Barolo: Italy’s Premier Wine Region Delivers

This Postcard story was featured in the April edition of Bartender magazine

By Edward Washington


Barolo and her Wines

For a region so steeped in history Barolo’s wineries don’t shy away from modern innovation. Many wine makers now augment hundreds of years of tradition with new techniques and facilities. Josetta Saffirio is just one example of a new mark on an ancient landscape. They’ve been making wines for generations, but their new, still to be completed winery, is decked out with some serious wine making accoutrements.

Winemaker Sara Saffirio shows me around the impressive facility that’s set up to harness natural energy and streamline production. The fermenting and pressing room (replete with state of the art pneumatic grape press) is directly above the barrel store allowing for natural energy to transfer the wine into the barrels. Sounds logical, but you have to be in a position to design and fund such an operation as well as have the foresight to do it. The elegant and simple barrel room is sealed by huge rolling oak doors and everything is within reach – testament to years of trail and error

Another of Barolo’s hidden gem is the Rivetto family winery. Alessandro Rivetto, one of the winemaking brothers, takes us through the family’s portfolio and talks more to us about the region, its history and the wines it produces. His brother, Enrico, is similarly passionate about the area. “Barolo is not so touristy like Tuscany”, he explains. “You can feel the real northern Italian atmosphere here. If you really want to appreciate Barolo wines you have to know the place and the people.”

Enrico talks of his wines as his ‘sons’ and like any father it is hard to have a favorite but he does have a few he is particularly proud of – a prized Barolo and a wonderfully rich and powerful Barbera d’Alba. Enrico’s a pretty adept salesman too – and we leave the winery suitably laden with boxes of wine.

In July, Barolo’s vineyards are warming up to their busiest time of year and you’ll be woken every morning by tractors spluttering through the endless rows of vines as growers tend to the berries and check development. If rain comes now, and it’s a region that’s prone to storms and hail, the vintage will be ruined and livelihoods tested.

If you want to appreciate Barolo wines you have to know the place and the people.” Enrico Rivetto

The whole region depends on the vintage, not just the winemakers, and right now most of the vineyard work is being done by the sun with the warm days welcomed with smiles and encouragement. If the sun stays out so will the smiles.

Barolo, the wine of Kings

The region is in the north-west Italian province of Cuneo, where hilly slopes drop away which ever way you look to reveal a patchwork blanket of vines. There is no secret as to what grape reigns supreme here; this is Nebbiolo country and it produces the wine they talk about all over Italy – Barolo. Whether you’re in the historic city of Bologna or the tourist maze of Rome any mention of Barolo was met by a glint of pride and an acknowledgment that this was truly Italy’s most noble wine. “Ah….,” the Italians say, “you’re going to Piedmont…Barolo”.

International wine writer Jancis Robertson once described Barolo as, “the wine of Kings, and the King of wines,” and it was favoured by the royalty of the House of Savoy while it existed. Prior to the 19th century the wines from Barolo were often sweet, a result of the region’s cold temperatures that stopped fermentation and left residual sugar in the wine. With developed wine making techniques, the wineries were soon making dry wines, and when they began to harvest their grapes later (another development) their wines began develop more fruit driven flavours.

Just like Chianti (with its Sangiovese grape) Barolo produces wine that is unique to the region and the notion of terrior is all important. The regions clay and calcium packed soil contributes to the wine’s style and Italy’s strict wine laws dictate incredibly stringent terms for the production of Barolo. The tightly monitored cropping levels ensure quality remains at a premium and of course…it’s only Nebbiolo that can be used.

In order to qualify as ‘Barolo’ the wine must then be aged for a minimum of three years – spending two years in large oak botti and a further one year resting in bottle. This allows the wine, often high in unpleasant tannins when young, to soften out and develop its powerful fruit characters. Quality wines are complex, and can show colours that range from deep brick reds, to being lighter and brighter. With elegant and lifted perfumes, they are often described as a mix of tar and roses

Because of the tiny production and ‘hands on’ method Barolo is consistently one of the world’s most expensive wines. What’s the good news? The wineries in the area also produce far more affordable wines like Barbera, and Dolcetto. Barbaresco is also a good bet to try when in the area, and is also made from Nebbiolo. These are wines of exceptional flavour, depth and quality so don’t think you will break your budget trying to enjoy the local products – in fact these are the wines that the locals and winemakers drink so you’re in great company.

Things to do – Places to See

In the town of Barolo itself there is a museum appropriately devoted to the history of the corkscrew – after all, what is a good bottle of red without a device to open it? Turin is a quick drive on the nation’s expressway where you can devote hours to hunting down gelato shops or spend a few hours in the National Museum of Cinema. But why would you want to travel to far from the vineyards?

When you arrive you are rewarded with amphitheatre style vineyards and winding roads that pass through timeless villages. We are aiming for La Morra, one of the eleven communes that make up the Barolo region and we find our accommodation nestled amongst new Nebbiolo vines on the Fratelli Revello wine estate.

This winery is making a fair bit of noise on the international wine scene, with brothers Lorenzo and Carlo producing some wonderfully complex wines; Barolo, Barbera, Dolcetto and Nebbiolo. Against the backdrop of their vineyards we are taken through the family’s portfolio, learning about their history and savoring their wines.

If you’re in Italy for the wine, the one day trip you should definitely make is to the Banco del Vino. If Barolo is the heart of Italy’s wine then this institution is most certainly the brain. The Banco del Vino was established over a century ago to drive the development of Italy’s wine industry.

It holds thousands of bottles from every Italian region in trust so that winemakers can go back to them years later and assess their techniques from vintage to vintage. Not only is it a treat to visit the Romanesque cellars and see age old foundations but our guide shares with us the history of Italian wine and a private tasting once finished.

The Top Drops

Barolo – Noted for needing many years of aging before consumption, however; a more ‘international’ style has been developed and perfected since the 1980s allowing for a rich wine, still with strong tannins and noticeably less oxidized in style.

Dolcetto – Another of the northern Italy’s gems. Rich in flavour and above medium body – an all round wine for pizza, pasta or a well laden plate of prosciutto.

Barbera – Great, inexpensive examples are available and a quality wine can show complex fruit, depth and great balance. Medium bodied.

Barbaresco – Another great example of wine made from the Nebbiolo grape. The region is not far form Barolo, but here the grapes ripen a bit more quickly. The tannins in a young style are not as harsh and the wine is often drunk young.

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