What is Barolo?: An Introduction to Italy's Greatest Wine
In the wine world, people are often reluctant to pick favorites, especially in print. But I’m going to do it anyway: I declare that Barolo is the greatest wine of Italy. I love many wines from all over Italy, but I have picked a favorite, and it is Barolo.
I’m not the only one. It is easily the most popular wine category at our shop from Italy. At the fancy BYO wine dinners that I sometimes attend, Barolo is by far the most brought wine from Italy. Pick up an auction catalog and go to the Italy section, and you’ll see lot after lot of Barolo, with perhaps just a few bottles of Brunello or Barbaresco thrown in. People really like Barolo!
So in the next few weeks, our blog will take you through Barolo. Today, we have an overview of the DOC. In coming weeks, we’ll travel village by village, to break down Barolo. Villages can be tough to master, but we’re going to lay them out in a methodical and easy-to-digest blog format, so you’ll know Barolo like never before.
I have been drinking Barolo for a couple of decades, I’ve attended countless tastings and I’ve visited the region several times. I have learned a lot. I’m so excited to finally have a chance to pull my thoughts together, and I hope you find it helpful.
What is Barolo?
Before we get into too much wine geekery, let’s just lay out some of the basic facts:
- Barolo is a wine from Piedmont (a region in the northwest of Italy bordering on France)
- It is 100% made from the grape Nebbiolo
- To be legally considered Barolo, the Nebbiolo must be grown in certain designated areas within 11 different villages that lie just to the south of the town of Alba
- Barolo is a serious wine: by law it must be aged for at least two years in wood vessels and at least one year in bottle before release
- Barolo is rich and powerful. But it can be austere in its youth because Nebbiolo is naturally high in tannins and acid.
- Barolo is normally a wine for cellaring – often ten years or more – but if you select with care you can find Barolo that is delicious to drink young
What is so great about Barolo?
The magic of Barolo starts first with the grape.
Nebbiolo is very special. It delivers cherry and strawberry notes that are quite precise and pure. But there are also nuances that really set Nebbiolo apart, especially as it starts to age. These flavors are usually described as rose, tar, porcini and wild herbs like sage. Nebbiolo is a grape that truly enchants in a way that only Pinot Noir can compare.
Barolo is also special because of its terroir.
Nebbiolo does not grow just anywhere. Attempts to produce it outside of just a handful of zones in Italy (all fairly close to Barolo) have mostly failed. Of those zones where Nebbiolo does grow – essentially Barolo, Barbaresco, Roero, Valle d’Aoste, Alto Piemonte and Valtellina – Barolo is set apart for having the highest concentration of limestone in its soils.
Limestone, when it comes to Nebbiolo, produces structure. Of all the world’s Nebbiolo, Barolo produces the highest volume, most concentrated and most structured wines. It is typically high in alcohol, but the alcohol is supported by tannins, concentration, and often good acidity. Only neighboring Barbaresco has a similar effect on Nebbiolo, but Barbaresco has less limestone and the climate is slightly warmer. It’s enough to make a difference. How different? I wrote a blog post on this very topic which you can read here.
So Barolo has limestone. What else do I need to know about Barolo’s geography?
Barolo is basically a bunch of hills scattered among 11 villages, three of which lie entirely within DOC Barolo. One of those villages, confusingly, is called Barolo and gives the DOC its name.
The hills cluster in three main groups, thus forming two valleys that run north-south: the Central Valley, on the west side of the DOC, and the Serralunga Valley, on the east side.
The traditional way of thinking about these two valleys is in reference to soil types named for geologic eras: Tortonian is found in the Central Valley. Helvetian is found in the Serralunga. The Tortonian soils give aromatic, light colored wines, while the Helvetian soils give darker, more structured wines. The central villages like Barolo and Castiglione Falletto are thought to have a happy medium of both soil types so some people say they produce the most classic examples of Barolo. Easy enough, right? Here’s a graphic to prove it:
Kerin O’Keefe, in her highly-recommended reference-point book, Barolo and Barbaresco, offers a slightly more complicated picture. “Helvetian”, she says, is now called “Serravallian”, and she adds a third era, Messinian. But then she says what really matters is three geologic formations that overlap with these three ages. It’s a bit hard, so I’ve tried to organize what she writes into a single chart:
So, okay, maybe not so easy, as it turns out! But there it is in case you want the details. O’Keefe goes on to add more, citing such variables as the concentration of limestone in the soils and the thinness of the soils. We get it! Terroir is complicated!
