Not many wines are bestowed the honour of “wine of Kings, King of wines”, but Barolo has this prestigious title etched in the hearts and minds of many. A favourite of the Italian aristocrats and a wine embraced with accolades by collectors and connoisseurs all over the world. It has an established history but in many ways a wine that is often misunderstood with only relatively recent commercial success.
Made in Northwestern Italy, this bold red wine has been enjoyed for centuries. Whether Barolo is a cornerstone wine in your collection or you have never tried it before, there is a lot to learn about this classic Italian wine. The region’s distinctive microclimate and soil composition are ideal for the red grape Nebbiolo, which is known for its expressive flavours of red fruits, dried herbs and flowers. It is high in acidity and has mesmerizing aromas of tar and roses and usually takes on a rust red tinge as it matures. Furthermore, the centuries-old winemaking traditions add to the allure, resulting in a wine that is complex, full-bodied, and capable of aging gracefully for many years. Wines from the Barolo DOCG must be 100% Nebbiolo and aged for at least 36 months, 18 of those months in wood barrels. The term “Riserva” can be used on the label when the wine has been cellared for at least five years. In general, Barolo wines are often aged a bit longer in oak to help soften the tannins.
Many Italian wines are named for the region in which they are produced, rather than the grape variety, and Barolo is no exception: It is produced in the Barolo wine region of Piedmont. This area of Barolo is a premier wine classification zone overseen with the highest guaranteed quality assurance by the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG). It is home to 11 villages that produce this sought after wine. Though winemakers sometimes produce these bottles by blending Nebbiolo from multiple vineyards, producers also make single-designation Barolos. The 11 villages are Barolo, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d'Alba, Cherasco, Diano d'Alba, Grinzane Cavour, La Morra, Monforte d'Alba, Novello, Roddi and Verduno.
The first documented mention of the Nebbiolo grape, is from the Middle Ages: in some documents from 1268, written and stored in the castle of Rivoli, there are mentions of the “Nibiol” linked to a root word meaning “fog.” The cultivation of this grape and the wine it produced had an exponential development during the Renaissance period. Like most aspects of wine history, it is difficult to determine when the first Barolo was made. What we do know is that Northern Italy has been producing wine for centuries. The dry modern version that we know today most likely came about in the mid-1800s. Before that, wines from this region tended to be much sweeter. The first noteworthy praise came in 1751, when a group of diplomats from Piemonte sent to London a batch of “Barol“. It was such a great success, even the future US president Thomas Jefferson, who was travelling around Europe at that time, mentioned the superb qualities of the wine in his diary, describing it as “almost as gentle as the Bordeaux, and as lively as Champagne.” Some references to Jefferson’s sparkling Nebbiolo may be misinterpretations of his quote which may indicate a polite complaint that a bottle had refermented – one can only speculate. This only adds to the mystery of Barolo. So, we have a very general indication that the Barolo of those years tasted like: a sweet sparkling wine, consequence of different wine-making processes the producers used since they still didn’t know how to turn all the sugars from the must into alcohol. The story as to who fermented Barolo dry is up for debate. One account has a French enologist, Louis Oudart, during the middle of the 19th century. However, new research introduces a different hero into this fascinating tale with Paolo Francesco Staglieno at the center of the story. Staglieno is credited with fermenting Nebbiolo dry and made the early version of what we now know as Barolo. The wines were an immediate hit and his dry-fermenting process famed the ‘Staglieno Method.’
In the 1970s and 1980s, trends in the worldwide market favoured fruitier, less tannic wines that could be consumed at a younger age. A group of Barolo producers, led by the house Paolo Cordero di Montezemolo, started making more modern, international styles of Barolos by using shorter periods for maceration (days as opposed to weeks) and fermentation (usually 48–72 hours or at most 8–10 days), less time ageing in new small oak barrels and an extended period of bottle ageing prior to release.
There are a few other wine regions that exist that are so limited geographically as to where wine can be grown, in such a marginal climate, specifically cold, wet, and foggy.
And yet, Barolo is a region where the wines seem to have an immortality to them.