The Many Facets of Barolo and Piemonte
by Igor Ryjenkov MW
The Barolo and Barbaresco area in the Langhe region of Piemonte is a hidden gem, hiding in plain sight. Nothing really prepares you for what’s in store on your drive from Turin, not at the exit ramp, not even when you get to the town of Bra, the gateway to Langhe. Only when you are there will you know that you have arrived, seeing the beautiful gentle rises of vine-carpeted knolls of Barolo, and the famous rolling hills of Barbaresco. Both are quite small in size, just under 2000 ha for Barolo and around 700 ha for Barbaresco, and you can take in nearly the entire Barolo production area from the outlook point in the village of La Morra. They are responsible for only a single-digit fraction of the total Piemonte’s wine output, however, they certainly punch way above their weight when it comes to their stature.
While wine is very important here, grapes are not the only crop in Langhe – cereals, maize and hazelnuts are widely grown. The region has a rural and very down-to-earth feel. People here live close to where they grow their food and make their wine. Ferrero Rocher and Nutella had their start here, as did the Slow Food movement. Among other regional specialties, another worldwide star from the region is the truffles, especially the white ones.
The wine offered here is varied and broad, with a stable of local interesting and unique grapes, both white – Arneis, Cortese – and red – Dolcetto, Barbera, Brachetto. However, the main reason why the region is revered is Nebbiolo, the only grape in Barolo and Barbaresco, a “crazy diamond” that shines its brightest here. A very early budder and very late ripener – it is named either for the late fall fog covering the vineyards around the harvest time, or the bloom on the berries, both called “nebbia” – it is a very distinct grape.
Not particularly thick-skinned and not exceedingly pigment rich, it is paradoxically quite tannic and rather aromatic, with the signature floral, cherry and tar aromas, and a healthy acidity. There are several clones, bio- and phenotypes, each with their particular idiosyncrasies, but in its core, Nebbiolo shares 9 alleles with Northern Rhône’s white aromatic Viognier, odd as it is. It has not travelled much – there are pockets of it elsewhere in Piemonte, Aosta and Lombardy, with a sprinkling in the New World, but it is in Barolo and Barbaresco, with their unique terroirs, where it reaches the heights wine lovers come to appreciate it for. Let’s take a closer look at Barolo, since there is a number of them in this Cellar, both recent and mature vintages.
The five main communes of Barolo offer two distinct styles, thanks to varied soil compositions, elevations and aspects – more perfumed and less tannic wines from Barolo and La Morra, and deeper, darker-fruited and more grippy expressions from Castiglione Falletto, Monforte d’Alba and Serralunga d’Alba. The individual expressions don’t stop there. The grape’s ability to communicate the nuances of a particular site has led to a roster of individual vineyards within each commune, compiled over generations, with more and more of these vineyards appearing on the labels. Barolo’s extensive ageing requirement of 38 months, of which 18 must be in a barrel, means that a “regular” Barolo won’t hit the market until the 4th year from the vintage. The Riserva calls for as much as 62 months of ageing – no extra time in wood – and is released in the 6th year after the harvest.
The old-style Barolo was a highly tannic wine requiring extended cellaring. Improved vineyard and winery practices tamed those tannins in today’s Barolo to an extent that many are approachable and enjoyable upon release, although it is still a very structured red wine. Its aromatic profile and the tannic framework really pair well with your favourite proteins, starting from steak tartare, like the delicious local version made with Piemontese beef, to a lightly charred medium-rare steak or lamb, or even duck. Most bottlings would evolve for 10-plus years, with the top examples capable of lasting for decades. With age, the floral notes shift to wilting or dried flower elements, tar becomes cold smoke, leather, tea and medicinal notes, and the tannins soften. The wines don’t usually throw a thick sediment, but even then it may be best to rest the upright bottle overnight and decant it carefully, leaving a little behind.
While, as always, it certainly pays to know your producers, vintages from 2010 and later would fall into very good to excellent range, and there are really no bullets to dodge as far back as mid-2000s. That is all to say that with the vintages currently on the market you can confidently shop for this jewel of a wine from this gem of a region.
Toronto-based Igor Ryjenkov MW was the first in Canada to earn the prestigious Master of Wine credential in 2003. His wine business expertise has been informed by 24 year in the Ontario trade, first in retail, then in key buying positions, and lastly, in projects, most notably, developing the new 5-dot wine style matrix. Igor is one of Opimian’s Masters of Wines.