By Frank Cipparone
The harvest is over and the vineyards are quiet. Vines have taken on the colors of autumn. In the wine cellars of Cuneo province the king and queen of Piedmont rest in small French barriques or immense casks of Slovenian oak, silently biding their time.
Barolo is the “wine of kings and the king of wines,” spread over approximately 3,800 acres surrounding five communes that hold the most valuable and famous plots of land. The basic geology of the area shows similar patterns even though bisected north to south along a valley floor from Alba to the town of Barolo. The soil composition is diverse and variable like that found in Burgundy, literally changing from one vineyard to the next.
There are general distinctions regarding the soil on each side of a geological divide formed millions of years ago, and the resulting effects on Barolo from the respective communes. In the hills west of the valley the soil is said to be fresher and more fertile. Barolo from LaMorra is considered graceful and aromatic, lighter in body and able to drink younger. Those from the town of Barolo are even less dense, but have a lusher, elegant feel.
The eastern hills have poorer quality soil that is less fertile but rich in minerals. Castiglione Falleto is at the center of the Barolo zone. Its wine strikes a middle ground between the heady LaMorra style and the depth and density of those from Serralunga. The flavors are fruity, floral and spicy, balanced by a firmer texture. Serralunga Barolo is concentrated and has layers of depth, darker fruit and tannins that take from 12-15 years to mature. The wines of Monforte d’Alba are big, bold, darkly pigmented, rich and savory, and can age for decades.
Barbaresco, the queen, is planted at lower elevations north of Alba near Treiso, Nieve and the town of Barbaresco. It ripens earlier, has softer tannins, subtle aromas and flavors, and requires less time to mature and reach its potential. This is not to say it is a simple table wine or not as deserving of praise as Barolo. The queen is a worthy consort. Depending on conditions in the growing season, she can be equal to or surpass the king.
About two decades ago a debate raged among producers that came to be publicized as the “Barolo wars.” Thankfully, no blood was spilled, but lots of wine was analyzed and argued over by the opposing camps.
The traditionalists contended that Barolo should follow a century-old formula — light in color, highly acidic, full of massive tannins that needed long aging in large oak casks. Such wine was brooding and hard to get at, taking time and effort to understand and savor the developing aroma and flavors of rose, tar, bitter cherry, truffle and dried leaves.
The goal of the modernists was to create Barolo that was gentler, fruitier, less tannic and ready for pleasurable drinking sooner. A wine to enjoy and not get philosophical over. To that end they employed technology such as rotary fermenters and small French barrels, radical ideas in the 1970s. Their opponents scoffed at what they perceived as a lack of distinction in this new wave Barolo that was unsophisticated and without a sense of place.
Neither side wanted a return to the bad old days of what passed as traditional winemaking. It took time, but most of the old guard has been converted to the need for better methodology. Tradition bowed to economic reality.
In the end it boiled down to how to make a great Barolo or Barbarsco, and what constitutes greatness. Both are wines made from a challenging grape that is hard to tame. Making an exquisite Barolo or Barbaresco involves taking risks to achieve the best results. And since nature always has the last word, consistency from year to year is difficult to maintain.