Barolo vs. Barbaresco – What’s the Difference?

NebbioloNebbiolo is the great red grape of Italy’s Piedmont region, and when grown in the small communes of Barolo and Barbaresco, it’s one of the great red grapes of the world.

The perfumed aromas of cherries, rose petal, tar, spice, truffle and more are unique, as is the balance of intense flavors, rich ripeness, and lifting acidity. There’s also a lot of tannin, making Nebbiolo a wine that’s best with rich foods, a long decant, and/or a few years of cellar time. When it’s made right, though, there are few wines more satisfying with hearty stews, rich risotto, or pretty much anything with truffles.

For a variety of reasons, Nebbiolo from the Barolo region was the first to find international fame in the late 1800s and the first to reclaim international attention after WWII – Barbaresco always seemed to lag behind. So there’s been a temptation to consider Barolo the “better” wine and Barbaresco the “little brother.” You’ll see that attitude reflected in prices, with Barbaresco selling for a 20-40% discount to comparable quality Barolo.

But, it’s exactly the wrong way to look at things – top Barbaresco is just as fine as excellent Barolo and, for the average consumer, it’s a much better choice to experience Nebbiolo’s magic.

Soil and Climate
Nebbiolo is the only grape allowed in any wine labeled Barbaresco or Barolo and the winegrowing and making are pretty much the same in both regions. The biggest differences are soil and climate. Barbaresco’s soils are a tiny bit richer in organic matter than Barolo’s, so the grapes ripen a little faster with more fruit flavor and a little bit less tannin. And, although Barbaresco is only 10 miles away from Barolo, it’s a tad cooler and gets more refreshing maritime breezes than Barolo.

The earlier ripening date – about 2 weeks ahead of Barolo – and cooling breezes gives Barbaresco a big advantage over Barolo in warm vintages like 2009 and 2012. Both are considered “difficult” years in Barolo, with the summer heat making it difficult to ripen tannins and giving many wines cooked/roasted profiles. But both are excellent in Barbaresco, where alcohols usually come in 0.5-1 percentage point under Barolo and the extra heat just added a touch of fleshy richness.

So, Barbaresco delivers all the Nebbiolo wonderfulness you’ll find in Barolo, but in a bit softer, more accessible style. The typical Barbaresco has a touch more fruit, a bit less tannin, and an earlier starting drinking date than Barolo. Barbaresco’s more tempting structure is reflected in the region’s rules – Barbaresco can be released after only 2 years aging while Barolo has to wait 3 years. But, don’t underestimate how well Barbaresco grows in cellar – it will still develop for 20 years with no problem. You just get to drink it a bit sooner!

Paitin FamilyPaitin’s Historic Legacy
The Paitin story starts in 1796 when Benedetto Elia purchased a pretty 30 acre or so property in Barbaresco from Luigi Pellissero (another famous Barbaresco name!). Over the next 100 years or so, the Elia family grew grapes and made wine here, including the lightly sweet, sometimes sparkling, Nebbiolo then common in the region. Once they and their neighbors finally figured out how to get Nebbiolo to ferment dry in Piemonte’s cool autumns, they launched their first Barbaresco in 1893. By 1898, Paitin’s wines were recognized as outstanding and the first exports to the rest of Europe began.

In the 1960s, Secondo Pasquero-Elia moved the estate forward by building a new cellar and – importantly – beginning to replant the estate’s vineyards by taking the best vines from each plot and matching them to the soils where they performed best. In the 1980s, Secondo and sons Silvano and Giovanni Pasquero-Elia began working with importer Marc De Grazia. De Grazia favored riper, more lush, Nebbiolo, and encouraged Paitin to adopt “modern” Barbaresco techniques: more ripeness in the vineyards, roto-fermenters to limit tannin extraction, and the use of new oak barriques to add polish and sweetness to the wines.

The results were fine: plenty of good ratings and ample consumer demand for ripe, fleshy, Barbaresco that drank well early and still aged nicely, too. But, as Antonio Galloni writes, “The Pasquero-Elia family has been producing wine for several centuries, making this small estate one of the historic properties of Piemonte. The wines have received critical acclaim for decades. Brothers Giovanni and Silvano Pasquero-Elia could easily have rested on their laurels. But they knew they could do even better.”

