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Beguiling Barolo: Intro to the Italian Fine Wine

Hilltop View of Barolo Vineyards

Having tasted an array of incredible 2007 Barolos from importers Neil and Maria Empson earlier this week, this has been the No. 1 wine on my mind.  When I think of Barolo, I think of striking, powerful wines that are at once beguiling and mysterious…wines that require some contemplation and command respect; these are not quaffing wines by any stretch of the imagination.  These are wines perfumed with intriguing aromas of dried red cherries, crushed rose petals, licorice, sweet spice and earth, wines that disguise an expansive full-body and intense tannins with a deceptively pale hue, wines that feed obsession and are truly unforgettable.

Lay of the Land

The village of Barolo is located in the high hills of northwestern Italy, in the country’s Piedmont region, and is at the heart of the Barolo zone, giving the famed wine its name. The hills of the Barolo zone surround the Tanaro River and its tributaries, the Tallòria dell’Annunziata and the Tallòria di Castiglione, which divide the region and have a moderating effect on the climate.

In addition to Barolo itself, there are four other key village communes that make up the zone as a whole; these are La Morra, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba and northern Monforte d’Alba.  In this area, south of the larger towns Asti and Alba, vineyards are planted everywhere possible and the Nebbiolo grape rules the land.  Barolo (as well as Barbaresco) is made solely from the slow-ripening Nebbiolo varietal, which is renowned for its extremely powerful tannins and yet, surprisingly thin skin.  Nebbiolo is named for the nebbia (“fog” in Italian) that blankets the hills of the region in the autumn months and extends the fruit’s hang-time with their cool air.

The effect of different soils and vineyard sites is as apparent in the Nebbiolo of Barolo as it is in the Pinot Noir of Burgundy.  There are two main soil types, each producing a different style of the wine.  Fittingly, a single road, the Alba-Barolo, divides the areas with these different soil types.  To the west, in the La Morra and Barolo communes, the soils are made up of calcareous marl, which is a richer soil that produces a more fruitful, lush and fragrant styled wine.  And to the east, in Serralunga d’Alba and Monforte d’Alba, the soil is largely composed of sandstone, a less rich soil type that produces more complex, powerful and longer-lived wines.  Castiglione Falletto is located in the fork between the Tanaro River tributaries, where the soil types come together and produce wines that show the best features of both styles.

The Evolution of a Fine Wine

Interestingly, Barolo was not always the dry, richly tannic wine that we’ve come to know and love; in fact, it was once made in quite a different style, and not so long ago either.  Up until the middle of the 19th century Barolo was actually a sweet wine!  Due to its slow ripening nature, Nebbiolo grapes would remain on the vine as late as November in some years, which meant that decreasing temperatures in the winery would halt fermentation before it was complete, leaving behind residual sugar in the wines.  The modern, dry Nebbiolo wine came about in large part because the Marquise Giulietta Falletti believed that a better quality wine could be made from Nebbiolo, and it was she who began having the wine developed in her cellar.  The Count of Barolo, Camillo Cavour commissioned French oenologist Louis Oudart, whose expertise created a wine so wonderful that it caught on quickly throughout Piedmont.  From then on, dry Barolo grew in popularity and became the favorite of Italian royalty, most notably the House of Savoy and Turin’s noble class, hence the popular expression “wine of kings, king of wines.”

Barolo has evolved over the past 150 years and has been influenced by the sways of changing fashions and tastes, as have the rest of the world’s wines.  As always, when it comes to wine, there are two schools of thought, the “traditionalists” and the “modernists”.  Traditionally, Nebbiolo vines were higher yielding and the grapes were not quite ripe when harvested, which meant that the grape tannins were under-ripe and bitter.  Winemakers would use an extremely long maceration period (up to two months in some cases) to pull more color from the grape skins.  The lengthy maceration meant that more of the harsh tannins were being extracted along with the color, so Barolo makers would then age their wines in large wooden casks (usually made from chestnut) for years in order to soften the tannins.  This long ageing period caused the wine to oxidize, giving less lively, faded fruit flavors and a characteristic rusty color.  The traditional style of Barolo would often need anywhere from 10 to 20 years of bottle ageing for the tannins to mellow and integrate, and for the wine to become approachable.

