As hard as it is for many Barolo fans (like me!) to fathom, most regular wine lovers really don’t know much about Barolo and a good chunk have never even tasted the stuff. Here’s a quick overview of one of Italy’s – actually, the world’s! – most exciting wines.
A Village in Piemonte
Barolo is a village in Northeastern Italy, about an hour south of Turin in the Piemonte hills. For reasons lost to time, the main red grape here has always been Nebbiolo, a high acid, high tannin, high sugar varietal that needs to hang on the vine until October to have any hope of ripening. So, for years, growers in the Piemonte picked their Nebbiolo grapes in the late autumn and started their fermentation in late October. When the weather turned cold, the fermentation stuck: leaving Barolo a sweet red for much of its history.
Barolo didn’t start to get interesting until the mid-1800s, when the Marchesa of Barolo hired French winemaker Louis Oudart to come and figure out how to make better wine. Oudart helped winemakers clean up their cellars – removing fungus that was inhibiting fermentation – and add heaters, creating the region’s first ever consistently dry, red wines.
Soon the rulers of Turin began to enjoy Barolo and it became a personal favorite of Vittorio Emanuele II, the first king of unified Italy. Soon after, Barolo became known as “the wine of kings, the king of wines.”
Even after Oudart helped revamp winemaking, Nebbiolo remained a grape high in everything but color and sweet fruit. So over the years, winemakers took to letting their Nebbiolo wine sit on the grape skins and seeds for weeks and weeks after fermentation to extract more color and fruit. That they got, but they also got masses and masses of tough tannins to go with Nebbiolo’s naturally high acidity.
The young wines were simply undrinkable, but with 10, 20, or even 30 years of cellaring they turned into magic. Light red with orange tints in color, these mature “old-school” Barolo sported fantastic aromas and flavors of black truffle, ripe cherries and red berries, fresh earth and the floral/earth hallmark of great Barolo: tar and roses.
While kings presumably didn’t mind waiting 20+ years to drink Barolo their predecessors laid down, most of us have to work on a more limited time frame. So, in the 1980s and 1990s, winemakers in Barolo began experimenting with ways to make Barolo more drinkable on release and interesting after “only” a decade in cellar. Lots of new techniques were tried in cellar – rotofermenters, small oak barrels, cultured yeasts, variations in fermentation time and temperature, and more – as well as major changes to vineyard practices. The first attempts were pretty clumsy leading to wine that tasted pretty good, but didn’t seem to have much to do with “Barolo.” The “traditionalists” were outraged, the “modernists” defiant, and consumers were…confused.
Today it’s clear that the modernists went too far and the traditionalists were too slow to make changes that make their wine taste better without sacrificing character or aging potential. By far, the most important and long-last change is better farming and closer attention to vineyard quality and character. Today the best Barolo estates first and foremost “make” their wine in the vineyard with low yields, natural farming techniques, and the courage to wait to harvest until the fruit is ripe…even if the snows are not far away.
What About Barolo Today?
So, after all the fuss of the past 20 years, what is the Barolo of today like? First, let’s not sugarcoat this – these are still acidic, tannic, powerful wines that can rock you back on your heels when tasted young, especially if you’re tasting them without food. And few of the very best Barolo will reach their peak in less than 10 years and, even then, may need 3-4 hours decanting.
But the best Barolo show off supple, even polished tannins that don’t scrape your mouth raw and melt surprisingly well with a little rich food. And with more ripe, fresh, deeply flavored fruit than ever before, even just-released Barolo from the best addresses can be so delicious young that you won’t worry about how it will taste in a decade – you’ll have drunk up your stocks long before then!