A Royal Wine from the Foot of the Alps
Barolo is one of Italy’s noblest wines. Born in the Piedmont region, literally at the foothills of the Alps, it is full-bodied, acidic, redolent of strawberries and violets, and carries the aristocratic DOCG appellation. Indeed, some call it a King among wines.
The wine takes its name from the tiny village of Barolo, one of a cluster of villages in the region, which devotes just around 3000 acres to the Nebbiolo grape, from which Barolo is made. Other villages that make up the Nebbiolo-growing region, collectively called Langhe, are La Morra, Castiglione Falletto, Serraluna d'Alba, and Monforte d'Alba.
The black Nebbiolo grape probably takes its name from the Nebbia or the thick fog that covers the area during autumn. The Nebiolo has distinct qualities which it brings to the Barolo. It has complex flavors and bitter tannins. It has an exceptionally long growing season, and sunshine is of vital importance to ripening, which, by extension, means that the location of particular vineyards – the amount of sun they catch – has a direct bearing on the quality of the wine. Hence the terms bricco, sori and costa which you might see on Barolo labels, indicating hilltop, hillside and sun-catching potential.
Further, the grape mutates easily, and adapts to specific locations. This means that the products of even adjacent vineyards may differ significantly. And the mutation is an ongoing process, so though vintners may be using plant material that came down through generations, their current output may be quite different from what their ancestors cultivated.
The chief factors that influence the quality of the Barolo are climate, soil, farming methods, choice of grapes and process of maturing.
Taking climate first, prolonged summers with as little rain as possible during harvest make for ideal Barolo climate, because the Nebbiolo needs every little bit of sunshine it can soak up. In fact, the grape growers of Piedmont had an unusual run of excellent vintages starting from 1995, with exceptionally conducive climatic conditions.
The soil of the area can be divided into two main categories, Helvetian and Tortonian. The first yields grapes that take longer to mature, while the second produces a softer, more fruity variety of Barolo in comparison with the grapes nurtured on Helvetian soil.
Farming methods also impact the quality of the Barolo. Compact farming, where individual farmers experiment with the number of vines per hectare and arrive at what is optimum, the shift to organic farming, where chemicals are either reduced or done away with, and green harvesting or cluster thinning, where unripe bunches are selectively removed to concentrate others, are all yielding results in the quality of the Barolo.
The technology and process of fermentation has also changed drastically over the years. Now, modern methods of temperature control and hygiene are adopted, and the result is a much more standardised product. The jury is still out on the use of barriques or small oak barrels which lend a distinctive flavour to the wine and modifies the raspy taste of tannin. The wine produced in these barrels is distinct from what is produced using traditional equipment. There are those who consider the change an unnecessary deviation, but there are others who are highly appreciative of the effect of this essentially French innovation.
Under the DOCG norms, Barolo has to be aged for a minimum of three years with five years for a Riserva. The longer the maturing period, the better it tastes. A good, aged Barolo will bring to mind the flavours and aroma of tar, liquorice, leather, violets, chocolate, figs and prunes.
The wine is generally distinguished by vineyard, and most are bottled in family-owned wineries, but there are those who buy grapes from different growers and blend them too.
Among the best known producers of Barolo are: Aldo Conterno, Giacomo Conterno, Ceretto, Gaja, Pio Cesare, Prunotto, Paolo Scavino, Fratelli Revello and La Spinetta.
The Barolo is a way of life in Piedmont, where the people are hearty eaters of meat. This is also white truffle country, and the wine makes a perfect accompaniment to the rich meals that characterise the cuisine of this area.
A typical Barolo contains more alcohol than the average Italian wine – between 14% and 15%, and it is not an inexpensive drink.
When you buy Barolo, make sure it’s from a reputed producer. Open it at least one hour before you plan to serve it, to make sure it is properly aerated. And always serve it with food, as it is a taste-enhancer.
It is truly a wine fit for royalty.