Advocates of the modern, fruit-forward style feel that the wines should be more readily accessible after bottling.  The modern approach entails a much shorter maceration period, followed by a shorter ageing period in smaller French oak barriques. Barolo must be aged a minimum of three years by law, at least two of which must be spent in wooden barrels, followed by at least one year in bottle.  Even when made in the modern style, many Barolos still require at least 10 years to develop in the bottle and should age gracefully for years to come, although not quite as long as the traditional style.  Most Barolo lovers know that patience is key and that it is well worth the wait in order to experience the great nuances that will only show after lengthy ageing!

Famous Vineyards

As with the greatest Burgundies, great Barolos are the product of specific crus (vineyard sites) and the special growing conditions of these places.  The single-vineyard trend in Barolo is a rather recent development that came about in the 1970s and 1980s.  Prior to this time, many producers blended their wines from multiple vineyards.

In the La Morra commune, the prime vineyards include Rocche dell’Annunziata, Brunate and Cerequio.  In the Barolo commune, Cannubi, Sarmazza, Brunate and Cerequio reign supreme (the two latter vineyards are also a part of La Morra).  The best sites in Castiglione Falletto include Fiasco, Monprivato and Rocche di Castiglione. From Serralunga d’Alba, look for wines from the Lazzarito, Boscareto, Cerretta and Ornato vineyards, and from Monforte d’Alba, the finest sites include Bussia and Ginestra.  Also located in Monforte d’Alba is the smaller Mosconi vineyard, just south of Ginestra, which produces Barolos of exceptional quality.

Barolo Shopping Guide

Once you’ve become acquainted with the communes of Barolo and their general styles, getting to know a few key producers will further strengthen your consumer knowledge.  If you lean towards the opulent, fruit-forward Barolos, producers that specialize in this style include Gaja, Paolo Scavino and Prunotto.

The 1997 Paolo Scavino Rocche Dell’Annunziata ($169) is a perfect choice if you’d like to pop open a bottle of Barolo tonight. This wine is ready to drink now and will continue to age beautifully over the next 4 or 5 years.

The 2004 vintage was a fantastic one for Barolo and the 2004 Alfredo Prunotto Barolo Bussia ($70) showcases the vintage’s fine quality.  Ready to drink soon (within the year) it will continue to develop for another 12 years.  If you’re after an impressive Barolo for the cellar, the 2006 Paolo Scavino Barolo Bric del Fiasc ($90) is a great choice, with a projected maturity between 2016 and 2031.

The 2007 vintage was an excellent one for Barolo, and the 2007 Ca’ Rome Barolo Rapet Gold Label ($75) is a tribute to Barolo’s great legacy.  This exceptional wine is showing an elegant, sublime bouquet of red cherry, anise, mint, rose and tobacco.  Magnificently structured, the wine’s full-body, rich tannins and racy acidity are resounded by a delightful, lengthy finish. So fragrant and complex, the 2007 Rapet Gold Label is a real show-stopper!  Coming from an excellent vintage, it will need 15 to 25 years in order to reach maturity.

If you’re after a traditionally styled Barolo from a great vintage, the 2007 Marcarini Barolo Brunate ($46) is one to try.  This wine was given a 15 day fermentation period and 42 days of maceration on the skins, followed by several years of cask ageing prior to racking and bottling.

The Ideal Dinner Companion

Whether you have an affinity for the tradition or modern-styled, there are certain qualities that all fine Barolos share…signature aromatics and flavors of red fruits, roses and wild mushrooms (white truffles for the lucky ones who can detect this aroma).  Powerhouses of tannin and acidity, these wines are made for food, especially Northern Italian dishes such as braised beef, creamy risottos, roasted duck or goose, and aged cheeses.

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