In the popular imagination Italy is thought of as a dramatic and romantic country – home to stylish design, generous cuisine and passionate people. It was the country where opera first emerged after all – one of the most emotional forms of entertainment – and the development of fine wine in the Piedmont region with its complex elements, big personalities and even an inter-generational war could almost read like the score of an opera!
The story begins in the Langhe hills, which started to form around 36-million years ago when the European and African tectonic plates collided: a deep basin of sea water was created where marine sediments accumulated, and when the waters receded fine clays and carbonates were deposited. Later seismic activity pushed these to the surface and created the Langhe – which literally translates as “tongues of land”. The geology and topography of the area is complex, but generally speaking it is composed of alternative layers of marls (clay and carbonates) and sandstone – both of which formed over three geological periods. These geologies influence plant vigour and the water retention of the soil, so it is said that the various areas fare better from year to year depending on the weather that growing season.
Establishment of Barolo in the royal courts of Europe
Wine has been produced in Piedmont since Greek times, but it was in the mid 1800’s that a dry Barolo as we know it today emerged. There is debate around the exact circumstances. Legend has it that Juliette Colbert de Maulevrier, wife of the Marchese de Barolo, brought oenologist and friend Louis Oudart from France who applied his knowledge of quality winemaking to the region. Piedmont nobility was elemental in developing Barolo and introducing it to the royal courts, thus earning Barolo its moniker – the king of wines and the wine of kings.
Fast forward to 1966 when in an effort to improve quality and standardise production a DOCG was introduced. As with all classifications there were quarrels over which areas were in and which were out – but the core of the region remained the townships of Barolo, La Morra, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba, and Monforte d’Alba which cover 87% of the DOCG area and are acknowledged to produce the most complex wines.
Wines within the DOCG must be produced from 100% Nebbiolo grapes which makes them a true labour of love. Nebbiolo is not the easiest of varieties, it is late ripening and therefore only prospers on south facing slopes, it is thin-skinned, susceptible to disease and low yielding. Traditionally producers would macerate the pressed wines for extended periods – often up to 30 days – in order to extract colour and tannins from the thin skinned grapes. This coupled with often barely ripe grapes meant wines were aged for extended periods in large oak botti to soften their astringency.
A new wave
In 1976 a group of young growers from Barolo, including Elio Altare and Enrico Scavino, visited Burgundy. This proved a life-changing experience, they returned with an ambitious zeal to overhaul vineyard management and modernise their antiquated cellars. At the same time established producers such as Angelo Gaja and Bruno Giacosa began bottling single-vineyard Barbarescos which was unusual in an area accustomed to combining distinct characteristics from the various villages. The vision the young vignerons brought back from Burgundy included the belief that the greatest wines in the world, and those making waves with the critics, were aged in small oak barriques. Elio Altare took implemention of this to rather extreme lengths when he took a chainsaw to his father’s ancient barrels to make way for new barriques – his father was furious and disinherited him, so Elio rented cellars and started to make wine his own way. It wasn’t just in the winery that the young guns brought change – they introduced techniques such as green harvesting with the aim of producing higher quality, riper grapes.
These new style ‘Modern’ Barolos and Barbarescos with their fruit and oak which softened Nebbiolo’s fierce tannins and made them approachable at a younger age were feted by wine critics. The Traditionalists on the other hand complained that Nebbiolo’s unique characteristics and subtleties were lost in this power play. After a decade of animosity a truce of sorts emerged, as each side began to appreciate that wines could be improved by using a combination of techniques, and that more modern wineries and healthier vineyard management could be a benefit all round.
The proof of the pudding…
To try to get an overview of this complex region we called in the assistance of a friend from Piedmont who has extensive knowledge and contacts in the area. She sourced a selection of some of the best examples and most iconic names, direct from Piedmont. The tasting was organised around four villages or geological zones, with one wine from each village made in a more traditional and the other in a more modern style, although this distinction is not 100% clear cut for most producers. All the wines were tasted blind so as not to influence our judgement, and all came from the 2006 vintage, one of the best in Piedmont in recent history. Antonio Galloni describes the 2006 Barolos as big, powerful wines the best of which reveal extraordinary balance as well as significant potential to improve in bottle.
La Morra and Barolo
Our first two wines came from the western side of Barolo – La Morra, the largest of the Barolo regions accounting for almost 25% of the DOCs total production, with a range of altitudes from 200-500m above sea level. And Barolo, the birthplace of the region. These two areas are known for producing some of the most graceful Barolos. Many local growers, although acknowledging that altitude and micro climate influence the wines, attribute the perfumed and elegant characters of these regions to the Tortonian marl and high clay content of the soils. Bottlings from this soil type are usually approachable earlier than the robust wines from villages with more sandstone and calcium carbonate such as Serralunga and Monforte.
