Age-worthy yet terroir transparent, Barolo is a fascinating region. Its complex, varied terroir often draws comparisons with Burgundy. Here we delve into “the king of wines and wine of kings” – from its aristocratic beginnings to the villages, vineyards and producers to look out for
Barolo remains the most important region in the world for Nebbiolo. This variety is one of the world’s most sensitive and difficult to grow, rarely found outside Piedmont. While there are a handful of other high-quality enclaves across Piedmont including Valmaggiore (24km north of Barolo) and the cooler sites of Gattinara and Ghemme – collectively known as Alto Piedmont (or Alto Piemonte), nowhere else matches Barolo and neighboring Barbaresco for complexity and aging potential.
The wines are typically pale ruby in color with grippy tannins, high acidity and a flavor profile of red cherry, mulberry, camphor and rose petal. The grape’s almost transparent character (similar to Pinot Noir) makes it a great transmitter of terroir – producing many nuanced styles, flavors and aromas – from the most delicate and floral to the most structured and mineral, and everywhere in between. It is this complex variety within such a small region that makes the grape, and the varying communes of Barolo, so interesting.
Barolo has a cooler microclimate compared to nearby Barbaresco, resulting in a longer ripening season. While this means it is more sensitive to vintage variation, in the best years the wines reach highs unmatched anywhere else.
Dry Barolo has been produced in the region since the mid-1800s. A wine that was a favorite amongst the aristocratic families of the Savoy dynasty, it is thought to have been first produced in this style by King Carlo Alberto’s estate in nearby Pollenzo. The aristocracy bankrolled wine production in Barolo, helping the pioneering winemakers at the time – such as Staglieno and the French oenologist Oudart – improve the quality and reputation of the wines. Their aristocratic link earned Barolo the nickname “the king of wines and the wine of kings”.
Understanding the variety of styles of Barolo to a large extent depends upon where the grapes are grown. The landscape of Barolo is made up of many small undulating hillsides where exposition, topography and altitude all play important roles in the final character of a wine made in a specific part of the region or vineyard.
Historically the sub-regions were not so important, largely due to the fact that Barolo wines existed exclusively as blends of fruit from across the region (often including grapes from the vineyards of Barbaresco). The 1961 vintage, however, represents a significant turning point when both Prunotto and Vietti released single-vineyard Barolos from Barolo Bussia and Rocche di Castiglione. While it was common knowledge amongst the local grape brokers which parts of the valley produced the best Nebbiolo, it wasn’t until the 1970s when these place names first came to print in Luigi Veronelli’s map.
At the most basic level Barolo is divided into two valleys: the Central Valley and the Serralunga Valley. The Central Valley – including sub-regions of La Morra, Barolo and Novello – produce a more approachable style, noted for their fragrance and elegance, thought to be due to the distinct blue-grey marl content in the Tortonian soils found in these vineyards. The Serralunga Valley – with its sub-regions of Serralunga d’Alba and Monforte d’Alba – tend to create more powerful, tannic, concentrated wines due to the higher content of clay, limestone and sandstone found in the Serravalian soils. In Castiglione Falletto there is a richer concentration of sandstone and this is generally thought to produce a middle ground between the more structured character of the Serravalian soils and the elegance brought about by the Tortonian soils.
While these variations in soil throughout the sub-regions play some part in the differences in the structure and flavor profile of different Barolos, this is just one factor and should be understood as broad generalizations. The complex terroirs are defined not just by the soils, but by the varying expositions, altitudes, viticultural techniques, clones, pruning and winemaking methods which vary from estate to estate – making it impossible to provide a completely definitive profile of each area.
A Guide to Barolo’s Communes
There are 11 village communes within the Barolo DOCG: La Morra, Barolo, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba, Cherasco, Diano d’Alba, Grinzane Cavour, Monforte d’Alba, Novello, Roddi and Verduno. Below you’ll find a guide to the distinctive style of the main communes, as well as the best growers from each.
Wines from La Morra can be some of the most perfumed Barolo, typically with soft, smooth tannins. It is believed that the fine sandy soil of the region is behind the wines’ elegance. As the largest Barolo subregion, however, La Morra is the most diverse both in style and quality. Typically, these wines can be much more approachable in youth and tend to fair better in cooler vintages.
