Barolo is often called Italy's King of Wines and the Wine for Kings. A far cry from Italy's famous Chiantis, Barolo wines are rich and respected reds.
Northern Italy's Wine Kingdom
Barolo is produced in Italy's Piemonte. That means land at the foot of the mountains. Those mountains are the Alps, and they wrap around this wine region on three sides. The specific region where Barolo is made is called the Langhe, and it's a region of steep and rolling hillside vineyards dotted with small villages. There are five that represent the core Barolo-producing villages: Barolo, La Morra, Castiglione Falletto, Serraluna d'Alba, and Monforte d'Alba. Barolo is also a D.O.C.G., representing the top of Italy's designated wine appellations, and one of its smallest. It's a tough and austere land with more than its fair share of cold weather and challenges for grape growers and winemakers.
Nebbiolo is the single grape varietal in Barolo. It's a black grape that is probably named after a common phenomenon in Piedmont, nebbia. That's the word for fog that blankets the area in October. The big thing to know about Nebbiolo is that it's a roughhouse grape loaded with complex flavors but also packed with heavy duty bitter tannins. Farmers by nature are worriers. And when the autumn comes the Piedmont farmers begin to worry, big time. Nebbiolo is late ripening grape and if the rains and cold come early, then the Barolo grape doesn't have a chance to reach its potential. Vineyard positioning becomes critical and can make all the difference between an excellent and mediocre vintage. Consequently, you may find the terms, bricco, which means hilltop, sori, which means a hilltop with southern exposure, and costa, which indicates a hillside with sun, on Barolo wine labels. Obviously, the more sun the better and the best vineyards hog the best warming plots of land.
For years, up until the 1980s, achieving a great Barolo was like kicking a 60-yard field goal in football. Because of the bitter and harsh tannins inherent in the grape, winemakers would need to age the wine in oak or chestnut casks for years, at least 10 and even up to 25, to ameliorate the tannins. This often left the wine oxidized and washed out the grape's fruit characters. This oxidation would be easily observed by the wine's brownish tint in the glass.
Then the modernists, winemakers using modern winemaking practices, began changing the style and outcome of the wine. They began to control temperature during fermentation and shorten exposure of juice to skins to help decrease tannin levels. Also, they began using smaller French oak barrels and bottling the wine sooner to preserve its fruitiness rather than letting it slink away.
The result is a Barolo with a lush and opulent character with its tannins if not contained, at least somewhat restrained. Nowadays, a Barolo is aged by law a minimum of three years with five years for a Riserva. That being said, it is still best to drink Barolo a minimum of five years after the vintage date.
If drunk too early, the complex flavors may be a no-show and leave you wondering what the big deal is about Barolo. When done well some of the aromas and flavors to expect are tar, licorice, leather, violets, chocolate, figs, and prunes. Also note Barolo wines are heavier in alcohol than most Italian wines and you can expect 14 percent to 15 percent alcohol. To say the least, Barolo is a difficult wine to make well and not inexpensive. Because of the low production volume and lengthy aging required to make Barolo wine, the cost for a bottle will likely start at the mid-$30 ground floor range and rise like an elevator from there.
Top Barolo Producers
Barolo in general is produced as an estate-bottled, single vineyard wine. The majority are small family-owned wineries but there are also negociants who blend Barolo from different vineyards in the region. The following is a short list of some of the best Barolo producers.
- Aldo Conterno
- Giacomo Conterno
- Pio Cesare
- Paolo Scavino
- Fratelli Revello
- La Spinetta
Paired with Food
Barolo matches the food of the Piedmont, which is hearty, rich, and a carnivore's delight. You will find feasts of roasted game, veal, pork, and lamb dishes plus sausages, meat-based risottos and pastas, and polenta with everything. Add a full-bodied Barolo to the mix and the chilly and foggy evening will vanish. Ahh, but one more thing. Piedmont is also the home to white truffles, the earth's retort to the sea's oysters. Be a hedonist and shave some earthy white truffle on top of that tagliatelle, pour a glass of Barolo, and smile about your La Dolce Vita.