Barolo occupies one of the cardinal points in the understanding and knowledge of fine red wine. It can provide the sort of experience that reveals wine as an art, and defines greatness without a word. It reflects and justifies the exceptional degree of expertise and detailed devotion expended upon it, to bring to life the unique gifts of the grape and the land.
It emerged as a modern wine early in the nineteenth century, showing its full potential when, following trends in France, it was made fully fermented, and treated with the care needed to permit long life, especially in bottle. However, the high reputation of the wines of the district is traceable through many earlier centuries; Pliny the Elder and even (a bit tenuously) Julius Caesar are quoted in evidence.
Its finest gift lies in its delicacy and subtlety. Yet this delicacy can have the power to assail your nose with the floweriest of bouquets before you lift the glass from the table. Again, its power in the mouth is not brute force, but exercises all human gifts of perception and sensitivity.
But Barolo is above all Barolo, and can sensibly only be approached as just that. While it can claim the position of being the biggest of the fine wines, and the finest of the big, it does not and must never comply with some international notion that would confine the nature and style of Great Red Wine. It is already part of that entity and maintains the breadth of meaning of that concept.
Barolo sets its own standard. The balance of power of flavour, aroma and alcohol with acidity and asperity can be perfect when quite different from that in any other fine wine with which comparison is attempted. The highest ambition for the greatest Barolo producer is to make Barolo like the finest Barolo.
You could read in English in the 1960s and '70s that Barolo was a big robust southern European wine lacking delicacy (well often reaching 14% of alcohol it must be!) presumably written by people so expert that they didn't need to taste it - or look at a map. It is the very quality of delicacy that is most threatened by many of the changes that the "All Red Wine Should Taste The Same" campaign would like to see. The heirs of those who once asserted that it had no delicacy would now brutally smother it; principally by using imported constituents.
The undulating contorted terrain of the Barolo vineyards almost deserves to exist for the eye alone. From the viewpoint in Verduno at the northern edge, or from Piazza Castello and the inevitably named 'Belvedere' restaurant at the top of La Morra, you can see mile upon mile of vineyard, across Barolo, Serralunga, Monforte, Castiglion and Grinzane, in a thousand different gradients, mounds and hollows displaying for the sun. And you may ponder from here that each barely distinguishable dot that is a vine is individually tended winter and spring and summer; as well as in autumn when all is gathered in.
The zone of Barolo looks reasonably tidy on the map, but is quite difficult to define in terms of the eleven comunes involved. It is described as being made up of three comunes, and 'part of' eight others. The 'part of' Verduno at the far north of the Barolo zone stops where the land falls away facing north and represents half of this small comune. But 'part of' La Morra means all of La Morra except a tiny patch on the river plain; and that "part" makes up a third of the entire Barolo zone. 'Part of' the important comune (including the city) of Cherasco amounts to just one hectare of the total 1200.
Besides these historical and now legal boundaries of the zone, there is a geological division running diagonally through the middle of it. The rock is all basically miocene marl, but that in the north-west half of the zone, La Morra and Barolo, is light in colour, more chalk bearing and compact: 'Tortonian' like Barbaresco. The other half, 'Helvetian' is heavier. On this side are Serralunga and Monforte. Many of the very finest vineyards lie along the line where the two rock-types meet. Received opinion is that this conjunction gives rise to their excellence. This of course conflicts with the theory that microclimate counts for everything, and "The snow melting first on the best sites". Good! that is why it remains interesting.
Highly regarded vineyards near this divide include Cannubi, Brunate, Cerequio, Sarmassa (also "Zonchetta" embracing parts of these) and Bussia. But Monvigliero in the extreme north-west and (eg) Lazzarito to the south-east are not out-classed. These are names you may expect to meet; they are not necessarily the "best" and certainly not the only very fine sites.
Since the rise of single-vineyard vinification, largely in the 1970s, the distinctions between different parts of the zone have been far more open to scrutiny by the consumer. Whether producing single vineyard wines makes the "best" wine may be uncertain, but it makes study of the area more interesting.
Not that the notion of identifiable vineyard character is something new to Barolo. Wine was labelled 'Cannubi' before any was specifically called Barolo for instance. Two dated 1754 are still in existence. Writings in the 1880s when the name Barolo was far from established or specific, talk of the wines of Sormassa, Zonchetta, and Cannubi.
There were great changes in all Europe's wines in the middle of the 19th century. Although the Romans had kept wines for several years, and set some store by how old a good wine was, nearly all wine in 1800 was made and drunk in the year. And so little was know about the chemistry of wine that any experimentation with processes was haphazard.
The French were establishing what we now accept as the standards for red and white unfortified wines. And it was a lady from France who put Barolo on the map. The noble and exceptionally gifted lady no doubt brought with her some ideas about just how good wine could be. She was Juliette Victurine Colbert from Maulévrier in the Vendée. Today Maulévrier is in the département of Maine et Loire. (And Chateau Colbert is a delightfully set hotel, 400km from Dieppe or Cherbourg. South of Cholet). In 1807 she married the man who was to be the last of the Marchesi di Barolo, Tancredi Falletti. (or as a modern history of Maulévrier says "en 1806 . . . . .Juliette-Francoise . . . . . avec Charles-Tancréde Fallété marquis de Barol...). They had no children, and the Marchesa "Giulia", was a widow from 1838 to her death in 1864. It is thought that it was the wine made then at the cellars of the Marchesi di Barolo established the change from a wine well known for strength and quality, to a fine wine suitable for bottling and ageing. The grapes came from their estates across the area, and calling the wine "Barolo" originated more from the title of the Marchesi di Barolo than directly from the name of the village.