Top producers in the region include Roberto Voerzio – who makes a unique style for the region, with strict pruning leading to minuscule yields and austere, tannic wines with long aging potential. Poderi Oddero is more typical for the commune, producing bright, fruity Barolos with distinctly elegant tannins. Elio Altare is known for more modern-style Barolos which are matured both in traditional large barrels, as well as smaller barriques, and some new oak for their single-vineyard wines.
Top vineyards: Brunate, Cerequio, Rocche dell’Annunziata
Similar to La Morra, the Barolo sub-region produces broad, open, velvety Barolo but often with a bit more structure and concentration than those from La Morra. The region is home to some of the most historic sites, including Cannubi – a Cru that was singled out as an exceptional site even before the creation of the Barolo appellation (with the earliest bottled example of this site dating back to 1752).
It is also home to some of the most respected producers in the region, who make markedly different styles of Barolo – further confirming that location is only part of the puzzle. Fierce traditionalists Bartolo Mascarello famously don’t make single-vineyard wines but their blended Barolo remains one of the region’s finest. Guiseppe Rinaldi’s winery is also staunchly traditional in their winemaking, seeing cross-commune blends as the ultimate expression of Barolo.
Luciano Sandrone is more modern in style, the wines made in an elegant style that is more approachable in youth but also offers fantastic aging potential – making them some of the region’s most collectible.
Top vineyards: Cannubi, Ravera, Bricco delle Viole
Although situated in the Serralunga valley, Castiglione Falletto falls somewhere in the middle between the elegant and fragrant qualities of La Morra and Barolo, and the boldness and concentration of Serralunga and Monforte. This is due to the aspect of the best slopes here, where the vines have maximum exposure to the sun, meaning riper fruit and added concentration.
Giuseppe Mascarello produces one of Barolo’s most famous single-vineyard wines from the Monprivato Cru. Traditional in style, the wine is fermented in tank and aged in large oak. Vietti – a true pioneer of single-Cru Barolos – is also based here, as it has been since the 1800s. This estate has not only some of the best label designs in the world, but access to some of the finest Crus in Barolo, including Ravera, Rocche di Castiglione and Brunate.
Top vineyards: Rocche di Castiglione, Fiasco, Villero
Serralunga is defined by its high concentration of Sant’Agata soils. Growers here talk about the vines feeling pain, as the harder soils put more stress on the vine, producing wines of great depth and power – as well as some of the highest tannin levels and the most full-bodied Barolos of any region. The wines can often have a distinctive bitter orange aroma. The wines are solid and typically austere, but can also be incredibly elegant and expressive, some of the most terroir-driven and long-lasting Barolo.
By far the most famous and revered wine from Serralunga is Giacomo Conterno’s Monfortino. Monfortino was in fact the first ever producer-named Barolo made in the Riserva style, with the first vintage made in the 1920s (today it comes from the Cascina Francia Cru). Although based in Barbaresco, Bruno Giacosa produces two of Barolo’s most revered wines from the Serralunga Cru of Falletto, released only in top vintages. These are two of the most consistent expressions of top single-vineyard Nebbiolo in Barolo.
Top vineyards: Cascina Francia, Falletto, Ornato
Defined by concentration and structure, the soils in Monforte d’Alba contain more clay than limestone – the opposite of Serralunga. The resulting wines tend to have more volume on the palate and boldness, making them the most concentrated Barolos. The wines exhibit classic rose petal, clay pot, clove, camphor and cardamom aromas, and particularly bold tannins. Look out for bottlings from Elio Grasso whose Case Matè Barolo comes from Ginestra.
Bussia is one of the most famous, but also largest Crus, producing many different styles. The best part of the vineyard is Upper Bussia; a natural amphitheatre with varying expositions, when combined it produces wines of fantastic complexity. For the ultimate insight into the vineyard, try the wines of Aldo Conterno – who makes five separate bottlings all from the Bussia Cru.
Top vineyards: Bussia, Ginestra, Mosconi