As regular readers know, though, I do like to boil things down to simple rules of thumb. I don’t think anybody is going to bring the chart above to their next blind tasting of Barolo! So I prefer to borrow from both the older, simpler model of Helvetian/Tortonian and O’Keefe’s more elaborate formulation, plus some of her other details, and boil it down to three simple rules:
- Villages in the western half produce more elegant, aromatic Barolos
- Villages in the eastern half produce more structured, long-lived Barolos
- Castiglione Falletto and Barolo (the village) are special, and produce wines that are both elegant and structured
I think as long as you understand these rules, you’re already on your way to becoming a Barolo Expert.
Here is a map of the 11 villages that will help to illustrate this:
Again, remember that we are speaking in generalities and the details can really matter to the wine that you happen to be drinking. Castiglione Falletto’s soils, in particular, are quite diverse: not all the wines that it produces magically combine structure with elegance! That’s why wine is fun: there’s always lots of drinking and learning to do.
Wine history can be boring, but is there anything I need to know about Barolo’s past?
Barolo is not so old.
Barolo is not one of those ancient wine regions of Western Europe, first founded by the Romans and then maintained by monks for thousands of years. As far as we can tell, there has only been Nebbiolo grown in Piedmont for about 700 years.
Ok, that’s still pretty old. This is when Marco Polo was heading to China. But, the wine we would recognize today as Barolo is even younger.
For most of its history, Barolo’s Nebbiolo produced things like dessert wine and simple light wine for high volume consumption. Dry, structured red wine that is barrel-aged for multiple years really only goes back to the 19th century or so, when the Piedmontese of Barolo learned to make fine dry wine from French oenologists. Then, they created an industry of supplying such wines to the court of Savoy, in Torino (that’s the family that went on to become the kings and queens of unified Italy).
Barolo was in pretty bad shape not so long ago.
But those good times didn’t last long. Like everywhere in Europe’s wine country, Barolo succumbed to phylloxera in the late 19th century, economic depression in the 1930s, and two world wars. After World War II, Barolo was dirt poor and everyone went north to work in the factories to the north. An entire generation left the vines for places like Turin, where they make all of Italy’s cars, and Ivrea, where Olivetti produced its beautiful typewriters and the world’s first commercially viable computer. Evidently, such things were more profitable than fine wine in the 1960s.
Slowly but surely, artisanal wines from the region came back on to people’s radar. Until quite recently, however, the wines got lumped into the category of “Italian wine” (accurately enough), and therefore played second fiddle to the great wines of France that were the number one desire of collectors everywhere. Barolo was for Italian restaurants, or perhaps Italian-American restaurants, and it just wasn’t a big thing for wine lovers until well into the 1990s. Even now, I feel like Barolo doesn’t get quite the attention that its incredibly high quality deserves. It’s actually a terrific buying opportunity!
Into a Golden Age.
To be fair to all those collectors chasing French wines, back in the 1970s and the 1980s most Barolo was, simply, not that good. Producers have told me that their parents aged the wines on their roofs, for example. Things like grape sorting and temperature control may seem pretty basic, but in Barolo they were considered highly innovative!
The quality revolution finally arrived in Barolo, but it was not without controversy. Like in other non-Burgundy/Bordeaux regions such as Rioja, Tuscany and the Rhone, “quality” for so many producers in Barolo meant being more like Burgundy and Bordeaux. That meant unambiguously good things – those barrels came off the roof! – but also less clearly good things that went against Barolo wine-making traditions like long macerations and aging in large barrels made from non-French oak. Some people fought back, and the Barolo war – between traditionalists and modernists – broke out. It was not quite a third world war, but producers definitely lined up in opposite camps and disagreed vociferously about the way forward for Barolo.
