Our recent offering of Vietti’s latest vintage of Castiglione, a double 94 point blend of multiple Barolo vineyards (or “Crus” as they’re called there), got us thinking about Barolo’s history, how it grew to be more like Burgundy, along with questions about aging and the 2015 vintage, so it seemed like a good time to offer a little ‘primer’ on the subject!
What is Barolo?
Barolo the name of a town, of a small slice of a wine region, of the larger wine region, and of one of the world’s most profound and cellar-worthy red wines. The town is perched on a hilltop in Italy’s Piemonte region, south of Turin and not far from Alba – a pretty spot with lovely views of vineyards running up and down the steep hills surrounding it. The vineyards around the town of Barolo and those of nearby La Morra, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba, and Monforte d’Alba make up the wine region named for the town.
While the vineyards across Barolo are planted to a variety of red grapes, the undisputed king of Piemonte grapes – and the only grape allowed in the wine “Barolo” – is Nebbiolo. And, like all royalty, Nebbiolo can be a bit of a prima donna.
Pampering the Royal Grape to Wine
Nebbiolo can’t stand wet feet, so it only thrives on loose-grained soils that drain water freely. It refuses to move quickly, taking up to 20% more days on the vine to ripen vs, say, Pinot Noir, so it needs to grow someplace where spring frosts are over early, summers are hot (but not too hot), and autumns are sunny, comfortable, and dry. And, as Jancis Robinson writes, “it is worth planting Nebbiolo only on south- or south-west-facing slopes at an altitude somewhere between 250 and 450 m (820 and 1500 ft) as there is no chance of making decent wine from this late-ripening variety if it is not exposed to maximum sunshine.”
So Barolo Nebbiolo buds early and hangs on the vine until late September, October, or even November. Then it has to be picked by hand – because the vineyards are too steep for machines – by workers who spend hours trudging up and down hills carrying buckets, baskets and bins of grapes to be hauled off to the winery.
Where more fun ensues. Because while Nebbiolo can make great wine, it insists that winemakers work for it. The grape is jam-packed with acidity, one of the reasons growers have to wait so long to pick so that the grapes will develop enough alcohol to balance the acidic tang. The skins are relatively low in color, so winemakers need to regularly pump over or “punch down” the fermenting rapes to get enough pigment in the wine to support aging and protect from oxidization.
But the skin and seeds are very high in tannin – the long-chain protein that makes your mouth pucker and feel dry when drinking young red wine or strong black tea. So all that work pulling out color also pulls out the firm, drying, tannins that make just-fermented Nebbiolo feel unbelievably, almost painfully, dry and astringent.
When exposed to oxygen, those tannins will “polymerize” – or stick to other tannins or wine pigment – and either become less aggressive or even get so big that they precipitate out of the wine. But exposing the wine to lots of oxygen can cause the fruit flavors to fade and make the wine turn brown. What to do?
The Barolo solution is to age the young wines for a long time – usually about 30 months – in wood casks that let just a trickle of air in through the barrels’ pores. The casks can be really big and old, so the process is slow and very little wood flavor enters the wine. Or they can be more “normal” size and new, which tends to lock in color (it’s a new wood thing) and soften the tannins faster – but adds noticeable oak flavor that can obscure Nebbiolo’s beauty.
So most Barolo winemakers use a mixture of wood vessels to try to get the best of both worlds and then regularly “rack” the wine – gently pumping it from one barrel to another – to add a little extra oxygen and speed the process along. Then into bottle…where the wine usually rests for another year or so before release to let it soften a bit more.
What’s Barolo Like to Drink – and When?
Mature Barolo – wine that’s rested long enough in bottle to allow the tannins to soften and some new aromas and flavors to develop – is one of the wine world’s most beautiful and captivating treats.
When you pour a glass, you’ll notice that it’s much less dark and opaque than, say, Cabernet Sauvignon, with an often translucent ruby red color and some orange highlights at the rim. If the light color makes you think you’re about to try a light wine…WRONG! Getting Nebbiolo ripe enough to balance its acidity means letting the alcohol rise to 14% and higher, so Barolo always has plenty of body. And when you put it in your mouth – even if it’s older – you’ll get a big punch of tangy cherry juice acids up front and grippy, dusty, at least lightly mouth-puckering, tannins on the end.
