BAROLO & BARBARESCO

BAROLO

BAROLO IS A NUMBER OF THINGS

  • Barolo is a village 70 km south of Turin in the Province of Cuneo, in the Region (State) of Piemonte (Piedmont in English and never the hybrid/mongrel Piedmonte!). A beautiful little town, framed by the Castello di Barolo, and small enough to walk fairly thoroughly in under an hour. It contains, just within a couple of hundred metres of each other, the actual cellar doors and wineries, of such famous names as Mascarello (Bartolo), Brezza, Borgogno, Barale, Chiara Boschis, Marchesi di Barolo and Giuseppe Rinaldi; each of which you can almost stumble upon, such are their (mostly) unprepossessing frontages. The comune’s most famous vineyard Cannubi, itself starts right on the edge of the village.
  • Barolo village also gives its name to one of the 11 comunes that make up the Barolo wine zone; this is the Barolo DOCG
  • In turn the wider region known as the Langhe is broadly given the name ‘Barolo’ in common usage. “We had a week in Barolo” may mean we never actually went into the town of Barolo, but may have stayed in the general area, even as much as 20km away (from Barolo village itself) and took in some, or many of the delights that characterise the area; be they the Nebbiolo wines actually labelled Barolo or Barbaresco, or the wines named by variety and separate designated zones, like Nebbiolo, Barbera or Dolcetto d’Alba, along with the sights like the spectacular view from La Morra or the fabulous food. The food…
  • In a broader sense this Barolo area is a concept that stretches even further, taking in a wider area like the Roero zone, famous for its elegant Nebbiolos and most of all, for Arneis or more north and easterly, to take in the famous Moscato and Barbera d’Asti or the Barbera wines of Nizza and Monferrato, which are growing in repute, or we might go south of Barolo to Dogliani, the zone which covers many of the best Dolcettos . Each of these basks somewhat in the reflected glory of the Barolo idea.

The Barolo zone

The Barolo appellation or DOCG – Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita –  was the inaugural DOC of Italy in 1966 and was one of the first three granted DOCG status. This ‘G’ was added to underline an extra step (over DOC) of the wines needing to pass tasting by a Government-authorised panel, in order to get their numbered DOCG labels to affix to the neck of every bottle.

The DOCG for Barolo requires the following:

  • 100% Nebbiolo grapes
  • Vineyard altitudes: 170 meters minimum, 540 m maximum
  • Area under vine: just on 2,000 ha
  • Maximum production per hectare: 54 hl per ha (7,200 bottles)
  • Ageing is 38 months from 1st November following harvest.
  • Minimum 18 months of that ageing in wood.
  • Riserva can be applied once wine is aged for 60 months (from 1st November after harvest)
  • Minimum alcohol: 13% by volume
  • Minimum total acidity: 4.5 grams per litre
  • Minimum dry extract: 22 grams per litre
  • Production: up to around 13 m bottles per year. 2018 production, eg was 972,200 cases.

MGA (Menzioni Geografiche Aggiuntive)

The 11 comunes that make up the Barolo zone are further identified by 181 MGA’s – Menzione Geografiche Aggiuntive – specific Additional Geographic Mentions. 11 of these are to cover each village or comune and the rest are recognised vineyards – or Cru, if you like. In fact we now commonly use the French term Cru for these individual identified Barolo vineyards. Somewhat similar to the French concept, maybe most similarly to Burgundy, these individual Cru vineyards are often shared by various owners, who may or may not make a wine themselves or sell the grapes. Within these ‘Crus’ there is an allowance for some recognised sub-zones eg Bussia’s Soprana and within them further, some approved sub-plots – similar to a Burgundy lieux dit eg – can be identified on a label, like Cicala, Colonello and Romirasco of Aldo Conterno’s parcels of Bussia Cru of Monforte d’Alba comune. There, that’s not hard to understand…is it?

Barolo is made up of soil that is extremely varied, which justified the work of delineating the broad range of MGAs. This task was completed in 2010, and resulted in 181 names, or MGAs, and among which are 11 villages (or communes) that can be labelled on wines. They are separate from single-vineyard wines and perhaps best approximate the Villages concept of Burgundy.

