The story of Barolo and Barbaresco starts with Nebbiolo. Nebbiolo is a temperamental variety. It buds early and ripens late, making it susceptible to spring frost and autumn rain. It wants limestone soils and south or south-west exposure and like Pinot Noir it is terroir specific and likes to be in the upper parts of the region, while avoiding the top. Like Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo has a pale garnet luminous red colour due to its pigmentation. Most grapes have 5 pigments (anthocyanins ) in the skin that provide the colour, but unusually both Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir (and Sangiovese) are high only in Cyanidin and Peonidin, both of which are generally unbound thereby giving a lighter colour and are less stable (and unstable pigments oxidise easier over time giving the orange hue). Unlike Pinot, Nebbiolo is extremely vigorous and as a result requires substantial vineyard work. It is no surprise that after the devastation of phylloxera and with ravages of two World Wars, most of the area was replanted with the easy growing and high yielding Barbera. Even today, Nebbiolo covers less than 10% of the vineyard area of Piedmont.
As with most classical European regions, grapes have long grown in Piedmont. Julius Caesar is known to have ordered wine from Alba and Thomas Jefferson mentioned Barolo in his writing, though in his era this was more likely to be sweet and sparkling rather than dry and still. The first known shipment of ‘Barol’ was organized by Italian diplomats based in London and arrived in the UK in 1751 and was considered similar in quality to claret. Famously the second shipment, organized by the King of Sardinia, Emmanuele III, arrived spoiled due to a load of oranges shipped on top of the vats of Barolo, which had rotten during the journey.
In the Shadow of Barolo
Emmanuelle III was from the Royal House of Savoy, whose descendants would one day become the first King of the united Italy in 1861. It was the connection between Barolo and the house of Savoy that guaranteed the prominence of Barolo over Barbaresco. The stories about the connection between the House of Savoy and Barolo intertwine history and myths and it is difficult to separate the two. It is said that Giulia Falletti at the request of Carlo Alberto of the house of Savoy, sent the King 325 wagons of Barolo, one for each day of the year (excluding lent) and thus the wine became known as ‘the wine of Kings’. It is without doubt that Carlo Alberto of the house of Savoy became interested in Barolo and bought two properties in the region. After his abdication, his son Vittorio Emanuele II was first made King of Piedmont-Sardinia and later would become the first King of United Italy in 1861. Vittorio appointed Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour as Prime Minister, who always strived to bring economic advantages to his native region Piedmont. According to some sources, Camillo Benso is credited with hiring the oenologist Louis Oudart, who was responsible for the modern style of Barolo as a dry firm wine. Other sources suggest that it was Giulia Falletti who had hired Louis Oudart, or perhaps he was hired by both.
While the royal connection gave status to Barolo, Barbaresco lived in the shadow of its famous neighbour. In fact, traditionally, Barbaresco grapes would be sold to make ‘Barolo’. This changed in 1881 with the arrival of Domizio Cavazza, who founded the Cantina Sociale di Barbaresco and highlighted the importance of Barbaresco as its own commune. Unfortunately, during the ravages of two World Wars, the Cantina was forced to close down and young people left the region in search of work. Barbaresco’s second hero, a local priest called Don Fiorino, recreated the cooperative to safe guard the future of Barbaresco with 19 local wineries in 1958. Today, this is Produttori di Barbaresco and there are 56 members, who together own one-sixth of the vineyards in Barbaresco. Timing was good as Piedmont was fast becoming one of the most famous and innovative wine-regions of Europe. Today, alongside the Cooperative there are a large number of independent growers that make truly top-quality wines. Since 1997, even the original winery of Domizio Cavazza is no longer a member of the Cooperative, instead making its own wines from some of the oldest vineyards in the region and is named Cantina del Pino, named after a pine tree next to the family house that was planted by Domizio Cavazza to mark the birth of his first son.
Modernist verses Traditionalists
Like Barolo, Barbaresco has seen the same debate on modernists verses traditionalists that started in the 1980s. The introduction of small French oak was especially associated with the new ‘modern’ movement and in Barbaresco the focus was most on Angelo Gaja who started experimenting with barrique ageing in 1978 and temperature control in 1982 and whose world famous wines firmly put the international spotlight on Barbaresco. Yet even calling Angelo Gaja a modernist shows the complexity of the debate as Angelo Gaja favoured long 30-day fermentations (rather than 5 days), which is usually associated with traditionalists. Though the battle became very heated, since around 2000 a truce has been found and the term traditionalist and modernist is now outdated. Elvio Cogno, the famous winemaker of the Ravera Cru and in every way a traditionalist, refers to his own winemaking as ‘I make post-modern wines’. Today the most discussed topic is not the winery but the vineyard and as Kerin O’Keefe notices in her book ‘Barolo and Barbaresco’, the focus since the millennium has been in reducing herbicides and pesticides and focusing on the quality of the different vineyards.
Comparing Barbaresco and Barolo
Barbaresco is far smaller than Barolo, about 35% of the production of Barolo. Both Barolo and Barbaresco became a DOC in 1966 and DOCG in 1980. Barolo has 11 subregions, while Barbaresco only has 4 (Neive, Barbaresco, Treiso and San Rocco). In 2007, Barbaresco was the first commune in Italy to introduce the Menzioni Geografiche Aggiuntive MEGA (officially recognized subzones) and there are 66, while Barolo has 181 (170 were vineyard areas and 11 were village designations). Much of the terroir between Barolo and Barbaresco is similar. The soil in much of Barbaresco shares the same light colour and higher chalk content to La Morra and Barolo and altitude and south/south western exposure is similar. Barbaresco is located slightly lower than Barolo and it lies close to the river Tanaro, which provides a maritime influence and as a result the grapes in general ripen before Barolo and fermentation is slightly faster. Like Barolo, Barbaresco is made with a 100% Nebbiolo, but the official ageing restrictions are less strict. Barbaresco needs to be aged for at least 24 months, while Barolo needs to be aged for at least 36 months (Barbaresco Riserva needs 48 months, while Barolo Riserva requires 62 months of ageing before release). Yet it is important to remember that ageing in itself is not a reflection of quality.
Barbaresco has perhaps had a more difficult history than Barolo and without the link to the house of Savoy it has often lived in the shadow of its royal neighbour. Today it seems to be recognized for its own quality. There is a good reason that Domizio Cavazza settled in this region and not Barolo, as the Barbaresco terroir is very exciting. In recent years there has been a revival in the region with a new generation that has gone to oenological college, has worked abroad, and if you add an increased cash-flow to the area, all of these have contributed to an increased focus on making the very best wines. Today Barbaresco is a vibrant region making great wines and irrespective of history, put a group of Nebbiolo aficionados in a room together and there will be lively discussions about the merit of either commune.
Sara Guiducci, 14th April 2020.