Edited and translated by Nicolas Belfrage MW
The story of Barolo — that sublime wine of the Langhe hills in the environs of the Piemontese town of Alba — begins with the marriage of Carlo Tancredi Falletti, marquess of the village of Barolo, to Juliette Colbert, a French noblewoman. It is from this couple, key figures in the Piemontese chapter of the Italian Risorgimento, that the wine, whose roots in this zone go back much further, took the name of Barolo.
Those traditional roots of the great Alba wine are to be found in the vine that informs it: Nebbiolo. Surprisingly, prior to the involvement of our protagonists and their associates in the first half of the 19th century, Nebbiolo is thought to have made a sweet, sometimes sparkling wine, very different from that of today. Certainly the grape had been planted in the vicinity of Alba for centuries, as Maurizio Rosso observes in his excellent book Barolo: The Jewel of the Langhe, noting that the annals of La Morra for the year 1512 contain a reference to Nebiolium. (And he points out that this was not the first mention of a similar name.)
The success of the “king of wines and the wine of kings,” as Barolo has come to be known, was assured by the efforts of Juliette to promote it in the court of Turin and in various other royal courts in Europe. The story goes that one day in Turin, the king of Savoy, Carlo Alberto, asked the marchioness jokingly why she had not yet offered him a taste of the famous wine, of which he had heard so much spoken and which was being produced, rumor had it, in the environs of the Castle of Barolo, the vacation residence of the marquesses of Barolo.1 A few days later, writes historian Domenico Massè in Il Paese di Barolo, the city of Turin was witness to an extraordinary spectacle: The streets of the capital were full of the marchioness’s ox-drawn carts, heading in the direction of the royal palace and carrying barrels of wine — 325 of them, to be precise, one for every day of the year, minus 40 for the days of Lent.2
Thus did the marquesses promote “Barolo” wine, gifting it to reigning monarchs, offering it to their guests, and supplying friends from all over. As a personality constantly in the spotlight and much appreciated, Barolo wine benefited greatly from this positive publicity campaign. Juliette, for her part, was personally motivated to provide her wine with a lasting prestige, to which end she asked her friend the Count of Cavour (now synonymous with the unification of Italy in the mid-19th century), to allow her to consult with his French enologist Oudar, who from 1843 had been collaborating with the count in producing Barolo in his cellars at Grinzane. And it was Oudar who provided the next significant leap forward for Barolo, vinifying it in the French manner — though it is known that certain meaningful improvements had been made in recent years by others, notably by General Francesco Staglieno, who adopted France’s Gervais method to regularize the fermentation. These people worked either at Verduno, in the cellars of the castle of King Carlo Alberto of Savoy, or at Grinzane Cavour, in the cellars of Count Camillo Benso of Cavour.3
As we have already indicated, Barolo had previously been a sweet wine, sometimes lightly frothing and pink. Nebbiolo is a notoriously late ripener, and one might hypothesize that in those times the first frosts interrupted the fermentation, leaving a wine with varying quantities of residual sugar. Prior to the interventions of Juliette, fermentation had taken place out of doors. Later, subterranean cellars were built, creating a protected microclimate and allowing the wine to finish fermenting through temperature control, rendering it still and of notable structure.
One testimony is worth citing — that of the aforementioned Massè, who in Il Paese del Barolo wrote, “[T]he first to create that type of wine which today goes by the name of Barolo were the marquesses Falletti in the early 19th century, producing it with great care at their extensive holdings in Barolo.” He adds, “After them, the most significant contributor to the wine’s fame was Count Camillo di Cavour.” It was by these methods that Barolo became a dry wine refined in barrels prior to bottling. In the search to establish the complete identity of Barolo, we come across another testimony — that of Count Giorgio Gallesio (a noted 19th-century ampelographer), who wrote in his travel journal (I Giornali di Viaggi) of his visit to Barolo on September 19, 1834. The count describes the feverish activity involved in perfecting this wine, and the faith and energy invested by Juliette and Tancredi in the work:
The grapes in Barolo (the zone) are Nebbiolo and Neiran; with these two grapes are made the famous Barolo wine, of which however Neiran only accounts for about one tenth. Barolo wine lasts many years and the marquesses of Barolo conserve it with the aim of sending it to the Court of Turin and to others. In this village, indeed, there is a belief that in order to have the finest wine it is necessary to make it entirely out of Nebbiolo; otherwise it is mixed with Neiran to give it color, Nebbiolo alone being too light and sweet. I have visited the cellar of the marquesses of Barolo: It is a great semi-subterranean area with vaults for the keeping of large barrels, above which is the cuverie. There were 30 botti [large barrels], most of them containing wines for aging: I tasted the 1833 vintage and it was harsh and ungiving; that of 1832, on the other hand, was soft and succulent.
