Janet Wynne Evans gets under the skin of this most complex, but rewarding, of regions
Barolo is comparable only to Burgundy in terms of overall size (tiny), the tension between specificity of cru and importance of single-vineyard sex-appeal and the key element of grower influence. So what should you look for when buying one for your own lifetime?
When all’s said and done, the mot-clef for most punters is still Barolo, rather than Bussia or Vajra, but the devil really is in the detail. There are modern and fiercely traditional growers all over, and just to sling a spanner in the lavori, they often share names with vineyards (Parusso, Pira, Ascheri, Baudana). Tricky.
A good start is to get your general bearings by imagining a diagonal demarcation line roughly from Roddi in the north east to Novello in the south west, that separates the Tortonian soil profile, source of approachable, ‘feminine’ earlier-maturing Barolo (eg La Morra) from the Helvetian which produces altogether more butch, tannic, patience-testing wines (eg Serralunga). One key difference between them is mineral content – cuddly magnesium to the west, iron for the soul to the east. Choose your preference.
Of eleven villages or communes reckoned to be ‘grand cru’ five dominate, with over four-fifths of production. Each incorporates a number of often better-known named vineyard plots considered crus in their own right according to an ambitious mapping project undertaken by the late winemaker Renato Ratti.
Since 2010, a new official Consorzio classification, menzione geografiche aggiuntive, rounds up vineyards of note, of which there are a staggering 181 from Albarello to Zuncai, including the 11 village denominations (comune). It has much common ground with the Ratti plan, still the go-to bible for many growers and devotees.
The Big Five are, from north to south and west of the divide, La Morra (and Roggeri) and Barolo itself (including Cannubi in all its incarnations and San Lorenzo). East of the divide, again from north to south are Castiglione Falletto (home of Monprivato), Serralunga d’Alba at the eastern border of the DOCG and encapsulating, for example La Serra and finally Monforte d’Alba at the southern tip, where you’ll find such luminaries as Ginestra and Bussia, which, like one or two othe MEGAs, straddle two villages.
For an excellent map of all the prime Barolo villages and their sub-plots see https://www.langhevini.it/pdf/mappe/mappa-del-barolo.pdf
The minimum ageing requirement for Barolo is three years, of which two must be in wood and another in bottle before release. For a riserva, the period is five years, three in wood and two in bottle. The mix, size and origin of the wood offers immense scope for the myriad stylistic differences presented to Barolo-fanciers. We saw many expressions of the cooper's art, from very posh piècesthat might have graced premium French cellars to the venerable and traditional 100-year old Piemontese oak cask we saw at Barolo institution Rinaldi.
It's easy to see how some estates can produce the glossy, new-oak-driven brews that are so popular over the pond, just as others can continue to churn out Barolo that routinely outlives its owners and, in some cases, their heirs.
The perfect drop for most thinking drinkers is surely neither of these. Happily, the best growers are on-message!
The density of detail belies the fact that Barolo, though three times the size of Barbaresco, is tiny. An arresting fact I’ve read somewhere is at its widest point it is barely 5 miles: when tootling along country roads, one realises how close together the cru villages actually and one is rarely far, not only from the next one, but the most distant.
What nobody prepares you for is how utterly beautiful a region it is and precisely why it’s called Piemonte. The Alps are clearly visible, notably Monte Viso on the border with France, and Monte Rosa (and it IS pink!) beyond which lies Switzerland. To see these rolling foothills and glorious autumn colours in a week of utterly perfect Indian summer weather, was a treat. Dolcetto and barbera turn red in autumn, while nebbiolo goes yellow, making for a unique fall experience. It seems that that barbera stems also turn red which is a sign of readiness to pick.
But we were too late for that. The grapes were safely in and it’s looking good.
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