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24 Apr 2018 | Randy Kemner

Barolo & Barbaresco: Italy's Red Wine Divas

Customers who come back from Italian vacations are enthralled with the wines, foods, lifestyle, hospitality and beauty of the greatest-hits places like Rome, Tuscany's Siena and Florence, Venice, the Amalfi Coast and the Cinqueterra and, of course, Venice.

Fewer tourists visit food meccas like Emilia-Romagna (the home of Balsamic vinegar, Parma Reggiano, Prosciutto Parm, Lambrusco and lasagna) or Piedmont, home to October's white truffles, risotto and some of the most hauntingly beautiful wines in the world.

Tucked away in northeast Italy between Liguria on the south, France to the west, Lombardy to the east and the Swiss Alps to the north, Piedmont (foot of the mountain) is hilly country, with plenty of grasses from the cooler, wetter climate, and some of the most meticulously manicured vineyards I've ever seen.  In fact, there are Barolo vineyards that look like hedges that have been trimmed by a chainsaw rather than hand-tied to grape stakes and trellises.

The white wines of Piedmont are some of the most famous in all Italy, Gavi, Arneis and the sublime Moscato d'Asti and its sweet, frothy red brother Brachetto d'Aqui.  The red wines range from the versatile joys of Dolcetto to the fresh tasting, berry-like goodness of Barbera.

But it is the fickle and sometimes untamable Nebbiolo (named from Nebbia, the fog that shrouds the area) that is the stuff of Piedmont's most celebrated wines:  Gattinara to the north closer to Turin, and Alba's twin giants Barolo and Barbaresco.

The characteristics of wines made from Nebbiolo are a range of colors from dark and black to light cherry red.  Because the grape oxidizes easily, there is a look of advanced browning to wines just a few years old, but that works in Nebbiolo's favor, bringing unimaginable beauty and spicy complexity to its aromas and flavors. 

The tannins in Nebbiolo are not like the broad drying material in Cabernet Sauvignon, but are more astringent, like long steeped tea.  All but the oldest Nebbiolos benefit from long decanting to release its hidden charms, often for two hours before consuming.  Favorite foods are game, mushrooms and braised meats.  When I was a visitor, all the Barolo producers I met offered generous portions of Fontina and Parma Reggiano cheeses to accompany their young Barolos.

The Nebbiolos of Barbaresco & Barolo

Barberesco and Barolo are privileged regions within the larger umbrella of the Langhe.  In fact, wines labeled Langhe Nebbiolo and Nebbiolo d'Alba are a good cost-conscious introduction to the more prized wines of Barbaresco and Barolo.  Many producers offer Langhe Nebbiolo and Nebbiolo d'Alba wines in addition to their pedigree wines as a way of providing a commercial outlet for their fruit from younger vines, and vines planted on less advantaged vineyard sites.  I've sampled some Nebbiolos from top producers that were superior to Barolos from lesser producers, making them great values by comparison.

The Nebbiolos of Barbaresco, immediately northeast of Alba, exhibit the trademark rose-petal perfume of the grape and generally are a bit lacier in structure and lighter in body.  I wouldn't call them girly-girl, exactly, because of Nebbiolo's notorious tannins.  They are a modern definition of femininity, chiseled, focused, firm and still able to cast its charms when it chooses.  Barbarescos were rarely celebrated until Angelo Gaya began picking his grapes riper, fermenting them in rotary fermenters, aging them in new French oak barrels and promoting them as the equal to any great wine in the world.  That one force of nature was the tide that raised all boats in Barbaresco.

Most wine experts would agree, the king of Piedmont wines are those from Barolo, directly south of Alba.  Majestic, deep and full bodied, possessing the ethereal charms of aroma and flavor only found in red Burgundy, and occasionally in Côte-Rôtie.  Barolo vineyards are usually laid out on south-facing hillsides below the picturesque medieval hilltop villages of the region.

Barbarescos can be released a year earlier than Barolos, which traditionally had required 20 years in the cellar to tame its tannins, but due to modern winemaking techniques can be quite charming upon release with a couple hours decanting.

Wine has been a part of northern Italian culture since Roman times, but it has only been in the 20th century that Barolo came into its own.  It's motto, "The King of Wine and the Wine of Kings" would suggest there was Barolo on the tables of Louis XV and the Medici Popes.  There was noble interest in the wines in the early 19th century, but the fact is, most Barolo producers were poor farmers until the 1980s when there was an American rush to discover everything wine, thereafter infusing the countryside with cash.  That enabled the best and most ambitious of the farmers to upgrade their vineyards and cantines with modern technology.

There is a push-pull between modern and traditional winemaking in both regions.  Some wines are fermented and aged in large casks, while some are fermented in stainless steel rotary fermenters and aged in French oak barrels, like Burgundy. 

Also, like Burgundy, Barolo producers place great emphasis on single-vineyard bottlings, and for some time there has been an effort to create a Grand Cru designation for its finest vineyards.  Each of the eleven Barolo communes lays claim to several vineyards designated "great," even though there is no offical status.  The Barolo Communes are Barolo, Montforte d'Alba, Castiglioni Falleto, Serralunga d'Alba, La Morra, Grinzane Cavour, Novello, Verduno, Diano d'Alba, Cerasco and Roddi.  Of those, most of the great Barolos I've had the pleasure to enjoy come from the first five.

Elio Altare is given credit as the father of the modern Barolo movement.  His discovery of great Burgundy in the 1970s gave him the inspiration to abandon the old ways in favor of a progressive vision of clean aromas and a meshing of oak aromas and flavors with Barolo's classic perfume.  So revolutionary was Altare that opposing camps formed.  It even created a family rift with his own father who completely rejected Altare's reforms.

Because of Altare, the world can now enjoy younger Barolos like the plush, inviting wines of Azelia, Chiara Boschis, M. Marengo, Marcarini, Luigi Enaudi and others. 

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