The heat finally broke, resulting in a few cool nights and a perfect opportunity to break open a wine I’ve been saving since I received it as a gift last fall – a Barolo, the crown jewel of Italian wine. One of the few types of Italian wine that doesn’t really have a cheap version – there’s pricey and then there’s mortgage-your-house expensive. So as you’d imagine, this is not an every night activity. It’s something I’d been looking forward to for a while.
The Barolo DOCG is considered by many to be the best and most important wine region in Italy. It was one of the three regions (along with Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano) to receive DOCG status on the day that status was introduced, in July of 1980. The name of the region, which is centered in the Langhe hills of Piedmont, comes from a commune of the same name, as is the case with many Italian wine regions. It is located just south of the town of Alba, which itself lends it’s name to other well known wine regions, such as Nebbiolo d’Alba and Dolcetto d’Alba. Wines produced in the Barolo DOCG are made from 100% Nebbiolo, a grape known for it’s powerful tannins and rich flavors. Barolo wines tend to bring out the best in this grape – rich, powerful, complex, and deep. The Barolo DOCG covers a number of different parishes which, even within the the relatively small (geographically speaking) Barolo region, all have slightly different microclimates. Depending on the area of Barolo a wine is from, it may either highlight the fruit-forward and more graceful style of Barolo, or the big, powerful, tannic style.
The Barolo winemaking tradition goes back centuries, as is the case with almost all Italian wines. It has historically been a difficult wine to make, primarily due to Nebbiolo’s growing cycle. The Nebbiolo grape is a late ripening grape and is harvested late in the year (as I mentioned in a previous post, the name Nebbiolo comes from the Italian word “nebbia“, which is a reference to the fog that settles over Piedmont during the October harvest time). One of the results of this, before the introduction of temperature controlled tanks, was a fermentation process that was slow and halting, with the cool Piedmontese autumn weather hampering the process. Once fermentation was finally completed, the wine would be aged for long periods of time in large oak barrels and the resulting wine was powerful and tannic; overwhelmingly tannic if not given time to age and soften. This was the standard in Barolo for hundreds of years until, in the later part of the 20th century, when, with the help of modern winemaking techniques, some producers starting making Barolos that were more elegent and fruit forward, and could be opened as soon as they were bought. While this new style of Barolo made the wine more accessible to consumers, it also effected the prestige of the region and was not welcomed by all producers. Today both styles are made (though even more traditional styles are made using modern winemaking techniques), and there is still an argument (some have termed it the “Barolo Wars”) about what constitutes a “true” Barolo.
This Barolo is from the producer Elio Grasso, a well known Barolo winemaker who produces Barolos from a couple different areas of Barolos. This one is their Ginestra Casa Maté, which comes from the Monforte D’Alba section of Barolo (one of the areas known for richness and intensity). It has a bright ruby coloring to it, with hints of the characteristic rust coloring that Barolo often takes on once aged. The nose has nice intensity to it; lots of red fruit when first opened, with some spice and oak coming through once it decanted for a little while. There are notes of cherry and plum, along with the spice and some smokiness. The palate if full bodied and intense, with big, in your face tannins and a good amount of acidity. The wine has remarkable depth, starting with red and black fruit notes and unfolding into more complex notes with oaky characteristics. Cherry, plum, cinnamon, and other spices all show up. It ends with a nice finish dominated by spice that stays with you. Even with my lofty expectations, the wine did not disappoint, with lots of depth and complexity.