A simple guide to Barolo

Barolo is often regarded as one of Italy’s finest red wines but can take a bit of getting to grips with, so I am attempting to give a brief introduction to a wine which is as beguiling as it can be complex.

A simple guide to Barolo
Fog, or nebbia, over the vines in Verduno, Barolo

The wine  is made from nebbiolo grapes, grown in a region based loosely around the town of Barolo, in the hills between Alba and Dogliani in Piedmont (about an hour’s drive from Milan) in north-west Italy.

Nebbiolo is an historic indigenous grape variety, that was even referenced by Pliny the Elder as nubiola.

The Italian for ‘fog’ is nebbia and as this late-ripening variety is often harvested in the fog coated hills of Piedmont this is often suggested as being the root of this grape’s name. 

Perfume with power

To look at, Barolo can be mistaken for pinot noir in the glass, as it is often light red in colour, browning to the edges with age. Barolos can be wonderfully perfumed, with the ‘classic’ aromas often being described as ‘tar and roses’. Red apple, redcurrant or cranberry, pomegranate, sour cherry, violets, martini rosso, citrus rind, anise, leather and freshly brewed black tea are also common markers of Barolo’s often hauntingly complex perfume that can take decanting to develop.

Barolos have brisk, high acidity that, coupled with the red fruit and floral flavours can mean that they feel medium to light-bodied. However, Barolo has perhaps an ‘iron fist in a velvet glove’ reputation as nebbiolo is famous for having some of the wine world’s firmest, most angular and powerful tannins. These tannins challenge the best winemakers to skilfully manage them in the cellar so that they become balanced with the wine, although this can often take additional bottle ageing to be fully achieved.

Bright acidity and a firm structure are key to Barolo’s ability to age for a very long time. Many now hit a sweet spot at around 10-15 years’ old, however great Barolos can still have vibrancy, energy and delicate red fruit, albeit with layers of spice and tertiary flavours after 40+ years (look out for 1961s!), however thoughtful winemaking and a growing number of warmer vintages mean that modern Barolos can start drinking five years after harvest.

Sarah Knowles MW inspecting G. B. Burlotto’s open top fermenters, a producer famed for his perfumed wines
Sarah Knowles MW inspecting G. B. Burlotto’s open top fermenters, a producer famed for his perfumed wines

Italian terroir

Barolo has long been compared to Burgundy, where a complex terroir of small highly prized parcels of land create wines that reflect the localised changes in aspect, soil composition and microclimates.

Within the DOCG, there are 11 communes based around 11 villages: Barolo, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba, Cherasco, Diano d’Alba, Grinzane Cavour, La Morra, Monforte d’Alba, Novello, Roddi and Verduno. 

There are also a further 170 vineyards registered as MGAs (menzioni geografiche aggiuntive) within these communes, that can vary in size quite dramatically from areas such as Bussia which covers nearly 300ha within Monforte, to Rocche dell'Annunziata at 30ha within La Morra.

The complex terroir of Barolo has been expertly mapped by Alessandro Masnaghetti, who has meticulously detailed and categorised each vineyard of Barolo and Barbaresco.

Exploring terroir with Mario at Castello di Verduno with Alessandro Masnaghetti’s maps
Exploring terroir with Mario at Castello di Verduno with Alessandro Masnaghetti’s maps.

However, as a more simple general rule of thumb, please see my own map below – I add quickly, that this is not to scale and very much a ‘back of an envelope’ sketch.

A quick Barolo sketch
A quick Barolo sketch

In a broad sense we can say that for Barolos to the left of my (pink) line, the soils are characterised by blue-grey marl from the Tortonian era and these wines are often lighter in structure and although the best can age for 40+ years, they can be more perfumed and approachable in their youth. To the right, the soils are richer in clays and sands with a yellow-grey compacted appearance. These are from the Helvetian or more accurately Serravalian era. The wines made from this side of the region tend to be denser and firmer in structure and often need time to become balanced and start to show their true promise.

Winemaking styles

In the 1980s and ‘90s two schools of winemaking appeared – modernists believed in shorter fermentations at controlled temperatures and ageing the wines in smaller barrels (often with a new French wood component). Traditionalists believed in long warm ferments and only large old oak vessels for ageing (often Slavonian oak in origin).

These two approaches though are less pronounced now, with most of the great winemakers finding the balance that most suits their wines and with the middle ground being far more, rightly, occupied. However, if you wanted to compare styles, Ratti would be a good modern example and Cavallotto a traditionalist.

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Sarah Knowles MW

Society Buyer

Sarah Knowles MW

Sarah joined The Society in March 2014 and has taken over responsibility for Champagne, North America and Italy, as well as overseeing our portfolio of sparkling wines and spirits. Sarah passed her Masters of Wine qualification in 2015 and won a prize for submitting the best research paper.

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