A Journey Through Barolo and its Crus
As I’ve said many times before, Barolo may be the last great red wine region on the planet in which prices have yet to inflate to inaccessible levels. That time is coming soon and the next couple years may be the last chance to stock up on these world class wines. I admit that Nebbiolo from Barolo and top Barbaresco producers is at the very top of the red wine pyramid for me, sharing place only with great Burgundy and northern Rhone. However, the wines of Barolo and Barbaresco are these days far more consistent than the other two regions and at prices that are at least 50% less.
The importer International Cellars represents a large stock of Barolo’s top producers. I recently attended a tasting at which they poured an example from all the major crus and all showed superbly.
Locating and Classifying
Let’s orient ourselves. For those less familiar, Piedmont is the larger region in northwest Italy in which the Langhe lies. Within the Langhe you find the DOCGs of Barolo and Barbaresco and within those DOCGs are several ‘crus’ or villages. Within each cru are a series of vineyards, most of which offer quite different expressions of the Nebbiolo grape grown in the region. Though the region is small, there are about 250 individually demarcated vineyards in Barolo and Barbaresco. It is this specificity of place, combined with the transparency of the Nebbiolo grape, that gives rise to comparisons between Barolo and Burgundy. The flavour profiles are entirely distinct, but these other factors compare.
In my opinion and those of most of the world’s top critics, the best Barolos are on par with the top Burgundy and Bordeaux wines. Serious collectors have known this for years, but Barolo has enjoyed a comparatively under the radar profile with the mainstream until recently.
Unlike Bordeaux and Burgundy, Barolo does not currently have any classification system. Though producers all know what the best crus and vineyards are, there is nothing other than the vineyard or cru name to demarcate this on the label. And it was not until 2007 (for crus) and 2009 (for vineyards) that such labelling was even officially and legally sanctioned. Talk is that this will change and that Barolo will implement a premier and grand cru system along the lines of Burgundy. This will surely create significant upward pressure on pricing.
Barolo is immensely geologically complex, again drawing comparisons to Burgundy. The key geological event in the region was the formation of the Piedmont Tertiary Basin. This basin contains soils from a myriad of geological periods. It includes marine fossil soils, marl soils, and gypsum soils. A key feature is the sedmintary layering, which sees different types of marls layered with sandstone – the precise nature of which varies depending on the cru. For example, Serralunga and Monforte are home to the oldest soils (from the ‘Lequi’ formation comprising of silty marls, clay, calcium carbonate and sandstone), which gives rise to very structured, long-ageing Barolos. The crus of Barolo and La Morra comprise younger soils (calcareous clay and blue-gray marls from the Sant’Agata Fossili formation), and are known for aromatic and elegant wines. A third major type of soil (sandy soils from the Arenarie di Diano d’Alba formation) is found in Castiglione Falletto, which makes wines known for structure and elegance.
Given recent research on the microbiology of wine and soils, I suspect that the geological story is only partial as its relevance likely derives from how it influences the microbiological composition within the soils that feed the grape vines, along with the better understood mechanical properties of the soils such as drainage and heat retention.
The soils in Barolo are generally older than the surrounding regions because of river erosion caused by the Tanaro River changing course sixty thousand years ago. For example, the neighbouring Roero has sandy, young soils vs. the old sedimentary marls of Barolo.
It’s also important to note the continental climate of the region, which is protected by the Apennines.
It would take a book to explore all the complexity of Nebbiolo and the crus of Barolo. What must not be forgotten, however, is that Nebbiolo is extremely difficult and finicky to grow, disease prone, and takes forever to ripen, but that the string of vintages from 1999 to 2015 have been, for the most part (and excepting 2002 and 2003), extremely consistently high quality – ranging from very good to truly superb, including all of the characteristics you seek in great vintage variation: early drinking wines, structured wines, powerful wines, aromatic wines, and finessed wines. If you stick to the best producers and avoid 2002 and 2003, there is almost no dud to be found. Rather, the joy lies in comparison of vintages, sites, and producers. The differences can range from very subtle to extremely pronounced, but the wines all also share a common soul.
Barolo is now also a critical darling, mostly in my view due to a shift in the dominant critical voices. Galloni is, in my view, likely the most knowledgeable and accurate critic of Barolo today, but critics ranging from Tanzer, the Wine Advocate and even to James Suckling have been increasing scores significantly, particularly for traditionalist producers. Nearly all Barolo from good producers are 90+ point wines, and the best regularly score 95+ points from all types of critics. That has and can only continue to lead to price increases.
It was not always so. In 1994, the Wine Spectator scored a 1989 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo 76 points and described it thus: “Like biting into a handful of walnut scraps, with wet earth and menthol overtones to the modest plum and prune flavors struggling to be heard over the noise“. Wine Spectator also rated a 1989 Giacosa Barolo Collina Rionda 78 points. As a result, the wines could be purchased for a miserly sum. Today that would be viewed as laughable, demonstrating just how far critical palates have come.
Top Producers, Across the Crus
There are many great producers in Barolo. The wines I tasted are but an excellent sampling. Each represents both extremely high quality and also good value.
