Flatiron's Guide to Barolo
Barolo has long been an insider favorite among Italian wine lovers, but in recent years it has really exploded onto the wider international wine scene.
If this explosion hasn’t caught up to you yet, it’s time for you to put aside those bottles of Burgundy to start figuring out what’s going on. And if you already do have the Barolo bug, then it’s time to start treating Barolo like you might have treated those Burgundies: with attention to the details, and especially all those villages!
Either way, this guide is for you.
We’re going to take you through the story of why Barolo is so special, and how and why it is that the world finally figured that out. Then we’re going to treat it just like Burgundy by touring all of Barolo’s villages, highlighting what is special about each of them. We’ll talk about all the important Crus and producers, and of courses there will be plenty of specific buying recommendations along the way.
Working your way through Barolo’s villages and getting to know them all is one of the wine world’s great adventures. Let this series of blog posts be your guide. Learning and pleasure are both guaranteed!
So let’s get started. This post will go through all the material in summary form. There are eight sections: a Barolo overview, one section for each of the major Barolo villages, one section for the minor villages, and a final section that is basically a buying guide. If you just want the big picture, you can just read this post. But to really dive deep you can also link through to detailed blog posts.
Barolo is a red wine made from the Nebbiolo grape in a group of 11 villages that lie just south of Alba, Piedmont.
The vines are planted on the slopes of Alpine foothills, known here as the Langhe. Since the 19th century, wine makers have produced dry still wines from these grapes and aged them for extended periods in wooden casks. That’s Barolo!
The resulting wine is rich and powerful, with high alcohols, high acidity, and lots of tannic structure. Ideally, all these components come together to produce a balanced and harmonious wine.
Often, it takes years of cellaring before this is achieved. When ready to drink, Barolo is beautifully aromatic – with scents of roses, tar and porcini – and it possesses flavors of cherry, raspberry, and herbs like sage, mint or licorice
One of the great things about Barolo is that, like Burgundy, it is incredibly diverse, showing off different shades of Nebbiolo from village to village and from Cru to Cru (a “Cru” being a commonly used French term for a single vineyard). The law recognizes this diversity, and Barolo has a system of MGA’s (menzioni geographiche aggiuntive) – or place names for legally recognized Crus -- that may be added to the label of any Barolo produced at least 80% from the mentioned MGA.
The trick to becoming a Barolo expert is learning these Crus, their producers, and the various villages that they come from. That’s the point of this guide!
...for a more in-depth overview of Barolo, with information on the terroir of Barolo, a way to organize the major villages in your head, and a little history that will explain how Barolo got to be the great wine that it is today.
If you want to remember just one, simple rule about Barolo and its terroir, it is this: as you move from west to east within the DOC of Barolo, there is less sand and more limestone in the soils, and the wines therefore become more powerful. Of the major villages, La Morra is furthest west. Its soils are therefore the sandiest and least infused with limestone, and its wines are the lightest.
But it makes up for its diminished power with elegance and aromatics. The Nebbiolo produced here is the most floral in Barolo. The softer tannins allow for earlier consumption. Producers who blend grapes from different sites to make their vision of perfect Barolo – as was the tradition before single vineyard wines emerged in the 1960s – consider La Morra fruit to be an essential ingredient.
The village is blessed with famous sites, such as Brunate, and a number of well-loved producers. The village has a bit of a reputation for modernist producers – like Robert Voerzio – but it is also home to Oddero, one of Barolo’s great traditionalists, and the cult producer Accomasso, who may well be the most traditional producer of them all, continuing to make wine in exactly the same way as when he started back in the 1950s!
There is, of course, a lot more to talk about. So, for an in-depth look...
Wait, what’s this about a “village” of Barolo….aren’t all these wines from Barolo? Yeah, it’s confusing. In addition to being the name of the wine, and the DOCG of the wine, Barolo is also the name of one of the 11 villages that produces it. And you would be correct to guess that it’s an important village!
It’s important both as a center of production – many of the DOC’s large concerns, founded in the 1800s to supply the cellars of the House of Savoy, are based in Barolo – and also for quality. For it is within the Commune of Barolo, just northeast of the village itself, that lies the hill of Cannubi, where some of Barolo’s very best, most majestic, wines are made.
In addition to Cannubi, Barolo has important sections that bump up against La Morra (a section of Brunate is actually in Barolo), that surround the village itself, and an interesting “Far West” section where the producer Vajra has discovered that they can make incredibly pure and airy versions of Nebbiolo.
But it’s not just vineyards, it’s also producers. At least three of Barolo’s biggest names are all located in this village: Bartolo Mascarello, Giuseppe Rinaldi and Luciano Sandrone. So are a lot of other very fine producer, like the aforementioned Vajra and many others. A lot of great wine is produced in this town!
As you can see, Barolo (the village) isn’t so simple, but it’s definitely worth your time to...
It’s the smallest village of the big five, but if I have to pick a favorite – and these aren’t my kids so why not? – it would be Castiglione. The one word to describe the village would be “balance”, thanks to the fact that it is right in the center of the DOC and seems to borrow from a good mix of its terroirs.
