Thursday, February 9, 2023

The King of Italian Wine

In 1980, Burton Anderson, an American journalist living in Italy, released "Vino," a personal account of the wines and winemakers of Italy, to great acclaim. Anderson's book introduced wine drinkers to Italian wine while persuading those who swore by French and California wine that Italy had something equally good to offer. 

Burton Anderson

Anderson praised Barolo, the famous red wine of Piedmont, as "extraordinary." And though American wine drinkers had made Chianti the most popular Italian red wine in the United States, Barolo maintained its reputation as Italy's finest. 

Although Burton Anderson reacquainted Americans to Barolo (and all Italian wine) in the 1980s, forty years earlier, fellow American, Harold Grossman, wrote sparingly but persuasively about Barolo.  Describing the village of Barolo and the surrounding Nebbiolo vineyards, spread over a hill of volcanic tufa, Grossman said:"On this hill the Nebbiolo grapes grow best, and they give the finest and most justy celebrated red wine Italy has.  In good years, Barolo can be classed as one of the kings of wine."

Barolo Basics

Among the top villages near the town of Alba noted by both authors for Barolo are Serralunga d'Alba, La Morra, Montforte d'Alba, Barolo and Castiglione Falletto.  The last two are thought by many Barolo aficionados as the site of "real" Barolo.

In recent years, Barolo producers have designated certain vineyards, or "Crus," for their high quality grapes.  A few of the better known Barolo Crus include Rocche, Bussia, Brunate and Ginestra.

Barolo owes its well-earned reputation to two things: the Nebbiolo grape and the volcanic tufa soil that makes up the hilly Piedmont countryside.  

Nebbiolo is a late ripening variety, maturing in October and November, when the hills of Piedmont are cloaked in heavy fog, or nebbia. Piedmont climate is continental, with hot summers and cold winters and lots of rain.  Nebbiolo does not like to get its feet wet and that presents a challenge for growers every year. 

In the winery, the use of traditional long macerations and fermentations is slowly giving way to shorter terms for both, using more French oak, resulting in Barolos  that are fruitier and less tannic and are drinkable earlier.

Traditionally, Barolo has been described as smelling like an unlikely combination of roses and tar.  As odd as it may sound, I picked up both in a well-aged Alda Conterno Barolo. Newer style Barolo has raspberry and dried herbs, with floral notes.  Barolo can be high in mouthwatering acidity and finishing with full tannins.

Nebbiolo on the vine

Nebbiolo d'Alba is a red wine made from the Nebbiolo grape in a zone surrounding the city of Alba.  Although lighter and softer than Barolo, Nebbiolo d'Alba is a less expensive alternative to Barolo and Barbaresco that is ready to drink earlier.

Although not apparent when buying a bottle of Barolo or Nebbiolo d'Alba, there is a clonal difference with the Nebbiolo grape, mainly Michet, Bolla and the most common Lampia clone. However, since Nebbiolo has a virus problem and Barolo producers don't want to gamble on the wrong clone, most of them use what is known as mass selection, a technique of field vine selection, the opposite of clonal selection.

Here is a short list of Barolo producers: Aldo Conterno, Giacomo Conterno, Michele Chiarlo, G.D. Vajra, Bartolo Mascarello, Ratti, Elvio Cogno.  Prices for Barolo range from $60 to hundreds of dollars.  A Giacomo Conterno Francia Barolo currently sells for $300. Nebbiolo d'Alba is priced around $25. 

Memories of Wineing in Italy

In the early years of my editorship of the "Wine Spectator," owner and publisher, Marvin Shanken, and I took a rare trip to Italy, to "show the flag," and increase the visibility of the Spectator.  Our first stop was Vinitaly, a major venue on the European wine calendar.

Upon arrival at Milan's Malpensa airport, we discovered that Lucio Caputo, then head of the Italian Trade Commission in New York, was on the same plane.  Caputo was driving to Verona and offered us a ride.  What we didn't know until later was that in an earlier life, he had been a race car driver. 

The memory of what car Caputo rented escapes me now...but it was fast!  He deftly maneuvered his way onto the Autostrada heading east, with me in the back seat and Marvin in the passenger seat, holding on for dear life. Noticing he had a white-knuckle passenger, Caputo smiled and pressed harder on the accelerator, as we sped our way toward Verona.

Later in the trip, Marvin and I were in the Piemontese town of Barbaresco to visit Angelo Gaja. He had extended an invitation when we met at Vinitaly to visit the winery and taste his Gaja wines.  

That evening, Gaja came to our hotel to get us in his Mercedes station wagon to take us to dinner at a nearby restaurant.  As I climbed into the back seat, I thought that a Mercedes was an unusual choice for an Italian winemaker, as they all seemed to drive a Lancia or big Fiat.

Marvin was in the passenger seat holding on tightly as Gaja zoomed along the narrow mountain roads in the dark.  It was another white-knuckle ride with another Italian winemaker who enjoyed his macchina as much as his vino.

And the trip promised to be great so long as we could stay out of fast Italian cars, driven by speed-loving Italian winemakers.


Next blog: France Series: Burgundy and Beaujolais

Write me at

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.