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Italian Barolo and Barbaresco wine: Not for the timid

Italian Barolo and Barbaresco wine: Not for the timid

Italy recently showcased their wines in New York. Forget about Fashion Week, it is Italian Wine Week and Vinitaly International that should take center stage and receive the media coverage that skirts and dresses attract. Italian Wine Week brings wine growers, wine makers, wine buyers, wine sellers, wine drinkers, wine educators, and journalists to a variety of venues to experience the breadth and depth of Italian wines.

One wine seminar I attended focused on Barolo and Barbaresco. The Master Class instructor was Ian D’Agata, the director of the Rome-based International Wine Academy that he started in 2002. For over 25 years D’Agata has written about wine and is the 2007 recipient of the prestigious award for “Best Young Italian Wine Journalist.” He is a research professor of enology at the University of New Mexico and lectures globally.  D’Agata is also the author of The Ecco Guide to the Best Wines of Italy, the definitive guide to Italy’s best wines and Native Wine Grapes of Italy that reviews the more than 500 different native Italian grape varieties, from Agliancio to Zibibbo.

The Wine Star

Barolo, is a red DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) Italian wine produced in the northern Piedmont region and named after a noblewoman, the Marchesa de Barolo (1850s). The area is noted for Nebbiolo grapes that produce one of Italy’s best wines.

The derivation of Nebbiolo is uncertain and there are two theories: Nebbia is Italian for fog – and there is a fog-like haze that appears on most ripe grapes and/or it comes from Nobile that means noble in Italian.


The original production codes required that vineyards be located on hillsides; however, a revised code further restricts production from valley floors, humid and flat areas, locales without sufficient sunlight and zones with full-on northern exposures.

To be considered Barolo, 100 percent of the grapes must be Nebbiolo. These wines tend to be rich, deeply concentrated, and full-bodied with pronounced tannins and acidity. To the eye –ruby to garnet in their youth trending to brick and orange hues as they age. Barolos are never opaque. Aromas include camphor, chocolate, dried fruit, damson, eucalyptus, leather, licorice, mint, mulberries, plum, spice strawberries, tobacco, white truffles, dried fruits and fresh herbs. This wine is also described as having the aromas of tar and roses with the ability to age.

Barolo’s must be aged for at least 38 months after the harvest before release of which at least 18 months must be in wood. To be considered Riserva, the wine must be aged for a minimum of five years.


Barbaresco is also made from the Nebbiolo grape in the Piedmont region of northern Italy. In 1966 it was granted DOC (Denominazione di origine controllata) status and DOCG (Denominazine di Origine Controllata e Garantita) status in 1980. It is frequently compared with Barolo because it shares many similarities; however, there are some distinct differences.

Barbaresco is located south of the Tanaro River and receives a slight maritime influence which allows Nebbiolo to ripen earlier than in the Barolo zone. This permits the grape to get to fermentation earlier with a shorter maceration time. The early tannins in a young Barbaresco are softer than Barolo and under DOCG rules it can age for one year less than Barolo.

DOCG regulations stipulate that Barbaresco wines must be aged for a minimum of 2 years (at least 1 year in oak) prior to release and aged for at least 4 years to be considered a riserva. The wines must have a minimum of 12.5 percent alcohol level though most wines are closer to 13.5 percent. These wines are expected to be aged 5-10 years after vintage before they are consumed as they are extremely tannic and tight in their youth.

Barbaresco wines also differ in the degree of tannins with Barbaresco softer- making the wines more approachable for drinking at a younger age; however, it does not age as well as Barolo.

Typical Barbaresco wines have bouquets of roses or violets with flavor notes of cherry, truffles, fennel and licorice. As it ages, it can develop smoky notes and more earthy and animal flavors like leather and tar.

Nebbiolo Picky Terroir

Different mesoclimates (climate of a particular vineyard site; generally restricted to a space of tens or hundreds of meters), soil types and altitudes define this region and impact on the development of the Nebbiolo grape. There are two major soil types separated by the Alba Barolo road – a. compact sandstone based soil dating from the Helvetian epoch and b. soil similar to the Barbaresco zone, dating from the Tortonia period that is calcareous, compact and fertile.

Nebbiolo is slow to ripening and some think that global warming has had a beneficial influence on the Barolo zone. Increased temperatures of summer followed by a mild autumn that promotes misty fog and keeps the grapes from burning. The weather also helps to increase sugar levels and leads to riper phenolic compounds such as tannins. Others suggest that better vineyard management and winemaking techniques have aided in the production of successful vintages for Barolo in the last 20 years

Barolo Wars

Historically, Barolo wines were rich in tannin requiring 10+ years to soften for drinking. The fermenting wine sat on the grape skins for a minimum of 3 weeks extracting huge amounts of tannins and then aged in large, wooden casks for years.