This story has a very happy ending. The Barolo “war” ended peacefully, and on terms that were very favorable to us drinkers of Barolo! Modernists dialed back new oak and many of them returned to traditional casks. Traditionalists adopted obvious improvements – yes, including ageing wines in cold cellars rather than on rooftops -- but also improved sorting, green harvests, and the like. Almost across the board, wine-making got much better.
In the mean time, Piedmont has enjoyed an unprecedented string of good or very good vintages. Since 1995, only three vintages can genuinely be considered bad in Barolo: 2002, 2003 and 2014 (that last one is just my opinion; Antonio Galloni and many producers seem to like it a lot more than I do). This contrasts sharply with earlier decades, when often five or six of the 10 vintages did not produce wines that were worth keeping.
Partly this is better farming and wine-making. Partly it’s weather.
It’s warmer than it used to be. In the old days (before 2000, or maybe 1997), the good vintages were the warm ones. Now the warm ones are fruity, forward vintages – just fine -- but the best vintages are cooler ones like 2013 or 2016. The sad reality is that vintages are inevitably becoming warmer. Will Barolo be able to adapt, or are vintages like 2016 going to be no more?
Anyway, for now, with great vintages, great wine-makers, and prices that are still accessible, Barolo is in a true Golden Age today. Anybody who loves wines and is OK with powerful reds needs to focus on Barolo. This is not a situation that is likely to last for very many more years.
How can I actually start buying and drinking Barolo?
Barolo, increasingly, is being treated like Burgundy. The different Crus and villages are very important, and producers have been putting their names on wine labels since 1961 (and even earlier in a few rare cases). One of the great pleasures in your wine journey should be getting to know those names.
This guide will help you out. After this general overview, I’m going to publish posts that dive into each of 11 villages, looking at their terroirs, top producers and Crus. I’ll have specific buying and cellaring recommendations.
In the meantime, here are some general rules of thumb that can think about as your plan your Barolo collecting and drinking:
- Good Barolo from top vintages does take time in the cellar before it gets really good. 10 years usually does it, but some vintages seem to need longer (2006, 2010).
- Lesser vintages, and lesser bottlings from good vintages (the “normale” bottling that most producers offer), can usually be consumed right away on release, though just two or three years of patience will usually be rewarded
- Given the prior two bullets, I recommend buying wines in all but the worst vintages, so that you have stuff to drink both young and old.
- Young Barolo does seem to require meat, ideally red, or perhaps wild mushrooms, but middle-aged and old Barolo is remarkably versatile: you can make vegetarian dishes and sushi work just fine! But Piedmontese cuisine is excellent; why not learn a few dishes to cook up for the next time you break out your favorite bottles?
- Sure, buy Monfortino if you can afford it, and Rinaldi and Mascarello if you can find it, but please don’t overlook dozens of other great producers. Yes, 20 years ago you had to buy from famous producers to be sure of acquiring great Barolo, but that is no longer true. I will name names as I get into the villages, but here’s a short list of favorite producers that make great sub-$100 Barolos that are generally (if inconsistently) available: Brovia, Oddero, Luigi Oddero, Brezza, Vajra, Boglietti, Castello di Verduno, Alessandria, Francesco Rinaldi, Poderi Colla, Massolino, Ettore Germano, Cavallotto, Cogno, Fenocchio, Scavino, Viberti and Marcarini.
I believe you could just buy Barolo from these guys, drink some young, drink some old, and be happy for the rest of your life.
Ok, that’s all for now, but see you soon when I tackle the village of La Morra.
Interested in learning more about the rest of Barolo? Read on.
Why is La Morra so important? What makes these wines so elegant? Who makes the best wine from La Morra?
Why does this village bear the name Barolo? What makes Cannubi so special? Are all wines from the village of Barolo impossible to buy?
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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