Barolo Buying Guide
Having taken a tour of Barolo’s villages, it’s time to actually address the most important issue for any Barolo collector. Yeah, it’s fun to geek out over important matters: Why do Crus on the east side of Serralunga’s ridge taste different from the ones on the west? But, at the end of the day, what we all really need to know is what Barolos should we buy, cellar and drink..
In my tour of the villages there are certainly some shopping recommendations along the way. At the end of each of village description, I mention a few favorites. But in this post, I’ll try to tie it all together for you in a Barolo Buying Guide.
This is the 2021 version, the very first. Hopefully, I will update this annually as vintages change, generations turn over, and new discoveries are made.
Before we get to specific recommendations--
Here are some general tips:
- Vintages matter, but not as much as they used to.
- Since about 1996, every vintage, with only two or three possible exceptions, has been either good or great.
- I would have skipped 2002 and 2003, and maybe also 2014 (except in Serralunga), but every other vintage has offered up at minimum a decent number of good wines.
- Vintages still do matter, of course. See below for more specific recommendations on how to handle vintage variation..
- Don’t worry too much about the “warm” vintages…at least not yet.
- Yes, there have been a lot of warm vintages lately, and this is definitely something to be concerned about if the trend continues and it gets even warmer, as seems inevitable. But for now, at least, Barolo has managed to adapt, and each warm vintage seems to produce better wines than the previous warm vintage. The 2015s are so much better than the 2009s! The 2003s were frankly gross.
- No, 2015s or 2011s did not taste as precise and focused as cooler vintages on release, but the fruit was excellent, and it’s looking like the wines seem to how more definition as the fruit blows off within just a few years of release (I have seen that with the 2011s, and expect to start seeing it shortly with the 2015s…).
- Don’t just buy top wines.
- Barolo, especially, is a region where expensive wines take far longer to come around than cheaper wines. There is so much pleasure to be had drinking 5-6 year old Barolos that you paid $50 for (entry-level 2013s are fantastic right now). Don’t miss out!
- Don’t chase the hype… and be the smart buyer.
- Consider, for a moment, the Northern Rhone, another region that I like a lot (and that also I write guides to). Do you think the smartest collectors are the ones who buy Noel Verset Cornas for $600/bottle today, or the ones who bought it back before anyone else had even heard of the wine for $40/bottle? It’s no contest.
- In Piedmont, too, you should try to be the smart buyer. You will pay too much and get disappointingly small allocations if you chase the handful of wines that are already totally hyped.
- Instead, focus on finding some favorite producers that may end up being the ones that everyone is talking about ten years from now. There are just so many good options in Barolo to choose from!
- Diversify your purchases.
- It sounds like investment advice, but it also applies to wine. You can’t predict perfectly how good a wine will be in ten years – or whether you will even like the same kinds of wines – so it’s wise to mix up your purchases and not put all your eggs in one basket.
Noted. Now what do I buy?
Well, I don’t know how much you want to drink and what your budget is like. So what I’ve done instead is come up with three lists of 15 wines or producers each: Gold, Silver & Bronze. Each category is explained at the top of the list.
You’ll need to think about your own circumstances as you approach these lists. Say you’re a rich guy who doesn’t drink Barolo very often. Then sure, I get why you are focused mostly on the Gold list. Or you’re a starving artist with a Barolo habit. Go straight to Bronze!
But I think most of us will have fun mostly with the Silver list….with the occasional foray up to Gold to make sure we have a special bottle or two on hand, and a trip down to Bronze to make sure we have a few cases for regular drinking. That’s what I do.
As for vintages, pick three to eight producers – depending on how much you drink, and ideally from multiple lists – and buy them in all but the worst vintages (2002, 2003) or at least be selective (2014).
In star vintages (2001, 2004, 2006, 2010, 2013, 2016) go as broad as you can, beyond your group of three to eight favorites, and stock up like crazy – at least for so long as prices remain so reasonable. Looking forward, it’s looking like 2017 and 2018 will be normal vintages for buying, and 2019 will be a star vintage.
But what about back-filling?
The general advice above is focused on current vintages. What about going back and finding older vintages in the secondary market?
I say: Sure! Why not? If you can find a stash of 2010s from Brovia or whatever at a good price and you know they’ve been stored well, then grab them!
