Piedmont vineyards in autumn. Photo © Giorgio1978  Shutterstock

Collecting guide: Barolo and Barbaresco

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 collecting and drinking Barolo and Barbaresco.

The communes and their personalities

Barolo is produced mainly in five communes, all of which surround the hill towns of the same name: La Morra, Serralunga d’Alba, Monforte d’Alba, Castiglione Falletto and Barolo.

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 that runs through the soil of each commune, 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, Monforte 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 their 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 voluptuous wines that 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 of traditional wine-making.

These makers set about heavy pruning of the vines to ensure the quality of the harvest, which was more important to them than a huge yield. They also rejected the large old Slavonian oak barrels (from northeastern Croatia) that had been used to age Barolo and introduced new French oak barriques (each holding 225 litres).

The thinking here was to allow more wine to make contact with the charred oak, thus imparting a greater concentration of flavour. Elio Altare, a leading Barolo Boy, began destroying the old barrels in his father’s cellar with a chainsaw. His father disinherited him, 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, Cappellano, 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, Roberto 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. To taste a 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.

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Yet even years in which conditions were not perfect have produced Barolo of great agreeability and finesse. When the New York Times  wine critic Eric Asimov attended a tasting of the 1964 vintage — a good but not a great year, according to the famed Angelo Gaja — Asimov found powerfully structured wines, many of which had aged to produce silky, graceful tannins and 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 often encounters the words Riserva and Speciale. What do they mean?

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 wine, of which one must be in oak, and four years for a Riserva, with two in oak. Speciale indicates a fine 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 has been to state the name of the cru on the bottle and to source all the fruit from a single vineyard. This is a sign of real quality: a single-vineyard harvest helps to homogenise the concentration and balance of flavour.

Bersano, Barolo Riserva Cremosina 1958. 12 bottles per lot. Sold for £750 on 29 September 2022 at Christie’s in London

Bersano, Barolo Riserva Cremosina 1958. 12 bottles per lot. Sold for £750 on 29 September 2022 at Christie’s in London

Flavours to match

Wine is made to be drunk, not tasted, and drinking is best accompanied by 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 steak 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. Partridge, duck or pheasant marry well 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 might be uncorked to complement a mushroom and white truffle risotto.

Cheese is a favourite accompaniment, but powerful Gorgonzola or Castelmagno should be avoided — opt instead for goat’s and sheep’s cheeses, Parmesan, Robiola or Toma.