On Barolo

A Selection of some of Piedmont’s Top BAROLO ‘S
 Is Barolo still Italy’s greatest wine? It’s a question I’ve been mulling over for some time. And like some of life’s bigger questions (Is there a God? And what really constitutes a 100-point wine?), it’s not one whose answer is readily known.
Barolo, after all, has been called “the King of Wines” for centuries—never mind that it took a Frenchman to bring this about (more on that later). But what was a certainty some 200 years ago may not necessarily be true in 2007. After all, the Barolos of only two decades ago bear little resemblance to the wines of today.
This is a consequence of what have been dramatically titled the “Barolo Wars,” with French oak and rotary fermenters and maybe a few Cabernet grapes as the weapons of choice. These are the armaments of so-called Modernists, producers whose mission has been to make Barolo a more contemporary and, as they might say, better wine.
To Traditionalists, a.k.a. Classicists, this is nothing short of heresy. (In this way, the Barolo Wars seem a bit like the Crusades.) To Classicists, Barolo has always been, and should always be, made the same way: produced from the native Nebbiolo grape (a thin-skinned, rather acidic and tannic red), then generally aged in big Slovenian casks called botti in a particular (and very lengthy) way.
This was more or less the model created by the Frenchman Louis Oudart back in the mid-19th century. When Oudart arrived in Piedmont, Barolo had been a simple, rustic, even sweet wine. Oudart been hired by the Marchesa of Barolo, who wanted something more noble to be created from her native red and believed a French wine consultant could do the job (a belief that the French have encouraged in various other parts of the wine world up through the present day). Oudart made such an impressive wine that other Piedmontese producers followed suit and a new style of Barolo was born, winning quite a few fans in the process—some of them even royals, like Vittorio Emanuele II, the first king of unified Italy (though probably best known today as a boulevard; I’ve yet to visit an Italian town that doesn’t have its own CorsoVittorio Emanuele).
The style of wine Oudart created is the one that Traditionalists are still making today: wonderfully fragrant, with notes of bitter cherry, truffles, earth and even roses and tar; rather light-colored, quite high in acidity and very tannic, needing several years’ aging in barrel and bottle. In fact, by law Barolo must age a minimum of three years (at least two in barrel), though some producers age their wines longer. And even after Barolo is bottled, it requires many more years’ aging time. As famed Barolo producer Aldo Conterno once said, he made his wine to be “undrinkable” when it was first put into bottle.
Modernists found this style off-putting, not to mention commercially challenging (how to explain to consumers that they could buy a wine but not drink it for a decade or two?) and sometimes even flawed (a wine might take so long to come around that the fruit was gone before the tannins ever softened). And so in the ‘80s, winemakers like Luciano Sandrone and Paolo Scavino, among many others, adopted some techniques employed by winemakers in other parts of the world, like a shorter maceration of the grapes (resulting in softer, less tannic wines, as tannins are extracted during the maceration process), rotary fermenters (another means of softening wine) and the use of smaller French barrels over big Slovenian casks.
The result was a wine that was fruitier and easier to enjoy in its youth (sometimes even upon release), but one that Traditionalists argued lacked much of what made Barolo distinctive: its classic structure, powerful tannins and distinctive aromas. The modern wines were more like a lot of others and smelled mostly like French oak. They were also more pleasurable and less “intellectual”—the one word that Barolo Traditionalists invoke a lot. “Barolo is an intellectual’s wine” was the line I heard most often from sommeliers, wine merchants and collectors when I asked their thoughts on the wine. Barolo collectors, by the way, are almost always men. Why, I don’t know. Maybe wines with firm tannins are a measure of masculinity.
Second only to the suggestion of Barolo’s “intellectuality” is the assertion of its resemblance to Burgundy: “Barolo is the Burgundy of Italy.” This can mean any number of things, though I’ve narrowed it down to three: First, Nebbiolo is a lot like Pinot Noir, the great red grape of Burgundy, in that it is also thin-skinned, difficult to grow and possessed of beguiling aromas. Second, Barolo, like Burgundy, requires its followers to memorize many names—not only dozens of producers (traditional and otherwise) but also names of communes and vineyards. And finally, like Burgundy, Barolo can be quite inconsistent. The highs are high and the lows, very low. And it doesn’t come cheap. More on this a bit later.
 

 

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