FOOD FOR THOUGHT - November 29, 2006
Mark R. Vogel - [email protected] - Archive of other articles by Mark Vogel
BAROLO: HAIL TO THE KING
Barolo has been touted as the king of Italian wines. Indeed, few would deny the merits of such a regal distinction. Barolo is made from the Nebbiolo grape from the hilly vineyards of the Cuneo province in the Piedmont region of Italy. It is eponymously named for a village in the same area. The Nebbiolo grape flourishes in calcareous (involving calcium carbonate) and marly (lime and clay), soil in somewhat cooler weather. It is almost exclusively planted in northwest Italy.
Piedmont, which translates as "the foot of the mountain" is an aptly named territory at the base of the Alps in north-western Italy. Bordered by France and Switzerland and bifurcated by the Po River, Piedmont is as beautiful as it is fertile. Home to the coveted white truffle, it is also known for a range of agricultural products including wheat, corn, rice, and of course, grapes. With 142,000 acres devoted to vineyards, Piedmont is a major wine producing area. Reds dominate, highlighted by Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera, and Dolcetto, among others. But mention should also be given to the Muscat-based Spumante, (sparkling wine), from the Asti and Moscato d'Asti domains.
The quality of Italian wines is classified by a hierarchical ranking comprised of four categories. The specific classification of any given wine will be denoted on the label. From lowest to highest is Vino da Tavola, IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica), DOC (Demoninazione di Origine Controllata), and DOCG (Demoninazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita). Vino da Tavola is very basic wine and rarely exported. This category is dominated by average wines at best. At the IGT level and up, a variety of quality requirements come into play including the geographic area where the grapes/wine can be produced, minimum alcohol content, minimum yield, aging specifications, production methods, and the grape varieties allowed. The higher the level the more demanding the standards. Although not an ironclad guarantee, as you ascend the hierarchy you certainly increase your chances of encountering quality wine. Barolo is in the highest category, DOCG.
Barolo is one of the heartiest and most robust wines on the planet. It is tannic, high in acid and alcohol, and complex. It absolutely must be aged to be appreciated. Young Barolos are closed and undeveloped; shadows of the potential greatness that lurks in their future. Barolos are aged three years, (five if the label states "riserva"), before being released. Minimally they require another five years of bottle aging. Ten is even better. But your patience will be rewarded. Its bouquet has been likened to roses, strawberries, violets, truffles and chocolate.
If you've ever thought of starting a small wine collection, Barolo is a great way to begin. Procure one of those small wine refrigerators whereby you can store the wine on its side, (to keep the cork moist), and at the proper temperature, (generally the mid 50's). Stock your unit annually with Barolo and within a decade you will have luscious wines in their prime at your disposal every year.
Three major factors contribute to Barolo quality: the grower and/or producer, the vintage, and its age. The producers may or may not be the same individuals that actually grew the grapes. Wine producers vary in their skill level much like any other group of artisans. The best producers make reliably good wine from year to year. There are a number of superior Barolo producers and if you're really serious about learning, most wine books will list recommendations. Doing your homework, talking with knowledgeable wine merchants and personal experience will enlighten you as to the top names. Some of my personal favorites include Prunotto, Azelia, Fontanafredda, Pio Cesare, and Vietti.
Next, you must absolutely know your vintages. Weather patterns fluctuate from year to year and have a marked impact on the quality of the grapes. Again, most wine books and periodicals will contain a vintage chart with a rating of each year's vintage. But to save you some legwork, allow me to share that Piedmont saw an unusual run of six successive and outstanding vintages from 1996 through 2001. If you purchase a premier name Barolo from this time period you pretty much can't go wrong. The 2002 vintage was a washout and should be avoided. It appears that 2003 is better but not on the level of 1996-2001.
Lastly, as stated, Barolo must be aged to be appreciated. Even a Barolo from an excellent year and a first-rate producer is inhibited in its infancy. It's analogous to possessing a flawless apple from the best orchard on the planet, but if it's not ripe it's not enjoyable. It should also be noted that there are two styles of Barolo. Some producers make a traditional Barolo, i.e., a more tannic and concentrated wine requiring longer aging, (ten years or more after the vintage), while others have shifted to a more modern style i.e., a less tannic and fruitier wine that can be approached within five years of the vintage.
Therefore, you can't just saunter into any old wine shop and randomly grab a bottle of Barolo, or worse yet, pick the cheapest one as your
introductory example. It will inevitably be from an inferior producer, a bad year, or simply be too young. You will be gravely disappointed and left questioning my sanity for espousing the glories of this so-called "King" of Italian wines. Thus, at the risk of belaboring the point, either do your homework or seek your retailer's advice.
Good Barolos start at about $50 and can go into the multiple hundreds. Barolo is wonderful with food. Because it is stout and full bodied it pairs best with heartier fare: roasts, meat, stews, cheeses, and bold pastas with rich tomato sauces. It should be served at a temperature in the mid to high 60's. You will also need to decant and aerate it for up to an hour before serving. This will allow its flavors and aroma to open up even more.
A final thought to keep in mind is that one develops a taste for wine via repeated exposure to it. The neophyte will not perceive a world class wine like Barolo like someone with more experience tasting and contrasting different wines. And that my dear friends is precisely why you should pay homage to the King on a regular basis.