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Terroir is Alive and Well in Barolo
By Michael Apstein
Apr 27, 2021
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With three wines, all made from Nebbiolo grape, the Marchese di Barolo, a top producer in Piedmont, shows the importance of terroir.  The French, especially the Burgundians, have long insisted that the idea of terroir—where the grapes grow—is fundamental to the character of the wine.  Indeed, the French name many of their wines, and certainly their best ones, by where the grapes grow, not by the grape name.  No Pinot Noir for them.  It’s Gevrey-Chambertin or Pommard.  The Italians take a somewhat broader approach.  Some of the best Italian wines, such as Barolo, are named by location.  Others are named by the grape, such as Barbera, and some are named by both, such as Langhe Nebbiolo (Nebbiolo grape from the Langhe, a wider area of Piedmont surrounding Alba, Barolo and Barbaresco) or, Barbera d’Alba.

The only way to truly understand terroir is by holding constant the other key element in determining a wine’s character, namely the winemaking.  Here’s the dilemma.  If I’m tasting two wines from grapes grown in two different vineyards made by two different producers, are the differences due to the place (the vineyard) or to the producer? Hence, the key to appreciating terroir is to compare the same producer’s wines made from grapes grown in different sites.  And thanks to the Somm Journal webinar hosted by Italian wine expert Lars Leicht and featuring Valentina and Anna Abbona from the family that owns Marchesi di Barolo, we could do just that.

We tasted a trio of wines, side-by-side, all made by the Marchese di Barolo: a 2018 Langhe Nebbiolo DOC “Sbirolo,” a 2015 Barolo, Comune di Barolo, and a 2015 Barolo “Sarmassa.”  The vintages were not the same, but both 2015 and 2018 were similar in style, being warm, and thus producing ripe wines.  And though the barrel aging is not the same among these three wines, the aging and winemaking in general is driven by where the grapes are grown.  So, the differences among these three wines essentially reflect the differences in terroir.  

Wines labeled Langhe Nebbiolo must contain a minimum of 85 percent Nebbiolo, though most all are entirely Nebbiolo, and can come from vineyards classified as such or from Barolo (or Barbaresco) vineyards that have been de-classified.  Producers might opt to declassify some of their Barolo to Langhe Nebbiolo if, for example, the grapes came from an inferior part of the Barolo vineyard or the wine did measure up to the producer’s standards for Barolo.

The bright and lively 2018 Marchese di Barolo Langhe Nebbiolo “Sbirolo” displays light floral notes and delicate cherry-like fruitiness.  The tannins, for which Nebbiolo is famous, are apparent, but not hard nor astringent.  Overall, there’s a pleasing austerity to the wine, making it an excellent choice for current consumption with pasta in a meat sauce as opposed to a stand-alone aperitivo.  (90 pts; $20)  

The Marchese di Barolo’s “Barolo del Comune di Barolo,” is a blend from their vineyards within in the municipality of Barolo, one of the 11 villages that comprise the DOCG and the one from which the DOCG takes its name.  The 2015 displays a darker profile, from color to palate, compared to their Langhe Nebbiolo.  Though a gorgeous floral element is present, the wine’s focus moves from cherry-like fruitiness to a tar-like mineral aspect.  It expands over in the glass, gaining layers of flavor.  It has great concentration, yet is not overdone.  A lovely, subtle bitterness in the finish enhances its appeal.  As expected from a Barolo, the tannins are more apparent, yet not intrusive.  It’s surprisingly forward and easy to taste, but its balance and structure suggest that more complexity with evolve over the next decade or two.  (93, $65).  

Sarmassa, along with Cannubi, are likely the two top vineyards in the village of Barolo.  Marchese di Barolo consistently produces a wonderful Sarmassa from their substantial holdings there.  The youthful 2015, denser and darker even than their Barolo del Comune di Barolo, is fabulous.  Despite its more noticeable tannic structure, its charms are readily apparent because the tannins are suave, not harsh or intrusive.  Wonderfully perfumed, this powerhouse retains balance and elegance.  Its grandeur blossoms further in an incredibly long finish.  Barolo-lovers should find a place in their cellar for this wine.  (95, $100)

The venerable Marchesi di Barolo estate has both a royal and saintly history.  Juliette Colbert, the great-grand-daughter (or perhaps great-grand-niece) of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, finance minister to Louis XIV, France’s “Sun King,” became the Marquise of Barolo when she married a nobleman, Marchese Carlo Tancredi Falletti di Barolo in 1806 and moved to his estate in Barolo.  She is credited with changing the style of the local wine from sweet and red, to dry and robust, yet elegant, one that is today’s Barolo, and with labeling it by that place name.  A great advocate for the poor and downtrodden, she was beatified by the Catholic Church and was titled Venerable by Pope Francis in 2015 because of her life of “heroic virtue.”  She died in 1864 without heirs, leaving the entire estate to a charitable foundation, Opera Pia Barolo, which she founded to continue her good works.  Opera Pia Barolo operated the estate until 1929 when charities were required to sell-off property.  Enter the Abbona family whose winery and vineyards were across the road from those of the Marchesi di Barolo.  Though not the best time to be making investments, they, either foolishly or prophetically, seized the opportunity to buy the estate.  Thus, the Abbona family became only the third owners of this jewel and contributed to the fiscal health of Opera Pia Barolo, which is till operational today.

In 1980, Ernesto, the patriarch of the family, again, either foolishly or prophetically, planted Barbera in the Paiagallo vineyard, one of Barolo’s top vineyards for Nebbiolo whose eastern border actually abuts Cannubi.  As Valentina, Ernesto’s daughter, told me several years ago when I visited, her father replaced the more valuable Nebbiolo vines with Barbera, even though he realized it may have been against his economic interest.  Ernesto wanted to return to the Piedmont tradition of having even “humble” varieties planted in the best terroir, according to his daughter.  She explained that he wanted to challenge the general image that Barbera belongs only in sub-par terroir.  She continued that, in this way, her father felt that Barbera could shine, displaying the elegance and power of a great terroir and, simultaneously, be more accessible at a young age.

All of which brings me to Marchesi di Barolo’s 2017 “Peiragal,” their Barbera d’Alba planted in the Paiagallo vineyard.  Suave, and elegant, it is not your “typical” Barbera.  It comes across softer and richer, despite excellent acidity, with far more complexity.  Plushness replaces the briary exuberance that I associate with Barbera and makes it immediately enjoyable.  It’s a lovely choice now for a rich meat sauce-draped pasta.  It does really shine.  (93, $29)

The French have long insisted that the grape is merely a vehicle for the terroir.  The grandeur of this Peiragal supports that theory.

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E-mail me your thoughts about Barolo in general or Marchesi di Barolo in specific at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter and Instagram @MichaelApstein



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