way through the maze of vineyards huddled around the slopes of the glorious little hill towns where the wines are made is a delight. We hope these five key signposts through the wines of the region will help kickstart your journey towards the collection and drinking of Barolo and Barbaresco.
The communes and their personalities
Barolo is produced mainly in five communes which all surround the hill towns of the same name: La Morra, Serralunga d’Alba, Montforte d’Alba, Castiglione Falletto and Barolo.
Over the hills the neighbouring Barbaresco is made in the communes of Barbaresco, Neive, Treiso and San Rocco Seno d’Elvio.
Each delivers its own style of the Nebbiolo grape, a distinctive personality which runs through the soil of the towns, exists in the minds of its winemakers and collects in the red pool sitting in the bottom of your glass.
With limestone soils, La Morra and Barolo offer delicate and elegant wines packed full of mulberry, strawberry, mint and dried herbs. Serralunga d’Alba, Montforte d’Alba and Castiglione Falletto lie on sandstone soils which contribute to a broader style, firmer tannins and darker flavours. Plums, damsons and liquorice abound in its ripe, juicy fruit.
Barbaresco lies south of the Tanaro river and the cool sea breezes travelling up the valley ripen the grapes more quickly than in Barolo. These early-ripening tannins are delicately filigreed and produce wines of voluptuousness and ripeness, which are easier to drink at a younger age than their more northerly cousins. Treiso and San Rocco are the feminine, floral side of the region, while Neive and Barbaresco itself provide a more masculine structure and complexity.
Modernisation and the ‘Barolo Boys’
In the 1980s and 1990s Barolo underwent something of a revolution, its leaders having since become known as the ‘Barolo Boys’ — young, energetic and innovative winemakers who began challenging the old guard, for whom Barolo was a centre for traditional wine-making.
These makers set about heavy pruning of the vines to ensure that quality of the harvest was more important than a huge yield. They also rejected the large old Slavonian oak barrels that had been used to age Barolo and introduced new French oak barriques (225 litres). The thinking here was that more wine makes contact with the charred oak, and thus a greater concentration of flavour is imparted. Elio Altare, a leading Barolo Boy, began destroying the old barrels in his father’s cellar with a chainsaw. His father disinherited him before dying, convinced that his son had become a madman.
These days many producers mix the traditional and modernist styles, ageing partly in barrel before finishing in barrique. For older vintages of Barolo, however, it is worth keeping an eye on the producer’s style to appreciate their wines.
Great traditional producers such as Giacomo Conterno, Bruno Giacosa, Giuseppe Mascarello, Capellano, Marcarini and Giuseppe Rinaldi have been producing sought-after, long-lived and flavoursome Barolo for many years. Modern pioneers such as Elio Altare, Domenico Clerico, Robero Voerzio, Angelo Gaja and Renato Ratti have by contrast pushed the boundaries in Barolo, focusing on contemporary wines with a faster evolution.
The great vintage debate
The Nebbiolo grape is high in tannin and its subtle extraction by good producers in fine, fair-weather vintages results in wines of great longevity and character. The taste of 60-year-old wine is an emotional journey, it evolves in your glass and each swirl can reveal a new delicate nuance or flavour that has developed in the bottle.
It is argued by some that 1955 was the best vintage of the last century; others say 1961 or 1967. Those years that were blessed with flowering of the vine in warm, sunny conditions, a hot and dry June and July, a cooler August and a pre-harvest Indian summer are the star vintages.
Yet even years in which conditions were not perfect have produced Barolo of great agreeability and finesse. The New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov recently attended a tasting of the 1964 vintage, a good but not great year according to the famed Angelo Gaja. Asimov found powerfully structured wines, many of which had aged to produce silky, graceful tannins and had lingering delicate flavours.
Riserva or Speciale?
Flicking through a wine list packed with Barolo in an Italian restaurant, or scanning an auction catalogue for fine old vintages, one encounters such words as Riserva and Speciale.
Standard Barolo must be aged for three years — two in cask and one in bottle. Riserva, by comparison, must have been aged for five years upon release — three in cask and two in bottle. Barbaresco has slightly lower ageing periods — two years for a standard Barbaresco, of which one must be in oak, and four years for a Riserva, with two in oak. Speciale indicates a fine old vintage that has been aged for longer than the specified Riserva period and is the apex of long-lived, mature old Nebbiolo.
A growing trend from the 1970s onwards in Piedmont was stating the name of the cru on the bottle and further sourcing all the fruit in a single vineyard. This is a sign of real quality because the concentration and balance of flavour is more homogenised by a single-vineyard harvest. Renato Ratti (lot 399) was one of the first to begin this trend, and his Marcenasco vineyard on the Rocche dell’Annunziata hill in La Morra has been turning out complex Barolo for many years.
Flavours to match
Wine is made to be drunk, not tasted, and drinking is best washed down with food. The Nebbiolo grape has a natural affinity with the cuisine of the Piedmont region, but it will hold up well against a variety of flavours.
Younger, firmer and fresher Barolo is often drunk locally with carne cruda, a dish of raw beef akin to steak tartare. Fillet steaks and braised beef are also fine matches for the strong mesh of tannin in a bright, modern vintage.
Older wines with a more silken texture and delicate, complex flavours should not be overpowered by rich, heavy dishes. A partridge, pheasant or duck may marry with the gamey nose of a fine old vintage.
Barbaresco, being lighter and riper in style, may suit lamb or pork when young, and aged bottles should be uncorked to complement a mushroom and white truffle risotto. Cheese is a favourite accompaniment, but powerful Gorgonzola or Castelmagno should be avoided — opt for goat and sheep’s cheeses, parmesan, robiola or toma cheese.