Following Juliette’s death in 1864 (Tancredi had died long before, in 1838, and they had no children), the entire patrimony, including the cellars, were bequeathed to the Opera Pia Barolo, a charity set up by the marchioness to administer the huge fortune of the family and the various works and activities that the couple had initiated. Today in the Agenzia della Tenuta Opera Pia Barolo, overlooking the Castello Falletti di Barolo, is situated the company called Marchesi di Barolo, a medium-sized winery controlling about 110ha (272 acres) of vineyard for a production of about 1.5 million bottles per annum. It was Pietro Abbona who, around 1895, established wine production in the Barolo cellars on behalf of his family, acquiring the cellars and part of the vineyards of the marquesses and, thus, maintaining continuity for the brand Antichi Poderi dei Marchesi di Barolo (“ancient wine farms of the marquesses of Barolo”).4
The family of the marquess and marchioness
Juliette’s family was descended from Jean Baptiste Colbert de Maulevrier, minister of finance under the Sun King, Louis XIV. It was a very rich noble family. Their land of origin was the Vendée, where Juliette was born on June 26, 1786. It was soon to bring her suffering and heartache. When her mother died young in 1793, and as the French Revolution raged on, her family’s goods were confiscated, and her grandmother and aunt were guillotined.
Juliette and Tancredi: un grand amour
The turbulent times brought Juliette to the court of the new emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, who surrounded himself with nobles to lend luster to the reality of his power. There she became a lady-in-waiting to the empress, and there she also met “the best of men” (as, many years later, she would characterize Carlo Tancredi Falletti di Barolo), himself a page, and later chamberlain, to the emperor. Napoleon and his empress were present at the drawing up of the marriage contract. The marriage was celebrated in Paris on August 18, 1806.
Tancredi was the last marquess of Barolo, ending the story of a great aristocratic dynasty.5 After the Restoration, the couple returned to Turin, and it was here that their amazing adventure, destined to leave indelible traces upon the land of Piemonte, flourished. People of great intellect, they were united in all things. Their partnership was founded on the balance of their characters and a profound reciprocal respect, sharing the same faith and the same outlook on life.6
Tancredi was active in many fields — above all, that of education, on which subject he produced various writings and undertook significant experiments. He established a kindergarten in his palace and opened elementary schools. He also contributed personally to the construction of a new cemetery — something that, at the time, involved resolving urgent problems of hygiene. Some of his other initiatives were equally admirable and charitable, such as when, in his first year as mayor of Turin, during the cold winter of 1825/26, he brought the authority of his office to the task of distributing 6,000 rations of firewood to the poor at the commune’s expense.
During the cholera epidemic of 1835, Juliette and Tancredi put themselves on the front line: While others fled Turin, they actually returned to the city to help deal with the crisis. One day, Tancredi went to the house of the writer Silvio Pellico, confiding to him how worried he was for Juliette, who was exposing herself excessively to the risk of contagion. “From the beginning of our acquaintance, I have always loved her,” he confessed, “but now I love her more.” This is a very precious, rare insight into their relationship, indicative of genuine feeling that, like certain wines, improves with time. This is why their union was destined to last beyond death and why Juliette, even after her husband’s untimely demise, felt bound to carry forward his beliefs and his ideas.7
The Risorgimento at Palazzo Barolo
With her husband’s agreement, Juliette opened their house and made herself available to the great and good of her time, as well as to the humblest of torinesi. As a friend of King Carlo Alberto, of his wife Maria Teresa and of the wife of Vittorio Emanuele II, Maria Adelaide, her drawing room was frequented by the most prominent figures of the Risorgimento: Count Cavour, with whom the Fallettis enjoyed a deep friendship; Cesare Balbo, Santorre di Santarosa, Cesare Alfieri, Silvio Pellico (who also acted as librarian to the Fallettis), and many others.8 They traveled extensively in Italy and abroad and were in contact with all the most illustrious people of the age.
The marchioness and prison reform
Among the many varied concerns of the marchioness, high on the list was her championing of prison reform, especially for women. She brought particular considerations to the general awareness – considerations that today are regarded as constitutional rights and stand at the foundation of the penal code. These were reforms introduced into Italy from Anglo-Saxon countries practicing Common Law, particularly concerning the rehabilitation aspects of penal practice as laid out in article 111 of the Italian constitution. It was a serious and weighty undertaking involving much suffering and fatigue, but it was to have profound effects on the politico-social situation at the time. She referred to prison as the “hospital of souls” and was convinced that a woman could and should emerge from jail having learned the rudiments necessary for attaining a new and better life.