So what’s the catch?
Well, I look far and wide for stashes of 2010 Brovia and find that they very rarely exist (and if there is one I’ll do my best to beat you to it!). The secondary market tends to be a trophy market. You’ll find plenty of Conterno and a few other big names that have larger productions, but everything else is pretty spotty. The best way of assuring a supply of “regular”, properly stored Barolo is to buy it on release and store it yourself.
So, sure, if you have the money and see a grand old bottle of Conterno Monfortino that you need for a big Barolo night, then grab it! You’ll pay through the nose, of course, and you won’t be 100% sure of proper storage, but that’s the wine market.
All that said, the vast majority of the Barolo I drink, I purchased on release. And those wines that I’ve stored myself are definitely the ones that have given me the most pleasure over the years. But yeah, if you have a stash of 2010 Brovia you want to sell me, please send an email!
Final Thoughts before Getting to the Lists
Barolo is a really great wine region right now. Even though I’ve listed sound 45 producers below, there are so many others worthy of your attention.
I mean, where is Voerzio, Altare, Scarzello, and so many others? I could just make the lists longer, I suppose….but I want these to be user friendly. The crazy thing is this: I think you could put together an excellent Piedmont cellar without buying a single wine on these lists! That’s how great Barolo is at the moment. I did feel compelled to provide a few names, just after the lists, of producers that I wish I had enough room to include….
Also, I have to remind you that I haven’t tasted every producer and I haven’t tasted every wine and every vintage from every producer. I’m going to miss a lot of good stuff.
Finally, Robert Parker made a name for himself 40 years ago by arguing that the wine trade was too biased to write about wine, because they have to sell it. That may have been true back then and there’s probably still some truth to it today in certain contexts. So I just thought I should let you know that I don’t have a boss telling me what Barolos I have to buy or sell. There are hundreds of Barolos available that I can choose from to sell.
Obviously, I choose to sell the ones that I think are good, just like I only put wines on the lists below that I think are good. There is no conflict of interest, because it’s exactly the same evaluation process that goes into both decisions.
To give you more comfort, I could point out that there are plenty of wines on these lists that I don’t sell, or that sell so easily that putting them on lists like these only makes my life harder because it means I have to split up the allocations between even more customers. There are also wines that I do sell but that don’t make these lists (they’re good too, I promise!).
Wait a minute...those lists sound nice, but How do I Buy the Wines?
I know it would be great -- for both you and me -- if after each wine I mentioned, there was a little link that took you to a place on our website where you could simply buy the wine. Sorry, it’s not so simple. Wines come and go, and very few of the Barolos I deal with are made in significant quantities so you can’t just buy them whenever you feel like it. You can check out our current selection of Barolos and I think you’ll see that we do have quite a few of the wines from these lists in stock. In fact, I can tell you that at the time of writing we have over 120 wines, but probably from less than half the producers on this list.
This is getting especially tough with Piedmont generally and Barolo specifically. Barolo is hot. It’s like Burgundy ten years ago. A lot of people around the world are chasing these wines and allocations are getting tighter and tighter. Until prices rise -- let’s hope they don’t -- demand is going to continue to far outstrip supply.
All I can do is recommend that you sign up for our newsletter! That way, you’ll be the first to hear about it when we do get these wines in, and often have an opportunity to purchase them with newsletter-only discounts.
This is basically a list of the best Barolos, without regard to price or availability.
If you want to put together a cellar of Barolo trophies, and you have the money and connections necessary, this is your roadmap.
For the rest of us with more modest means and a desire to build a more balanced cellar – with wines that you can actually drink with some kind of regularity -- maybe we just try to get two, three or four of these each vintage.
- Giacomo Conterno.
- Like I said in my write-up for Serralunga, this may be rich people’s wine, but it’s really good rich people’s wine.
- On release the Monfortino is now just above $1000 per bottle. It can be a little hard to get for release prices, but not that hard.
- Just slightly below the Monfortino in quality, but a fraction of the price, is their single vineyards: Cascina Francia, Cerretto and Arione. They’re still expensive, though, and they can actually be harder to buy than the Monfortino on release. My favorite for now is still the Cascina Francia, but I love the voluptuousness of the Cerretto and, well, I have only tasted the one vintage of Arione that has so far been released but I am a big Arione fan!
