For a wine to not only be granted, but also maintain the moniker of the King of Wines, it really needs to be something special. After all, you wouldn’t expect a cheap bottle of wine that you can pick up off the supermarket shelves for a pittance to be the same wine that is considered the choice of the absolute elite of society. No, that wine must be something that offers exceptional quality and has a pedigree to match its lofty reputation.
That’s where Barolo comes in. While many Italian red wines have excellent pedigrees of their own, few can claim to have a history that is as extensive as Barolo, which not only traces its roots back to the 11th century, but has become so revered that producers have engaged in figurative wars to determine the best ways to produce the wine.
So here we have decided to take a look back at the origins of Barolo, including where it comes from and the grape used to produce it, to give the uninitiated a little sample of what they are missing if they are yet to experience this most wonderful of wines.
While we all now know Italy as a united country, for many centuries Italy was made up of fractured states that would often vie against each other for power. Throughout the years, many families rose to prominence and fell into disrepair, before the states were brought together to form the kingdom of Italy.
In the 11th century, there were few more powerful than the House of Savoy. Formed in the region of the same name, which at the time included the famous winemaking region of Piedmont, Savoy was a full-blown monarchy that has its own kings, queens, and even emperors. It maintained its power base and expanded over the years, first owning the small “country” of Savoy, before eventually becoming the rulers of the Italian kingdom right up until the end of the Second World War.
It was the House of Savoy that established the reputation of Barolo as the King of Wines, with this one wine being favoured by generations of royalty for centuries.
But what about the wine itself? What made Barolo the main choice for the Savoy family? Well, it has to be said that, at least for a few decades, it couldn’t possibly have been. In fact, the Nebbiolo grape, which is used to create the wine, only dates back to 1266, meaning it couldn’t possibly have been the wine of choice in the early years of the House of Savoy.
However, as the grape gained acclaim in the years that followed, it began finding its way into regal circles more often. Even then, it is not until the 1700s that the word Barol began to be used with any sort of regularity, with the Barolo name not being used until the 1830s, when the Marchesa Giulietta Vitturnia Colbert di Maulevrier began insisting that the wine be given the full name of its town of origin.
However, what is known is that by this point in time, Barolo had truly become a wine of great prestige that was favoured by the noble, wealthy, and royals of Italy. The Marcesha herself cultivated Nebbiolo grapes in towns through the region and even worked with the famed oenologist Louis Oudart, who established his name in Burgundy, France, to introduce more modern winemaking techniques to her production.
It was during this period of time that Barolo went from being simply a wine made using Nebbiolo grapes, albeit one preferred by royalty, to the wine that is most commonly recognized as today.
Now while wines made using the Nebbiolo grape had always proven popular with royalty, they had never achieved truly widespread popularity for that very same reason. This situation continued on into the 1900s, which is right around the time that the exclusivity surrounding the drink began to melt away and more producers began to create wines using Nebbiolo. This early 20th century period gave rise to the likes of Cesare Borgogno, Giulio Mascarello, Emilio Pietro Abbona and Battista Rinaldi, all of whom established reputations for being fine purveyors of the drink.
As the wine began to gain more widespread acceptance, it still maintained its reputation as being a truly superb example of Italian red wine. In 1908, The Barolo and Barbaresco Consortium was established to provide some production oversight. However, it was not recognized as an official organization by the Italian government until 1934.
Today, that same consortium incorporates over 500 members, all of whom have dedicated themselves to the continued production and improvement of a wine that finds its roots in the annals of time. Barolo has gone from a wine that was only ever consumed by royalty and the nobles that surrounded them, into one of the world’s most prestigious and popular red wines.
Even so, it somehow maintains the elegance and mystery that surrounded it for so many centuries. Even today, scholars debate the true origins of Barolo and just how extensive its royal lineage actually is. Many of these arguments centre around the classification of the early wines that would eventually become Barolo, with some arguing that it would be more accurate to consider Nebbiolo the grape of kings, than it would be to consider Barolo as the wine of kings.
Whatever the case may be, what is certain is that Barolo has managed to survive through the centuries because of a continued trend of winemaking innovation that both respects the traditions of the wine, while also ensuring that it is brought up-to-date with modern preferences and appetites. While these period of innovation do not always come smoothly, as anybody who has read our previous articles that covered the Barolo Wars in more detail will be quick to tell you, advances in winemaking have still allowed Barolo to thrive where other wines may have disappeared.
What can be said, as always, is that Barolo truly is the King of Wines and is one of the best red wines to ever emerge from Italy.