Good vineyards? Some say that it’s Rocche is the very best! Good producers? For a small commune only producing about 10% of DOC Barolo’s wines, it’s remarkable how many must-know names are based here, including Brovia, Vietti, Cavallotto and Giuseppe Mascarello.
It’s also a Barolo buyer’s paradise, offering everything from great value Barolos that you can drink on the young side up to some of the DOC’s most cellarworthy treasures.
This is clearly a village to get to know, so...
This is least understood village in Barolo. It’s often lumped in categorically with Serralunga d’Alba as one of the “power” villages producing massive, structured Barolo. That’s true! But Monforte also has its own personality: it’s very cherry forward, and produces some of the most intensely fruity wines of Barolo. This works beautifully with it's potent structure to produce wines that are really very appealing, not just on their surface but also as you keep sipping and discovering new layers. If La Morra’s wines are “elegant”, Barolo’s “regal”, Castiglione’s “balanced”, and Serralunga’s “powerful”, my one word for Monforte is “sexy”.
There are perhaps fewer famous names here than elsewhere, but Aldo Conterno and the Cru of Bussia may both ring a bell. They are certainly not the only ones! Monforte is full of hills and lesser-known hamlets, and there are discoveries to be made here.
To help you make those discoveries...
Now we are at the eastern end of the Barolo map where the soils are thickest with limestone. That means power, and the wines of Serralunga are indeed the biggest, most structured wines of Barolo. Barolo is a wine of extremes, and Serralunga is extreme Barolo.
But there is another side to Serralunga that is often overlooked: it is a village of tiny producers, many of which are still waiting to be discovered. Compared to the Commune of Barolo, with its significant town and numerous historic producers, Serralunga is, frankly, a backwater.
Yet the wine is so special! The most expensive Barolo – Monfortino -- is made here. The second and third most expensive wines (from Vigna Rionda) are also produced here. And it’s not just expensive wine. Tiny, little-known producers like Schiavenza make terrific wines for relatively modest prices. This is a village that Barolo lovers just can’t ignore.
Our deep dive into Serralunga is here and worth a read! Take a bike trip with us...
The Other villages
Even committed Piedmont collectors strain to name the other six villages of Barolo, yet each of them offers something very important for the Barolo adventurer (or at worst five out of the six?). Here’s the breakdown, stating with the best known (yeah, I have enough customers asking me for Monvigliero that I know the word has gotten out on that one…) and leading down to the most obscure.
This village is like extreme La Morra, being even further up in the northwest corner of the Barolo DOC. It has the Cru of Monvigliero, which Burlotto has made one of the cultiest MGAs of Barolo. Sure, get some bottles of that if you can find and afford them, but don’t overlook at least two other excellent producers based here.
Novello extends southward from Barolo, and boasts a large share of Ravera. Thanks to Vietti and Elvio Cogno, this is a Cru that used to be a bit off the radar but is now considered one of Barolo’s very greatest.
This village got on the map thanks to cult producer Canonica, who inherited some vines here that grow Rose -- not pink wine, but a grape variety that is distinct from Nebbiolo but still legally permitted to be used for Barolo. Allocations are extremely tight and this is hard to find, but don’t pass on the opportunity if you have one!
Now we are getting into villages that only just squeak into the DOC. Rodda has only one Barolo Cru, Ambroglio. Fortunately it is quite a good one, with features that are a bit like Verduno, and featuress that are a bit like Serralunga. Scavino has a near monopoly on the site, though you do see other bottlings from time to time.
This village has just a tiny sliver of Barolo and it is so obscure that the author of one great book on Barolo admits that she only mentions it because it is technically one of Barolo’s 11 villages. Yet one of my recent discoveries, Fracassi, makes wine from the only Cru here, Mantoeto. It’s a good wine! And you want to make sure you drink at least one Barolo from each of the 11 villages, right?
It has such a promising location, practically a northern extension of Serralunga, and yet I struggle to think of any Barolo I have ever drunk from here. I’d happily recommend the excellent Dolcetto, except that this is a guide to Barolo! Hopefully one day I’ll be able to update this guide with a new discovery….
There are plenty more interesting details about all these villages – Ok, except maybe Diano d’Alba – so you'll have to read on to unlock the secrets of the other five "minor" communes.
I have been buying and selling Barolo for something like 40% of my life. I may know enough about the different villages to write the various guides above, but what I really know about is buying and drinking Barolo. Of course, the recommendations change over time, as every year brings a new vintage, generations change over at wineries, and new discoveries are made.
The first edition of the buying guide will be ready in early 2021, and after that the plan is to update it annually.
Please check back soon!
They are both made 100% from Nebbiolo grown in the Langhe. But Barolo and Barbaresco are clearly not the same wine.
It is one of the most interesting wine regions in the world. We are fascinated by it, so we thought it would be helpful to take a look at the all Nebbiolos that Alto Piemonte has to offer, taking each of the most important DOCs in turn.