Barolo - The Wine Of Kings
A History of Barolo
Nebbiolo is the grape that makes Barolo so famous. It was first mentioned by name in 1266 in Rivoli (today a suburb of Turin) where it was called Nibiol. It is one of Italy’s most revered varieties and historically held in such high regard that in 1431 in La Morra a law was introduced that fined anyone caught cutting down Nebbiolo vines with a 5 lire fine and repeat offenders could risk having their hands cut off. Yet, despite its popularity as one of the greatest grapes in the world, it is among the least planted varieties in Italy and accounts for only 9% of vine plantings in its home region of the Langhe. It is a very fickle variety with one of the longest growing seasons of any grape in the world. As an early flowering variety it needs to be grown on sites that are least liable to receive spring frost, and as a late ripening variety it needs to be planted on the very best sites with southern exposure to ensure it ripens at all. Like Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo is very terroir specific and it has a garnet luminous red colour due to its pigmentation. Most grapes have five pigments (anthocyanins) in the skin that provide the colour, but unusually both Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir (and Sangiovese and Nerello Mascalese) are high only in Cyanidin and Peonidin (both of which are generally unbound) thereby giving a lighter colour and are less stable. Unstable pigments oxidise easier over time, giving the wine its orange hue.
Tracing Barolo’s History
Piedmont has a very long viticultular history that goes back over 2500 years and Barolo too is steeped in history. Records show that in 1751 a group of Italian diplomats in London created an importing company to import ‘Barol’ into the UK suggesting it was a well know wine for Italians and in 1787 Thomas Jefferson travelled to Turin to taste the wines, which he clearly liked as he ordered 5-6 dozen bottles of ‘Nebiule’ as secretary of state and served 250 bottles of Nebbiolo as president. Yet, while the wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy from this era showed kinship to the wines produced today, it was a very different story for Barolo, which 200 years ago was sweet and gently sparkling. Thomas Jefferson described them as ‘very singular. It is about as sweet as the silky madeira, as astringent on the palate as Bordeaux and as brisk as champagne. It is a pleasing wine[SG1] ’. The reason was very simple, as a late ripening grape, Nebbiolo would ripen in October and as temperatures dropped in November and December, the cellars would become so cold that fermentation stopped naturally leaving residual sugar in the wines. As cellars turned warmer in spring, the sugars would start fermenting again causing a natural fizz in the bottles.
A New Era for Barolo
A new era started for Barolo in the mid 1800s, around the same time as the official classification of Bordeaux. Two different people are credited with changing the style of Barolo from slightly sweet to dry (with no petillance). Most commonly found is the theory that the count of Cavour and later the first prime minister of Unified Italy, Camille Benso, hired French oenologist Louis Oudart to produce the greatest nebbiolo. Oudart did this by reducing yields, heating the fermentation, cleaning the cellars and under his watchful eye the wines were made dry. On the other hands, Barolo expert Kerin O’Keefe suggests there is more evidence that it was actually the Italian general Paolo Francesco Staglieno who was responsible for creating a dry Barolo and improving cellar hygiene, closing fermentation vats to reduce dirt, flies and air contact. Staglieno worked directly for Carlo Alberto, the king of Sardinia and the father of the future king of unified Italy. According to Kerin, O’Keefe Oudart was only hired to further the work of Staglieno rather than being the actual force for change. Irrespective of who brought the change, everyone agrees that Barolo soon became the favourite of the Italian aristocracy and the royal house of Savoy and this was fundamental to the rise in fame as well as the continued excellence in producing and distributing Barolo in the mid 1800s. Legend suggests that the royal passion for Barolo was started when King Carlo Alberti asked Giulietta Falletti when he could taste her famous Barolo and she responded by sending him 325 wagons of Barolo, one for each day of the year (except for the 40 days of lent). Though this cannot be verified, it is generally accepted that it was Giulietta Falletti who introduced King Carlo Alberti to Barolo and was responsible for him finding his own Barolo wine estate and for Barolo to be called ‘the Wine of Kings’. The king passed his passion for wine to his son, Vittorio Emanuele, who later would become the first king of Italy in 1861 and who founded the wine estate that later would become known as Fontanafredda. The second half of the 1800s saw a number of other wine estates being founded, which are still in existence today. 1881 saw the opening of the first Oenological College in Alba and in 1888 Fontanafredda was the first Barolo producer to win gold medals at the Brussels World’s Fair. Barolo was now a world renowned wine and in 1908 an association was set up to protect the wine’s heritage and in 1926 the boundaries of the Barolo zone were officially designated. In 1980, when the DOCG system was introduced, it was the first Italian wine to be classified as a DOCG alongside Brunello di Montalcino and Nobile de Montepulciano.
Two World Wars affected the Barolo (and Barbaresco) region heavily and until the 1970s most producers were negociants who bought the grapes (with a few famous exceptions) and most growers grew a variety of different fruits alongside grapes to survive. Wine cellars were often unsuitable with mediocre equipment. In the mid-1970s, a new generation of winemakers decided to change the status quo and flagbearers such as Beppe Colla, Angelo Gaja and Bruno Giacosa entered the Langhe scene focusing on high quality wine and for the first time making single vineyard wine. International demand was growing and with an influx of money and oenological training for a new generation, new styles started to appear. By the mid 1980s, a young group of producers started making wines with shorter macerations and shorter ageing in small new oak. This combined with modern technological changes that allowed for pump overs and temperature controlled cool fermentation allowed the wines to become more concentrated with more obvious fruit focus and softer tannins. The introduction of small French oak was especially associated with the new ‘modern’ movement and it soon became a battle of styles between the modernists and traditionalists. The latter, led by Bartolo Mascarello and Beppe Rinaldi argued that the new techniques and new oak destroyed the traditional ‘tar and roses’ aromas and subtle complexity and elegance in exchange for concentration and chocolate notes. The battle became very heated, but by the early 2000s a truce had been found. Today, the terms ‘traditionalist’ and ‘modernist’ have become outdated as the distinction has become so blurred that talking about modern or traditional producers becomes almost impossible. Cellar hygiene is used by both sides as are temperature controlled fermentation vats, some modern producers that use new oak use long maceration periods and vica versa. Oak vats today come in all sizes and ageing often takes place one year in barrique (old and/or new) followed by time in old Slavonian botti. 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.
Barolo and its subzones
Located among the Langhe hills, the Barolo region is three times the size of Barbaresco, but only about 8km wide at its widest point. It is sub-divided into two Valleys; Central Valley and Serralunga Valley). It is a terrible generalization as producer style is just as important, but the Central Valley is famous for the more perfumed, elegant and silky wines, while the sub-regions of Serralunga Valley produce more powerful structured wines for long terms ageing. Though Barolo traditionally was a blend of vineyards, since the 1970s there has been a clear focus on single vineyards and the importance of terroir has really come to the front. In 2010, the Consorzio officially confirmed 181 geographical mentions (imagine lieux dits), 170 registered vineyard names and 11 villages: Barolo, La Morra, Verduno, Novello, Serralunga d’Alba, Monforte d’Alba, Castiglione Falletto, Cherasco, Diano d’Alba, Grinzane Cavour and Roddi. Like Burgundy, each village has their specific characteristics and as with Burgundy, learning the individual characteristics of each Barolo village, makes it much easier to understand the region.
With thanks to some incredible books and articles.
- Oz Clarke, History of wine in a 100 bottles
- John Hailman, Thomas Jefferson on Wine
- Kerin O’ Keefe, Barolo and Barbaresco, The King and Queen of Italian Wine
- Mariagrazia Orlandi, Barolo: A Love Story (World of Fine Wine, 15 June 2016)