Moving Forward from “Modern”
Although Secondo still works in the winery, Silvano and Giovanni have been drivers in Paitin’s revitalization over the past 15 years or so. The brothers have moved Paitin back to what I like to call an “enlightened traditional” approach to winemaking. In the vineyard, they achieve perfect ripeness for loads of fruit flavor and supple tannins, but avoid over-ripe or roasted fruit flavors. In the winery, they have eliminated the use of new French oak and now age their wines entirely in larger, more traditional, Slovenian casks. And, roto-fermenters are on the way out as they have returned to more traditional, long, fermentations including gentle pump overs and submerging the grape cap for better extraction.

You’ll see some of these changes in the powerful 2009 Barbaresco Sori Paitin, but they are even more obvious in the just-released 2012s. Here, with help from long-time Bruno Giacossa associate Dante Scaglione, the wines show a new-found energy and precision to go with traditional power and ageability. They are as delicious as ever, but offer even more potential to improve with time.

As Galloni sums up:

“The Pasquero-Elia family has superb vineyards and already knew how to craft delicious wines, but the continued search for excellence and the willingness to invest in the future is what separates the true greats from the merely good and excellent producers. … The Pasquero-Elia family has made fabulous wines for years, but now they are in a position to challenge for one of the very top spots in Barbaresco. Personally, I couldn’t be happier for them, because they have made all the right choices and are therefore richly deserving of the success that now appears to be coming their way.”

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Discovering Domaine Tix

Rhone Show at AvignonBack in March, Meg and I braved the gusty Mistrial winds to attend and taste several hundred wines at Découvertes en Vallée du Rhône, the bi-annual festival in Avignon featuring winemakers and wineries from across the Rhone Valley.

It was a delight to meet the energetic, slightly mischievous, Marie Pirsch and Philippe Danel of Domaine du Tix (Philippe will be at Chain Bridge Cellars on Saturday, Oct. 17!) – and tasting their wines one of the highlights of the show.

The level of style, polish, and sophisticated fun we found in each of their wines is unusual for Cotes du Ventoux, and that’s undoubtedly due to the estate’s charming owners. Marie and Philippe came to Domaine Tix in 2001 looking for a retirement home after successful careers in the fashion industry. They found about 10 acres of table grapes planted, a decrepit house, and soils and a microclimate so perfect for making authentic, delicious, Provençal wine that they couldn’t resist!

Dom Tix at Rhone Show

Philippe Danel will pour at Chain Bridge Cellars on Saturday, 12-4

After first grafting the table grapes over to wine varietals – all traditional grapes for the Ventoux area – Marie and Philippe gradually expanded their plantings, today farming about 20 acres in total. In 2006, they expanded their staff by one-third – hiring their nephew Vincent to take charge of the vineyards. When their brand-new, pocket-sized, winery opened in 2008, production reached today’s levels – a whopping 3,000 cases per year.

On the Slopes of Mount Ventoux
Domaine Tix’s vineyards are about 18 miles due east from Chateauneuf du Pape about 300 meters up on the western slopes of Mount Ventoux, the tallest mountain in this part of France (reaching nearly 2,000 meters at its peak). As in the rest of the Southern Rhone, there’s plenty of sunshine, which should make ripening Rhone grapes like Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault and Carignan a snap.

Dom Du Tix Ventoux GarrigueBut ripeness in the shadow of Mount Ventoux is anything but certain. The elevation brings down temperatures a bit, but the real challenge is the cold air that flows down the mountainsides every night. The alternating warm days and cool nights help wine grapes retain bright acids and firm structures, but mean they need to be farmed carefully at low yields and with plenty of vineyard work in order to get ripe fruit flavors and supple tannins.

Marie, Philippe, and nephew Vincent clearly take the time to do the hard work needed to get fine grapes into the winery and then allow them to transform themselves into excellent wines. Even better, each wine is clearly infused with both classic southern Rhone character and a touch of playful style. These are wines that impress on first meeting and improve with longer acquaintance. All are very nicely priced, too, as they were brought to the USA just for us. I recommend them very, very highly!