Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Beauty of Barolo - Part 1

I am at home this morning, as a leak in our bathroom has caused a veritable flood in our bedroom, and having done what I can to salvage the situation I am now waiting on the plumber. The plumber said he'd arrive between 10 and 11, which frankly could mean he will saunter up a 3pm. As such, I believe its a good time to write about the trip my wife and I made to Barolo, in Piemonte, Italy in May this year.

We had an amazing 3 weeks in Europe which saw us in London, Paris, Turin, and of course Barolo. While all the other places were suitably wonderful, with great weather to match, the 3 days we stayed in Barolo were for me the highlight.

Barolo is the name of the town, which lends its name to arguably the premier red wine in Italy. Barolo is an hour and a half south of Turin, in the region of Piemonte. Its is an undulating area, dotted with lovely hilltop towns, full of vineyards on wonderfully steep slopes, with the Alps providing an amazing backdrop to it all. It is incredibly pretty, and is often described as "Tuscany without tourists". I agree.

I would go there even if there wasn't any wine of interest to me there. That there was just made this trip even more memorable.

Barolo is not a grape, but rather a designation of quality if you like, or Denominazione di origine controllata e garantita (DOCG). To call your wine a Barolo it has to

- be 100% Nebbiolo
- come from a specified area which includes the area around the town of Barolo, as well as nearby hilltop towns like La Morra, Novello, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga D'alba, Verduno, Cherasco, Verduno, and Grinzane Cavour. Indeed around some of these towns it is only certain designated areas that can produce Barolo
- be aged for 3 years - 2 in the barrel and one in the bottle
- minimum alcohol of 13%
- maximum production of 8 tonnes per hectare

I'd read lots of great things about Barolo, that it was the "King of wines, and the wine of Kings" etc., but I'd never even tried a nebbiolo (a very rare varietal in Australia), let alone a Barolo. The other thing I'd consistently read was that Barolo was very tannic and often verged on the undrinkable in its youth, but then would age beautifully over 10-20 years. So while I was excited, I also was slightly concerned that in tasting young Barolo we wouldn't be doing the wine any justice.

Our first day in Barolo, we arrived around lunchtime. After having lunch and settling into our bed and breakfast, we set off in the mid-afternoon to wander around the town of Barolo. After wandering along some lovely little cobbled streets, the first place we stumbled upon was the Enoteca Regionale del Barolo, which essentially is the wine tourist centre for Barolo. This was a great place to start, as the people there were able to give us an excellent overview of Barolo wine in general. For a few Euro we were also able to taste a reasonable selection of wines. My first Barolo tasting.

I wouldn't say I was 100% hooked from the first tasting I did, but I was pretty close. The first thing you notice is the colour. Barolo, even young Barolo is always light red colour with an orange tinge. Coming from Australia where many of our wine are normally very dark red, and even dark purple and inky at times this was definitely something different. The next thing is the smell of the wine. In some way this is the highlight of Barolo. The first couple of Barolo's I tried, and pretty much every subsequent Barolo, smelt beautiful. Cherries, strawberries, and roses, were the smells I consistently got with the first couple of Barolo's I tried, and then depending on the wine there were other smells like licquorice, spice, plum, and vanilla. These were the most fragrant and interesting smelling wines I had ever stuck my nose into. In some ways similar to the nose you might get on Pinot Noir, but better (not that I've ever had a truly top Burgundy).

On the palette you'd typically get the same fruit you got on the nose, but what was really noticeable was the length, structure and . . . bloody hell . . . the tannins! If you swirled it around in your mouth a few times your mouth would just be covered in these amazing, long lasting, chewy tannins. You'd stand there just chewing the tannins long after the wine had disappeared down your gullet.

I could see what people had meant when they talked about how tannic young Barolo was. However, I disagreed with them on one thing. I loved it! Saying Barolo verges on the undrinkable in its youth is ridiculous. These people who spout this line need to take a drink of Harden up!

Admittedly, the tannins are so strong that you wouldn't want more than a couple of glasses at a time before your palette was destroyed, and also I wouldn't bother pairing a young Barolo with any food other than bread, as the tannins would overpower any flavours you had in the food. But as for simply having a glass of young Barolo on its own, I'm all for it. Obviously Barolo gets better with 10-15 years in the bottle, with the tannins softening and the secondary characteristics coming out, making it a more complex, savoury style of wine. However, please don't ever believe the line that young Barolo is somehow undrinkable in its youth.

The rest of the afternoon, we wandered along the main street in Barolo where there are a number of little wine shops where you can do tastings of various winemakers from around the immediate area. We got to talk to a number of winemakers, and gradually started to get a sense of different vintages (though we were largely drinking 2005), and the different subregions and vineyards of Barolo. Most importantly we got to try numerous Barolos. Every wine was different, though they basicaly all follow the same path of having a beautifully fragrant nose, while having great structure and incredible tannins on the palette. The best way I can describe it to people who have never had a Barolo, is to imagine a wine with the nose of a beautiful Pinot Noir, with the palette of a young, tannic Cabernet. To me it's almost perfection.

If i wasn't quite hooked after the first tasting, then I was 100% hooked on Barolo by the end of the afternoon, with the alcohol, and the romanticism of being in a beautiful hilltop town in Italy on sunset, undoubtedly playing their part. I was now looking forward to the next day, when we would get in the car and drive out to a number of the wineries where we had made appointments. I couldn't wait!!!


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