Barolo: Then and Now

By Victor Rallo Jr. and Anthony Verdoni


Barolo is the “King” of Italian wines. Its crown, however, has changed during the past 50 years or so. Italy’s wine laws went into effect in the mid-1960’s. At that time Barolo was a DOC wine. There were 3 categories: DOC Regular (Normale), DOC Riserva, and DOC Riserva Speciale. Two years of aging in cask and 13% alcohol was required by all three categories. The Riserva required two additional years of aging; the Riserva Speciale required three additional years. Barolo makers would blend must from all of their vineyards to create one Barolo in their own house style. In outstanding vintages the best juice would be used to make a Riserva or Riserva Speciale. But what’s happening to Barolo now?
Barolo was and is produced primarily in 5 villages south of Alba: La Morra, Serralunga d’Alba, Barolo, Monforte and Castiglione Falletto, as well as in parts of 6 other villages. The zone was and is about 3,085 acres (1,248 hectares). There were 1,242 growers. That’s an average of less than 3 acres per grower. No one makes a lot of Barolo. The Barolisti, then and now, count their wines by the bottle, not by the case. Most of the owners are enologists and agronomists. It is a farmer’s culture, but wealthy farmers. A hectare of land in the Cannubi vineyard, for example, may be valued at 2,000,000 Euro. Most parcels of land are not for sale. They are passed down from generation to generation.

Important in the past were considerations of the specific clone of Nebbiolo used in making Barolo. The approved clones are Michet, Lampone and Rose but Rose has all but disappeared. Barolo is always 100% Nebbiolo. Soil composition was discussed: Tortonian or Helvetian. Then there was the debate over the sizes and types of oak containers: traditional large oak Botti or smaller French Barriques. The arguments continue today. After all, each producer has his or her own ideas about maceration time, when the malolactic fermentation should take place and how long Barolo should be aged in the cellar before release. 1,242 growers, 1,242 ideas – very personal.

Barolo is noted for its perfume and delicate charm, which take years to develop. It is the end of the rainbow, a Cuban cigar, the King of Italian Wines. Long live the King! Science and the DOCG have uplifted the consistency of Barolo. There is no longer the specter of volatile acidity or rough odors of seaweed. And there is a renewed spirit of cooperation among producers, assuring us that the King will stay on top. Here are the DOCG requirements that went into effect in the 1980’s:

Minimum Aging in Years
                                                          Cask        Total        Alcohol
DOC Regular (Normale)              2              3              13%
DOC Riserva                                      2              5              13%  

Although no government regulation can legislate out mediocrity, it is safe to say Barolo wine today is better than ever with the highest image of any wine zone in Italy.

The Crus of Barolo
Recognizing the importance of individual vineyard sites throughout the Barolo DOCG zone was a movement spearheaded by Renato Ratti. It culminated in his Carta del Barolo (1984). He also did a Carta del Barbaresco. A Cru Barolo must be distinctive and yield a wine that is unique to itself, better then a normal Barolo and different from other Cru’s.

It is interesting that the first reference to Barolo wine is not to Barolo, but to one of its crus: Cannubi, 1752. Cannubi predates Barolo. We recommend that you try some of the different, recognized vineyards. Generally a cru is a step up from regular Barolo – and that’s saying a lot.

Cannubi is a long hillside that rises above the town on Barolo, close to its neighboring village of La Morra. It is at the intersection of the blue-gray Tortonian marl soils and the buff, iron-rich Helvetian sandstone soil. It is Barolo personified and magnified. Cannubi gets sunlight all day. It nurtures Barolo wines of rare intensity, elegance and longevity. “Cannubi, 1752.” Nearly 275 years ago farmers knew the importance of this vineyard.

Sheldon Wasserman rated all of the crus in 1987. Only one received his top 3-star rating: Cannubi, also called Cannubbio and Collina Cannubi. But where does Cannubi begin and end?

Can 15 Equal 34?
There are sub-parcels of Cannubi which have spawned another debate. The original Cannubi – the single finest vineyard (Wasserman); the best of both worlds (Ratti) – is 15 hectares (about 37 acres). Adjacent vineyards – Cannubi-Boschis, Cannubi-Muscatel, Cannubi-San Lorenzo, Cannubi-Valletta and Cannubi-Monghisolfo – bring the total to 34 hectares (about 88 acres). Wasserman rated all of these 2 stars, not 3. As in Burgundy, there are many owners of Cannubi and the sub-parcels. The stakes are high. This is the most prestigious and expensive real estate in Barolo. Should the sub-parcel owners be permitted to call their wine Cannubi? Where does Cannubi begin and end?

This has evolved into a court battle. In 2012 eleven producers of Cannubi won a court decision enforcing Ratti’s classification, forbidding the “secondary” sites from putting Cannubi on the label, stressing the importance of the original 15 hectares, the heart of Cannubi. Owners of the sub-parcels would have to list the full name of their property and not use the word Cannubi on its own. Upon appeal the ruling was reversed in favor of the owners of the broader 34 hectares. Now there is an appeal of the reversal filed in Italy’s highest court. This is a precedent-setting case. We have seen a Barbaresco producer attempting to cash in on Cannubi by calling his wine Barbaresco Cannubi. Where do vineyards begin and end? It may be best settled within the wine consortiums and among the wine press. Credibility is at stake. The proof of the Cannubi, however, is and will continue to be in the bottle.

Some of our favorite Cannubi producers include:

Damilano (La Morra)
Paolo Scavino (Castiglione Falletto)
Michele Chiarlo (Calamandrana)
G.B. Burlotto (Verduno)
E. Pira e Figli “Chiara Boschis” (Barolo)
Giacomo Brezza e Figli (Barolo)
FratelliSerio e Battista Borgogno (Barolo)
Giacomo Fenocchio (MonforteD’Alba)
Cascina Bruciata (Barbaresco)

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