Arguably the most renowned of Italian wines, Barolo is known as the Wine of Kings and the King of Wines. It gained this epithet as the wine of choice of the royal family of Piedmont and Sardinia who were destined to become the kings of the united Italy.
Barolo has a long history and to trace it we must look back at one of the most famous names in Italian history. Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour is commemorated in street names across the whole country. He is famous because, as the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, he backed Giuseppe Garibaldi in the campaign for Italian unification and, indeed, was the first Prime Minister of the united Italy. More importantly, for oenophiles, he is renowned as the man who introduced a monoculture of vines on his family estate and employed a Frenchman, Louis Oudart, who perfected the technique of fermenting the Nebbiolo grape completely dry thus producing the first modern Barolo.
The history of winemaking is characterised by periods of calm, reflection and tradition interspersed with frenetic spurts of evolution, innovation and adaptation and the 1990s was one of those times of change, so much so that it has come to be known as The Barolo Wars. Traditionally, the tannin-intense Nebbiolo grape was left in the large botti made of Slovenian oak for many months to allow the wine to mellow before being released and was generally considered ready for drinking after 10 years.
Enter a new generation of winemakers, armed with French barriques, eager to challenge the status quo. At 225 litres, the barrique is small compared with the botti that can easily be ten times the size; furthermore, French oak is much more porous than the Slovenian variety. These two factors greatly influence the wine stored in them. Firstly, the wine is in much closer contact in a smaller barrel – it is all about surface areas and volumes. This means that the wine absorbs more flavour from the barrel and this is further enhanced by the porosity of the French oak. This was not well received by the traditionalists and feelings ran high on both sides before a compromise was arrived at.
At the same time as the entire Barolo production method was being turned on its head, another change was under way. Traditionally, Italian wines for bottling were produced by a relatively small number of large producers who would buy in the grapes from a myriad of small farmers. As the popularity of Italian wines grew outside of the country these small growers saw an opportunity and many seized it, fermenting, maturing and bottling their wines themselves. It was from this group that the rebels arose to challenge the status quo.
The results of this turbulent period are there for all to see. Large numbers of artisan winemakers are producing premium value wines using a whole variety of different techniques but essentially obeying certain fundamental rules. If they did not, the wine could not be called Barolo. As for the French barriques that were used to storm the barricades of tradition, yes, they are still around but used with more circumspection so that the strong vanilla taste that can come with them does not overwhelm the wine.