Explaining the Barolo Wars

Often seen as one of the most important wines in the entire Italian wine industry, Barolo has capture the imaginations of millions of people around the world for centuries. Often referred to as the king of wines, it holds a rare position, as it is almost universally respected among wine consumers the world over. In fact, ask the average person to name the top five Italian red wines, and it’s almost impossible for Barolo to not find a place on that list. We’d argue that the only Italian red that enjoys a similar reputation is Chianti, alongside its Super Tuscan relatives.

Barolo has existed for hundreds of years, so it should come as no surprise that production techniques have changed over the years. Each new winemaking innovation brings with it new ideas, which some producers put into practice on traditional wines, as well as newer bottles. A Barolo from 200 years ago would taste different to one from today, which is down to new methods in producing and growing.

In most cases, the Italian wine industry welcomes new innovations. As long as producers stick to the age-old traditions of the industry, and the innovation improves on something, there’s little consternation.

However, that’s not always the case. At times, innovation can cause major issues in the wine industry. We saw it in the 1970s during the introduction of the Super Tuscans, when those who prefer classic Chianti rallied against those who appreciated the new spin that the Super Tuscans applied to the age-old formula.

However, Chianti wasn’t the only wine that experienced a turbulent time in the mid-20th century. Soon after the Super Tuscan controversy came the Barolo Wars, which flung another of Italy’s most famous red wines into controversy.

What Sparked the Barolo Wars?

Much like with the introduction of the Super Tuscans, the origin of the Barolo Wars stems from the debate between traditionalists, and those who constantly look towards new innovations to improve how they produce wine. In this case, the argument was heavier than it had ever been before though. Barolo is such an ancient and respected wine that any attempt to change its production methods will conjure fury in a section of the wine-loving audience.

It all started in the 1980s, which saw the introduction of a brand new winemaking methods to the Nebbiolo region. The newest generation of Barolo producers has their own ideas to bring to the fore, but they found a less than receptive audience. Still, they ploughed ahead, introducing new technologies and ideas into the mix in an effort to speed up the Barolo making process.

However, many traditionalists stood against these techniques. They argued that changing the way that Barolo was made would ruin the integrity of the wine. After all, why change something that has worked so well for centuries before. You could also argue that traditionalists were insulted by the fact that this new wave of producers pushed ahead with their ideas, despite the reservations of those who argued against them.

The main point of contention came down to maceration. Traditional Barolo undergoes a maceration period that lasts anywhere from 15 to 30 days. Following maceration, the Barolo is placed into neutral oak barrels, where is ages for several years before being sent out for public consumption.

The innovators of the 1980s changed all of that. Their production methods led to a maceration period that didn’t exceed 10 days. Furthermore, the Barolo was then aged in new, French barrels, which sped up the process. As a result, the vintage could be brought to market sooner.

That shorter ageing period, and the new barrels, whipped up a storm. Traditionalists argued that the new Barolos weren’t aged anywhere near long enough to achieve their full potential. Furthermore, they believed that the new Barolos contaminated the wine, taking away everything that made it such a special part of the Italian wine industry in the process.

The innovators struck back with their own arguments. They noted that the new scientific methods they had introduced tackled an ageing issue that traditionalists had put up with for centuries. Furthermore, the new methods paved the way for further experimentation, which could lead to the introduction of new types of Barolo, or even completely new wines that would receive a different label.

Traditionalists shot back, claiming that the new methods showed a lack of respect for the hard work and dedication that of the generations of Barolo producers who had come before those who came to prominence during the 1980s. They claimed that Barolos made using the new methods weren’t “real” Barolos. The innovators argued back, claiming that innovations have always been crucial to the development of the Italian wine industry.

It was a tumultuous period for Barolo, with production split into two distinct camps. Traditionalists identified producers who created the wine in the way they desired, whereas less concerned drinkers were happy to try out wines produced using the new method. For a time, it seemed as though the Barolo Wars would split the Barolo loving audience in two.

The End Result

Happily, the consternation surrounding the introduction of new techniques died down, and the Wars ended peacefully. As with many aspects of the wine industry, compromise eventually won the day. As the “new” Barolos emerged, and weren’t as terrible as some traditionalists had feared, tempers quelled. That’s not to say that traditionalists made to switch to the new versions. However, distinct audiences arose for both, and the traditional Barolo did not die out as a result of the introduction of new methods.

In many cases, producers combine tradition with innovation. While they harness the power and flexibility of new production techniques, they also maintain their respect for the traditions that led to the wine assuming the position it has in the Italian wine industry.

So what lessons did the Barolo War teach us? It showed that innovation will find the way, even in the face of tough opposition. However, it also taught the innovators about the importance of respecting those who came before.


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