NB: These MGAs do not imply any classification of quality, nor do they present a guarantee, given the complexity of the land in Barolo, that any specific MGA will express any terroir homogeneity – even if it is true the very concept does imply distinctive character. As such, neither the letters MGA nor the words “menzioni geografiche aggiuntive” have to appear on the label.

The Communes

The DOCG zone of Barolo, which very approximately stretches about 15 kms north to south, from just below Alba, and just over 10 kms at its widest, encompasses 11 comunes, most of which, but not all, fall entirely within the zone. The comunes are;

  • Barolo,
  • Castiglione Falletto,
  • Serralunga d’Alba,
  • Cherasco,
  • Diano d’Alba,
  • Grinzane Cavour,
  • La Morra,
  • Monforte d’Alba,
  • Novello,
  • Roddi
  • Verduno

The Barolo Terroirs

In very general terms we divide the Barolo zone by an imaginary line, running north to south, which notionally divides the western side, with its slightly softer and more generous wines, from the more ‘severe’, structured and powerful wines of the eastern portion. When it comes to Nebbiolo of course, ‘softer’ is a rather relative term.

The overall soil makeup of the whole area is the famous blue-grey calcareous marl – in the west somewhat more fertile and mixed with sand, while on the right-hand/eastern side, the lighter-coloured soils are less fertile and more interspersed with elements of limestone and clay. The other facets of ‘terroir’, like aspect, elevation and drainage eg, all make for an inexact science; but there are patterns of characteristics, to the extent that an experienced taster can identify, and tasters either experienced or not, can enjoy subtle differences from place to place within this relatively small zone. We will expand on this in time.

Comune Barolo and Normale

It is also important to note that 11 of these MGAs are not Cru as such, but instead are comune recognitions, perhaps a bit like the Burgundian Villages Appellations, allowing for a composite wine from across the specific commune, as long as the components (or sole component) qualifies to be Barolo. So what we know as normale, just labelled Barolo (ie without a Cru identified) can be one of these MGAs and identified as Barolo del Comune di La Morra or Serralunga or any of those 11 comune names. But even if it’s drawn from a specific commune the producer may just stick with labelling it as Barolo. This ‘base’ or ‘normale’ label can also indicate a wine drawn from either a single vineyard (Cru), but not identified as such, or from a combination of places across the zone.

A Barolo Hierarchy?

Perhaps the last thing to say (for now) is that conventional wisdom has recognised 5 of these 11 as the premier communes of the zone; these are La Morra, Barolo, Monforte d’Alba, Castiglione Falletto and Serralunga d’Alba as they contain 140 of the 181 MGAs. Remembering that 11 of the MGAs cover the communes it leaves just 31 of the recognised or Cru vineyards to be shared amongst the others (6 comunes). More current ‘wisdom’ should insist that another two communes join the hitherto elite 5. Novello and Verduno, which contain 18 Cru between them, and most importantly the surely Grand Cru (another common-useage but completely unofficial term) vineyards of Ravera and Monvigliero respectively, hardly need to do more to prove themselves. So between these 7 comunes they share the majority of Cru vineyards and whatever number constitute the Grands Cru of Barolo, they are all to be found in these 7 comunes.

A NOTE ON BAROLO VINTAGES

Of course, only time will tell if the recent, fabulous 2016 or 2015 really are as great as legendary vintages ’82 or 1978, but whatever happens they continue a pretty good run. Having tried plenty of wines from all vintages over the last couple of decades, I’d group them something like this – and happy to have some vintages in a couple of camps;

  • Handful of good wines made – 2002
  • Variable conditions, but plenty of good wines made – 2003, 2007, 2009, 2012, 2014
  • Very good vintages, some close to great, even if some underrated (like ’05, especially ’08) 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2011 (especially on eastern side), 2013, 2015
  • Hard to argue against greatness – 2001, 2016. Might move 2004 up here yet.

