Barolo Breakdown, Part 3: Barolo
La Morra has to fight for its identity – see my last post – but for Barolo it couldn’t be easier. It has the name! This is actually confusing for many wine lovers who are new to Piedmont. You might naturally think that all Barolo comes from Barolo! But if you read through my overview post, you know that DOC Barolo is made in 11 different villages. The village, or commune, of Barolo, is just one of them.
Why does that village get to have the name? No one really knows. What we do know is that thousands of years ago the Celtic people swept across Europe. They were great beer drinkers. (Some things never change.) Who knows how many beers had been drunk when they decided to call this part of the Langhe, which has plenty of good-sized hills, “low area”, in their language. That name survives today as “Barolo”.
Barolo has more than just a well-known name, however. It also has vineyards. These vineyards only make up about 10% of the DOC Barolo, but they make a far larger percentage of the best known wine, and 100% of the village is entitled to produce Nebbiolo called Barolo. The swathe of Crus that contain the name “Cannubi” produce some of the world’s greatest Nebbiolo. This is a bit like all those Crus in Vosne that contain the word “Romanee”. But at like one fifth of the price.
It may feel like an odd comparison to make, but Barolo is also the closest thing that Italy has to the Napa Valley. It is a tourist mecca. You won’t come across adolescent tour groups, but rather well-heeled travelers from Texas or Taiwan who happen to have a taste for great wine. It’s fantastic for local restaurants, but not quite the same feel for us intrepid wine travelers as it was even just 10 or 15 years ago.
But let’s focus on the wine.
What’s the lay of the land?
Some of DOC Barolo's villages sit at the top of hills, with the vineyards descending below them. The village of Barolo, by contrast, is in a valley, and the vines rise above in hills that surround the entire village. In fact, you can leave the village and walk in almost any direction and be sure to arrive at a famous site. Like this:
So let's work our way around the compass, starting at 11 o'clock:
- Look to the northwest and you will see the hill of La Morra rising above. The lower slopes of that hill are actually in Barolo. Here you find Barolo’s portions of Brunate and Cerequio, covered in the La Morra post, as well as Sarmassa.
- Moving around the compass -- and just across a small valley from the hill of La Morra -- you have the hill of Cannubi, with a number of different vineyard sites that all contain the Cannubi name. This is a special place that you can read more about below.
- Go directly east from the village and cross another small valley and you arrive in Bussia, which is 97% in Monforte and will be covered when I get to that village. But there are other nearby vineyards on more or less the same slope that are entirely within the commune of Barolo, like Castellero and the Coste di Rose.
Head south, and you will walk through the Rinaldis' backyard. This is La Coste. Keep going and you get to the famous Cru of Ravera. 90% of Ravera is actually in the village of Novello so we'll cover that in a future post.
- Follow the road that leaves the village to the west and you will have on either side of you Paiagallo (which produces Canonica's very sought-after Barolo) and Rue (one of Bartolo Mascarello's ingredients). Keep following the road out to the hamlet of Vergne, where Vajra is based. They work a cluster of vineyards around the hamlet, the greatest of which is Bricco delle Viola. Glance to your right (north) and you'll see that the hill of La Morra looms, with Cru Fossati spilling down from its peak and sprawling towards you into the Commune of Barolo.
So do the best Barolos come from the village of Barolo?
That’s what the locals will tell you! But it is actually not a widely-shared opinion. Certainly the most expensive Barolos are found elsewhere – if you really want to spend money just wait until my future post on Serralunga. And a casual look at vineyard classifications reveal that many of the best sites are elsewhere. Put aside Brunate and Cerequio, which are mostly in La Morra, and the only site that you find on this chart of top sites from Barolo is Cannubi.
Maybe one local, Maria Teresa Mascarello, would agree. She might argue that no one site in Barolo is spectacular, but that the village’s magic comes from blending the sites together. This is what her domain Bartolo Mascarello has done for decades, producing what is undoubtedly one of the greatest Barolos. Though even this Barolo gets a little help from La Morra – the source for about 30% of the fruit.
