What to do about Barolo? The chalky clay soils of Piemonte’s Alba, blanketed by Nebbiolo vines, underlie one of the world’s great wine regions. The so-called “king” of Italian wine, married to “queen” Barbaresco who lives a couple of miles northeast, Barolo has always lain just a bit beyond my comprehension.
That’s partly because it’s expensive. But it’s also because I’m too young, or at least I haven’t planned well enough. Barolo is famously slow to develop, often requiring 12 years at bare minimum to pacify its obstreperous tannins and show why it’s worth a damn. If I wanted to be drinking appropriately settled traditional Barolo today, I’d have had to possess the wisdom (and cash) to invest in a few bottles back when I understood “Italian wine” to refer exclusively to fake “Chianti” bottles wrapped in straw.
I can’t be alone. All but the best endowed restaurants carry only current-vintage Barolo – if they’ve got it at all – usually three to eight years past harvest date, still way too young. A bottle opened at the table won’t have inhaled enough oxygen to get its blood flowing until you order dessert, or cook your own dinner two days later.
A customer at the store where I work told me, “I’ve been cooking with Barolo … I found a beef recipe online … it makes the best sauce.” That’s another way to tame the beast, though neither economical nor, in the end, very respectful.
I’ve never drunk a bottle of Barolo that I bought. I now own two bottles, which are resting in my basement until 2025 or so (they’re listed in my will, just in case). I started tasting Barolo whenever I had the professional opportunity, but it’s the same problem as at the restaurant: Drinking current vintage is a waste of money and the cancellation of a thing of beauty.
The marketing agents gush over those clothes-less emperors; the salespeople swoon. Without the prestigious labels, they’d pass ‘em right by. If you asked the wines themselves, they’d tell you to keep walking: “Come back in 15 years, when both of us are in a better state.” Barolo is more patient than we are.
Vintners in Barolo recognized this conundrum at some point in the 1970s, leading to 20 years of “Barolo wars” that pitted traditionalists against modernizers. The former continued to elevate their wine through long fermentations and years of aging in botti, 10,000-liter used-oak casks, before moving them into bottle, confident that their destiny was a cool corner of someone’s cellar. But fewer and fewer people buy wine to cellar.
Modernizers accelerated and abridged the periods of maceration on skins and fermentation. Most controversially, the fermented juice went into new oak barriques, the Bordeaux size at 225 liters. The tannins were tamed but so, argued the traditionalists, was the natural demonstration of Nebbiolo from Barolo. Primary fruit flavors, aided by the vanillin toastiness of new oak, won out over the tarry but gorgeously perfumed, woodsy, dried-roses aspects that are Barolo’s birthright.
The modern wines could be drunk young and could compete, score-wise, with the lush Cabernet and Shiraz coming from less hidebound wine regions. They were expressive, but what of unique value were they expressing?
This is an important question. If we care about wine’s capacity to express the truth of the world, then we need to care about Barolo. We need to experience Barolo.
There’s a middle ground now, between the glacial Barolo of yore and the blinged-out hookers pimped by the first-wave of modernizers.
I don’t know of a better widely available middle-ground occupier than Damilano’s Lecinquevigne 2009, for $37. The LCV, as it is known, was a distinct effort on this Barolo stalwart’s part to convey the authenticity of the region, without compromise but in acknowledgment of the changing face of modern wine consumption.
For the LCV, organically grown Nebbiolo grapes from 30- to 50-year-old vines in five Barolo towns – each with distinct altitude and exposure – are blended after maceration for two to three weeks and fermentation on native yeasts. Those processing times are straight down the middle, and so is the aging process: two years, with more than 80 percent of the wine in botti and a small amount in second-use barriques.
Reassuringly, its first half-hour or so open is still tentative, but after that it becomes that rare thing, a lovable Barolo. There’s this amazing light-cherry-syrup quality, suffused with cinnamon bark, damp tobacco, leather, violets. The tannins are not going anywhere, but they’re fine-grained and soft, pointing toward the future rather than offending the present.
Like the process that brings it to being, the wine itself is a little of the old and a little of the new. It’s utterly drinkable, but it’s also significant; it carries values, a persistent worth.
The LCV is a doable Barolo for restaurants, but I still say that if you might order it, get friendly enough with the manager that you can call ahead and have them open a bottle for you early in the evening. The LCV’s transition over its first six hours is tremendous.
For this reason, it’s even better if you open a bottle at home, drinking some the first night but leaving enough to try over two or three days. It might be lovable, but the LCV is still potent, and somewhat noisy early on. It moves gradually toward refinement, simplicity and internality.
Of course, its moves are a compressed version of what happens to Barolo over the long haul. Paolo Damilano, the winery’s marketing and sales manager, told me, “We made the LCV to be drinkable. But I truly believe that anyone with experience who tasted the 2009 blind would say, ‘Wow, that’s a cru Barolo.’ ”
(Damilano also said he believes the Italian regional food regulations for Barolo should require wineries to hold at least some of their production back at least 10 years before releasing it to the market, thereby emphasizing that the cru wines ought not be drunk too soon.)
We simply cannot find Piemonte’s best stories in even the best Nebbiolo Langhe. Those wines, which usually retail in the $20 zone, are terrific values. They transmit some essential traits of the Nebbiolo grape, its collaboration of delicacy, limpidity, structure and grace.
The etched-in-stone Nebbiolo Langhe “Perbacco” 2011, from another fine Barolo producer, Vietti, is excellent ($23). So is the lithe Langhe wine from the redoubtable Barbaresco benchmark, Produttori del Barbaresco ($21).
And Damilano’s Langhe is very good. It’s correct. But once you taste the same winery’s efforts from Barolo itself, you get it. You see why the Barolo zone is so special, and why it’s worth the money and time to procure.
The regional Langhe wines are mostly grape, with a fading passport from Piemonte. Barolo is mostly place, wrapped in loving embrace around grape. This makes all the difference.
Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at: