Barolo Part 1
One of Italy’s most prestigious wine regions, often referred to as “the Burgundy of Italy”, the region of Barolo will take me a few weeks to do properly. So this time I’ll go into the history of what makes this regions so special as well as the terrior of this appellation, made up of its specific soils, location and climate. And then next time in Part 2, I’ll cover the all important yet painfully fickle Nebbiolo grape variety and how winemakers handle it to make it into the tannic yet elegant wines of Barolo that can age for decades.
So first things first, let’s just go over where exactly Barolo is located. The appellation of Barolo is located in the south of the state of Piedmont in the very north-west of Italy. The town of Barolo for which the region is named is located in the Monferrato foothills, which are a set of picturesque rolling hillsides and bordered to the north and west by the Tanaro River. The whole region sits about half-way between the major port of north-west Italy, Genoa to the south-east, and capital city Turin to the north-west. The heart of the Barolo vineyard zone, established in 1896, covers the parishes of Castiglione Falletto, Monforte d’Alba, La Morra, Serralunga d’Alba and Barolo itself, and is supplemented by parts of the townships of Novello, Verduno and Grinzane Cavour, added in 1934 to the official regional classification, and then by Diano d’Alba, Cherasco and Roddi added in 1966. The region is close enough to the ocean to be cooled by it’s afternoon breezes but not close enough for humidity to cause a disease risk. The all-important rolling hillsides provide drainage of excess water, exposure to morning sun and remove frost risk, making this site a perfect one for quality viticulture. This rang truest when the whole region was one of only 3 regions to be awarded the DOCG title, the highest quality standard in Italy, back in 1980. But the story of Barolo’s fame goes back even further than that…
The name Barolo can only be found on labels after 1844, though this coincides with the introduction of glass bottles to the region, so that makes sense! Before this, Barolo was already famous but was only sold in cask, usually to the rich and famous lords and merchant class of Turin, 60km to the north. For almost 700 years the whole region of Piedmont was a part of the Duchy of Savoy, which later became the kingdom of Sardinia, meaning there was more central European and French influences here than Italian. The House of Savoy/Kings of Sardinia gradually evolved, and the dukes became Kings of Italy, with Turin briefly becoming the capital of Italy as the unification of the country (sometimes referred to as Piedmontisation) was pushed from this region south. Barolo rode the wave and was often referred to as “the Wine of Kings, the King of Wines” as politics brought money and influence (and royal titles!) to the region. The modern-day success of Barolo can be put down to 2 influential individuals; Camillo Benzo, who was one of the main architects of Italian unity, was the first land owner to convert his entire estate in Grinzane to nothing but vines in the 1860s, believing in the quality and potential of the region. This was absolutely unheard of in Italy at the time who always had fields with multiple crops, though was a common practice in the fine wine regions of France. The second was Giulietta Falletti, the Marquis of Barolo, who lived around the same time as Signore Benzo, and employed a French Oenologist to improve his sizeable estate and the wines that came from the now priceless territories of La Morra, Barolo and Serralunga- the heart of the region today. His wines caught the attention of King Carlo Alberto di Savoia and as a result the king invested heavily in the establishment of nothing but vineyards here, so that the ‘regal province’ of Piedmont would have a world-class wine, just like the Dukes of Burgundy did further to the north. Due to the Francophillic influences of this state, the actions of these individuals and the processes they put in place were allowed to become the norm. It took much longer for these processes, now so normal across the globe, to trickle down into the rest of Italy, however it gave Barolo the advantage above almost every other region in Italy.
Despite its small size, there are significant differences in geology of the within the subzones of Barolo. This leads to distinctive stylistic differences within the subzones. Below is a quick summary of the geology of each of the main towns and the result this has on the wines;
La Morra and Barolo in the west of the region are in a small valley and have Calcareous Marl soils from the Tortonian Epoch. This type of soil is compact and quite fertile and produces softer, fruiter and more aromatic wines which age relatively rapidly (for a Barolo that is!)
Monforte d’Alba and Serralunga d’Alba are located in a valley in the east of the region, and their calcareous marl soils hail from the Helvetian epoch, meaning they have a higher percentage of compressed sandstone and are much less fertile. These soils yield more intense, structured wines that take much longer to mature.
Castiglione Falletto sits on a ridge between the two valleys and has a mix of these soils, and combine elegant and lifted fruit with structured backbone.
Being a part of the highest quality designation, the DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) means the winemakers of Barolo can charge some of the highest prices in Italy for their wines, though it comes with some pretty strict rules as well. The amount of fruit allowed to be pulled from each vineyard is strictly monitored so that the berries maintain their concentration and complexity, meaning vine yields are limited to 56hl/ha, or 5.6kg of grapes/vine in a relatively dense vineyard of 10,000 vines. To give you an idea of how low this is, over the border to the west in Provence they can harvest over 100hl/ha in the highest quality regions! Added to this is the all important barrel ageing- a key aspect of good Barolo. Minimum legal requirement is that the wine must be 38 months old before release, with a minimum 18 months of that in oak. Tune in next time where I’ll go even deeper into the winemaking techniques involved in making Barolo!
Buyer and Seller of the Bottles