King of Wines
Where we come from gives us our sense of being. But where we’re from is more than just geography. It’s our parents, our environment and the many individuals who influence us over the course of our lives. It defines us, forms our personality and contributes to that element which determines who we are, what we believe in and how we live our lives … our soul.
Of the thousands of wines I have experienced over the course of my lifetime, I cannot think of any that possesses the soul of Barolo. “The wine of kings and the king of wines” has captured the imagination, palate and emotions of wine lovers everywhere — not just me. It is Italy’s most famous wine and perhaps its most complex and difficult to understand.
In some ways, Barolo is simple: the wine is made entirely of Nebbiolo grapes grown on the hillsides of northwest Italy’s Piedmont region. In many ways, tough, it shares the regional complexity of France’s Burgundy: many small vineyards, scattered like a patchwork quilt, each transferring to the wine a unique sense of place. As such, the wine is bound to convey a vineyard’s intricacies, its unique personality and its storied history. In the case of Barolo, things can be dated back to the early 1800s when the Marchesi Falletti’s wife, Giulietta, wanted her Nebbiolo to be referred to by the name of its town of origin, Barolo.
Barolo can be confusing and seemingly contradictory. Not necessarily weighty in the mouth, yet full of intensely penetrating flavours. Fiercely tannic and acidic when young, but evolving into a layered, multi-dimensional, elegant beauty as it ages (shades of brick-red even when young, the wine can often age for decades). Oftentimes assaulting to the palate when drunk on its own, yet masterfully tamed with flavourful food. Even the characteristics generally used to describe the wine are contradictory: how can a wine possess seemingly unpleasant notes of tar and tobacco, yet also delicate violets and roses?
The greatest confusion over Barolo, however, arises from the many vineyard designations and the seemingly subtle distinctions amongst them. Brunate, Bricco Rocche, Cerequio — all famous names, but how do they differ? Why is Ceretto’s Brunate Barolo slightly different from Marcarini’s Brunate? Of course, the answer lies in both the terroir and the winemaker.
My focus here, though, is to provide a better understanding of the various subzones of Barolo and their general characteristics, how they impart on the wine their sense of origin. Barolo producers take pride in allowing the wine to express the vineyard. What can you expect from a Barolo with a particular vineyard designation on its label?
The Barolo DOCG consists of approximately 3,000 acres of vineyards planted exclusively within eleven communes (Barolo, Castiglione Falletto, Cherasco, Diano d’Alba, Grinzane Cavour, La Morra, Monforte d’Alba, Novello, Roddi, Serralunga d’Alba and Verduno) located south of the city of Alba. The top DOCG vineyards are in Barolo, Castiglione Falletto, La Morra, Monforte d’Alba and Serralunga d’Alba.
This zone accounts for approximately 13% of the entire DOCG production. Located on the western part of the centre of the Barolo DOCG zone, wines from Barolo often combine the aromatic finesse of La Morra with the sheer power of Castiglione Falletto and Monforte. The key vineyards are also some of the DOCG’s most famous. Brunate and Cerequio (which are shared by the commune of La Morra) and Bricco Viole (literally “violet hill”) produce aromatic, perfumy wines. The best known and perhaps most prestigious vineyard may be Cannubi. The oldest bottle anywhere in the region bears the words “Cannubi 1752,” indicating the vineyard’s stature even before the birth of Barolo. Warm plush wines from producers such as Paolo Scavino, Luciano Sandrone and Marchesi di Barolo have seduced the palates of wine lovers. As well, the Nebbiolo grapes from the relatively unfertile Saramassa vineyard are considered by many old growers to rival those of Cannubi. Selected producers to experience the zone (in addition to the ones named above) include Bartolo Mascarello, Giacomo Borgogno, Giuseppe Rinaldi, Cabutto and Vajra.
This zone accounts for approximately 10% of the entire DOCG production. Although considered part of the eastern side of the DOCG, Castiglione Falleto essentially dominates the hills rolling through the centre of the zone. The vines on the west side of the ridge offer structured, somewhat alcoholic wines, while the Barolos from the eastern slope tend to be characterized as aromatic and elegant. Vineyards of note include Monprivato, which produces wines that are not only structured but also elegant and aromatic. Giuseppe Mascarello is most often associated with this vineyard. Grapes producing aromatic Barolo from sandy, limestone rich Rocche historically commanded a premium price. Often these grapes are combined with those from the clay-filled, slightly more fertile soils of Villero, which possess more tannin and alcohol. Situated between the two is Bricco Rocche, which shares the character of both. Producers Ceretto (Bricco Rocche); Oddero, Vietti, Brovia (Rocche); and Bruno Giacosa (Villero) are not to be missed.
This zone accounts for approximately 31% of the entire DOCG production. In the DOCG’s northwestern section, La Morra’s best vineyards are located on its eastern side. Two of the best vineyards, Bruante and Cerequio, are shared with the commune of Barolo. The typically aromatic and perfumed wines of La Morra result from its cru vineyards including Arborina (producers Elio Altare, Gianfranco Bovio), Monfalletto (Revello), La Serra (Marcarini, Roberto Voerzio) and Rocche dell’Annunziata (Renato Ratti, Paolo Scavino). From the Brunate vineyard (producers Ceretto, Vietti, Roberto Voerzio) are wines of remarkable balance in aromatics, structure and elegance. While the Cerequio vineyard (Michele Chiarlo, Roberto Voerzio) results in Barolos that are slightly more tannic.
This zone accounts for approximately 17% of the entire DOCG production. Located at the southern tip of the DOCG zone, the names of the great vineyards of Monforte are familiar to wine lovers. Bussia, Ginestra, and Santo Stefano di Perno are just some of the vineyards producing big, bold, structured, tannic, rich wines with fresh, intense aromas. Bussia, in particular is known for its aromatics, while Ginestra has historically been the source of grapes providing longevity, and some say that Santo Stefano may be the finest vineyard of them all. Must-try wines include Oddero, Poderi Colla, Aldo Conterno, Fenocchio, Armando Parusso (Bussia); Domenico Clerico, Paolo Conterno, Elio Grasso (Ginestra); and Giuseppe Mascarello, Rocche dei Manzoni (Santo Stefano).
This zone accounts for approximately 13% of the entire DOCG production. On the eastern border of the DOCG zone, the soils are rich in sandstone, resulting in wines of great depth, concentration and, in particular, remarkable tannin structure. The wines often acquire aromas of tar as they age. In addition, the quality of grapes is quite high throughout the entire zone. Major vineyards include the south/south-west facing Falletto (Bruno Giacosa), Gabutti (Cappellano), Lazzarito (Fontanafredda), Margaria (Luigi Pira), Ornato (Pio Cesare), Prapò (Ceretto, Mauro Sebaste) and Vigna Rionda (Oddero, Giacomo Anselma, Massolino).
What better way to enjoy Barolo and to discover its many personalities than to gather with friends and family and experience the wine together? Although I enjoy Barolo throughout the year, it is undeniably well-suited to Canadian winters. Full-flavoured and structured, it lends itself beautifully to hearty dishes. Gather around the fireplace, prepare some of the traditional Piedmontese dishes from the recipes that follow and discover for yourself Voerzio’s interpretation of the Brunate vineyard versus Marcarini’s. Or maintain the individual style of one producer (for example, try the Prapo, Brunate and Bricco Rocche Barolos from Ceretto) to allow your palate to gain a better understanding of vineyard variation. In any event, enjoy, indulge, share and experience, for that is the true beauty of wine and food.