Barolo – From Grape to Glass

Harry Lambourne
26th May 2021

The phrase from grape to glass is incredibly fitting for the Italian Barolo. In the mid-19th century a French winemaker from the Champagne region came to Barolo, helping to create the wine known ever so humbly as, the ‘King of Wine’. Barolo itself is a small commune in the Piedmont wine region in northern Italy, comprising of 11 separate villages. Scenic vineyards are set in the rolling Italian hills, with fog pouring through which add a magical feel to the Barolo region.

Vineyard in the Barolo region
Rolling Vineyards in the Barolo region

It is clear to see why the French place emphasis on terroir. ‘Terroir’ being the term to indicate that environmental factors have a definitive impact on the quality, style, complexity, aromas and flavours of each wine. If the environment is inextricably linked to the product, it is easy to believe that if any region would produce a great wine, it would be the Barolo region. Let’s look into exactly why this grape, in your glass, is so desirable.

What grape is Barolo made from?

Barolo is made exclusively from the Nebbiolo grape. The name originates from the Italian word ‘Nebbia’, which translates to fog. This seems well-placed given the scenery which we find in the Barolo region. Although, it could also stem from the powdery-white complexion grapes also possess.

Nebbiolo Grapes
‘From Grape to Glass’ | Temperamental Nebbiolo Grapes – the source of Barolo

Nebbiolo is a temperamental grape which, more so than many varieties, can be described as ‘terroir-expensive’. This means that terroir and the factors related to it, such as climate and soil type, are more likely to have an effect on the end product. Due to them being thin-skinned and slow-ripening, Nebbiolo grapes are susceptible to the effects of terroir, with noticeable differences between the vineyards scattered across the 11 different villages across the Barolo region.

How is Barolo made?

From the four classifications found in Italian wine, Barolo comes under the umbrella of DOCG. All wines from a DOCG area must pass a wine quality tasting panel. If a certified Italian expert has signed off on it, then you know it’s good.

Other qualifications specific to being able label a wine a ‘Barolo’ include a minimum ageing of 38 months, which at least 18 of them are spent in a wood barrel, Barolo must also be a minimum ABV, (Alcohol By Volume), of 13%. A Barolo aged in oak for over 60 months leads to it being dubbed a ‘Barolo Riserva’.

Inside these specifications there has been much debate on the best way to produce a great Barolo, leading to the Barolo Wars of the 1970s and 1980s. Yes, you read that right – ‘Barolo Wars’. The events of which were made into a documentary.

Barolo Boys Movie
Barolo Boys – The Story of a Revolution (2014)

At the heart of the ‘War’ was a disagreement in how the Barolo should be made. Traditionalists wanted the old methods to continue. Grapes should be Nebbiolo and the ageing should take place in big Slovenian casks. Modernists, (known as the ‘Barolo Boys’), wanted to create a newer approach through the introduction of French oak fermentation and a different varieties of grapes. Both methods are still in use today.

What does Barolo Taste Like?

All that has gone before speaks to the fact that ‘Barolo’ does not simply have a unified taste. Terroir will have an impact, as will the method by which it is made. 

A traditional Barolo is a big and bold red wine, with grippy tannins, that stick to the sides of your mouth. There are varied tastes which can be expected, however tastes and smells you often experience with Barolo include: Tar, rose, red berries and fruit, tobacco, herbs, truffles, coffee and chocolate.

For a specific case study, take this 2014 Barolo from Mario Garibaldi. On the nose you will smell strawberry, cherry, black forest fruits and hints of white pepper. While the tasting notes will include, red fruit and delicate tannins with subtle spicy notes. Go on give it a try!

What makes Barolo expensive?

At its roots, the price of a Barolo wine is fundamentally linked to supply and demand, with two key factors to consider.

The first comes back to the method. Barolo production is often labour intensive and requires a lot of time. This is due to long-ageing processes and a desire to maintain traditional methods of harvesting and production, (these were some of the reasons the Modernists wanted to modernise). Some traditionalists favour a 50 year ageing period, between harvesting and selling the wine. Even the minimum requirements state, Barolo must be aged for 38 months before it can be sold. This can drive up price, particularly when time and money is invested in maturing wines from vintages which are less than desirable to consumers, (2002 being an example of this).

The second comes down to the temprementality of the grapes themselves. Nebbiolo will only mature properly in very exact conditions. Indeed, this is part of the reason why so few Nebbiolo wines are produced outside the Piedmont region.

When you pair a long winemaking process with a temperamental grape, it’s likely to produce smaller yields. For example, annual Barolo production is one fifth of the size of Chianti. These smaller yields can then lead to the high price tags often associated with the much sought after Barolo.

How long will Barolo age for?

Thanks to the DOCG, Barolo’s will have already been aged before they get into the hands of consumers. Then, it really is down to the consumer how long they wish to wait, (or how far back in time they wish to look), for their perfect Barolo.

It is recommended that you wait at least 5 years. As Barolo spends over 3 years in the barrel, a further two years in the bottle should be fine. However, there may be greater rewards out there for the more patient among you. As time goes one, the tannin rich wine softens, becoming more complex. This can mean that waiting between 8 and 15 years could be the sweet spot for a great Barolo.

Storing wine properly with Barolo can often become key. Please consult this for a helpful guide.

Alternatives to Barolo

If the partisan in you hates the idea of choosing one side of a war, or the idea of a ‘King of Wines’ strikes you as far too arch. There are alternatives to Barolo out there.

Perhaps, the closest relative of the Barolo is the Barbaresco. It is also made from Nebbiolo grapes in the Piedmont wine region. The two villages are only about 15 miles apart, but even though they possess striking similarities on the surface level. The final product can be quite different. Shorter fermentation and maceration means the tannins soften quicker, this means you will be able to enjoy the wine at its peak earlier.

Vineyards at Barbaresco
Vineyards at Barbaresco – 15 miles North-West of Barolo

Beyond Barbaresco, the Piedmont region boasts a number of alternatives if you’re looking to get a taste of the temperamental Nebbiolo.

Price and Vintage Guide

If all of the above has got your mouth-watering and ready for a glass of Barolo, then let me help out with some advice on vintage, prices and producers. Great vintages that will really be coming into their own right now include; 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014 and to a lesser extent 2015 & 2016.

As for price points, they can vary greatly. Never buy more expensive wine than you are comfortable with. Indeed, Barolo’s can range from £15 to £250+ per bottle.

Finally, some producers to look out for. Many names appear on various lists of top producers of Barolo. Names such as Bartolo Mascarello and Giacomo Conterno are examples of great Traditionalists who have their work being carried on in the way it has done since the mid-19th century. Then, we have those such as Roberto Voerzio, (one of the ‘Barolo Boys’), whose push for modernism has perhaps helped to provide Barolo a more accessible face.

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