Barolo Red Wine 101

Karen Frazier
Nebbiolo grapes

Barolo is a red wine made from the Nebbiolo grape in Italy's Piedmont wine region. It is considered Italy's greatest wine, and there are very few wines that can compare to the power of a good Barolo. The wines are big, complex, meaty, tannic reds that can often be aged for 10 to 20 years, so they also make great investment wines.

Northern Italy's Wine Kingdom

Barolo is produced in Italy's Piemonte (Piedmont), which 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. It's a region of steep and rolling hillside vineyards dotted with small villages. Five villages represent the core of Barolo production: Barolo, La Morra, Castiglione Falletto, Serraluna d'Alba, and Monforte d'Alba. Barolo is classified as a Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG), the highest classification for Italy's wines, which are produced under strictly controlled growing and production conditions. Barolo represents 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.

Vineyards in the Barolo region

Barolo's Nebbiolo Grape

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. 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. The more sun the better, and the best vineyards sit on the best warming plots of land.

Barolo Character

For years up until the 1980s, achieving a great Barolo was an incredibly difficult feat. Because of the bitter and harsh tannins inherent in the grape, winemakers needed 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.

Modern Techniques Changed the Style and Character of the Wine

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. They also began using smaller French oak barrels and bottling the wine sooner to preserve its fruitiness rather than letting it dissipate in the aging process.

A Lush, Opulent Wine

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.

Barolo Flavors and Alcohol Content

Never drink Barolo early. 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

In general, Barolo 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.

Cantina Bartolo Mascarello

Cantina Bartolo Mascarello often sits atop lists of the best Barolo producers in Piedmont. While Mascarello himself died in 2005, his long-lived Barolo wines live on, and his daughter, Maria Teresa Mascarello, carries on his tradition of excellence in cultivation and winemaking. In fact, the Mascarello family has been producing Barolo wines for over 100 years, handing down the tradition from generation to generation. Both Forbes and Decanter place Mascarello atop their list of the finest Barolo producers in Italy.

Paolo Scavino

Founded in 1921, Paolo Scavino is fourth generation family winery currently run by Enrico Scavino. The wines are consistently rated above 90 points by wine experts such as Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator.

Poderi Aldo Conterno and Giacomo Conterno

The Conterno family bottled its first reserve Barolo in 1920, and the family has produced strong wines ever since. Giacomo Conterno took over the family business and his son, Aldo, founded his own winery, Poderi Aldo Conterno in 1969 based on the strong family winemaking tradition. Giacomo Conterno's top Barolo wines are consistently highly rated, scoring above 90 by major wine raters, and Aldo follows in his footsteps with wines frequently receiving 90+ point ratings. In fact, the two together top the list of wine-searcher's the world's best Barolos.

Pio Cesare

Known for powerful Barolo and Barbaresco wines, Pio Cesare is a fifth generation winemaker that has been producing fine wines for more than 125 years. Year after year, Pio Cesare Barolos receive high ratings for their powerful Barolo wines.

Pairing Barolo 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.

Salami from the Barolo region in Piedmont

Substitutes for Barolo

There aren't many wines quite like a Barolo. With its need for precise growing conditions, Nebbiolo is a grape that is difficult to get quite right. However, there are Nebbiolo wines that come from other regions and are slightly less expensive than Barolo including Barbaresco (also from Piedmont) and wines labeled as the varietal Nebbiolo. You can find respectable Nebbiolo wines from other countries, including some decent versions from Australia, California, and Washington State.

The King of Wines and the Wine of Kings

Barolo wines are known as the King of Wines and the wine of kings because of their consistent high quality, investment and aging potential, and bold, powerful flavors that reflect the region from which the wines come. While Barolo isn't an easy drinking wine, it's one all wine enthusiasts need to try at least once to truly understand how great a wine can be.

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Barolo Red Wine 101