Another thing to keep in mind is the common view that the producer is more important than terroir. Barolo is the historic center of Barolo production. So no suurprise that it has a wealth of top producers – not just Bartolo Mascarello but other top names like Giuseppe Rinaldi and Luciano Sandrone. Perhaps producers do not need the very best sites to make the very best wines. Anyone who has tasted Savigny-les-Beaune from Madame Bize-Leroy will know exactly what I’m talking about.
Where does that leave us? Well, let’s just say that Barolo from Barolo is excellent and the village has a number of top producers. Really, there is no need to worry about whether it is better or worse than La Morra or Serralunga…just enjoy the wines!
What are the great vineyards of Barolo?
We’ll skip Brunate and Cerequio, which I dealt with in the La Morra post (which you can read here) because they are mostly located there. But Barolo has plenty of great vineyards of its own, the best known of which is…
Cannubi is an entire hill with many different Crus (MGAs as they are officially called) all of which include the name Cannubi. Like "Cannubi Boschis" for example. There is one area, right in the middle, that just goes by the name "Cannubi", and its owners sued to prevent any of the other vineyard sites on the hill from just saying the name Cannubi, on its own, on their label. They insisted that anyone making wine from Cannubi Boschis, for example, needed to include the "Boschis" portion of the name on their label.
But they lost that lawsuit at Italy's highest court back in 2016. So if you see the simple name "Cannubi" it could come from Cannubi Boschis, Cannubi San Lorenzo, or any of several other MGAs on the hill. To reflect this, when you look at Barolo's official wine map, it will say things like "Cannubi Boschis o Cannubi" ("o" is just Italian for "or"), reflecting the fact that now a producer can legally elect to use either name if their grapes are grown there.
Does any of legal stuff matter? Well, this history is quite recent and it remains a sensitive topic in the Langhe. It definitely matters to some people. But I don't think us consumers need to worry too much.
One reason for all the fuss is history, as Cannubi is one of the oldest admired names in the region. Wines were made that were labeled “Cannubi” back in the 1700s, before they were labeled “Barolo'! Were those possibly Italy’s first vineyard-designated bottlings?
The fact of the matter is that the whole hill is very good. The subzones each have slightly different soil compositions and orientations, but they are pretty much all southeast-facing slopes with the sandy soils that are typical of the western Tortonian side of the Langhe. There are lots of good producers on this hill (about 25), and they almost all work organically (80% of the hill is certified).
In Cannubi, you are very close to the traditional dividing line between Tortonian soils, thought to produce feminine wines, and Helvetian soils, more masculine. The locals believe that Cannubi benefits from both, producing “complete” Barolo. But you really still are on the Tortonian side – the soils are actually quite sandy here -- and the wines feel more elegant and less structured than wines from just across that line in Monforte’s Bussia.
Top producers are Sandrone (especially Cannubi Boschis), Brezza, Giuseppe Rinaldi (who blend their San Lorenzo Cannubi into the wine they call Tre Tine), Bartolo Mascarello (who include Cannubi in their only Barolo cuvee), and Marchesi di Barolo.
On the La Morra side and with classic Tortonian soils, this leans to the elegant end of Barolo. But, this is also a fairly warm Barolo site with thin rocky soils which can result in some power. Marchesi di Barolo and Brezza make single vineyard expressions.
This is a cru that deserves mention here because it is Giuseppe Rinaldi’s backyard and used to appear on the label of their wines, when it was labeled “Coste-Brunate”. The EU outlawed this labling, saying that you can’t put vineyard names on wines unless 85% of the wine comes from a single vineyard. So, they now put some Le Coste in both their Barolos: it provides 15% of the wine they now simply call “Brunate” and the rest goes into the multi-vineyard blend called Tre Tine (along with grapes from San Lorenzo and Ravera).
You’ll see Bricco Delle Viola on Vajra bottles, and those are some of the very best bottles of Barolo.
Canonica makes a single vineyard from Paiagallo, which is an east-facing site overlooking the village of Barolo.
