Getting to know Barolo is akin to getting to grips with Burgundy these days. Every inch of land in this small area in Piedmont seems to have been given up to the vine and the talk of soil composition, aspect, altitude, modern vs. traditional dominates any conversation on the region. The myriad of single vineyards that have been demarcated and the large volume of producers has created a minefield for the consumer. The development and increased interest in the region has had a positive effect on quality though. Like Burgundy, although poor quality wine is still made here, it is harder to find.
Barolo is made from the Nebbiolo grape in the Langhe region of Piedmont in northern Italy. The area is situated to the west of the city of Alba and is mainly broken down into the five major towns of the Barolo DOCG: La Morra, Barolo, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba and Montforte d’Alba. Within each of these areas there are single vineyards (cru) which are shared by different producers, probably the most famous being Cannubi that sits north of the town of Barolo.
Barolo is a powerful wine full of tannins but light in colour; its most recognisable character is dried cherry fruit with a sweet and savoury balance and a touch of spice. It has incredible ageing potential as a result of its high tannins and those of high quality should retain a bright acidity throughout their lifetime.
There are two key elements in play in the region that define a Barolo wine and allow the consumer to understand what they are purchasing before even trying it. The first is the vineyard location: wines produced in the northwest (La Morra, Barolo) are meant to have more elegance and finesse thanks to the calcerous marl soil; whereas wines produced in the southeast (Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga, Montforte) are supposedly fuller and denser as a result of a mix of calcerous marl and sandstone. The second is whether the wines are made by modernists or traditionalists: modernists have adapted winemaking techniques and introduced small French oak barrels to allow for cleaner, more fruit forward and approachable Barolo with a vanilla undertone; traditionalists have retained the old winemaking techniques that encourage a more complex style with darker, smokier aromas and usually need several years in bottle to be approachable.
There is one more key factor to bear in mind: most producers experiment with both blended and single vineyard production and the difference in style is just as important as location and the finer details of winemaking technique. Whilst single vineyards are not a modern phenomenon in Barolo, traditionally the wines were blended from different locations to create balance. With a grape variety as volatile as Nebbiolo and a climate as difficult as that experienced in the Langhe hills blending from different locations can offer a greater sense of control for producers especially in bad years. But on the other hand, single vineyard wines can offer the nuances of terroir that are so craved by those who love Barolo. Tasting the effect of location from one vineyard to the next is a fascinating experience and one that is ever more sought after.
Example producersThe producers below start with probably the most traditional and move to the most modernist. The producer’s main commune is shown in brackets after the producer’s name.
Giovanni Canonica (Barolo)
Canonica is as niche as you can get in Barolo. A miniscule number of bottles are produced each year from a small patch of vines in the Paiagallo vineyard located in the hills above Barolo and production is very traditional: foot-pressed grapes, wild yeasts, and long fermentation times. They offer a wonderful balance of elegance and rusticity with a purity of fruit and great acidity. In classic Barolo style they require a fair amount of time in bottle before they show their true character.
2014 Giovanni Canonica Paiagallo Barolo DOCG £150 per bottle
2015 Giovanni Canonica Paiagallo Barolo DOCG £175 per bottle
Giussepe Rinaldi (Barolo)
A fierce traditionalist, Rinaldi has become one of the remaining few of the original old guard that refused to take on the modern style of winemaking when it became fashionable in the 1980’s. He also follows the notion of blending to create balance with most of the wines made from four vineyards in the Barolo commune.
2011 Giuseppe Rinaldi Barolo Tre Tine £270 per bottle
Blended from three vineyards this is an elegant yet racy Barolo that showcases Rinaldi’s blending talents.
2015 Giuseppe Rinaldi Barolo Brunate £380 per bottle
Due to changes in single vineyard and listing regulations Rinaldi has succumbed to bottling a single vineyard Barolo. But the talent still shines through in this top quality offering. It will need another decade in bottle though.
Elvio Cogno (Novello)
A producer that has experimented with both modern and traditional techniques and has found themselves firmly back in the traditional camp. Back in the mid 1990’s they began ageing some of their wines in small French barrels but gave this up in 2004 as they felt the character of the wine had been lost. All of their Barolo come from the Ravera vineyard in Novello (next to Barolo) but vary in soil and vine age. Their wines offer great value for the quality.
2008 Elvio Cogno Barolo Bricco Pernice £89 per bottle
Light in colour but with serious depth and concentration this is a lovely example of a single vineyard Barolo that offers good value and drinking well now.
2010 Elvio Cogno Barolo Ravera £75 per bottle
Seen as Cogno’s top offering the Barolo Ravera is made from 70 year old vines and is a classic tasting Barolo. 2010 is still a little young but offers great value for the quality: full of depth and concentration this has the dried cherry notes one would expect but with leather and tar undertones and vibrant acidity that lift it from the glass.
Luciano Sandrone (Barolo)
Sandrone began making wine in the late 1970’s and has forged his own path by using both modern and traditional winemaking techniques to create high quality Barolo that bridge the gap between the two styles. Although his wines will age well they can still be approached young with the La Vigne blend being the easiest to get to grips with.
2011 Luciano Sandrone Le Vigne Barolo DOCG £120 per bottle
A vintage that gets a little overlooked but is a good example of where Sandrone’s flexibility works well. This is a more fruit forward blend that has created great balance in a more difficult year and is drinking well now.
2010 Luciano Sandrone Barolo Cannubi Boschis £255 per bottle
Sandrone’s flagship wine that is always highly rated even in poor years. The 2010 has exceptional balance with elegance, bright acidity, strong cherry fruit and good structure.
Roberto Voerzio (La Morra)
Voerzio began his estate in the 1980’s and took to the modernist style. Although fermentation times are longer than some modernists the wines are aged in small barriques and follow the rich, fuller style of Barolo many prefer.
2010 Roberto Voerzio Barolo La Serra £175 per bottle
Lighter in colour that some years this is a bright, elegant Barolo with great depth.
Elio Altare (Barolo)
Altare is credited with being the founder of the modern style of winemaking in Barolo whose wines offer a richer more approachable style that has been well-received by some. Regardless of whether you approve of the modern technique or enjoy this style of Barolo you can’t argue with the quality of the wines produced by Altare.
2010 Elio Altare Barolo Vigneto Arborina £115 per bottle
much darker in colour that a traditional Barolo but full of fruit, energy and great acidity. As these wines can be approached younger this is ready now although will last another decade.