- Bartolo Mascarello.
- Just one Barolo at this address, and the last few vintages have been flat out gorgeous. They are very hard to get at standard release prices.
- Burlotto Monvigliero and Cannubi.
- Even harder to get at standard retail prices, as less of the wine is made and Galloni has gotten into the habit of scoring these wines 100 in most vintages. They really are great, and the Monvigliero is particularly distinctive, with its olive note and whole cluster fermentation.
- Rinaldi Brunate and Tre Tine.
- Most people seem to prefer the Brunate, but both wines are excellent. These can be really hard to get in top vintages and much less hard in other vintages, but they are always worth it if you can get reasonable prices. I like the way Beppe Rinaldi used to think of his wines: always good, but never yet at their peak.
- Giuseppe Mascarello Monprivato.
- Finally we get to a wine on this list that is widely available in the marketplace. If you have the money, you should take advantage.
- It’s the Musigny of Barolo, as some say, and it’s one of those rare top Barolos that seems to show its greatness both young and old.
- Cavallotto San Giuseppe.
- Another wine that is easily found in the marketplace, and it always mystifies me why it’s not harder. It’s a powerful, elegant Castiglione wine made in a very traditional style and with a track record of aging extremely well that goes back decades.
- Giacosa Rocche del Falletto Red Label.
- Giacosa’s only red label Barolo (in the current era) is made from the perfectly south-facing portion of Rocche del Falletto, which should not be confused with either Rocche di Castiglione or Castiglione di Falletto.
- The site is in a monopole Cru on the west side of Serralunga’s ridge. It’s a majestic wine.
- Vietti’s Crus.
- The focus at Vietti isn’t making super-traditional or super-modern wines but doing whatever it takes to achieve incredibly high quality and accurate reflection of terroir. And what terroir! Ravera, Lazzarito, Rocche, Brunate….get these wines if you can find and afford them.
- Massolino Vigna Rionda Riserva.
- Vigna Rionda’s reputation has gone through the roof and is now considered absolute tops by many. Only a few producers produce a wine, and a couple of them have only very recently planted vines. Massolino makes exclusively a Riserva from this special site -- where some of their vines are quite old -- and it is fabulous.
- Aldo Conterno Granbussia.
- Like his brother’s Monfortino, Aldo’s top wine, the Granbussia, is actually a multi-site blend. I like the style of this wine, as it comes across as strangely accessible for having so much concentration and complexity. It’s a magical wine – certainly the best of Monforte – that has gotten very expensive.
- Accomasso Rocche and Rocchette.
- Accomasso started making wines at his family farm in the 1950s and he’s still at it. Best of all, he has barely changed a thing in his methods. These are super old-school single vineyard Crus from La Morra. Good luck finding them; grab bottles whenever you do.
- Roagna Barolo Pira VV.
- The second Barbaresco producer on this list to dip his hand in Barolo, Luca Roagna, too, has an amazing – and fairly large -- parcel here and it merits a place on this list. Pira is directly adjacent to Castiglione’s La Rocche and has the same perfect southeast orientation. The vines for the VV were planted in 1937.
- Brovia Rocche & Ca’ Mia Brea.
- The only wines on this list that cost under $100! But it’s become very close and I’m not sure it will be true for much longer.
- The Rocche is from the great Castiglione site and Brea is a rare east-facing monopole site in Serralunga.
- Brovia nuts like me argue over which is better: Rocche’s supreme poise or Brea’s rare combination of brightness and power? I love them both.
- Sandrone’s wines can be drop-dead gorgeous: wines of stunning, Burgundian purity that defy tradition and yet manage to capture the essence of Barolo.
- There are no barriques at this otherwise modern address (much like Aldo Conterno) and I think that’s one of the keys here.
- The other “Last of the Mohicans” –Giuseppe Rinaldi and Bartolo Mascarello – were boh in the village of Barolo, while Cappellano is in Serralunga, working exclusively in the west-facing Cru of Gabutti.
