In Pursuit of Barolo and Barbaresco: Visiting Piemonte, Italy

 

People go to Florence for the Duomo; Rome, the Colosseum; and Tuscany, the art. As the home to Alba white truffles and world-class wine, most people go to Piemonte for food and wine.

Italy’s most treasured red wines are found in the regions of Barolo and Barbaresco, located south of Alba in Piemonte. Made entirely from the Nebbiolo grape, it is natural to compare Barolo and Barbaresco to single-varietal Burgundy. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the primary grapes in Burgundy, grow all over the world. By contrast, Nebbiolo only really thrives in cooler-climate Northern Italy, and is harvested after a long, nail-biting growing season when any manner of things can go wrong and kill a crop. To hedge against the possibility of disaster, Nebbiolo producers also make wine made from less temperamental and more humble grapes like Dolcetto, Barbera, Arneis, Favorita, Freisa and Grignolino.

At first glance, the light, almost transparent, red hue of Barolo and Barbaresco is deceiving, and masks their powerful, complex characteristics of licorice, leather, hazelnuts, roses, violets, white truffle, high acidity and strong tannins. Many wines need to develop for at least 15 years. They are very reliable investments, though, as both regions have fortunately experienced multiple, consecutive high-rated vintages over the last decade.

A visit to Piemonte presents the opportunity to learn close-up about these exceptional, family-run wineries. Without any must-see tourist temples to distract, it’s easy to fall into a relaxed routine of scheduling winery visits around sightseeing and two-hour lunches in distinct, medieval towns. Though Michelin-starred restaurants are ample, it’s better to eat at the abundant local trattorie serving impeccable traditional dishes and housing extensive wine collections.

Sketching An Itinerary

The wines vary tremendously so it helps to understand a little about them before creating an itinerary full of winery visits. I scheduled visits based not just on favorite producers, but their use of different winemaking techniques and crus. I also veered toward smaller-scale producers.

My trip started in Serralunga d’Alba in the Barolo region. Serralunga is an ideal homebase for visiting the wineries of Cavallotto, Paolo Scavino and Vietti in nearby Castiglione Falletto. Later on in the week, I moved to La Morra, on the other side of Barolo, as a launchpad for visiting Barbaresco and La Morra producers.

By staying in two different places, it was easier for me to experience the various communes and restaurants that dot the region. Perched at the top of a steep hill, Serralunga is a sleepy pedestrian-only town with cobbled medieval streets and a castle. It is worth a brief stop for the castle, as well as a 12-table restaurant called Vinoteca Centro Storico, which is on the bucket lists of every visiting restaurant professional. (I’ll tell you why later.) The relatively more chaotic La Morra has a mix of modern and medieval buildings, and teems with mopeds, cars, tourists, shops and enotecas.

What Matters (or Not) About Barolo and Barbaresco

Differences between Barolo and Barbaresco

The soil. The climate. Barbaresco produces more approachable wines than Barolo because it benefits from a milder climate and shorter ripening season. The limestone soils of Barbaresco make more feminine, less tannic wines that require less aging. On the whole, Barolo is bigger, more tannic and acidic, and requires more aging to develop. Within Barolo, there are significant differences depending upon where the wine is grown. Calcareous marl soils in La Morra and Barolo commune produce lighter-hued, softer and more floral wines, whereas in Serralunga, sandstone yields grapes that produce more muscular, structured wines that need more aging. Castiglione Falletto wines are somewhere in the middle.

Blending v. Single Vineyards

Historically, Barolo, in particular, was made from blending wine from various sites throughout the area. The idea of producing a bottle that came from one cru, or designated site, is a relatively modern idea dating back to the swinging 1970s. Even so, placing the name of the cru on bottles did not happen until about the 1980s, and then it was viewed with suspicion. And even more so, the crus were not officially demarcated until 2007 and 2009 for Barbaresco and Barolo, respectively.

I do not intend to make these wine regions sound like the Wild West, though it does demonstrate how they are constantly evolving. By today’s standards, Maria Teresa Mascarello’s dogged adherence to the tradition bestowed by her father, Bartolo, to produce only blended Barolo, seems downright renegade. The vast majority of other producers make wine from specific crus and label them accordingly. Opponents claim that single-vineyard wines are marketing-drivel and pander to international consumer demands. They point to marketing abuses by certain larger producers in taking liberties with labeling crus on the bottles, thus rendering some crus undefinable and meaningless (as is arguably Bussia, which covers more terrain than it should and may be a dubious indicator of quality).

But, it’s hard to deny that many single vineyard wines are great examples of terroir. They are not going anywhere soon, so anyone who really wants to appreciate Barolo should not take a side about blending versus single vineyard wines. Both types are outstanding.

The Controversial “Modern” Techniques

People have strong opinions about this subject. What I’m referring to is the so-called modernization of winemaking in Barolo and Barbaresco, beginning in the 1960s.

Traditionally, Barolo was made using time-worn techniques constrained by harsh realities such as a lack of water and the devastation of war. Wines were aged in huge botti casks, passed down from generation to generation, that leaked and were rarely cleaned. When the younger generation took over winemaking in the 1960s, they, quite understandably, wanted to do things differently than their predecessors. Some of them did away with the big bottis in favor of aging wine in small barrels, known as barriques. Many of the resulting wines were bigger and consequently more palatable to Americans accustomed to big California cabernet sauvignons. It worked for awhile as critics like Robert Parker awarded them high scores.

Time cures all, and winemakers started to wonder if these new techniques really showed Nebbiolo in the best light. The new(er) practice of aging Nebbiolo in barriques can bring too many “foreign” flavors to the wine, like toast, vanilla and espresso. So bottis have reappeared (although they are cleaned, scraped and replaced more often). As fermentation and aging are now a combination of the old and new techniques, classifying a winery as “modern” versus “traditional” is misleading.

The Crus

Understanding the crus is the key to unlocking the varieties and complexities of Barolo and Barbaresco. Generally speaking, certain vineyards within Barolo and Barbaresco are regarded as producing more intriguing wines. It helps to schedule visits to winemakers, such as Scavino, Vietti, and Produttori del Barbaresco, who produce wine from a variety of crus. Just as important as where the grapes are grown are the farming practices employed in the vineyard. Canopy management, pruning, pest control and even planting grass between the rows, all impact the final product.

The Producers

By and large, wineries in Barolo and Barbaresco are proudly family-run. In this day and age, where wine is so often produced by corporate-owned estates, it is remarkable that major wineries are still passed down through the generations. As the wineries are inherited, they are occasionally passed down to daughters, so Barolo and Barbaresco possess an unusually high number of female winemakers.

These small(er)-production wineries are completely transparent about their winemaking, and will take visitors through their production facilities (or, in the case of Cavallotto, out to their vineyard) even on days when they are buzzing with activity. (When I was there in September, Vietti was harvesting Barbera right outside the door to our tasting room.) The families are welcoming, willing to talk in great detail about their wine, and will pour you an extensive tasting. Most of the time, they charge sweet little for this incredible experience or wave off any offer of payment. They are hardworking, smart and hospitable people, which is the primary reason why a wine visit to Piemonte is so rewarding and educational.

Next: My visits to winemakers in Barolo and Barbaresco, the international treasure that is Vinoteca Centro Storico, and why they consume so much Champagne in Barolo.

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