The modern palate prefers fruitier lighter styles motivating some producers to cut fermentation to a maximum of 10 days and ageing in new French oak barriques.

The traditionalists argue that the wines produced for the modern palate are not recognized as Barolo and taste more of new oak than wine.


Before drinking a bottle of Barolo it should be decanted using a decanter (glass jug that is wider at the bottom than at the top. The wide bottom ensures that a large part of the wine is in direct contact with the air. This process brings out the flavors and breaks down the strong tannins, making the wine softer and more enjoyable. For a young wine (7-10 years) pour quick to ensure that the wine comes into contact with air. After this – wait for 4+ hours before drinking enabling the grape residue to sink.

Curated Wines

1. My favorite

Cantina del Ciabot. Barolo DOCG Cru Roggeri 2012. Variety. 100 percent Nebbiolo. Wine making: traditional method with maceration of the must on the skins for at least 18-20 days at 30-degree C in fiberglass lined concrete vats. Ageing: Aged first in French oak casks, then in Slavonia oak casks and then bottled.

The vineyards are located in the historical cru of La Morra: Roggeri, San Biagio, Rive, Cappallotti, Pria and Rocchettevino on the slopes facing Alba. The soil is largely Marme di Sant’Agata (Tortoniano group). There are marls or loams that are bluish – grey in color, becoming greyish-white from the weather.

The cru Roggeri, is located in the south east at an altitude of 300m above sea level and extends from the village to the edge of the winery. Nebbiolo is divided into three sections which includes the oldest vineyards, planted about 40-50 years ago, and produces a grape rich in polyphenols which confers grand structure and noble character.

• To the eye, deep purple all the way to the rim. The nose detects fresh ripe red fruit (cherries, strawberries), with cedar, earth and stones creating a lush and lively palate experience. The tannins are light and they add to the complexity of the experience. Schedule to decant for at least 1 hour before serving. Pair with pasta and meat sauce, roast well-spiced veal.

2. Agricola Gian Piero Marrone. Barolo DOCG Pichemej (beyond the best) 2013. Barolo

Agricola Gian Piero Marrone is directed by four generations of vineyard masters. The family goal is to make wines genuine and express their passion. The organization is located in La Morra, a part of the village of Annunziata that is covered with grapevines and centenarian castles. This area is also noted for its white truffles that provides a mix of flavors that include honey, garlic and porcino mushrooms.

The wine is made in the traditional method, crushing and destemming the grapes, followed by long maceration in contact with the lees to extract the anthocyans and tannins. After clarification, it is aged in small and large oak casks for 2 years and aged for 2 years in the bottle.

• To the eye – pearly purple trending to dark purple. The nose detects dried flowers, ripe cherries and strawberries, earth and wet rocks with an undertone of eucalyptus and alcohol. To the palate, a surprising hit of sour apples, tobacco and leather with strong tannins. The finish is dry, full-bodied and robust.  Pair with roast beef and roast potatoes or seared duck breast with polenta.

3. Marchesi di Barolo. Barolo DOCG Cru Sarmassa 2011

The southeast-facing Sarmassa vineyard is located on a hill and despite the fact that the area is of Tortonian origin, there has been a significant amount of soil erosion. The soil is composed mainly of clay and limestone and has a very substantial percentage of stones. The high percentage of stones, combined with clay, limit the growth of Nebbiolo grapes that allow the vines to react quickly to climactic variations, enabling clusters to achieve a perfect ripening.

Fermentation, at a controlled temperature, takes place in thermo-conditioned tanks. Maceration of the skins lasts about 10 days. During this time the fermenting must is regularly recycled from the bottom to the top of the tank in order to extract all the elements present on the skins and to take the color gently. Once the fermentation is finished the natural sugars of the grape are totally converted into alcohol. The wine is racked into cement tanks that are lined in fiberglass and insulated by cork where it will rest at the post fermentation temperature of about 22° degrees C. (72° F.). This temperature prompts a natural process (Malolactic fermentation) that changes the Hard Malic acid into a softer Lactic acid; this is a two-month process.

The wine is aged for 2 years; in Slavonian oak barrels 30 or 35 hectoliters (789-947 U.S. gallons) and the other part in small French oak barrique (225 liters) that are moderately toasted. The wines are then combined in traditional large oak barrels and the process ends with the fining in the bottle for 12 months before it is released to the market.

The Barolo Sarmassa reaches its first signs of maturity after 8 years from the harvest. It continues to mature elegantly for a period of time (between 8 and 30 years). The wine colorful, tannic and long-lived.

• Dark purple/garnet red to the eye. The nose detects perfume of wild roses, wet leather, tree bark and very ripe cherries and plums modified by a touch of spices and minerality. The palate is peaked by a suggestion of overly ripe cherries and strawberries and tannins. Pair with Pasta Bolognese or Charcuterie and aged goat milk cheese.

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PHOTO: Ian D’Agata, Director, International Wine Academy

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