Barolo Part 2
So, last time in Part 1 we got into the history and geology of Barolo, and this time we’ll finish the region off by going into the details of the fickle yet ultimately rewarding Nebbiolo variety and the evolution of the style of Barolo over the last century, which includes the battle between ‘traditionalist’ and ‘modernist’ factions! So let’s get into the excitement!
Records show that this noble grape variety has been grown in Piedmont since at least the 13thcentury, though despite this long history and the high quality of the wines it can produce, it is not grown in many other wine regions. You see, Nebbiolo is not a good traveller, and despite the best efforts of winemakers across the globe, it cannot seem to be replicated elsewhere- it never seems to reach the same heights as it does in its home here in Barolo, as well as in cousin to the north-east Barbaresco. For the grape grower and wine maker, making great wine out of Nebbiolo is a balancing act; it naturally possesses an incredibly high amount of acidity, and the thick skins transfer a huge amount of thick, chalky tannins into the wine. Balancing these two elements, as well as enticing out the enchanting ‘tar and roses’ notes from the grapes is the key to good Nebbiolo. But, as any Nebbiolo grower will tell you, this balancing act is not as simple as it may sound…
Part of the reason Nebbiolo does so well in this specific corner of the globe is due to the unique set of vintage conditions in Barolo. Whilst it is the first to flower, Nebbiolo is the last to ripen, which means it is susceptible not only to spring frosts but also early autumn frosts. It requires good drainage and will sulk in the rain, meaning the growing regions it does best in have all their rainfall in the winter and have mostly dry spring, summer and autumn seasons. The one viticultural godsend of this fickle variety is in its thick skins, which are very disease resistant later in the season.
This is especially useful in the foggy autumn mornings in Barolo which would cause a problem for a thinner-skinned grape. Instead the warm pocket of fog, which sits at just the right height- exactly where the grapes hang- protects the grapes from damaging frosts. Many historians believe this is where the name of this variety came from; the Italian word for fog is Nebbia. Coaxing the bewitching complexity from this variety is thought to be down to the soils the vines are planted on. The best soils seem to be the calcareous marls found throughout the Barolo and Barbaresco regions, which brings out the floral rose and Turkish delight mixed with tar and leather that the best examples show. Without this increase in aromatic complexity, Nebbiolo can be too acidic and tannin to be enjoyable.
Today in Barolo, the method of production can be a hot-button issue, with winemakers usually into one of two camps; the Modernists and the Traditionalists. The Traditionalists believe that Barolo should be made as it always has been; long maceration times (sometimes up to 2 months!) of the juice on its skins to extract as much colour, flavour and tannin as possible, followed by long ageing in large, old oak vessels locally known as Botti. Wines made in this style usually take a decade or two for the tannins to relax, and can be stunning given time, a good cork and a perfect cellar. The Modernists on the other hand believe that Barolo’s future should be more accessible and globally understandable, and have introduced modern technology to assist in this evolutionary process. They often use rotofermentors to quickly extract colour and tannin from the skins but without too many harsh tannins. Rotofermenters (an Australian invention!) are large metal drums, into which the skins and juice are poured. The large drum is then mechanically rotated, kind of like an enormous martini shaker! These machines are designed to quickly extract colour and fruit flavours from the skins without too many astringent tannins which are pulled out of the stems, skins and seeds during the aforementioned longer maceration periods, which the natural grape acids and ever-increasing alcohol (a natural solvent) will do. After this quick shake, the juice is rapidly fermented for 7-14 days in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks and then aged in new French oak barriques. This leads to paler, less tannic and more fruit-forward wines that age faster and can be enjoyed at an earlier stage, and no hint of the oxidated, volatile unpredictability found in some ‘Traditionalist’ wines. Each side believes themselves to be doing the best thing for the region and tensions between the two camps, especially at their boiling point in the 1970s and 80s were high and often referred to as the “Barolo Wars”. Traditionalists believed these “upstarts” were destroying the culture and traditions by drowning the naturally light aromas of Nebbiolo with French oak, while the Modernist believed their opposition were holding the region back and squashing the potential of this world-class region.
Today however, the whole argument seems to have come full circle, and the two camps have converged. In most cases, equilibrium has settled over the region (for now!) with both sides slowly giving ground until there is a certain similarity in the winemaking; long but not overly excessive maceration (usually about 30 days) and some period of ageing in new French but mainly old oak maturation. Ultimately, the winner has been the Nebbiolo grape, and those of us who love her dearly. Without the “Barolo War” raging in the background, many advances have been made in regards to the best clonal material for a specific site, planting density, responsible and sustainable farming practices and the perfection of harvesting windows to accentuate the natural beauty of this “Wine of Kings, the King of Wines”.
Buyer and Seller of the Bottles