Barolo Sarmassa, Brezza – The Brezza family have run the winery for four generations, they own vineyards in the village’s “premier cru” areas which they are moving to organic production. Wines are fermented in traditional large Slovenian oak casks for two years. This wine had a sweet balsamic strawberry nose, with cranberries and rose petals. In the mouth sturdy tannins were evident along with warm, plummy flavours and a touch of mint, it should improve with further ageing.
Barolo, Elio Altare – Altare is one of the original Barolo Boys, the catalysts of change in the area. Although adopting many modern practices such as short macerations and ageing in barriques he doesn’t like to be labelled a modernist – “there are only two kinds of wine: good and bad…” he says “to make good wine in Barolo controlling the tannins is crucial”. The nose on this wine was softer and less fruity than the Brezza, there was an earthiness and some vegetal notes. On the one hand it was lighter and more ethereal, but this was backed up by large grippy tannins.
Our next stop was Castiglione Falletto, a small village renowned for making well balanced, intensely perfumed, velvety Barolos with an impressive structure. The soil here is alternating layers of sand and sandstone layered with sandy marls.
Barolo Bric del Fiasc, Paolo Scavino – today run by Enrico Scavino and his daughters, the winery was always quick to innovate including vinifying parcels separately and using rotary fermenters: albeit in a way that aims to gently extract higher quality tannins. He uses a mix of old and new barriques so as not to overwhelm with wines with wood. The wine had a cherry nose and some cloves. In the mouth it was tarry, but velvety with a touch of vanilla. The tannins were structured and well balanced between the fruit and oak. This was one on the most approachable Barolos of the evening.
Barolo Bricco Boschis, Cavallotto – the Cavallotto estate is renowned for producing some of the purest expressions of Nebbiolo in the classic style. Their Bricco Boschi south facing slopes are one of the areas top crus, and they are pioneers in organic vineyard management. The wine we tried had a dusty leather nose. It had huge powerful tannins, menthol flavours with very little fruit evident. A typical traditional style of Barolo, it probably has years ahead of it, and will show its best after more time in bottle.
Monforte d’Alba –
Our final stop in Barolo was Monforte, which is home to some of the most structured and long lived Barolos that age slowly.
Barolo Mosconi, Conterno Fantino
Established in 1982 by Guido Fantino and Claudio Conterno, the style of their Barolo is modern, generally showing rich aromas and flavours, lush texture and rounded tannins. The 2006 was a deep red with opulent plummy fruit on the nose. It had slightly medicinal characteristics and very strong almost cooked tannins, probably the most tannic wine of our selection.
Barolo Bussia Riserva, Fenocchio
Giacomo’s hands on but non-interventionist approach creates classic Barolos that express their pedigree and terroir. The 2006 had a complex spicy, earthy nose. It was elegant and silky in the mouth, fragrant and perfumed with long lasting finish. The Fenocchio was our favourite Barolo of the evening, it is relatively unknown but recent vintages have been gaining enthusiastic press.
Barbaresco – Barolo’s kid brother?
After half a dozen wines that probably have years ahead of them and are only just starting to become approachable, we travelled north east to Barbaresco. Comparisons between the two wines are inevitable, the DOs face each other across the city of Alba, both stipulate 100% Nebbiolo. Barbaresco covers a smaller area, and shows less of a range in terroir. It has a slightly milder climate than Barolo due to proximity to the Tanaro river which allows for an earlier and more uniform maturation of the grapes. The soils are more fertile in Barbaresco which leads to more supple tannins, and therefore wine that are more approachable at a younger age than one finds from Barolo.
Barbaresco Riserva, Cortese – Giuseppe Cortese’s winery includes 8 hectares in Rabaja, one of the most celebrated crus in Barbaresco. The 2006 was a pure and delicious traditional Barbaresco, showing ripe cherry and raspberry with a bit of spice on the palate.
Barbaresco Gallina, Piero Busso – A small family run estate which focusses on expressing the grapes variety for each individual vineyard. A mix of traditional and modern techniques are used. The 2006 had firm tannins and leather on the nose. In the mouth there was a little fruit, and there was more extraction and concentration than the Cortese, with spices and cloves, but the oak was very well integrated.
The Barolo and Barbaresco regions may have all the plot twists and ingredients of an opera but the ending is far from tragic! The 2006 Barbarescos, as you might expect, were much more approachable and enjoyable to drink at this point. The international perspective that the Barolo Boys brought back to the region, although seismic at first, has been of great benefit with improvements in techniques and a thirst to understand the complex landscapes which can only lead to higher quality across the board.
A huge thank you to Emanuela and her father for arranging exceptional and educational tasting.