Piedmont - Barolo
It is beyond question that Piemonte's greatest wines are Barolo and, generally very slightly lighter and earlier maturing, Barbaresco. These are two of the wine world's pinnacles but, as Aldo Conterno placidly observes, they are not easy to understand and, since they are made in small quantities, that matters little.
The Langhe hills around the town of Alba with their different altitudes and expositions are Italy's answer to the Côte d'Or, and different vineyards can, similarly, produce quite different wines, which is why there are so many single-vineyard bottlings. Notable producers abound and include Elio Altare, Azelia, Giacomo Bologna, Ceretto, Domenico Clerico, Giacomo Conterno, Bruno Giacosa, Elio Grasso, Marchesi di Gresy, Giuseppe Mascarello e Figli, Prunotto, Ratti, Vajra, Vietti and Roberto Voerzio.
Barolo, conventionally known as Italy’s ‘wine of kings and king of wines’, is particularly rich in different wine characters, created by the turn of a hillside, a seam of sandstone or marl. It is majestic in every sense, the most concentrated expression of the Nebbiolo grape which has needed coaxing and a fine autumn to ripen properly. But there are huge and demonstrable differences between different parts of the 11 communes that make up the Barolo DOCG. Wines made from grapes grown in the western villages of La Morra and the village of Barolo itself tend to be a little lighter and more open than those made in Castiglione Falletto, Monforte d’Alba and Serralunga d’Alba to the east and north.
Barbaresco, another DOCG, has more in common with the lighter wines of Barolo, with its rather fewer vineyards planted on generally warmer, lower land which means that both grapes and wines mature slightly earlier – though this can mean waiting only 10 years rather than 20. These wines are not for the impatient, and it is a tribute to the intrinsic excitement of these anachronistic wines that they are held in such high esteem even in this impatient age of the fast forward button. The man who can take considerable credit for this is the most famous inhabitant of Barbaresco, Angelo Gaja, as talented a showman as winemaker. Gaja’s were the first internationally-marketed – at sky high prices – single-vineyard wines from either Barolo or Barbaresco. Today, there are hundreds of such wines from each area, many carrying the words Sorì or Bricco (local dialect for specific sites) on the label. And Gaja himself has now expanded not just into Barolo but also Montalcino and the Maremma in Tuscany.
Wines were traditionally, as throughout Italy, matured in large, old Slavonian oak oval casks, but the importation of French barriques in the 1970s and 1980s caused a stir and some revision of wine styles, making some of them more open and less distinctive (or, to put it another way, earlier maturing and less cussed). Much has been made of the modernists v. traditionalists debate in the Langhe, but in truth the wines have in general gently evolved so that none of Nebbiolo’s extraordinarily haunting resonances, reminiscent of violets, tar, truffles and sometimes roses, is lost, but these relatively expensive wines are approachable after a decade or so in bottle – and sometimes even earlier.
Factors other than imported small French barrels dragged these wines into the 20th and then 21st century; producers today use a mixture of barriques and larger-sized oak containers. It was only relatively recently that Langhe winemakers graduated from being peasant growers selling grapes or their own distinctly rustic wines to large merchant bottlers to becoming sophisticated winemakers with their own labels. They have now learnt to control fermentations, particularly the temperature of them, so that they extract just the best bits of the grape, not fiercely astringent tannins.
Another reason why the character of Barolo and Barbaresco has changed recently is climatic. Global warming seems to have targeted this part of the world in particular, delivering a consecutive run of great vintages in which even the late-ripening Nebbiolo managed to reach full and glorious maturity – and even occasionally overripeness – throughout the second half of the 1990s and the 2000s.
Even the colour of the wines seems to have changed. Traditionally Barolo and Barbaresco were not notably deep-coloured and often had an orange tinge at only a few years old. Today the wines are in general much deeper-coloured and more likely to be crimson than orange. This may be partly because of the evolution in winemaking and partly because, like Pinot Noir in Burgundy, the Nebbiolo grape mutates easily and has been adapting itself to local conditions. But there is many a whisper that these deeper colours owe much to a judicious slug of Barbera or even Cabernet or Merlot – even if Barolo and Barbaresco have officially been meant to be 100% Nebbiolo.
There are dozens of inspired producers in these two small wine zones. My favourites include Elio Altare, Ascheri, Domenico Clerico, Aldo Conterno, Giacomo Conterno, Conterno-Fantino, Fontanafredda, Angelo Gaja, Bruno Giacosa, Elio Grasso, Marchese di Gresy, Giuseppe Mascarello e Figli, Parusso, Pira, Prunotto, Ratti, Bruno Rocca, Sandrone, Vajra, Vietti and Roberto Voerzio.