They are both made 100% from Nebbiolo grown in the Langhe. But Barolo and Barbaresco are clearly not the same wine. What’s the difference?
The easy answer is the legal one: Barolo and Barbaresco are two different DOCs. They are located in slightly different parts of the Langhe (see the map below). There are slightly different rules that they have to follow — for example Barolos have to be aged for 38 months, of which at least 18 months are in barrel, while Barbaresco only requires 26 months, of which 9 must be in barrel. Barolos have to hit 13% alcohol and Barbarescos only 12.5%
I guess that sort of thing is great to know for your WSET exam, but it doesn’t get you into the heart and soul of how these wines are distinct. Hopefully this list of five key differences will help you do that:
Barbaresco is warmer than Barolo. This is partly thanks to one simple fact clearly visible on the map above: Barbaresco has a river (the Tanaro), and Barolo doesn’t. If you know anything about German wine, you know how important rivers are. They reflect heat and keep vineyards warm.
That may sound like a small thing, but the impact is big. Barbaresco typically harvests a full week earlier than Barolo. Even in a normal vintage this will affect the physiology of the grape, with Barbaresco achieving ripeness with a higher degree of acidity and Barolo achieving ripeness with a higher degree of phenolic maturity.
Every now and then, the difference can go be particularly significant. In 2010, Barbaresco was harvested shortly after rainfall, and the grapes were slightly dilute. In Barolo, the grapes had a week to dry out before harvest, and it ended up being one of the greatest vintages in a generation.
Barolo is like Bordeaux, while Barbaresco is more like Burgundy (so many B regions!). Barolo emerged around 50 years earlier than Barbaresco, with several large firms that supplied the royal family of Savoie, in nearby Torino, who went on to become the kings and queens of unified Italy. To this day, Barolo remains a larger-scaled, more commercial DOC (although there are several very important small-scale producers).
Barbaresco, meanwhile, is dominated by small farmers. It’s smaller overall, making only on-third or so of Barolo’s total production. And it’s broken up into lots of small holdings. Many of them are so small that they cannot operate as a commercial winery. Instead they belong to a coop. The most famous one is the Prodouttori del Barbaresco, which operates in the commune of Barbaresco. The neighboring commune of Neive, also in DOC Barbaresco, has its own, lesser-known cooperative.
Barolo also has a not-so-well-known cooperative, and plenty of small producers. This bifurcation isn’t black and white. But hang out in the Langhe and you’ll quickly see the difference. Towns like Barbaresco and Neive are sleepy and low-scale. Towns in the Barolo DOC have plenty of big producers with tasting rooms and so forth. It’s no Napa, but it’s very different from Barbaresco.
Barolo geeks may know the familiar division of the Barolo DOC into those villages with soils from the Helvetian era, and those from the Tortonian era. (If you’re not familiar with it, please check out this exceptional map from our friends at Italian Wine Merchants.) Very generally, looking at a map of the DOC, villages from the left-hand side have Tortonian soils and produce a light-colored, highly perfumed Nebbiolo, while on the right-hand side you have Helvetian soils (which by the way are now properly called Serravallian), where you have deeper color and more powerful wines. Villages like the the Commune of Barolo have both soils and so are half-way between.
The reality is a little more complex than this (we are talking about an extremely geologically complex part of the world, which is probably why the wines are so good!), and there is a third era that is also present in the Langhe called Messinian. Messinian soils are mixed in with Tortonian soils in the villages of Verduno and La Morra, and to some extent the village of Barolo itself (which is pretty much a jumble of everything). It’s in the villages of Verduno and La Morra that you get the most feminine and aromatic wines in all of Barolo. Guess where else you find this particular geologic mix? In Barbaresco.
You can also think about this in terms of plain old limestone. There is limestone everywhere in the Langhe, but in Serravallian soils you find more of it, and in Tortonian era soils you have less. The rule of thumb in the Langhe is that the more limestone in the soils, the bigger and more structured the wines and the longer-lived they are. No surprise, the village of Serralunga has the most limestone, and in DOC Barolo the village of La Morra has the least. Guess where there is even less limestone than in La Morra? The commune of Barbaresco (Neive actually has a little more than La Morra, but it is still at the low end of the limestone spectrum for the Langhe).
So basically, Barolo has soils that range from those that produce lighter wines to those that produce bigger and more structured wines. Barbaresco’s soils sit at just one end of that spectrum, and it’s the lighter end. Here’s a little chart to help you visualize:
The wines do taste similar. It is hard to decide whether a wine is from Barolo or Barbaresco in a blind tasting. And if you look at a bunch of tasting notes from experts or folks on cellar tracker, you will notice a lot of similar notes appearing for both wines, mostly cherries, porcini, fennel, roses and tar.
However, taste enough of these wines, and you start to notice patterns. Barbaresco tends to be lighter, softer, more floral and more approachable in its youth. Take a look above at where Barbaresco falls on the Langhe spectrum of soils.They say that Barolo is the “king” and Barbaresco is the “queen”, and this is why.
With enough experience, you’ll start to notice other patterns. In Barolo I get more green herbs, like sage or rosemary, and more minerals. In Barbaresco, more spice, and sometimes a darker, earthier note, especially on the finish, and sometimes more licorice. But this varies within DOCs, and these things overlap extensively.
The only way to figure it out for yourself, of course is to get drinking. Ideally, you can drink the wines side by side, or if not then within a few days of each other. And take advantage of producers that work in both DOCs (Castello di Verduno is a good one), so that you can see how the wines taste differently when they are made in the same cellars with the same methods.
Availability in the US market is driven by the economic structure described above, where Barbaresco is one-third the size and dominated by coops and small farmers and Barolo by larger grower/producers. Far more Barolo is exported than Barbaresco, and so in your typical U.S. retailer you’ll find a lot more Barolo
At the “collectable” end of the market, Barbaresco is dominated by the “Gs”, Gaja and Giacosa, both of whom make some of the most expensive wines in all the Langhe. In Barolo, collectors have typically sought wines from the “big four” of Conterno, Bartolo Mascarello, Giacomo Mascarello and Giuseppe Rinaldi. There, the issue is more supply than price, with the exception of the very expensive (but still fairly priced!) Monfortino.
Americans, though, are broadening their horizons and are increasingly looking at a host of smaller producers in both DOCs. In Barbaresco, you might look at Cascina delle Rose or Serafino Rivella, and in Barolo, producers like Elvio Cogno or Massolino. And in Barbaresco, do not overlook the Produttori, which makes some of the best values in collectable wine from anywhere (check out this post on that very topic).
In short, although the two DOCs have a different kind of presence in our marketplace, it’s not something that we need to worry about as consumers seeking out the best wines, as there is no shortage of great options — and great values — in both places!