Winter has relaxed its frozen grip on Piedmont, Northern Italy, to reveal dirty patches of browning snow and tiny rivulets of trickling water. Warm sunbeams burn through the morning fog to illuminate the soft contours of the land. Old timers and farmers will tell you this moment is key to understanding the Langhe—the majestic homeland of Barbaresco and Barolo wines. As they put it: La fioca à scianca (“where the snow melts first”) is the best place for planting Nebbiolo.
“Late winter is almost as important as harvest time in these parts,” says Enrico Dellapiana, who represents a new generation of winemakers, following his father, Ernesto, at Cantina Rizzi in the Treiso district of Barbaresco. “People looking to buy grapes shop around when the snow begins to disappear in order to choose the best vineyard sites and exposures.”
This basic winter wisdom is, in fact, the main tenet of a grape-growing philosophy that ranks among the most complex and inspiring in the world, rivaling perhaps only that of Burgundy. A single grape variety, Nebbiolo, is planted in an area of extreme geological variation with countless calculations for altitude, exposure and soil as well as extreme fragmentation, where the average land holding is under four acres.
Winemaking in the Langhe is heavily driven by the concept of crus—what we would call elite vineyard designations; but in Piedmont, these properties are farmed by more than one producer. “Each vineyard cru is like a new human being,” says Angelo Fornara, a sommelier who works for the Batasiolo winery with its two million-bottle production, including Barolo Corda della Briccolina. “It has its own identifiable characteristics that define it just like you and me.”
Winemakers, both the new generation and those belonging to families farming the land for generations, understand this. “We are young, we like to work hard and we have totally embraced the importance of crus,” says Achille Boroli, one of four brothers who own Boroli, a dynamic 12-year-old estate with a small but excellent selection of cru wines. “People want to know where the wine comes from.”
Renato Vacca and four generations of his family have been farming the Ovello cru of Barbaresco for years, near the town of Barbaresco. Renato affirms that he “knows each vine by heart.”
The enological bounty of Piedmont is in large part explained by the unique geography of the territory. As the “foot of the Alps,” Piedmont is the last pocket of Mediterranean warmth—the last place you will see olive trees, for example—before the European continent buckles onto itself to form a mountainous barrier to the north.
The Lure of the Langhe
The Langhe is a hilly area of the Cuneo province that runs south and west of the Tanaro River. It includes the city of Alba, the tiny hamlet of Barbaresco and its surrounding wine region, as well as the hamlet of Barolo (the population of which is only 700) and its eponymous wine zone. The area is also famous for white truffles, cheese, hazelnuts and chocolate.
Grapes are clearly the area’s most lucrative crop; dense vineyards blanket the hills and extend directly to the front door of many homes. There are extreme differences between day and nighttime temperatures and this aids in the development of skin color and aromas. Soils are a mixed bag of marl, or calcium carbonate, with varying amounts of clay and sand. Clay soils, being fatter, tend to produce denser, more structured wines. Easy-draining, sandy soils contribute to delicate aromas and elegance.
Nebbiolo is not the only grape planted here, but it is certainly the most prestigious. It’s a famously finicky variety with the potential for firm tannins, crisp acidity, a garnet color that lightens with age and outstanding complexity of aromas. The name comes from nebbia, or the “fog” that is such a picturesque part of Piedmont’s landscapes. When given the right conditions—it performs best on hillsides between 200 and 450 meters (650 to 1,500 feet) above sea level, in more or less south-facing vineyards—Nebbiolo will deploy ethereal notes of wild berry, underbrush, licorice, rose and road tar. Local aromas of white truffle and gianduja are also very common. Its austerity and the harshness of its tannins soften beautifully with 15 to 30 years of careful cellar aging. Both wines are released as normale, or base wines (usually a blend of fruit from various vineyards), as Riserva, or more commonly, with a particular cru designation. Barolo is generally released one year after Barbaresco.
Barbaresco and Barolo are both 100% expressions of Nebbiolo from two distinct growing areas, located a mere 10 miles apart. Many winemakers playfully refer to Barbaresco as the “woman,” and Barolo as the “man,” although this couple stands on equal footing when it comes to power, intensity and overall quality. The wines are distinguished by winemaking methods, but more so by territory. “It’s hard to explain,” says Roberta Ceretto, whose family company, Ceretto, produces excellent wines from both areas, “because they seem so close, but they are actually worlds apart.”