Of other older vintages, and ones which you might occasionally come across, I’ve found ’99 to’96 inclusive, pretty reliable or better, and the 1990/’89 twinset as usual, highly reliable to still present well.

And coming? 2017s are clearly in need of good winemaking to control the warm conditions, but show good aromatics and complexities overall. 2018 introductories, like Langhe and Nebb d’Alba have generally shown superbly and my extensive tastings in January confirm wines of great elegance, but also ample weight – in fact many truly beautiful wines. 2019 will be unarguably fine to great, 2020 also, while ’21 can be called already; spectacular, no doubt.

 

BARBARESCO

BARBARESCO – OUT FROM THE SHADOW?

If we start with say the 1978 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Santo Stefano or the ’85 Riserva, or the ’61 Barbaresco of Angelo Gaja, or in more modern times a Barbaresco Rabaja or Asili Riserva of Giacosa or the Produttori del Barbaresco or the super sub-plot pair Gaiun or Camp Gros off Marchesi di Gresy’s Martinenga monopole, we have a number of unarguable candidates to sit in a line-up with any Barolo ‘Top-10’. That is to say, Barbaresco is only in the shadow of Barolo by sheer weight of numbers (there’s 3 times as much of the latter), but certainly not in quality terms. In fact when we say Barolo, we should learn to say Barolo and Barbaresco…or at least mean that. A relationship more like Cote Rotie to Hermitage rather than that of the Cotes de Beaune to the Cotes de Nuits?

The Barbaresco Zone

Like Barolo, Barbaresco was first delimited as a DOC in 1966 and became, along with Barolo and the Tuscan pair, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Brunello di Montalcino, the first four DOCGs of Italy in 1980. Unlike Barolo, the boundaries assigned to Barbaresco have remained as they were drawn up.

Barbaresco Rules and Numbers

The DOCG for Barbaresco requires;

  • 100% Nebbiolo grapes
  • Vineyard altitudes: no minimum, but a 550 m maximum
  • Area under vine: 578 ha
  • Maximum production per hectare: 54 hl per ha (7,200 bottles)
  • Ageing is 26 months from 1st November following harvest. So allowed to be released 1 year earlier than Barolo
  • Minimum 9 months of that ageing in wood.
  • Riserva can be applied once wine is aged for 50 months (from 1st November after harvest)
  • Minimum alcohol: 12.5% by volume
  • Minimum total acidity: 4.5 grams per litre
  • Minimum dry extract: 22 grams per litre
  • Production: up to nearly 4m bottles per year. 2018 production, eg was 378,000 cases.

Barbaresco Comunes

The DOCG zone of Barbaresco, just north-east of Alba, takes in 4 townships (compared to the 11 of Barolo); 3 of them in their entirety.

  • Barbaresco
  • Neive
  • Treiso
  • Alba, specifically only the locality of San Rocco Seno Elvio.

Barbaresco MGAs

There are 66 MGAs (Additional Geographic Mentions) for Barbaresco, but no allowance for Comune MGA labelling (unlike Barolo’s Barolo del Comune di Serralunga or La Morra ie the 11 townships).  Similarly to Barolo, there are a few specific sub-plot mentions allowed, most notably the Camp Gros and Gaiun portions of the Martinenga Cru or Santo Stefano of Albesani.

Barbaresco Terroirs

Despite having essentially the same soils as Barolo, the differences both within Barbaresco and from Barolo, would seem to be that the predominant soils are mostly the same grey-white marls as are dominant on that ‘softer’ western (left-hand) side of the Barolo map, and that in a macro sense, Barbaresco is warmer and its vineyards are predominantly at lower altitudes than Barolos. There are patches of the more ‘severe’ let’s say Serralunga (right-hand) type soils, but aspect and altitude tend to be the determinants of style and structure. While Barbaresco is indeed harvested (about 2 weeks) and released and regarded as drinkable, a little earlier than Barolo, it certainly doesn’t lack layering, structure and zing, to complement its perfume and elegance. Nor do they lack in the age-worthiness department; I’d be pretty keen and confident to share anyone’s bottle of ’78 Giacosa Barbaresco Santo Stefano Riserva, or an ’85 Marchesi di Gresy Barbaresco Gaiun, if you happened to have one?

