Thursday, March 28, 2024

Pride of Piemonte

Few Italian wines attract the acclaim given to Barolo and Barbaresco, arguably Italy's greatest red wines and the pride of Piemonte.  Credit Nebbiolo, the most important red grape of Piemonte, as the source for all the praise.  

Piemonte (Piedmont), as the northern district is known in Italy, has a number of noteworthy wines, but none as valued as the Nebbiolo-based Barolo and Barbaresco.

Nebbiolo takes its name from the Italian word nebbia, a natural phenomenon that loosely means the "fog or mist" covering the rolling Piedmontese hills. The nebbia is a symbiosis that occurs in autumn, with the ripening of Nebbiolo and the formation of fog in the district.

Nebbiolo on the vine

Once known as Spanna, mainly in the upper Piemonte, Nebbiolo is the grape of lesser known Piemontese reds, Gattinara and Gemme, as well as red wines in neighboring Lombardy and Val d'Aosta. The four Piemonte reds are all DOCG wines, although the international reputation of Barolo and Barbaresco is paramount.

Barolo, and to a lesser degree Barbaresco, reach a drinkable point only after many years of aging.  Nebbiolo is a tannic grape with lots of acidity, and that  combination means wines such as Barolo need extended bottle time before the classic tar and rose petals are evident.  

I will say, that whatever magic is at work in the cellars of Barolo and Barbaresco, to me, aged Nebbiolo has the scent of freshly spread road tar, although the perfume of rose petals has never been as noticeable.  

Before getting to specifics for Barolo and Barbaresco, here's a quick review of the Italian wine classification system.  In 1963, Italy created the DOC (Denomazione di Origine Controllata) to bring order to its wines while emulating the French AOC system. At the same time, DOCG (...Garantita) was added to recognize the country's highest quality wines. 

Barbaresco was first to get DOCG in 1966, then Barolo in 1980, Gemme in 1997 and Gattinara in 1990.  I've always wondered why, if Barolo is often rated higher than Barbaresco, why the fourteen year wait before approving DOCG for Barolo?  I should add that opinions differ about the quality differences and if Barbaresco is a "baby" Barolo.


Progress in glass bottle manufacturing signaled the first major move in the establishment of Barolo.  About 1850, the name Barolo first appeared on wine labels, coinciding with the use of glass bottles in Italian wineries.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Barolo producers had divided the core of wine production into five districts: Castigione Falletto, Barolo, Serralonga d'Alba, La Morra and Monforte d'Alba.  The official naming of these areas as the authentic zones of Barolo was not without controversy, as arguments persisted about which area was the authentic Barolo.

Nebbiolo in Barolo

The next big change took place in the 1960s when winemakers realized that how they were making Barolo was outdated and modernization was needed. Old-style Barolo, favored by traditionalists, did not use temperature controlled fermentation and many of the wines were over extracted due to lengthy macerations. The so-called "modernists" wanted a more international style of Barolo, with shorter and faster fermentations, shorter aging periods in barrel and the use of French oak.

Most of today's Barolo reflect the changes made since the 1960s by such noted producers as Renato Ratti, Paolo Cordero di Montezemolo, Pio Cesare and the Conternos. Barolo is noted for foward bright fruit, without being jammy. Barolo ages well, integrating the spice of French oak nicely with Nebbiolo.


Many of the same wine making practices for modern Barolo apply to Barbaresco. But it is also accurate and fair to say that Barbaresco is its own wine and not a junior Barolo.

Barbareso is one-third the size of Barolo and did not get name recognition until about 15 years after Barolo.  The production zone is in the districts of Treiso, Neive and Barbaresco, plus a small vineyard area near the town of Alba. 

Nebbiolo in Barbaresco

Another factor that separates Barbaresco from Barolo is Nebbiolo ripens earlier in parts of Barbaresco, giving the wine more finese and less tannin. There is a difference in aging requirements as well: 26 months with 9 in oak for Barbaresco, compared to Barolo's 38 and 18. Riserva wines age even longer. 

Barbaresco vintners like Angelo Gaja, Prunotto, Bruno Giacosa and Vietti are leading the movement to modern wine making, while staying within DOC rules and maintaining traditions. The character of Barbaresco today is the taste of Nebbiolo: black cherry, tar with floral notes and full tannins. Like Barolo, Barbaresco requires aging.

Still, determined wine drinkers ask: "Besides price and location, what's the difference between Barolo and Barbaresco?"  Locals in both places say it's the soil, others claim different local terroir, while others maintain that wine making techniques make the difference.  

The sure way to see if there is a difference is to pour a glass of Barolo and Barbaresco, from the same vintage, side by side, and taste.


Next post: Getting Down with Gewurz 

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