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The Return of Traditional Barolos
By Ed McCarthy
Jan 6, 2009
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I just returned from a trip to Piedmont, Italy, and I am happy to report that traditional Barolos are once again in fashion among the barolistas--the local name for Barolo winemakers.  Roberto Conterno, proprietor-winemaker of the iconic Giacomo Conterno Winery, long the bastion of traditional Barolos, laughed when I brought up the topic to him.  'They never went away. I'm making Barolo the way I always did, the way my father (Giovanni Conterno) did, and the way my grandfather (Giacomo Conterno, the founder) did!'

It's definitely true that a dedicated core of winemakers such as Roberto Conterno kept the faith with traditional Barolo.  But less than 30 years ago, in the early 1980s, a movement began among many younger winemakers in the Langhe (the area centering on the town of Alba that includes the Barolo, Barbaresco, and Roero wine regions) to change the way Barolo was being made.  It had probably started with Angelo Gaja, the innovative wine producer in Barbaresco who has introduced so many changes in Piedmontese wines.  Gaja was the first in the region to use French barriques to age his wines--first with Barbera, then with Barbaresco, and finally with Barolo.

Another innovator, the late Renato Ratti, introduced shorter maceration time for Barolo winemaking.  Traditionally, barolistas would allow the juice to macerate (soak) with the grapeskins for 25 to 30 days.  The Nebbiolo grape, the only variety used to make Barolo and Barbaresco, contains a huge amount of tannin and acidity.  Ratti believed that Barolos made with such long maceration time picked up too much tannin from the skins and pips--making the wines too austere, and almost impossible to drink in the first ten years.  At the Renato Ratti Winery in Annunciata (a hamlet of La Morra, a Barolo-zone wine town), Ratti introduced maceration periods of six to eight days for Barolo, an extraordinary change at the time.  Ratti's goal of having his Barolos ready to drink within four or five years was achieved.

In the early 1980s, shortly after Ratti's innovations, a young group of Barolo winemakers, led by Elio Altare, Domenico Clerico, Luciano Sandrone, Renato Corino, and Enrico Scavino of Paolo Scavino Winery, banned together and declared that they were changing the (traditional) way in which Barolo was produced, claiming that the existing winemaking method made Barolos so tannic and unpalatable that they were often undrinkable for decades, and that some of these Barolos never 'came around.'  In other words, the tannins outlived the fruit in the wines. 

These 'young Turks,' as Elio Altare, perhaps the most vocal spokesman of the group, referred to themselves, shortened fermentation time to a week or less, aged the wines in wood for shorter periods, and in most cases used French barriques for at least part of the aging time.  The resulting 'new-style' (the young Turks preferred 'modern') Barolos matured faster (usually within five or six years), were less tannic and less austere.  In short, you could order a young, modern-styled Barolo in a restaurant and drink it without worrying about mouth-puckering tannins. 

But the modern-style Barolos did not last nearly as long as traditional, full-bodied Barolos.  I can remember drinking a 1982 (very good vintage) Altare Barolo in the early 1990s and it was dead in the water.  I was shocked at the time.  A few years later, I was drinking a 1985 (another good vintage) Sandrone Barolo along with a 1985 Vietti Rocche Barolo in a restaurant in Alba (Vietti was still a traditional Barolo wine producer, especially with its single-vineyard Rocche).  The 1985 Sandrone was lifeless; the '85 Vietti Rocche was glorious!

What the young Turks had in common was the same agent/importer, an Italian-American living in Italy called Marco de Grazia (nicknamed 'disgrazia' by some traditional Barolo winemakers).  Marco de Grazia and his younger brother Sebastiano believed fervently in the modern-style Barolo winemaking method, and I have heard that they encouraged all in their stable of Barolo and Barbaresco winemakers to change to the new method.  Other Langhe winemakers who adopted the modern-style method (some of whom are represented by de Grazia) include Luigi Scavino of Azelia Winery, Chiara Boschis of E. Pira Winery, Silvio Grasso, Grimaldi, Giovanni Manzone, Paolo Manzone, Marco Marengo, Parusso, Seghesio, Conterno-Fantino, Rocche dei Manzoni, Roberto Voerzio, Gianni Voerzio, Gianfranco Alessandria, Mauro Veglio, Gigi Rosso, Icardi, and Luigi Einaudi in the Barolo region; and Albino Rocca, Bruno Rocca, Moccagatta, Rivetti, La Spinetta, and Sottimano in the Barbaresco zone.

