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September 8, 2016updated 02 Nov 2022 10:54am

How I Learned to Love Barolo

It’s the look of the place that’s so deceptive. Those impossibly tidy rows of vines-garden-center tidy, showpiece tidy-with those straight, white vineyard roads running through and across. It looks like a place that is cut and dried, everything sorted, everything understood, no questions left unanswered. What you see is what you get.

But Barolo the wine isn’t like that at all. And I used to look at that super-tidy landscape and think, What am I missing? Why don’t I get it? Because, you know, I never did. Thirty years of writing about wine, and the one wine I just didn’t understand was Barolo.

Not understanding a wine is different from not liking it. There are one or two wines I thoroughly dislike, but not because I don’t understand them. It’s like the old joke about the husband whose wife doesn’t understand him; she probably understands him all too well. But Barolo I didn’t understand. Those ethereal perfumes, followed by a concrete block of tannins on which I would stub my palate as painfully as a bare toe. The sometimessoupy texture that can coat your mouth; the clotted thickness at the back of the throat-and the question of maturity. Young wines could be impossibly chewy and impenetrable; but by the time the tannins had softened enough to squeeze them past one’s teeth, the fruit had turned leathery and herbal and old. They always seemed to be either too young or too old. I admire old wines, but the aforesaid 30 years of tasting young wines have corrupted my palate, and I want vigor, a bit of zip and zing. At Burgundy en primeur tastings, I could drink most of them, in most vintages, there and then. Don’t abuse me: Have sympathy. I know I’m wrong.

Anyway, there I was, in the wrong on Barolo, too. Change was required. So, I asked Giles Burke-Gaffney of Justerini & Brooks, Italian buyer extraordinaire, if I could go to Barolo with him for a crash course in understanding Barolo. No problem, he said. It turned out that the week after our trip a three-month-old whippet puppy was due to arrive at Château Giles, to join the family menagerie of cats and guinea pigs. A few days with a journalist probably seemed like the calm before the storm.


Barolo goes with improbable food

There we are on Sunday night, with the temperature still around 95°F (35°C)-don’t believe anyone who tells you Barolo has a big difference between day and night temperatures- sitting outside at Le Torri in Castiglione Falletto. The American couple at the next table are drinking Coca-Cola. “We’re going to have to drink Barolo,” says Giles, apologetically. He orders Rocche di Castiglione 2009 from Brovia. I order veal tartare with black truffle and salt ice cream. And the two are delicious together. Shouldn’t be-ice cream and tannin hardly sounds an enticing match-but are. Salt ice cream is now on my to-do list.

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Barolo tastes of blood

Sorry, Michael Garner and Paul Merritt. I love your book, but I don’t get tar, or hardly ever, and I only get roses sometimes, though a general floweriness more often. Have I been looking for the wrong things?

We’ve started in La Morra, climbing up the hill toward Elio Altare. The morning is misty, and the Barolo hills look like theater flats topped with silhouetted castles. Sylvia Altare is gradually taking over from her father, who, she says, is probably out there in the vines right now. “He still works 15 hours a day. He makes you feel lazy if you get up later than six.” We taste Arborina, Brunate, Cannubi, and Cerretta, and then she says it: blood. It tastes of blood, she says, matter of factly. And of course, it does: Cerretta, from the rock-solid soils of Serralunga, has a tight, cherryish nose, and then it’s blood and iron on the palate. It all sounds terribly Bismarckian, and it’s tempered in this wine by a feeling of freshness like walking into woodland on a hot day, but still: blood and iron. It’s my lightbulb moment: That’s the source of the feeling of soupiness that I’ve always found in Barolo, so different from the laser precision of top Burgundy, even though if you love Pinot you’re supposed to love Nebbiolo. Not all Barolo tastes of blood, but by looking for it and either finding it or not finding it, I can understand the wine. Serralunga and Monforte = blood. Describe it differently, and you taste it differently.


The more colors you can name, the more you can see

Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo (October 20, 1885) about Frans Hals’s use of color: “Frans Hals must have had 27 blacks,” he said. Well, Barolo has countless shades of cappuccino froth in its vineyard soils. (Not gray: The joke is simply too obvious.) Ceretta, says Sylvia, is “chunky and compact, blueish; it makes tannic wines. Alberino is south-facing, very pale soil, very sandy and crumbly. Verduna is sandy, like working on a beach.” The initial impression of Barolo soil is of a uniform cappuccinofroth color, but look hard and you begin to distinguish blueness or whiteness or brownness. At Paolo Scavino, Elisa Scavino hands me a chunk of blue marl rock, very faintly blue-tinged, sharp-edged but powdery to the touch. “It acts like a sponge in wet weather,” she says. This is the soil that gives grip and solidity to the likes of Serralunga d’Alba and Monforte d’Alba; Giuseppe Mascarello’s Monprivato 2010, by contrast, is from white, chalky soil and has the freshness of cool water combined with red fruits, silky tannins, and a gently flowing harmony. The flavor of blood and iron comes from the blue rock: blue blood. There’s a sensation of rock, too, in some wines. Not in the tannins, but in the minerality, the feeling of licking rock. Roberto Voerzio’s La Serra 2011 is like this: stones and black fruit, very fine-grained. So is Luigi Scavino’s Margheria 2011, from pale, grayish clay: big, powerful, mineral, and muscular.

