In recent years, Barolo has become recognized as one of the most important red wine variants in all of Italy, with many believing that a good Barolo is capable of rivalling many of the best reds produced in the country. However, the wine has not always enjoyed such a stellar reputation, with some going to far as to claim that it was fairly generic until the twentieth century.
Here we have decided to take a look at the history of Barolo, particularly how it has evolved over the years to reach the level of admiration that the best vintages currently receive from the wine-drinking public.
The Early Years
If you were to drink Barolo in the nineteenth century, having already known what the wine would become later on, you would be in for something of a shock. Rather than the complex flavours that we all know and love, you most likely would have encountered a very sweet wine that bared little resemblance to modern-day Barolo.
The reason for this sweetness is put down to the Nebbiolo grape variety, which ripens in late October, when the temperatures have started to drop. As such, the grapes fermentation would have been halted by the cold weather of the winter months, leaving a lot of residual sugars in the old style of the wine that are now eradicated.
The popular theory goes that this all began to change when Camillo Benso, conte di Cavour, who was the mayor of Grinzane Cavour, invited a French enologist named Louis Oudart to the Barolo region so that he could help producers there improve their winemaking techniques. In addition to focusing on improving hygiene in the cellars, Oudart was able to introduce the Barolo producers to a technique that would allow them to ferment the Nebbiolo grape must completely dry, creating the foundations of the Barolo that we know today and getting rid of much of the sweetness that had characterised the wine before then.
Rise in Popularity
This change in complexion played an enormous role in the increase in popularity that Barolo enjoyed during this period. The new version of the wine quickly became a favourite amongst the nobles in Turin, especially in the House of Savoy. This enhanced popularity even led to it being awarded the description of “the wine of kings, the king of wines.”
There has been some recent contention related to the way that this change came about, with new research by Kerin O’Keefe suggesting that a man named Paolo Francesco Staglieno was actually responsible for the changes, rather than Louis Oudart. This theory gains particular credence due to the fact that there was a method for drying out grapes that was named after Staglieno.
Whatever the truth actually is, the fact remains that Barolo enjoyed a tremendous spike in popularity after its transformation from sweet to dry red wine. However those who assumed that stability was in the offing for this most famous of Italian wines would have another thing coming as the twentieth century progressed a little further.
By the middle of the twentieth century, wine production in the Barolo zone was dominated by what are known as negociants, which were large companies that would purchase grapes and wines from across the zone to blend them into a house style that essentially created a couple of versions of Barolo that some might argue lacked the character of those that came after.
Individual proprietors, clearly dissatisfied with this method of wine production, began striking out on their own during this period. They began estate bottling, making use of the grapes they had grown themselves to create Barolos that often differed quite remarkable from the fairly bland house styles that had become the norm at the time. Single vineyard and estate Barolos became increasingly commonplace, which led to discussions about creating a Cru classification for the area’s vineyards.
While the vineyards in the Barolo region still didn’t have this official classification, as of 2009, the work of this individuals led to Barolo being granted DOCG status in 1980, making it one of the first wine regions in Italy to receive the designation.
The Barolo Wars
It was around this time that even more contention began to arise surrounding Barolo and the way that it should be produced. As more individual vineyards and estates began producing their own versions of the wine, rather than handing their grapes to the negociants, opposing ideas began to arise about what makes a Barolo.
Many were keen on adhering to the traditions that were already in place and creating wines that differed little from the negociants, just with a few added twists in them. Others, however, were keen to start making use of modern production techniques that would allow them to create fruitier and less tannic wines that could be consumed at a younger age than Barolo traditionally was. This, in turn would allow such producers to start creating wines dedicated to the international markets, though at the same time causing consternation with traditionalists in Italy.
A group of producers, led by the House of Ceretto, began making new Barolos with these new concepts in mind, using shorter periods of maceration and fermentation in addition to a number of modern techniques that allowed for producers to possibly make better use of the stubborn Nebbiolo grape, sometimes without having to blend it with others in an effort to counteract the bitterness that can come from using slightly unripe grapes.
Though opposition to this techniques was fairly fierce in some quarters, time would allow for them to start melding into the traditional methods of creating Barolo, healing the rift and allowing for the creation of wines that could suit both traditionalists and the international market, where demand has continued to grow in the years that followed.
The Final Word
Though it has been a tumultuous journey, Barolo is now fully-established as one of the most famous of the Italian red wines, with some going so far as to claim that it has earned its reputation as the “king of wines.”