Admittedly, modern-style Barolos and Barbarescos caught on with wine consumers, especially the younger generation.  In the U.S., for example, barrique-aged Barolos--especially in ripe vintages such as 1990, 1997, and 2000--tasted a lot like the California Cabernets that American consumers were accustomed to drinking.  From about the 1985 vintage on up to 2000, modern-style Barolos and Barbarescos and wines which combined aspects of modern and traditional style were more popular, at least in the U.S., than traditional Barolos--except for Barolo purists, such as yours truly and a handful of other eccentrics.

But then an amazing thing happened around the turn of the century.  I like to think of it as American (and other) Barolo wine drinkers coming of age.  More and more wine articles were written praising traditional Barolo.  Traditionally-made Barolos and Barbarescos wines slowly caught on; one unfortunate aspect of this new-found popularity was that their prices rose.  Ironically, during this period, two of the giants of traditional Barolo, Giovanni Conterno and Bartolo Mascarello, passed away.  But their wines carry on with their progeny as winemakers.

Two signs of the changing winds in Barolo: Luciano Sandrone, never a total convert to modern-style Barolo, left Marco de Grazia a few years ago and is now being imported by Vintus Wines.  Sandrone's Barolos are a blend of both styles; he has a short maceration (less than 10 days) but he does not age his Barolos in barriques.  Perhaps even more significantly, de Grazia is now adding some traditional Barolo producers to his portfolio, notably Cavallotto and Luigi Pira.

Why do I love traditionally-made Barolos and Barbarescos so much?  I love the pure, unadulterated (no new oak!) aromas and flavors of these Nebbiolo wines: ripe strawberries, tar, mint, eucalyptus, licorice, camphor, roses, spices, tobacco, and sometimes white truffles!  Of course, you don't get all of these aromas in each wine, but you do get some of them.  And these wines, aged in large, used Slavonian oak barrels which impart no oaky flavors, are incredibly more complex in flavor with age, taking on secondary aromas of saddle leather or forest floor.  The fact that modern-styled Barolos don't age well bothers me a lot--in addition to the fact that they don't smell and taste the same as traditional Barolos and Barbarescos. 

By the way, the assertion by some modernist Barolo producers that traditional Barolos are undrinkable for long periods of time and they finally dry up as the fruit dissipates might have been true with some traditional winemakers in the past, but not any more.  All winemakers today know how to handle tannins much better (harsh tannins are really a thing of the past), and almost all wineries today are spotlessly clean, eliminating potential bacterial problems and other detrimental factors in winemaking.

The following is my listing of traditional Barolo producers whose wines I greatly admire: Giacomo Conterno, Giuseppe Mascarello (especially his Barolo Monprivato), Giuseppe Rinaldi, Bruno Giacosa, Bartolo Mascarello, Cavallotto, Cappellano, Francesco Rinaldi, Marcarini, Elvio Cogno, Poderi Colla, Brovia, Burlotto, and Luigi Pira.  Other fine traditional Barolo producers include Giacomo Borgogno, Oddero, and Massolino.

Traditional Barbaresco producers that are tops include Bruno Giacosa, Marchesi di Gresy, Produttori del Barbaresco, and Castello di Neive.

Some very fine producers have incorporated what they consider the best of both styles in their Barolos and Barbarescos. They include Vietti (with winemaker Luca Currado lately bringing his winery closer to its traditional roots), Ceretto, Marchesi di Barolo, Pio Cesare, Aldo Conterno, Prunotto, Renato Ratti, and Michele Chiarlo.

I do think that some very good Barolos and Barbarescos are being made by the so-called modern producers.  For example, I rank the Barolos of Roberto Voerzio among the best being produced today.  And Gaja's wines, although very expensive, are always among the great Piedmontese wines every year.

Vintages to look for?  Among the older vintages, 1988, 1989, and 1996 are all super, with the 1996 perhaps needing a little more time.  Among the currently available vintages, 2001 and 2004 are great, with the 1999 and 1998 right behind them.  Looking forward, both the 2006 and 2007 Barolos and Barbarescos should be excellent, when they finally arrive on our shores.

Email Ed at edvmcc@aol.com.