- I remember when a young salesman walked into my Brooklyn shop many years ago and offered to “taste me on” the 2001 Pie Franco, made from own-rooted vines that were only 12 years old at the time. I was transfixed and bought a case of the wine, for maybe around $50 /bottle wholesale. I sure wish I had bought more!
One of the great things about Barolo is that you can put together a cellar of amazing wines without having to spend a fortune or get in line for scarce allocations.
Honestly, you could have a seriously great Barolo cellar without even touching the Gold list above and just focusing on these. You’ll save tons of money and you’ll find it’s a lot easier to find many of these wines (yeah maybe I can help!):
- Francesco Rinaldi Cannubi and Brunate.
- In the shadow of their famous cousins, this producer has remained inexplicably inexpensive despite top holdings producing formidable wines in the widely-admired traditional style.
- These are great long-term agers.
- Scavino Crus, especially Ravera and Cannubi.
- These are breathtakingly pure and lovely Barolos that nail their respective terroirs with precision.
- Don’t skip them because you’re afraid of barriques, as many of them are now 100% raised in neutral cask, including the two referenced above.
- Elio Grasso Crus.
- Grasso produces monumental single Cru wines from Monforte that must be experienced.
- Again, like a few of the other producers listed here, Grasso has navigated perfectly between the modernist and traditionalist trends in the DOC.
- Fratelli Allessandria.
- Cousins of Burlotto, the fame of the latter seems to be rubbing off here, and this producer is getting hot.
- Yes, they have a Monvigliero…though some fans prefer their Gramolere from Monforte. Get on this train before it’s too late.
- Elvio Cogno.
- This winery has thrust the village of Novello onto the stage by showing us, together with Vietti, the true greatness of Ravera. This is in part thanks to their Vigna Elena, the best wine currently in production made entirely from the Rose grape, rather than its close relative Nebbiolo.
- But the “Nebbiolo” Ravera, from older vines, is also a fantastic wine that is great for the cellar.
- Brezza Crus.
- A Bartolo Mascarello nephew and protégé, Brezza makes traditional single Cru Barolo from several good sites in Barolo.
- They certainly age well, but they also are remarkably accessible in their youth.
- Pricing is very good.
- Marcarini Brunate.
- Marcarini is one of the classic producers in La Morra.
- They have consistently produced an excellent, ageable and affordable Brunate for many decades.
- There is talk of their La Serra, higher up the slope, one day eclipsing the Brunate as a result of global warming, but we’re not there yet.
- Ettore Germano.
- A solid, traditionally-minded producer (though not ideological about it), who makes a good Ceretta and Prapo but is especially interesting for their Lazzarito, one of Barolo’s top Crus, where they have a plot that’s almost 90 years old.
- You don’t come across these often so check them out when you do.
- This producer is a little culty and tightly allocated for this Silver list, but in terms of pricing and what the winery offers I think it fits right in.
- Their Paiagallo, from the heart of the Commune of Barolo, is terrific, but what makes this winery really special is that they produce a wine from the obscure Barolo village of Grinzane Cavour.
- Oddero Crus.
- Some of the wines here are so good that they belong on the Gold list – a Riserva from Vigna Rionda among them! – but so much of their line-up is just so accessible and affordable that this list is a better fit.
- I’d happily drink nothing but their Brunate, Rocche and Villero for the rest of my life…
- Vajra and Baudana Crus.
- Again, this is near Gold List material, and this is actually a winery that is dangerously close to going full-on Cult and becoming very hard to source. I hope not!
- Their traditional Crus are on the far western edge of Barolo and are airy and pure; in Serralunga they produce more powerful wines under the Baudana label, that somehow still manage to convey that “airy” style.
- Boglietti Crus.
- Boglietti is one of the mad geniuses of Barolo, making wines from holdings that include 100 year-old vines with macerations that extend for 90 days!
- The Brunate is fantastic, from his home village of La Morra, but he also makes one of the very few examples of Arione, which is quite a special Cru located at the southern end of Serralunga (and one of the ingredients of Monfortino).
- Attilio Ghisolfi.
- This is one of those tiny off-the-radar producers like what you might expect to come across in Barbaresco but almost never in Barolo.
- They are Bussia specialists, making small amounts of deep, balanced wines from that excellent Cru. Their top wine is from a sub-Cru of Bussia called Visssette.
