A ‘Primer’ on Barolo

Our recent offering of Vietti’s latest vintage of Castiglione, a 95 point blend of two single-vineyard Barolo, got us thinking about Barolo’s history, how it grew to be more like Burgundy, along with questions about aging and the 2010 vintage, so it seemed like a good time to offer a little ‘primer’ on the subject!

Vietti Estate

Vietti was a pioneer in developing ‘Cru’ Barolo.

Italy’s Burgundy? Barolo, like Burgundy, are vineyard-driven wines, mostly due to the work of Vietti. Italy’s Barolo region and its classic Nebbiolo grape have a lot in common with red Burgundy. While the structure and flavors differ, both Barolo and Burgundy are all about perfume and complexity.

The best wines start with a core of ripe primary red fruit and then add on layers of floral, earth, and spice complexity. And both get even more complex and compelling with age, becoming wines you linger over and sometimes just smell for minutes before you even take your first sip.

Today, at their best, both Burgundy and Barolo are vineyard-driven wines that producers offer in various levels of specificity. Most Barolo producers start their line-up with a straight Nebbiolo di Langhe (their Bourgogne) based on fruit from just outside the important Barolo villages or young vines from within. Next, Barolo Normale (like a Village Burgundy), often a blend of fruit from lesser vineyards within Barolo. Then, the single-Cru Barolo (a 1er Cru Burgundy) made from grapes grown entirely in a single vineyard recognized for quality over the years. Last – Barolo’s Grand Cru – one or two Riserva Barolos from the very best vineyards and with extra time in cellar.

‘Cru’ Barolo. Vietti and its long-time head Alfredo Currado were largely responsible for this modern-day Burgundy parallel. When he started making wine, virtually all Barolo was bottled as a blend of vineyards. Alfredo was one of the first producers to assert that Barolo vineyards have as much to say as their Burgundy counterparts, and the first to bottle a line of unblended, single-vineyard “Cru” Barolo.

Today, Vietti’s Barolo from Lazzarito, Brunate, Rocche, and Vilero routinely top critics ratings (Galloni awarded Vietti’s top 2010s ratings of 99 and 100 points!) and, unfortunately, sell at prices in line with the very best of Burgundy. Having established the single-cru principal, Alfredo was less sure what to do with the family’s smaller vineyard holdings in the outstanding Crus of Bussia, Ravera, Bricco del Fiasco, Fossati, and Ciabot Berton.” His success with single-vineyard wines convinced him that he didn’t want to make a “normale” Barolo, but his vineyards in these Crus were too small to be bottled on their own. Alfredo’s compromise was to introduce his “Barolo Castiglione” – a blend of his smaller Cru vineyards made to drink young and introduce customers to the “house style.”

Castiglione Moves Up! Alfredo’s son, Luca, was never comfortable seeing fruit from some of Barolo’s best and most famous vineyards end up in what was a delicious, but “easy” wine. So, starting in 1999, Luca began using only the very best Nebbiolo from the most successful of his smaller Cru holdings in Castiglione, with the rest of the fruit going into a value-priced Langhe Nebbiolo he called “Perbacco”.

It took Luca a few years to find the right approach for Castiglione, but in 2004, he seemed to figure it out. As Wine Advocate reported, “With this [the 2004] effort, the Castiglione bottling takes an important step in Currado’s plan to make this wine much closer in quality to his single-vineyard offerings.” And, a few vintages later, the Advocate said, “Barolo is never inexpensive, but the Castiglione is as good a wine as readers will find for the money.” We’ve been fans of Vietti, the Currado family, and – especially – Castiglione for years, and last year’s 2009 seemed to us to be the very best Castiglione yet. The 2010 is simply better. Here you’ll find all the ripe fruit and power we loved in the luscious 2009, but with more grace, purity and length. It’s a stunner, folks, one that you will struggle to keep your hands off of from the moment the first bottle crosses your threshold at home.

How Long Do I Wait? Barolo is one of those wines we talk about cellaring for years and enjoying for decades – but there’s no need to wait even a day to enjoy the very best of modern-day Barolo like Vietti’s 2010 Castiglione. In the old days, Barolo’s Nebbiolo grape was usually harvested with searing acidity and masses of tough, chewy, tannin that needed at least a decade of cellar time before delivering any pleasure at all. After some unfortunate experiments with manipulation in the winery – small oak barrels, roto-fermenters, cultured yeasts and more – the best Barolo growers now know that the secret to creating long-lived Nebbiolo wines that still deliver pleasure young is simple – grow ripe grapes.

As Antonio Galloni explains: “As structured as the 2010s are, these aren’t your father’s (or mother’s) Barolos. In other words, the wines won’t take decades to become approachable. Significant strides in viticulture and winemaking have made today’s young Barolos more approachable than they have ever been. For example, the 2008 Barolos, wines from another cool, late-maturing vintage, are surprisingly open today. Those wines may close down at some point in the future, but the days of needing to cellar Barolos for decades before they drink well is largely a thing of the past. The last vintage I can remember with truly forbidding youthful tannins is 1999.”

Fellow critic James Suckling agrees, especially in 2010. “‘Crowd pleaser’ is the way I like to describe it in view of most of the wines’ early drinkability. You can pull the cork and drink most of them, especially if you decant them an hour or two before serving.”

By all means, try to hold on to some of your 2010 Vietti Castiglione and let it develop the extra gear of aroma and complexity that only cellar aging can provide. But, if you’ve got a meal of richly flavored food – perhaps a roast with some mushroom risotto – pop a bottle of this and splash it in a decanter for a couple of hours and then dig in. You will not be disappointed!


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