Some of the soil is so finely powdery on top, you’d think a puff of wind would blow it away. Few growers admit to finding erosion a problem, though at Paolo Scavino they’ve built a wall at the bottom of steep, sandy Rocche di Castiglione to retain both soil and, in the last resort, tractors. The soil can form a protective crust on top that resists erosion to a degree-but once that crust is broken in heavy rain, you have a problem. This is what Barolo conjures up in the mind: something hard and delicate, muscular and fragile. Elisa Scavino describes the 2009 vintage as “a beautiful white shell with a peony inside. A thin, hard shell and then all that perfume.” The ethereal aromas need the counterpoint of the tannin. Other grapes offer tannin and acidity, and indeed aroma, but none is quite like Nebbiolo, and no other Nebbiolo is quite like Barolo. Langhe Nebbiolo offers an obvious crossover point from Burgundy; but after that, Nebbiolo gets wilder and wilder.


The ethereal aromas and concrete tannins of Barolo are akin to a singer’s head and chest voice

Singers have to be able to move from one to the other without it sounding as though they’re jumping a ditch or changing channels. The same continuity needs to be present in Barolo but isn’t always. How do you link the two so that the wine is seamlessly harmonious? Is it a matter of aging, or the moment of picking? Nebbiolo is late ripening, and most growers have to wait for phenolic ripeness. If you can coax phenolic ripeness closer to sugar ripeness, do you get greater harmony?

Davide Voerzio of Roberto Voerzio (who looks exactly like a Moroni portrait, except for his camouflage shorts) believes it is. He has very low yields of about 1.1lb (500g) per vine, compared to the more usual 4.4–8.8lb (2–4kg). Not only does he allow very few clusters per vine, but he cuts off most of each cluster in order to get concentration of aroma and flavor. But extraction is light, new wood does not exceed 30 percent, and the oak regime includes botti, as well as barriques old and new, so we’re not talking about muscle monsters. Crucially, he says he’s able to pick his Nebbiolo 15–20 days before other growers and gets, he says, sugar ripeness and phenolic ripeness at the same time. The wines are seamless, and they dance: Their concentration is worn with such lightness, such precision. “The fruit matures fast after the first green-harvest, and sugar increases, acidity falls,” he explains. “The physiology of the vine changes a lot after the first green-harvest. We can normally pick in perfect weather at the end of September. If you pick later, there’s often rain in October, and the last 15 days of maturation are not the same.”

From Voerzio to Giuseppe Rinaldi. If you didn’t know that tradition ruled here, you could guess pretty quickly. The cellars are a jumble of old bottles, old corking machines, old model owls, old photographs, old pots of ballpoint pens, and a yellowing handwritten note pinned to some bits of furniture telling one that this is Il miglior uso della barrique-turn them into chairs and tables, in other words. The wines are self-effacing in their gentleness, but of course they age famously well, even without a concrete base. And seamless, precise? Certainly. However you do it, says Giles, “you need a dialogue with the oak, the tannin and the fruit. Monforte is where it’s really easy to make a mistake. Too much new oak, adding oak tannins to the wine’s tannins, can be too much. And you shouldn’t try to extract in Monforte; it ends in tears. A really tough Monforte can leave your mouth completely destroyed.”

Even so, much of the time even the sweetest, juiciest fruit in young Barolo sits on top of the solid tannins rather than wrapping itself around. Paolo Conterno’s Ginestra 2010 has a dialogue between the bright fruit and the strapping tannins, but the fruit doesn’t yet attempt anything more intimate. They meet, but only with age will they really get to know each other.


Age is good

Age of wines and age of vines, too. Luigi Scavino’s Bricco Fiasco 1999 still feels young, but the tannins have smoothed out to velvet, and the fruit is herbs and blood. It had a hefty dose of new oak in youth, says Lorenzo Scavino, but it has sunk into the wine. It’s neither over-chewy nor faded-it’s just right. Paolo Scavino’s Rocche del Annunziata 1996 was one of the greatest wines of my crash course: graceful, ethereal, cherry and herb fruit, grippy tannins, the sweetness of raw meat and the purity of sea air. It was from a year Elisa describes as classic but acidic. “Some say classic years are better young,” she says. “They can become too tight as they age.” But the good news is that Barolo doesn’t Above: Barolo vineyards in autumn, when the variable weather can make it challenging to achieve grapes with adequate phenolic as well as sugar ripeness. really shut down into a sulky adolescence. If it did, Brunate 2009 from Mario Marengo’s 70–80-year-old vines, would be adolescent. Instead, it’s tense, and deep as a bottomless pit; the 2004 Brunate Vecchia Vigne is strawberries, blood, thyme, and medicinal notes, and the tannins are like the velvet on young antlers, with solid bone underneath.

Not only have these wines evolved, but winemaking and viticulture have evolved, too. Modernism is less extreme; to be modern, nowadays, is to eschew the flavor of new oak. And are your botti varnished on the outside or unvarnished? If they’re varnished (and most are), how much oxygen can get in or out?


In another ten years, Barolo will be different again

Generations are changing. At Elio Altare, Sylvia grins and says she has “discussions” with her father every day. “I’m a new generation; I do things differently.” She points to the “discussions” he had with his own father. “Elio went to France in 1976, and it was a scandal. People said, ‘Why would you do that?’ My grandfather thought he was the best, but he couldn’t sell his wine. Elio introduced water into the cellar; my grandfather didn’t wash the barrels. Elio brought the first barriques here, in 1982. He said [making such changes] was like walking in a dark tunnel, not seeing the way; and he was disowned by his family.”

The new generation in Barolo is quite often female. Nothing surprising in this, given that there’s a 50/50 chance, but it seems that the girls are no longer being pushed into marketing or PR. As well as Sylvia Altare, there’s Elena at Giuseppe Mascarello and Elisa and Enrica at Paolo Scavino and Marta at Giuseppe Rinaldi. This in itself is a quiet revolution. Theirs will be the task of doing things differently while keeping Barolo contradictory, contrary, tense. It was never supposed to be easy.

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