Barbaresco is from Mars, Barolo is from Venus
Barbaresco encompasses the municipalities of Barbaresco, Neive and Treiso and measures 1,200 acres in production, with about 40% of the area planted to Nebbiolo. Because the area is more compact, its vineyard characteristics tend to be more consistent, resulting in a more identifiable style overall. Temperatures are a few degrees warmer here and the grapes tend to ripen earlier. Wines are less astringent and soften faster with time. Decades ago, Barbaresco was considered the “lesser” of the two wines, but thanks to the efforts of winemakers such as Angelo Gaja, Bruno Giacosa and others who experimented with longer maceration times and different containers for oak aging (such as barrique in additional to traditional casks), Barbaresco stands on its own as one of Italy’s best wines.
Barolo measures roughly 3,000 acres spanning 11 municipalities including Barolo, Castiglione Falletto, La Morra, Monforte d’Alba and Serralunga d’Alba. It has a long history linking it to the noble House of Savoy and its court of Turin, which has helped cement its reputation as the “king” of Italian wines. Thanks to the diversity of the territory, Barolo’s wines tend to vary in style and execution, depending greatly on the personality of the winemaker and the characteristics of the cru. Two wines from the same vineyard made by different estates sometimes have little in common.
But now is a very exciting time for the crus of the Langhe. Barbaresco became the first wine area of Italy to officially map out its crus and has incorporated those vineyard delineations into the bylaws of its DOCG (Denominazione di Origine
Controllata e Garantita). The move marks a leap forward in terms of creating a specific identity for Barbaresco, its zones and its subzones. Barolo has recently followed suit.
“It’s taken us years to complete this and the hardest part was getting producers to agree where one cru ends and the next begins,” says Davide Viglino, founder of Vigin wines, who also worked with the Enoteca Regionale del Barbaresco to draw official maps of the subzones using old documents and testimony from farmers. “Now, it will be easier to protect our wines and the consumer. Before this, there was confusion between cru names and fantasy names given to wines that do not in fact represent a specific vineyard.” Bruno Rocca, a Barbaresco producer from the Rabajà cru, calls the project “a good first step.” He adds: “They mapped out crus according to geography but not quality. It’s up to the consumer to decide which vineyard they like best.”
Piedmont’s Other Stars
Piedmont offers an extraordinarily varied array of wines spanning the gamut of styles and prices. At the high end is Barolo (averaging $100 a bottle), and at the low is Asti Spumante (a bubbly dessert wine often under $10).
Nebbiolo makes up Barolo, Barbaresco and the lesser-known Gattinara and Ghemme. Barbera is a crisp, fruity grape that accounts for half the region’s red wine. It is best expressed as Barbera d’Alba (often oak-aged) and Barbera d’Asti and has high acidity .
Dolcetto is usually vinified in stainless steel for a two- or three-year lifespan. Its wines are Dolcetto d’Alba, Dolcetto d’Asti and Dolcetto di Dogliani. Ruché is a rustic variety gaining some popularity as Ruché di Castagnole Monferrato. Langhe is a recent category (Angelo Gaja’s wines fall into it) and can consist of Nebbiolo or international varieties.
The main whites are Roero (made with slightly aromatic Arneis) and Gavi, made from the fruity Cortese grape. Widely planted Moscato makes the mass-produced Asti Spumante and the boutique-ish Moscato d’Asti sparkling dessert wines. Brachetto d’Acqui is a fragrant sparkling red.
B & B Vintage Report
1964, 1971, 1978, 1982, 1985, 1989, 1990, 1996, 1997, 1998 and 2001, 2004, 2006 and 2007 are some of the best performing vintages of Barolo and Barbaresco. Happily, the two regions recently hit a climatic Grand Slam and a trio of excellent vintages is on the way. Here is a summary of recent harvests and what we can expect:
2002: Wet and watery. Forget it. 82 points
2003: Old vines best withstand the heat. 86 points
2004: Excellent, classic vintage. 96 points
2005: Very good but hot in lower land. 92 points
2006: Well-balanced and elegant. 95 points
2007: Power and structure. 95 points
2008: Early rains in some areas. 92 points
2009: Good skins and even ripening. 91 points
2010: Warm spring and cool fall (wines still in barrel).
2011: Long growing season and hot summer (wines still in barrel).