Rocche Costamagna Barolo Rocche dell’Annunziata 2011 (La Mora): Grown in a single 3.45-Ha vineyard in the prestigious subzone of Rocche dell’Annunziata in La Morra. The grapes were harvested in mid-October, then macerated for two weeks at 26 degrees celsius before ageing for 24 months in 30-Hl Slavonian oak casks and a further 12 months in bottle. Very Good+ to Excellent. $56 hospitality + tax
Burlotto Barolo Acclivi 2011 (Verduno): Comm. G.B. Burlotto is a historic producer that was founded in the mid-1800s in the commune of Verduno. Verduno is the most northerly cru in Barolo and as such has more of an Alpine influence from the cooler air flowing down from the mountain range. The wines thus tend to be extremely perfumed and in the past I have found them at times similar to northern Rhone syrah. Burlotto was founded by Giovan Battista Burlotto and is one of the first to sell wine labelled in bottle and not demijohns or barrels like every other producer in Piedmont at the time. Today Burlotto uses highly traditional winemaking techniques with extended maceration and up to 60 days with the extraction enhanced only by initial foot treading. This wine is as expected quite elegant and perfumed, with attractive cherry and herb aromas and a wonderful sense of terroir. It is open-knit and ready to drink. Very Good+ to Excellent. $65 hospitality + tax
Elio Grasso Barolo Gavarini Chiniera 2011 (Monforte d’Alba): Elio Grasso is one of the very best producers in Barolo. They have singlehandedly enhanced the reputation of Monforte with their superb bottings. Gavarini is one of the best vineyards in the cru and is solely owned by Grasso. It is protected by a thick wood on the hillside that the domaine claims is an essential component to the vineyard quality – and something that has been virtually eliminated in Barolo as trees have been ripped down to plant more profitable vineyard land. Vinification involves fermentation for 12-16 days in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks, with daily pumping over. After completing malolactic fermentation in stainless steel, the wine matures for two years in 25-hectolitre barrels of Slavonian oak. Bottling normally takes place in August. The wine is aged 8-10 months before release. A superb wine, with structure and elegance, deeply complex cherry fruit and florals. Most 2011s drink now but I would age this one. Excellent+ $103 hospitality + tax
Brovia Barolo Villero 2011 (Castiglione Falletto): Brovia is one of the best value producers in Barolo. In my view they are an upper echelon producer priced closer to the second tier. Brovia owns some of the best vineyard sites in Castiglione Falletto, including Rocche, Garblet Sue and Villero. The ageing takes place in French oak (mid size barrels of 30 Hl.), where the wine is allowed to mature for 2 years. After the ageing, the wine is put in the bottles without any filtration. The refining is carried out in a place at constant temperature and right humidity, protected from sunlight and artificial light. A more open and elegant wine than the Brea below, this is a spicy, leathery wine with tremendous beauty. Excellent. $99 hospitality + tax
Brovia Barolo Brea ‘ca’Mia’ 2011 (Serralunga d’Alba): The Brea vineyard is one of my favourite bottlings from Brovia (perhaps second only to the Rocche). It is powerful, structure and tannic wine, even in the warm and happy 2011 vintage. The manual harvest of the grapes takes place at the half of October. With controlled temperature (about 28°C) for a period of 15 – 20 days. The ageing takes place in French oak (mid size barrels of 30 Hl.), where the wine is allowed to mature for 2 years. After the ageing, the wine is put in the bottles without any filtration. The refining is carried out in a place at constant temperature and right humidity, protected from sunlight and artificial light. Excellent to Excellent+ $99 hospitality + tax
Vietti Barolo Castiglione 2012 (blend – Castiglione Falletto, Monforte d’Alba, Barolo and Novello): No Barolo lover cellar is complete without Vietti. The older vintages are some of the greatest in Barolo, and the new vintages show how a producer can be forward looking and openminded to new technology but also retain the soul and key traditions that make Barolo what it is. The Vietti holdings are among the most comprehensive in Barolo and encompasses all the great crus. The recent sale to an American who owns a convenience store change has yet to play out, but the hope is that little changes. The average age of the vines is of 7 to 35 years old, with 4.800 plants for hectare. Calcareous-clayey soil. All the single vineyard fruit is vinified and aged separately with different system in order to exalt the ‘terroire’ of that specific soil. Then after the ageing of 24 months in oak, all the wines are learnedly blended 8 months before the bottling. This particular bottling is the entry level Barolo, but it is always an outstanding wine that hits above its price point. For many, this may be the only affordable Vietti Barolo, but I highly recommend it. The 2012 vintage is radically different from the 2011 vintage in that it is much more finessed and elegant, with less heat, meaning less forward fruit. It will be a vintage for terroir-lovers and one to cellar. Excellent $83 hospitality + tax
Vietti Barolo Ravera 2012 (Novello): From the single vineyard Ravera in Novello with 4.900 plants per hectare and between 5 and 60 years old. Ravera in Novello is a fabulous hill facing south-west, with a calcareous-clay ground. The vinification is in stainless steel vats for 35 days, 5 of which are in cold pre-fermentation maceration, alcoholic fermentation, and then a long post-fermentation maceration at a temperature between 30/32 ° C. Daily air pumping-over using the old system called “submerged cap.” Slow malolactic fermentation in large casks almost until the end of the spring. The wine then stays more than a year on the lees and the Co2 produced during the malolactic fermentation in a reductive environment without sulfur.This is a remarkably complex wine that is quite closed right now. It needs extended cellaring but will likely become a masterpiece. Excellent to Excellent+ now but I do not doubt Excellent+ with age. $217 hospitality + tax