Then there is San Lorenzo, which is super confusing. There is a San Lorenzo in Verduno, a Barolo village to be discussed in a subsequent blog post. There is Sori San Lorenzo, a Barbaresco made by Gaja. And, In the village of Barolo, you have a Cannubi San Lorenzo that is one of the Canubbis (a good one, and a contributor to Rinaldi’s Tre Tine). Finally, there is San Lorenzo pure and simple, which is on the other, northwest facing side of the Cannubi hill. It’s not worth going into all the details, but you can just follow this simple rule of thumb: If you see “San Lorenzo” in the Langhe, it means good terroir!
So you say there are good producers....who are they?
There's actually a pretty good mix of big and small producers with a range of styles. Barolo is an historic wine town, and it has the old classic producers that supplied the House of Savoy, like the Marchesi di Barolo. That’s a producer that isn’t making the best wines today, but they held back – and stored well – many wines from the last few decades so when you are trying to find old bottles its a great source.
So is Giacomo Borgogno, which has invested in reconditioning old bottles and releasing them at decent prices over the last 10-15 years. Purists complain that the reconditioning involves adding some younger vintage wine, but so what? They consistently out-perform the non-reconditioned bottles I’ve tried from the same producer.
Anyway, here are some of the smaller, masterful, Barolo producers you must know:
Bartolo made a name for himself resisting the modernizing trends in the region, encapsulated by a message he put on a hand-drawn bottle label: “No Barriques, No Berlusconi”.
He died a few years ago but the domain is now in the gifted hands of his daughter Maria Theresa, who has raised the profile even further with a series of fabulous vintages. Maria is still hewing rigorously to tradition (long macerations, and certainly no barriques!).
They are one of the very few domains to still release just one Barolo made from a blend of all their parcels (as was generally the case before single vineyard cuvees started to appear in the 1960s). 30% of the Barolo comes from Rocche di Annunziata in La Morra; the rest from three different vineyards in the commune of Barolo: Rue, San Lorenzo and Cannubi.
This is the other producer in the village that champions tradition and is widely admired as one of Barolo’s great legends.
Beppe Rinaldi was the last of the “Last of the Mohicans” – the others were Bartolo Mascarello and Teobaldo Cappellano – who resisted modern trends. Sadly, he died in 2018 at a still young 69, and the estate is now run by his daughters Marta and Carlotta (the wine-maker and farmer, respectively). They are extremely worthy successors. See the bit on “Le Coste” above to get the break-down on the two Barolos that are produced here.
Some quick Barolo history: in the 19th century one of the big players--alongside the Marchesi and Borgogno--was a firm called Barale-Rinaldi. They split up about a century ago, giving us Giuseppe Rinaldi, Francesco Rinaldi, and Fratelli Barale (another solid producer in the village). Francesco was the brother of Giuseppe Rinaldi -- not the Giuseppe ("Beppe") who recently died but his grandfather with the same name.
This side of the Rinaldi family has also retained holdings in Brunate and Cannubi and a traditional style of wine-making. But these wines do not have the cache of their cousins’ and they are far easier to find and afford. They are very good wines so you should take advantage!
Our San Francisco store recently hosted the winemaker of Francesco Rinaldi and highlighted them in a blog post which you can read here.
Another traditionalist, this one with a connection to Bartolo Mascarello, who was the uncle of Enzo Brezza.
Brezza works entirely within the Commune of Barolo, with holdings in Cannubi, Castellero, and Sarmassa, where he has vines planted in 1941 that produce his top wine. He makes an excellent, forward and inexpensive normale from sourced grapes that come in part from Novello and Monforte d’Alba.
This is really an excellent source of high quality, traditional Barolo.
Every village seems to have at least one great modernist (if you read the La Morra post, you know that there it is Altare) and in Barolo it is Sandrone. In fact, this is the Langhe’s garagiste, as he literally started his winery in a garage and ever since he and his daughter Barbera have made Burgundian-style Barolo of ripeness, power and purity.
If money is no object – Sandrone’s wines are expensive – this is the producer to try if you want to get a sense of what high quality modernist Barolo tastes like.