Juliette had developed this conviction through a study of the condition of imprisoned women in France and England. In Italy, by contrast, the prisons were in a state of degradation, not helped by appalling standards of sanitation. It was not easy to battle against the hostility and indifference that surrounded such a campaign or to overcome the numerous obstacles that arose. But eventually the determination of the marchioness won out.
A century and a half later
The success of Barolo is taking place in special times, 2011 marking the 150th anniversary of Italian unification. Having attained worldwide recognition as one of the greatest wines, Barolo is a worthy symbol of the unity of the Italian nation. Even in the middle of the 19th century, it was being called on to represent Italy’s vinous colors by Cavour in the course of his diplomatic meals, as that great statesman wove the intricate net of agreements necessary to the founding of modern Italy. Cavour, linked by friendship to Juliette from the days of her youth, and sometimes even spurred on by her reproaches, invested much effort into improving the quality of the wine of his holdings, hiring the most competent personnel, as well as working with scrupulous commitment — qualities necessary in these controversial times of the history of Italy.9 It was a work that is reaching its apogee only today, 150 years on.
1. From September 12, 2010, there has existed in the interior of the castle an innovative museum dedicated to wine in general and to Barolo in particular, to its lands and its protagonists. Tickets are available online (www.wimubarolo.it). The castle also houses the Barolo Enoteca.
2. It was after this, they say, that the king, having thoroughly appreciated the Barolo wine, decided to acquire his property in Verduno in order to make his own.
3. Berti and Mainardi, in Piemonte: Storia Regionale della Vite e del Vino, report that in the cellars of the castle of Grinzane Cavour, “in the inventory of early 1847, were to be found the wines of both Staglieno and of the Frenchman” (read Oudar).
4. Today, the firm retains the same lands plus a few subsequent acquisitions, still in the commune of Barolo. They make Barolo, Barbaresco, Nebbiolo d’Alba, Barbera d’Alba, Dolcetto d’Alba, Roero Arneis, Gavi, Moscato d’Asti, and Brachetto d’Acqui. Since 2006, more than 60 percent of the shares of the company have been held by the family of Anna and Ernesto Abbona.
5. A man of culture and great humanity, Tancredi in youth was not only an avid scholar but also a keen traveler in the company of his father, in the course of which journeys he learned much about the history and contemporary geography of Europe.
6. Tancredi and Juliette both founded religious institutions that continue to flourish today. The marchioness founded the Penitent Sisters of Saint Mary Magdalene (subsequently called the Daughters of Christ Shepherd), the purpose of which was to help young women whose desire it was to dedicate themselves to the religious life. Tancredi was the founder the Sisters of Saint Ann, whose principal aim was the direction of the infants’ schools he had set up.
7. A n exceptional union, as we can gather from the words of Tancredi’s will, which describes Juliette as spiritually strong and wonderfully capable and, reading between the lines, recounts the true story of their love: “I name as my principal heir the Marchioness Giulietta Francesca Falletti di Barolo, née Colbert, my most beloved consort, and I do this in recognition of the profound affection I have always felt for her, of my high esteem and admiration for her virtues, wishing by this means to enable her to pursue our activities to the greater glory of our religion and to the benefit of my fellow citizens, as well as to the salvation of my soul. […] I most strongly and gladly believe that she will certainly put my substance to that good use that for a long time has been the aim of our mutual and continuing desires.”
8. On the constitution promulgated in 1821 by Carlo Alberto, which defends the rights of the individual and recognizes political activity for the common good, there appears the signature of the marquess of Barolo. Juliette took an immediate interest in Pellico, as soon as he emerged from Spielberg prison, where he had been incarcerated by the Austrian regime for his commitment to national independence. She provided him with an annual pension and lobbied for a Parisian edition of his book My Prisons, which told of his detention at Brno in Maravia. It is worth remembering that Juliette, a woman of culture and intelligence, numbered among her friends the French poet Lamartine.
9. Today, these holdings – the Barolo vineyard that was Cavour’s — as well as the castle of Grinzane, belong to the Fondazione Adele Alfieri di Sostegno, a public enterprise whose direction is currently overseen by the Enological School of Alba. In a letter dated 1832, Cavour thanks the marchioness for her constant tolerance in respect of his ideas, and he confides to her his dream of waking up one morning to find himself prime minister of Italy.