Just down the road at the Castle of Grinzane Cavour, the man who would shortly lead Italy to nationhood made a notable contribution to Barolo, again with French help. Camillo Benso di Cavour did not have an agricultural background; indeed one of his biographers declared that he did not know a cabbage from a turnip. But he had studied British agricultural methods (and their, then, liberal-democracy), and wanted to advance the processing of his wine with expert guidance. He employed an enologist from Rheims, Louis Oudart, who with Bruché had his headquarters and cellar in Genoa.
Cavour and the Marchesa knew each other well (though they most often met in the capital: Turin) and it is inconceivable that Louis Oudart's expertise was not shared with her as she was always seeking to learn, and to improve what she made. Cavour's wine's reputation had improved since her late husband had commented that Cavour's wine expertise was entirely concerned with consuming it. It is safe to assert that he was by now very very good at both.
On matters of politics they were poles apart. She was heard to remark after listening to some of Cavour's more liberal enthusings that she was, and would always remain a 'Vendean'. This was geographically true, but she was particularly referring to anti-revolutionary movements to which the inhabitants of Vendée had given their name. They rebelled in 1793, when Juliette Victurine Colbert was eight years old, and were eventually crushed. She with her family fled to the Netherlands. The feeling survives - in 1989 in Cholet and the surrounding Vendée they did not celebrate the bicentenary of the revolution.
The Marchesi di Barolo enterprise was for many years the only large scale producer of the wine. But the habit was growing in the district of calling any wine of this style, from the Nebbiolo, "Barolo" without any precise geographical delimitation. It is said that it was only when Domizio Cavazza considered using the name "Barolo" on the label of the wine he was making in Barbaresco that the concept of proper geographical delimitation was addressed by producers in and around Barolo.
There are some hints that wine approaching the 'modern' style of Barolo did exist before the Marchesa and Oudart, certainly in Barbaresco. The attempt to import a wine called Barolo from Savoy (yes, Savoy) to England in around 1750 might suggest it was not so entirely different from the Bordeaux it was to replace. Then again, the Bordeaux that was being imported for English consumption was commonly mixed with Spanish wines and flavourings and spirits - even raspberry brandy, so this comparison may be unhelpful.
That enquiry from England is the earliest recorded use of the name Barolo to mean the wine.
"Wine of kings, king of wines" is an accolade attached to a number of wines around Europe. In Barolo's case the kings were the Kings of Savoy, Europe's longest lasting dynasty. Two of the kings became closely associated with Barolo. The Marchesa Giulia brought it dramatically to the royal attention of Charles Albert. The usual legend says that she dispatched from Barolo to Savoy's Royal Palace in Turin 325 casks on 163 carts; one for each day of the year, omitting Lent of course! Other, spoil-sport, versions of the story have only 20 carts making the trip. Either way the king was sufficiently impressed to decide that home wine making was for him, and that the wine would be Barolo, so bought the Castle of Verduno and vineyards, and employed Paolo Frederico Staglieno who was working with Louis Oudart for Cavour at Grinzane. The Castello di Verduno (perhaps better translated as 'chateau' than 'castle') is today a hotel. It maintains mementos of the royal ownership. And fine Barolo is still made there. And Barbaresco - but that is just confusing.
Victor Emmanuel II (yes 'second') - first King of Italy - had a hunting lodge with estates in Castiglione Falletto. Here in a snug 20 bedroom love nest lived his mistress, known locally as La bela Rosin. After the death of the Queen the King married Rosina, morganatically. Their son as Conte Emanuele Guerrieri di Mirafiori cleared woodland to plant vineyards. In 1878 he created "Mirafiore Vini Italiani per la produzione di Barolo"; today's Fontanafredda.
It could have been the wine of yet another king, had not that very wine defeated him, and changed history. King Edward VIII of Britain might have had as his queen Jolanda the daughter of King Emmanuel III, had he not disgraced himself by getting drunk on the Barolo served at their arranged meeting at the Quirinale in 1922. Yes Britain in 1939 might have had a king with suspected Nazi sympathies, married to the daughter of Mussolini's tame monarch. But for the surprising strength of Barolo. Jolanda didn't fancy him anyway; but it would be a pity not to tell a good story.
© 2006 john wheaver (who?)
Producers whose cellars are in the Barolo growing area (Barolo 'sans barrique') are:
Barolo:- Barale F.lli; Borgogno F.lli; Borgogno Giacomo e figli; Brezza Giacomo e figli; Bric Cenciurio; Cabutto Bartolomeo; Camerano Vini; Mascarello Bartolo; Rinaldi Giuseppe; Scarzello Giorgio & Figli; Viberti Giovanni.
Castiglion Falletto:- Bava Az.Vitiv.; Brovia Fratelli; Cavallotto F.lli; Fontana Livia; Fontana Mario; Gigi Rosso; Mascarello Giuseppe & Figlio; Monchiero F.lli; Terre del Barolo.
Cherasco:- Fracassi Umberto.
La Morra:- Accomasso Lorenzo; Alessandria Silvio; Ciabot Berton; Bovio Gianfranco; Erbaluna s.s.; Gagliardo Gianni; Poderi Marcarini; Oddero Luigi; Rocche Costamagna; Settimo Aurelio.
Monforte:- Poderi Aldo Conterno; Conterno Giacomo; Conterno Paolo; Costa di Bussia; Fratelli de Nicola srl; Grasso Elio ; Sandri Elio; Segesio.
Serralunga:- Anselma Giacomo; Cappellano; Gabutti; Porro Guido; Vigna Rionda; Zunino Attilio.
Verduno:- Alessandria F.lli; Burlotto Comm. G.B.; Castello di Verduno.
This list is repeated in the 'V da U' table
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