They have a single vineyard from Cannubi Boschis (which they now call Aleste) and a multi-vineyard blend called Le Vigne that is a mix of fruit from the communes of Barolo, Novello, Serralunga and, since 2011, Castiglione Falletto.
Not to be confused with the larger concern, this is a small family winery that is physically located on the hill of Cannubi and specializes in wine from the special hill. They are very traditional. Pricing is excellent here, and this is a terrific source for just stocking up.
Vajra is another traditionalist-minded producer that makes wine mostly from the vines that surround the hamlet of Vergne, just to the west of Barolo. They have been making terrific wines for many vintages and are now followed closely by many Piedmont fans in the U.S. In addition to their Vergne wines, they make a sought-out Ravera and, since 2015, a wine from the remarkably sand Coste di Rose (in the section of Barolo that borders on Monforte's Bussia). They also recently acquired Baudana, a good winery in Serralunga. But maybe the most useful wine from Vajra is their Barolo "Tre Albe". That means "three dawns" and it refers to three east-facing higher-altitude sites around Vergne that are blended to produce one of the best value Barolos from the entire DOC.
How should I go about Buying, Collecting and Drinking Barolo?
- There are two great entry-level Barolos di Barolo and you should drink them a lot. Vajra's "Tre Albe" and Brezza's Barolo normale are inexpensive, at least for Barolo, and really delicious. These are wines to have on hand. Drink them whenever you're grilling meat, or in just about any situation where you might otherwises grab a Napa Cab that costs twice the price. There's no need to cellar these wines, although the Vajra, especially, will improve for a couple years.
- Take advantage of those old wines floating about from the Marchesi and Borgogno. It is extremely hard to find Barolo from the 1970s and 1980s that has been stored so well! We do occasionally get them here at Flatiron so do make sure you’re signed up for our newsletter to hear about it first.
- Become friends with a wine merchant who gets good allocations of Bartolo Mascarello and Giuseppe Rinaldi! The wines are really excellent, but they are very allocated. Giuseppe Rinaldi is a little easier to find these days because the importer’s prices have moved up so much that many collectors have been forced to limit their purchases. (For the record, I’m Jeff and I’m always looking for new friends! You can email me here about Barolo and we’ll get your Barolo collection started...)
- Take advantage of Brezza and Francesco Rinaldi to fill out your cellar. You can really acquire good quantities here for good prices. Believe me, you will be very happy when you drink that ten-year old Brunate from Francesco Rinaldi that you paid less than $60 for, and then see that you still have 3-4 more bottles stashed away.
- Get your hands on a bottle or two of great wine from a modernist like Sandrone. Most of our readers are Barolo purists and tend to pass on the modernist approach. I understand, but if you can afford it, I encourage you to try! The quality is extremely high…and despite the modern sensibilities the wines do not taste oaky as there are no barriques here, just 500L French tonneaux, of which only about 20% are new.
As I mentioned in my last post, I enjoy many La Morra wines on release or with just a few years of bottle age. Barolo from the Commune of Barolo needs a little more time, especially as so many of those profiled above are made in a traditional style with long macerations.
Bartolo Mascarello’s really need a good 15-20+ years, while Giuseppe Rinaldi’s wines usually come around just a few years earlier (though Giuseppe famously claimed that he would be happy if he made wines that are never ready – always good, of course, but always promising even more for the patient).
From Brezza and Francesco Rinaldi it’s more like 10+ years. I’m pretty happy drinking 2008s as of this writing, for example.
Sandrone’s wines may be modern but they are built for the long haul…though they can be impressive young as well.
Interested in learning more about the rest of Barolo? Read on.
Here we have an overview of everything you need to know about Barolo.
Why is La Morra so important? What makes these wines so elegant? Who makes the best wine from La Morra?
Why are all Castiglione wines so balanced? Where can I find the best Castiglione Barolo? How is the village laid out?
Is Monforte just like Serralunga? What makes Monforte so diverse? Can I buy village level Monforte?
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