Moving forward from our last edition about the rich, supple and opulent wines of Valpolicella, we look further west, to the region of Piedmont and its king of grapes, nebbiolo. There couldn’t be a wider contrast in Italian wines than the explosive wines of Barolo and Barbaresco.
Piedmont is home to several renowned wines, but the greatest wines come from the villages of Barolo and Barbaresco. Both districts often get confused with another red wine, barbera. However, the juicy wines made from the barbera grape don’t compare in terms of structure and ageability to that of the infamous nebbiolo.
Nebbiolo, when young, is known for its very high acidity and tannin which takes years, sometimes decades, to mature into a wine of finesse. Drinking young Barolo or Barbaresco can have a puckering affect on one’s palate that requires hard cheeses, rich ragus or grilled red meat to balance out the drying tannins. Over time, these firm tannins and tart acidities integrate together to produce wines of power and finesse. Ironically, in the glass, the wines appear to be lighter in color and body, with aromatics that include dusty cherries, rose petals, tar and sandalwood. The power and structure of the wines confuses the senses into thinking the wines are full bodied, but in reality, the wines carry the weight of a medium body wine of high intensity.
Piedmont’s most famous and arguably longest-lived wines come from the quaint village of Barolo. Here, rolling hills are home to hillside vineyards of varying soil compositions which equate to varying styles made from the same grapes. Barolo’s wines are required by law to spend at least two years in barrel and one year in bottle before release. Barolo Riserva requires five years of total aging, with at least three years in oak.
Traditionally, the wines were aged in large Slovenian oak barrels. Today, the Piedmont winemakers are divided between the traditional type of barrels and French oak barriques. Both offer amazing results and are distinguishable by the nuances imparted by each type of oak. Most large Slovenian casks are very old and don’t impart new flavors like those of French oak. New French oak barriques impart classic descriptors of baking spices like cinnamon, clove and allspice, along with new oak notes of vanilla. In extraordinary vintages, the wines of Barolo can age up to 40 years. However, there are always more approachable vintages that show well within 5 to 7 years. Prices begin in the $40 range and can easily escalate into the hundreds.
While Barolo is considered king, Barbaresco is considered queen. It is suggested that the wines of Barbaresco, also made with nebbiolo, are softer and more feminine, however, this isn’t always true. Depending on the producer, it can be virtually impossible to distinguish between the two. Barbaresco has shorter aging requirements – only two years before release and four years for the Riservas. They’re more affordable, with prices starting at $30.
If the kings and queens’ costs are prohibitive, there is an affordable option that is considerably softer and more approachable when young. Labeled as Langhe (after the region surrounding Barolo and Barbaresco) nebbiolo, these wines offer a delightfully silky purity of fruit and freshness. Still powerful but without the harsh tannins of its siblings, prices range from $20 to $30.
Alan Cuenca is an accredited oenophile and owner of Put a Cork in It, a Durango wine store. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.