- These wines are hard to find but offer excellent value when you do come across them.
- Azelia Crus.
- One of the stars of Serralunga (though actually based in Castiglione and with some holdings there as well) and one of the few in the village to take a modernist approach.
- For them, it works, and it works beautifully. Modernism is often used to dress up the lighter wines of La Morra, but maybe Azelia shows that it’s more useful for dressing down fierce Serralunga? I’m probably over-thinking it: these are just gorgeous wines.
- Poderi Colla.
- As the owner of Prunotto, Colla produced one of the first ever single vineyards of Barolo, in Bussia’s Dardi le Rose.
- After he sold Prunotto he then acquired the same holdings for his family winery.
- They’ve produced a gorgeously structured wine of roses and red fruit ever since.
These are my top wines for “casual” Barolo drinking.
Yes, there is such a thing, certainly in my household, as “casual” Barolo drinking. These are wines you buy and drink. Maybe right away, or ideally you buy a full case and then wait a couple of years, as even the most casual Barolos are usually best at at least age five or so.
- Vietti Castiglione.
- With lesser barrels being bottled younger as Nebbiolo Langhe, only the good stuff remains for this consistently excellent Barolo normale.
- Confusingly, the wine is named for Vietti’s home base, in Castiglione, but most of the fruit come from Novello, especially the great Ravera.
- Brovia Normale.
- This is Brovia’s younger vines blend, plus whatever Barolo from the Crus can’t fit into the single vat that is reserved for each of them.
- Not quite ready on release, this really over-performs in the 5-10 year range.
- Francesco Rinaldi Normale.
- A blend that looks a bit like Bartolo Mascarello’s traditional recipe of La Morra plus Barolo di Barolo, producing a wine that is quite potent for mere normale.
- Another wine to wait a few years on, if you can.
- Vajra Tre Albe.
- A gorgeous normale that showcases the high-altitude sites that Vajra works in the extreme far west of the Commune of Barolo.
- You can drink this one on release.
- Bovio Crus.
- Bovio is an under-appreciated La Morra producer who makes very accessible but traditionally-minded wines.
- You can drink them on release.
- Oddero Normale.
- The Odderos have a sprinkling of top holdings across the DOC but their normale showcases their home village of La Morra.
- Like typical La Morra, it is elegant and forward.
- S&B Borgogno Cannubi.
- No, not all traditional Barolo requires 20 years of aging! Even when it comes from the hallowed grounds of Cannubi.
- They have a cheaper normale but the Cannubi is so much better and also under $50 and drinkable right away, so why bother?
- Massolino Serralunga.
- I love the chunky cherry fruit of Serralunga but I don’t always want to wait for it! Massolino delivers it fast with this village wine (which until recently was labeled straight normale).
- Brezza Classico.
- This is really easy, drinkable Barolo. Almost like a Langhe Nebbiolo, but with depth. It’s great on release, but it’s even better with just two or three years.
- Giacomo Fennocchio Crus.
- I learned a lot about Barolo terroir just drinking Fennochio’s wines, as they have a range from different top Crus in Barolo, Castiglione and Monforte (all within a weirdly short distance of each other) that manages to combine traditionalism, terroir precision, and early accessibility.
- And affordability!
- Trediberri Barolo.
- This newish producer in La Morra has taken the world by storm and in almost no time has become one of the more allocated producers of traditionally-styled Barolo.
- Still, I can usually get good quantities of the Barolo normale each year, and you should buy it. Lovely, elegant La Morra wine.
- Castello di Verduno Barolo.
- Bruna Grimaldi’s Bricco Ambroglio.
- Azelia Normale.
- Azelia produces a very tasty and quite inexpensive normale from their holdings in both Castiglione and Serralunga.
- The polish in the wine reflects the modernist approach (the wine is raised in a mix of barrel size and wood types).
- This is quite appealing on release and improves with a bit of time.
- Pora and Schiavenza Crus.
- I put these two producers together not just because I’ve run out of room on this list, but also because they both offer more or less the same thing: a taste of Serralunga’s Crus in affordable and accessible packages.
A few other producers I would love to include on this list but I’ve run out of room….
- Cascina Fontana
- Gianfranco Alessandria
- Giovanni Rosso
- Luigi Pira