King of Wines and Wines for the Kings, Barolo is Italy’s pride. But did you know it wasn’t always red, it wasn’t always dry. It was sweet and sparkling. With time it has evolved and now rule palates and imaginations the world over, like a king.
On the Northwestern edge of Italy are the hills of Piedmont, which in Italian can literally be translated as the foot of the mountains. Wines have been made for centuries. By the Celts, Romans, and even the French under the Kingdom of Savoy. However, the Nebbiolo grape came here only on the 1266.
It’s a finicky character, and ripens late, even on the sunniest of Piedmontese slopes, and are picked in early winters by when the fog sets in. The Italian term for fog is ‘nebbia’ which gives it its name. At one time it was locally said, when the fog sets in, pick the grapes.
Other story suggests it is because of the heavy bloom or white powery yeast on its skin that’s why it’s called so. Whatever be the true story, this thin skin red varietal is a local hero, and works perfectly well in the hills of Piedmont. It claims the hills as its world-famous permanent address, which now is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. By the time the term ‘Barolo’ first featured on the wine labels, in the 19th CE, it was a dry red wine with mouthwatering acidity, supple tannins, and a personality that couldn’t be ignored.
The first few generations of Barolo producers would age the wine in huge oak barrels for long and make them rest further for decades before drinking them. These producers were called the traditionalists. They’d say, buy now, but drink after 20 years. But then came the younger generations who were a little impatient, or excited, to show their wines. They brought in smaller barrels that made wines age faster, or literally cut down the massive ones from their papa’s cellars with a chainsaw.
These wines were fruitier, fresher, more vivacious, and less oak driven, ready to be relished upon release. Though the dads and grand-dads didn’t appreciate this tinkering with the personality of Barolos, consumers called these young guns, the modernists. And this war on oak-usage sparked what is now called the ‘Barolo Wars’. This divide has stayed and even movies are made on this now. Watch the famous documentary Barolo Boys to find out more about.
This has to be the biggest wine war in a region. So much so that kids of traditionalist winemakers weren’t allowed to be pals with those of the modernists. They may disagree on the style, one thing they agree on is the recipe. It had to be a Nebbiolo-only wine, aged for a minimum 3 years to be called Barolo, and for 5 years for Riserva, before they was released. This recipe was conferred with the coveted DOCG title in the year 1980, the highest quality level for Italian wines
Now there are various styles of Barolos and one must understand the differentiations between its communes and villages, and crus and winemaker’s style to pick their favourites. The more aromatic ones come from Barolo & La Morra, while the Castiglione Falletto, and Monforte d’Alba will give you more structured and age-worthy wines. Serralunga d’Alba is a bit spice and muscular. This is all thanks to the divide of the the Tortonian and Helvetica soils under the grape wines.
Be it the traditional style or the modern one, it’s a gastronomic delight when paired with the local Alba truffles, Agnolotti pasta in Ragu sauce, or a good game dish. If not this fancy, try a mushroom-heavy pasta or risotto and you’ll see the magic unfold. Even better if the Barolo is decanted and drunk after its 10th birthday, or if it is a Riserva make it its 15th birthday. But do note, good Barolos can age up to 30-40 years as well.