A Barbaresco Hierarchy

It’s fairly universally agreed that the definite Grands Cru (as mentioned before, an unofficial terminology) are the adjoining magic trio of Asili, Martinenga and Rabaja, just below Barbaresco township (of Barbaresco commune). Some would, reasonably, like to add nearby Paje, and others (like me) would have the Santo Stefano sub-plot of Albesani (in Neive commune) in there – at least on its historical, if not so much recent, record. Barbaresco (comune) has nearly half the zone’s MGAs and it tends to claim pre-eminence. Stylistically, the wines have real elegance underpinning intense and layered perfumes, of red fruits and flowers, allied to real zingy structure and finish. Neive comune wines are generally characterised by more toughness (tautness?) of structure, reserve and generally darker elements. Some austere and tannic wines are found in Treiso, and often need quite some breathing. Some very nice, if not widely celebrated Barbaresco wines come from San Rocco Seno d’Elvio/Alba. In fact the first-ever bottle actually labelled as Barbaresco apparently came from here (in 1870).

A NOTE ON BARBARESCO VINTAGES

Because of its relative (to Barolo) lightness and elegance I think Barbaresco finds it harder to hide (or should I say ‘accommodate’?) both adverse vintage conditions and winemaking faults. The vintages here don’t always line up with Barolo; 2013 eg being clearly better to great for Barolo and mostly just very good for Barbaresco. 2014 is generally the reverse. Only time will tell if the recent, exceptional 2017 or 2010 vintages are as great as ’85 or 1978, but whatever happens they continue a pretty good run. Having tried plenty of wines from all vintages over the last couple of decades, I’d group them something like this;

Too hard, too wet or just too hot – 2002, 2003
Good, with many good examples, including oldies still going well – 2003, 2005, 2008, 2011, 2012
Very good vintages – 2000, 2007 and 2014
Very good vintages, so close to great – 2004, 2006, 2009, 2010, 2017
Hard to argue against greatness – 2001, 2015, 2016 The best 2017s are superb, in a vintage decimated by hail and quite a few didn’t offer wines.
Of other older vintages, and ones which you might occasionally come across, I’ve found ’99 to ’96 inclusive, pretty reliable or better, and the 1990/’89 twinset as usual, highly reliable to still present well.
And coming? 2018 Rossos have generally shown superbly and the big guns show a similar elegance with ample flesh. Here as in Barolo, elegance is not code for lean or prone to palate ‘holes’. Buy with confidence – and I don’t just mean my wines! 2019 will be a beauty and 20 likewise, with even more enthusiasm being shown for 2021. In fact if the varietals already on the market (whites, Dolcetto and Barbera eg) are any guide, this is easily a vintage in the serious class of 2016.

SOME FAVOURITE SOURCES AND FURTHER INFO

    For that crucial historical background;

    • Italy’s Noble Red Wines – Sheldon & Pauline Wasserman (1985)
    • Barolo Tar and Roses – Garner & Merritt (1990)
    • The Mystique of Barolo – Rosso & Meier (2002)

    More contemporary analysis and detail;

    • Italy’s Native Grape Terroirs – Ian D’Agata
    • Barbaresco MGA – Alessandro Masnaghetti
    • Barolo MGA – Alessandro Masnaghetti
    • “Nebbiolo” » Italian Wine Central   www.italianwinecentral.com

    FAQS – topics we’ll explore as our new website develops

    • Langhe vs. d’Alba?
    • Characteristics of the comunes?
    • Nebbiolo d’Alba explained
    • Cru or normale Barolo and Barbaresco; which is best…if either?
    • How long do they last – and take to improve?
    • Does DOCG mean better?
    • Which is the greatest, Barolo or Barbaresco?
    • Are there differences in how one producer makes their wine, compared to another?