But before that first sip, take a moment to give it a sniff. You’ll be rewarded with big, beautiful, utterly captivating aromas (one of the reasons Barolo is so often compared to red Burgundy is it’s glorious perfume). On both the nose and palate, you’ll discover a beguiling blend of cherry, raspberry and strawberry fruit, hints of licorice, leather and chocolate, floral scents like violets, earthy notes like mushroom or white truffle, perhaps a dash of white pepper and cured tobacco. And, in the best wines, Barolo’s aromatic and flavor signature: tar and roses.
Traditionally, though, you couldn’t actually hope for all those flavor and aromatic fireworks until at least 10 years after the vintage (and often longer). Because old-style Barolo went into bottle with so much acidity and so very, very, much grippy, astringent, palate-closing, tannin that it wasn’t just yummy to drink young – it was often positively painful.
Something of a Revolution
Fortunately, Barolo has undergone something of a revolution over the past 20 years. As Antonio Galloni explained about the 2010s (a more structured, tannic vintage than the 2015s):
“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.”
And the 2015s, benefitting from a lovely, warm, growing season and still more winegrower experience is more accessible still. As Wine Advocate reported, Barolo’s vintage 2015 offers “plenty of options for those seeking wines to drink early and to those who have room in their cellars to age a few bottles for longer periods.”
There are three keys to enjoying 2015 Barolo young:
- pick the right wine;
- decant the wine for the proper amount of time; and
- matching it up with the right food.
No question – Vietti’s Barolo Castiglione 2015 is “the right wine,” with a perfect blend of Barolo aging potential and immediate accessibility. The right amount of time? Answering that question requires a bit of experimentation. Which we’ve done for you!
How Long to Decant?
We poured a bottle of Vietti Barolo Castiglione 2015 into a decanter at 9:30 am in the morning and then tasted it right away and over the next four hours. At first pour it showed a nice perfume and good flavors, although the fruit aromas were a bit obscured by notes of spice and tobacco and the flavors cut a little short by the very firm, if silky and ripe, tannins.
At three hours, the tannins had turned more chalky and were sticking to our teeth a bit. The wine was starting to show some browning of color and flavors with the fruit taking on a deep, earthy, note, some truffle/underbrush character emerging, and the fruit showing as a dark bass note. But the aromas had fallen off sharply, turning very reticent and lacking much interest. The glass sampled at four hours was pretty much the same, but more so.
The delicious sweet spot for the wine was from one hour after decanting until hour three. The perfume really peaked right around hour 1, showing stunning lift, intensity and complexity and a perfect mix of fruit, flowers and earth. Then, over the next hour (as the nose quieted a bit), the fruit got bigger, sweeter, and more prominent with plenty of complexity from notes of summer violets, perfumed roses, licorice root, and sweet spice.
Conclusion: decant this about an hour before you sit down at table so it shows maximum perfume from first pour and then enjoy over the next couple of hours as the fruit gains breadth, richness and volume before turning mellow, spicy and truffled towards the end of your last glass.
Pairing Barolo with Food
And what should be on your plate while drinking Vietti Barolo Castiglione? Something savory, perhaps even a little earthy, with a good balance of acidity, salt, fat, and protein (all of which help soften tannins). Some options:
- Grilled beef, mushroom risotto, green beans braised with tomato
- Any feathered game bird (partridge, squab, duck) with wild rice and mushroom stuffing and a touch of lemon zest
- Beef carpaccio or cruda with truffle, olive oil, salt and lemon zest
- Any rich red wine braised beef dish topped with a gremolata
- Milder, salty, cheeses like Robiola, Grana Padano, or Toma
All of these pairing let young Barolo’s tannins and acidity work for you, offsetting the richness of the dish, while adding savory, earthy, flavors that bring out those aspects of the wine.
Barolo isn’t cheap. But in a world where the top wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy routinely cost $100-$300+, the Nebbiolos of Piemonte still offer the chance to cellar and drink great wines at a price that can fairly be called a “reasonable splurge.” Give ‘em a try!