An Iron Fist in a Velvet Glove – Barolo and Barbaresco
Undisputedly, one of the greatest red wines in the world, the iron fist in the velvet glove has been a long-time apt description of Italy’s age worthy and intense red wines, Barolo and Barbaresco.
Put simply, made from a native black grape, Nebbiolo from vineyards around twin hilltop towns of Barolo and Barbaresco. What makes these wines so special and highly regarded globally?
Officially, by the denomination’s DOCG rules, Barolo must be aged for a minimum of three years, eighteen months of which must be in oak (but nine months for Barbaresco) and the remainder aged in bottle before sale. A Barolo Riserva requires an additional two years aging in bottle.
Barrique or Botti
The oak barrel is to the winemaker what the spice rack is to the chef. Aging in oak barrels impacts dramatically on a wine’s personality. Oak has several roles: to deliver tannins and to add additional flavour to the wine. Just as spices can affect food’s colour, aroma and flavour, an oak barrel also helps to fixate and stabilise a red wine’s colour.
Effectively, as a porous lung, the oak barrel allows the wine to breathe microscopically through the wood’s pores and this micro-oxygenation reduces the harshness of the raw tannins from black grape skins and seeds. Biting into grape seeds gives an idea of that bitterness.
Traditionally, Barolo winemakers used Botti, huge 5,000-6,000 litre Slavonian oak vessels. Their lower ratio of wood to wine allowed the terroir and character of the vineyard to be expressed and the personality of a mature Nebbiolo, restrained dried red cherry fruit, orange peel and cedar slowly evolving.
Since the 1990s, a trend to use French new oak barriques emerged where the smaller 225 litre barrel had a higher wood to wine ratio that emphasised colour and black fruit with vanilla in a more international style. Some producers will use a Tonneau, a mid-sized 500 litre vessel. Using a combination of barrel sizes gives some Barolos the combined benefit of richer fruit and colour while not sacrificing its local accent of the vineyard or subtle complexities.
Named after two towns, Barolo and Barbaresco facing each other on opposite hills of the same valley, the wines are made from a single black grape varietal, Nebbiolo unique in Italy to this Alpine north-west region of Piedmont (foot of the mountain), an hour’s drive south-east of the region’s capital, Turin/Torino. Famous towns nearby are Alba, home of the white truffle and Neive, one of Italy’s loveliest of towns.
Dishing the Dirt
The area around Barolo has eleven townships/communes with the five key ones being Barolo, Castiglione, Falletto, La Morra, Monforte d’Alba and Serralunga d’Alba. Essentially there are two different styles among these five communes.
Two distinct soil types are the key to their styles. Barolo and La Morra have a blue tinted Tortonian soil which gives a fruitier early maturing style. Whereas, Serralunga and Monforte have beiger Helvetian soils which give a more structured style that is slower to mature. Castiglione enjoys the best of both worlds with both soil types. Within those communes are crus or approved single vineyards whose names sometimes feature on the label also, e.g. Cannubi.
A very broad guide as to how quickly or slowly a wine may take to mature in the bottle for optimum enjoyment is mirrored by how long the grapes take to ripen on the vine. Nebbiolo is a late ripening varietal and its name contains a clue. Nebbia, the Latin word for fog inspired the name of this black grape varietal. The ripening of its berries up to late October coincides with the late autumnal fog rising from the local river, Tanaro.
Stylistically, Barolo is regarded as the more masculine and austere and is aged longer on its black grape skins to extract flavours, aromas and consequently, tannin. While Barbaresco is a little more approachable and feminine and spends less time on its grape skins. Red fruit, liquorice, hay and roses are typical descriptions of the wine. Nebbiolo’s trinity of trademarks is high in tannin, acidity and alcohol hovering around 14%-14.5% ABV.
Traditionally, producers would age the red wine for lengthy periods in Slavonian botti. Over time, the wine’s pale ruby pigment faded to mahogany, a colour usually associated with the wine. But over-extended aging in barrel would strip the flavour of its fruit, like a doughnut with the jam sucked out, leaving a very austere wine that demanded decades aging in bottle to soften the astringency with time.
The relevance of a red wine’s colour with its character is as inaccurate as matching a person’s personality with their hair colour. Colour is just pigment. For instance, Barolo has a pale colour but a great structure with the ability to age for decades. Most of the wines featured below will reward keeping in bottle until a decade from their vintage year when they commence their long plateau of perfection from 2022 to over 2030.
Because these wines are typically restrained and verging on austerity in youth, they benefit from decanting a few hours in advance. Otherwise, if pouring directly from the bottle, they generally keep for longer than most opened bottles of red and remain fresh for 4-5 days.
Serving temperature is very important for Barolo and Barbaresco. At 16C-18C is perfect to reduce the tannin’s astringency. Cooler than that and the tannins feel more aggressive, mouth-drying and about as pleasurable as sucking a used teabag.
