The Barolo Wine Wars Have Begun

 


Barolo may be Italy’s most famous red but surprisingly it hails from a very small vineyard region. Tucked into the top northwest corner, just south of the medieval town of Alba in the heart the Langhe region of Piemonte, it’s barely 8 kilometres wide. The vineyards are breathtaking. The snowcapped Alps form a distant backdrop to a series of hillsides and valleys above the Tanaro river that produce complicated microclimates; by the end of the day dramatic shadow patterns pass over the vineyards blessing the top sites with those all important extra hours of sunshine. The climate is continental, with extended summers and autumns enabling the fickle Nebbiolo grape to achieve sunny ripeness. Tip; avoid Piemonte’s brass monkey winter! Barolo is produced from 100% Nebbiolo in eleven communes where generally two soil types rule, namely sandy marls found in the communes of Barolo, La Morra, Cherasco, Verduno, Novello, Roddi and parts of Castiglione Falletto and older sandstone clays that give the remaining four communes of Monforte d'Alba, Serralunga d'Alba, Diano d'Alba and Grinzane Cavour a muscular, tannic style. That said, all top traditionally made Barolos hold onto their classic notes of tar, violets and black cherry backed by mouth- puckering tannins, crisp mouth-watering acidity and mouth-filling alcohol. Italians proudly make their wines to match their amazing food so with this traditionally powerful fruit-tannin-acid balance you can see why they call Barolo the ‘king of wines’. 
For my anorak readers around the world, an informal ‘cru’ vineyard status exists amongst the winemakers (pioneered by La Morra winemaker Renate Ratti), so look out for Cannubi, Sarmazza, Brunate, Cerequi, Rocche, Monprivato, Villero, Lazzarito, Vigna Rionda, Bussia, Ginestra and Santo Stefano di Perno on the label. A great way to see the region is to follow the ‘vineyard road’ as it winds its way through these top Johnny vineyards taking in imposing ancient hill-top castles at every turn. You soon realise that almost every wine village is perched on its own hill! 
 
The Italian wine laws (D.O.C.G regulations) say that Barolo must be 3 years old before bottling, two of them in chestnut or oak; for the ‘Riserva’ and ‘Riserva Speciale’ titles, it’s four and five years ageing respectively. During a visit to Alba back in the early noughties I tasted the latest Barolo releases…..shock-horror! These weren’t the Barolos I’d grown to love. New French oak suddenly appeared on the scene to give untypical in-ya-face toasty vanilla flavours to these classic wines. I didn’t realise at the time but the ‘Barolo Wars’ had begun.  
 
Things are changing but the war still rages, a Titanic battle between the Traditionalists and the Modernists. The former always have, and always will, age their wines for lengthy periods (some incredibly for 40-50 days) in large wooden vats (botti). The Modernists, on the other hand, go for shiny, temperature controlled stainless steel vats with shorter fermentation periods giving less tannin extraction; 12 months or so ageing in French oak barriques, adds ‘untraditional’ toasty vanilla flavours to tasting notes. 
 
The latest from the ‘war front’ is that the two sides are moving towards each other even though they remain far apart; the ‘old boys’ are ageing for shorter (although still lengthy) periods to retain more fruit whilst the ‘new kids’ are using fewer new oak barrels thus reducing the toasty vanilla fruit explosions. 
 
You pays your money and takes your choice but be careful, no matter what style you prefer Barolo doesn’t come cheap. You’ll need to spend at least £25 ($50) and even then you can be disappointed. The moral of the story? Know the winemakers and which side they’re fighting on. Some producers to look out for are Burlotto (Traditionalist), Cavallotto (T), Paolo Conterno (T), Fantino Conterno (Modernist), Mascarello (T), Renato Ratti (T), Rinaldi (T), Rivetti, Reverdito (T), San Biagio (T), Sandrone (M), Scavino (M), Vietti (T) and Veorzio (M). 
 
I can’t sit on the fence I’m afraid……I’m a traditionalist, although that said, I’m not a fan of Barolo that’s lost its fruit languishing in a large vat for weeks on end. So, traditionalists that have taken a touch of modernism onboard get my vote. Why not crack open one bottle of ‘T’ and a bottle of ‘M’ with friends this weekend; you’ll have a wonderful time comparing these classics and who knows, you could end up as a war correspondent.
 
John Downes, one of only 340 Masters of  Wine in the world is a corporate entertainer, speaker, television and radio broadcaster and writer on wine. Check out John’s website at www.johndownes.com. Follow him on Twitter @JOHNDOWNESMW

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