Bringing Barolo back
Author: Matt Smith
It feels like the 2016 vintage confirms the start of a new golden age for the Langhe and its two iconic wines of Barolo and Barbaresco. With this magnificent vintage (and unanimously stellar results), it has never been a more exciting time to discover these great wines. The sheer diversity of styles now on offer, coupled with a deeper understanding of the vineyards and a wonderful run of vintages also coming, wine-lovers and collectors are increasingly taking interest.
But the Langhe’s journey to arrive at this exciting moment in time hasn’t been without its controversy and turmoil. This is not a region with noble origins, as in Bordeaux or Tuscany. Historically, it is a poor mixed farming area whose reputation for fine wine has only developed since the end of the Second World War. During the 1980s and ’90s, it witnessed a significant period of change, with passionate disagreements between the producers over the direction and identity of their wines, together with the techniques employed to create them. This fascinating period became known as the “Barolo wars” and it’s important in the context of appreciating the wines today.
While the region’s winemaking goes back as far as any region in Italy, its modern history as a predominantly, dry red wine area really started after the First World War. At that time the region was dominated by a handful of large négociants who purchased grapes from the numerous small farmers across the zone and blended them to create a house style. By the end of the Second World War, however, things had begun to change. Led by visionaries such as Bartolo Mascarello, many more grower-producers started to appear.
At the time, many producers harvested their Nebbiolo slightly underripe and at high yields, leaving the grapes with harsh green tannins. To maximize colour extraction, producers subjected the wine to extended periods of gentle maceration, submerging the cap of skins in the juice for several weeks, followed by several years’ ageing in large oak casks. The wines often required many years’ further ageing in bottle to soften and become approachable, with the long, slow process of oxidation gradually reducing the perception of tannins. Unfortunately, in many cases the fruit also faded and became oxidized, leading to dried-out, astringent wines. (It is worth pointing out that this never applied to the wines of Bartolo Mascarello, who was a master craftsman of traditional Barolo; a legacy his daughter Maria-Teresa continues, making monumental wines of great finesse which are highly sought-after.)
By the late 1970s and early ’80s, consumers had started to favour fruiter, easier-drinking wines which could be consumed younger. A group of Barolo producers – led by the likes of Elio Altare, Renato Ratti and Ceretto – looked to other successful regions and countries for inspiration, and began making more international styles of Barolo. They favoured shorter maceration periods of around eight to 10 days and turned to modern technology, using rotofermenters to pump the juice over the cap continuously throughout a much shorter fermentation time, for maximum colour extraction. The wines were then aged in small new barriques to impart stronger oak characters in a shorter time. These producers began bottling in straight Bordeaux bottles, in contrast to the traditional Albeisa bottle to signify their modernist winemaking philosophies. The resulting wines could be released more quickly, and more importantly be drunk younger. They were lauded by many critics, who favoured their dark, dense, fruit-driven characters, and the style began to dominate.
Rapidly the region became divided. Bartolo Mascarello joined forces with two other outspoken producers of classically crafted Barolo: Teobaldo Cappellano and Giuseppe Rinaldi. The three dubbed themselves “The Last of the Mohicans” and hit back at the modernists for turning their backs on the essence of Barolo, in favour of fashion. In his later years, Mascarello began painting his own labels. His 1999 Barolo famously lampooned the double evils facing Italy at that time, with the words “No Barrique, No Berlusconi” on the label.
A considerable number of vintages have now passed since the height of the division in the Langhe. The winemaking pendulum has swung back towards the classical style, which is good news for the region’s future. When assessing both styles of wine with bottle age, in general, traditional winemaking techniques of gentle long extraction and neutral oak ageing allow for more complex, fresher wines, which are significantly more stable in colour and structure, with the ability to age better.
But one must not be too quick to criticise the modernist era. It brought a lot of improvements. The concept of single vineyards was born in that time and, while some producers still firmly hold on to the hallowed tradition of blending, this helps consumers identify and explore the nuances of the region and creates diversity. Huge advances were made in the vineyards, with yield and canopy management allowing grapes to be harvested much healthier, with ripe tannins and sugars in balance. In the wineries, more temperature control and stricter hygiene has also improved the overall quality.
It is perhaps best to describe the present time as a “neo-classical” period, with many producers embracing history and heritage once again, happily taking winemaking influences from the traditions of the region together with the best developments of modern winemaking and viticulture. The Langhe is undoubtedly a richer and more dynamic place as a result.
Three to try
The modernist: Mauro Veglio
As neighbours of one of the original “Barolo boys”, Elio Altare, there is no denying Veglio’s historic influences in winemaking. Until recently they still used rotorfermenters at the winery, but have now switched to slightly longer maceration times and a programme of daily pump-overs for colour and fruit extraction. They are committed to the use of barriques for ageing, although they have toned down the use of new wood, giving great balance to the wines.
The traditionalist: Cascina Fontana
A staunch traditionalist of the region, Mario Fontana has always strived to continue the style of wine his grandfather made in the 1950s and ’60s. He believes wholeheartedly in the idea of blending villages and vineyards to create more natural, complex and balanced wine. Indeed, he only began making a single-village (Castiglione Falletto) wine from 2013, but more as nod to his family roots than a single-terroir expression. He always favours long macerations of up to 40 days and ageing in his beautiful old Slavonian botti grandi.
The neo-classicist: Trediberri
Until relatively recently, Nicola Oberto’s family grew grapes for Renato Ratti. But, after a brief spell in finance, Nicola returned and the family decided to set up their own production, taking their vineyards back. As a young producer, Trediberri has nothing in the way of title or heritage. Nicola is a fastidious, well-travelled winemaker, always self-critical and obsessed with winery hygiene and quality. But his influences lie firmly in the past, choosing to ferment in cement vats for their natural temperature control and ageing his wines in traditional Slavonian botti.