Multi-Vineyard Complexity Vs Single Vineyard Individuality
For many traditional producers of Barolo and Barbaresco, they placed importance in the blending of Nebbiolo grapes from different vineyard’s soils to widen the complexity of their wine. A shift in interest by consumers as part of a Francophile infatuation with the individuality of single vineyard wines.
For example, the Chateaux of Bordeaux and both Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards in Burgundy’s Domaines inspired some Italian wine producers to court this growing and premium paying international market. The challenge is to clarify for the consumer that one is not better than the other.
A Barolo or Barbaresco made from a blend of vineyards planted with Nebbiolo should not be considered as “normal”, “ordinary” or “straight”. Blend is not shorthand for bland.
Just fifteen years ago, I met one of the acclaimed producers of Nebbiolo, Angelo Gaja on his first visit to Ireland. The meeting coincided with his birthday soon our interview turned into a memorable birthday celebration. I recall Angelo underpinning what makes Nebbiolo one of the greatest black grape varietals in the world.
By contrast with the Super Tuscan wines which use Bordeaux’s classic couple, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to change the style of Tuscany’s native Sangiovese-based wines; Barbaresco and Barolo’s native Nebbiolo grape has such a strong personality, it cannot be improved upon by adding another varietal. In that sense, Nebbiolo sits in the company of other world class black solo performers, Pinot Noir and Syrah.
The Langhe DOC spans both Barolo DOCG and Barbaresco DOCG. Some producers of each DOCG may declassify to this broader regional Langhe DOC which represents excellent value and often oak aging is not practised, giving fruitier styles. Other neighbouring regions of Nebbiolo are at Roero DOCG with its sandy soils giving a more approachable style and also the two DOCGS to the north at Ghemme and Gattinara.
Barolo 2012, Albe, G.D. Vajra
€48.99 – Available at in Dublin: The Corkscrew; Jus De Vine; Blackrock Cellars; Terroirs; Green Man Wines; Drink Store; Clontarf Wines; Callan’s; Sweeney’s; Hole in the Wall; Redmond’s and 64 Wine. Egan’s Food & Wine; Red Nose Wines, Clonmel; Mannings Emporium, Clonakilty and World Wide Wines, Waterford.
Pale ruby colour. Aromas of freshly sawed wood. Intense with juicy acidity challenging and overcoming the firm tannins. A local accent of the vineyard’s terroir adding interest and character to the long finish.
Food friend: Try with calf’s liver sautéed with onions and a mustard cream.
Barolo 2012, Ricossa
€24.99 – Available at SuperValu nationwide
Pale garnet in colour. Aromas of ripe red fruits and damp leaves. Firm but accessible tannins complemented by a leafy freshness and integrated acidity with a peppery finish. Exceptionally approachable now.
Food friend: Robust enough to match a steak tartare.
Barolo 2013, Cannubi, Francesco Rinaldi & Figli
€65 – Available at Whelehans Wines, Silver Tassie, Loughlinstown
A ruby colour evolving to a mahogany hue.
Muted earthy bouquet from this single vineyard wine at Cannubi. Restrained style with a firm grip of tannins and a peppery finish. A slow evolver.
Food friend: Perfect with feathered game, pigeon or duck.
Barbaresco 2013, Pio Cesare
€62.99 – Available in Dublin at Whelehans, Silver Tassie, Loughlinstown; Redmond’s, Ranelagh and The Vintry, Rathgar.
A youthful ruby colour with a refined meaty and savoury bouquet. The palate is just sublime with silky tannins and well-woven acidity into the fabric of the wine. Benchmark tar and roses with the alcohol in balance and a savoury finish. A very seductive expression of Nebbiolo.
Food friend: ideal with a risotto of porcini mushrooms and served with a drizzle of truffle scented olive oil.
Barolo 2013, Pio Cesare
€65 – Available in Dublin at The Corkscrew, Chatham Street; Deveney’s, Dundrum; Donnybrook Fair; Redmond’s, Ranelagh; Jus De Vin, Portmarnock; The Vintry, Rathgar, Martin’s, Fairview.
Pale ruby-mahogany appearance. Perfumed with truffle and moist earth. Intense and very masculine in style with its muscularity hiding its fruity heart. Finishing firm and brooding. Needs time to develop in stark contrast to its Barbaresco sister of the same vintage.
Food friend: comforting with an earthy beef and kidney pie.
Liam Campbell is one of Ireland’s most experienced wine writers. His work has been featured in the pages of numerous publications, most recently as the Wine & Drinks Editor for The Irish Independent, as well as in Irish Homes, Easy Food and The Dubliner magazines.
Besides writing, his involvement in the world of wine goes deeper: he’s an approved WSET educator and holder of a WSET Diploma, Diploma in Craft Beer & Cider, and he has worked as judge in international wine competitions and as a wine consultant.