What kind of wine is Barolo?
Barolo wine: an overivew
Barolo is a highly sought after fine red wine with complex and powerful aromas. Dry, and very rich in tannins, this wine benefits from ageing, and its distinctive taste gets more refined and sophisticated over time. It is best to keep your Barolo for at least 7-10 years after harvest before opening it.
Barolo is made from 100% Nebbiolo grape grown in a small area of North-West Italy – the Barolo DOCG in Piemonte. The vineyards of Barolo are one of the few wine-growing regions protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Only Barolo wine that is grown and produced in full compliance with strict local rules can be called Barolo DOCG.
DOCG laws specify that Barolo should be aged for a minimum of three years, spending two of those years in barrels made from oak or chestnut. Barolo Riserva has to be aged in the cellar for five years before release.
Map of Barolo DOCG in Piemonte (Piedmont) Italy
The Nebbiolo grape
Nebbiolo is a historic grape, and it has been used to make Italian wines since the 13th century. Its name possibly comes from the Piedmontese word “nebbia”, meaning the thick fog which covers the valleys in the foothills of the Alps in November, just when the harvest is over. Nebbiolo is very demanding, challenging and hard to cultivate. Nebbiolo is a thick-skinned grape, so it creates wines that are super-charged with tannins. Tannins are natural antioxidants, and there is a body of research claiming they provide various positive effects on health – if consumed in moderation (check “Contribution of Red Wine Consumption to Human Health Protection“, Snopek et al., or “Polyphenols: Benefits to the Cardiovascular System in Health and in Aging” Khurana et al.).
Nebbiolo buds in April, and takes a lot of time to ripen. It is picked much later than most other grape varietals, typically by hand, in the second half of October. Because of that, it is most important that the vineyard receives as much sunlight as possible. The best vineyards that produce wines of the highest quality are located on hills facing South, South-West or South-East. Vineyards which are not so well positioned may not be able to ripen the grapes fully – that’s why there are different levels of quality of the Nebbiolo grapes in the Barolo area, and some vineyards are considered “cru” while others aren’t.
Why does Barolo have to age for so long?
To produce a smooth and enjoyable sensation, the harsh tannins of Nebbiolo have to evolve. Because of that, Barolo is aged for at least 38 months in oak. This allows for a limited contact of wine with oxygen which penetrates through the wood. This is followed by a long 7 years of ageing in the bottle, so that the wine can reach its true potential. Barolo becomes especially enjoyable after 10-15 years. For example, Hugh Johnson advises in his Pocket Wine Book that now, in 2020, bottles from 2012 can be drunk with pleasure. They will continue to get better – so keep yours in the wine-rack if you can.
Until the 1970’s, in order to become drinkable, Barolo had to age for around 20 years or more, rather than 7-8 as is the case now. When the harvest finishes in late October – November the weather in the foothills of the Alps becomes really chilly. Back in the days the tanks did not have temperature control, and the fermentation was done in cold conditions. Thanks to the new equipment, the fermentation now is carried out at controlled temperatures, which helps to accelerate the process and produce wine with consistent quality.
Wine ageing in oak barrels in a cellar in Piedmont
The aromas and taste of Barolo
If you’re wondering “what does Barolo taste like?” the best thing to do is open a bottle and take a sip. Once you’ve tried it, you’re unlikely to forget the experience.
Barolo is a powerful wine with lots of tannins, and experts sometimes call its aroma “tar and roses”. Each mouthful brings a world of flavour. It starts with dried black fruit like cherry and prunes, mingling with spicy cinnamon and cloves. This is joined by smokiness and anchored by rich chocolate, meaty leather and sweet tobacco. While utterly delicious, none of these flavours are subtle nor gentle. They instantly bring you into the moment, overpowering your senses like fire and ice to leave a lasting impression.
What is so special about Barolo?
As well as its inimitable taste, there are a few reasons why Barolo is a highly desirable Italian wine:
Considered one of the world’s best
Barolo is considered by wine experts to be one of best – if not the best – wines of Italy, and one of the best red wines in the world. An outstanding Barolo wine produced by one of the “cru” vineyards will have complex aromas, a very refined taste, and will improve in the bottle over 10-20 years (if not longer).
The full name for Barolo wine is “Barolo DOCG”, and DOCG stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita. It is the highest classification of wine quality under Italian law, and it sits above the DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata). This means wine makers need to follow strict quality control procedures just to use the name.
Quality of the DOCG wines is “guaranteed” by a government-licensed agency that analyses and tastes wine before it is bottled. Each guaranteed bottle of wine is labelled with a numbered governmental seal across neck of the bottle, to prevent fraud.
The rules of Barolo DOCG are very strict. Only a small number of vineyards can produce this wine, and the maximum harvest per hectare is capped to 8,000kg of grapes. This is just under 7,000 full-sized bottles per hectare. This limits the supply of the wine, and is why there will never be enough Barolo to satisfy the market.
Top winemakers always plant below the maximum limit, and can each produce not more than a few thousand bottles of high quality Barolo per year. In good years, the wine sells out and leaves the winemaker’s cellars quickly.
Castle of Barolo and wine museum
What is the best Barolo wine?
If you’re looking to buy the best Barolo wine, consider the following points:
Where it was made
Barolo is only made in and around eleven villages in a small area of Piedmont. The best versions are thought to come from the “cru” vineyards – the word “cru” is used to remind buyers of the grand French wines. The five top Barolo “crus” are located in the following villages:
- The village of Barolo
- La Morra
- Castiglione Falletto
- Monforte d’Alba
- Serralunga d’Alba
If you’re holding a bottle of Barolo in your hands, find out which village it was produced in. If it’s one of the above “crus”, you’re very likely in possession of a seriously valuable wine.
When it was made
Barolo harvests in 2010, 2015, and 2016 were remarkably good, and the resulting wine is likely to be brilliant. Tom Hyland of Forbes wrote that the 2016 vintage would be “one of the all time great vintages for Barolo“, so if you have a bottle of that you’re very lucky. On the other hand, 2002 and 2003 were not as good. 2017 was also quite challenging, as it was a very hot year and growers had to start picking at the end of September – a month ahead of the usual time.
Do your research and buy a good vintage. Not only will it be a really enjoyable drinking experience, it’s also likely to appreciate in value should you decide to hold onto it.
An international award is perhaps the best indication of wine quality. Why? It’s an impartial assessment. Experts compare lots of wines and aren’t eager to sell you anything. In contrast, recommendations from a shop might be biased.
The following vineyards all took home prizes at the 2019 Decanter World Wine Awards for their outstanding Barolo wines: Batasiolo, Garesio, Francone, Marone, Fontanafredda, Mauro Molino, Poderi Luigi Einaudi, Tenuta Montemagno.
Castle of Grinzane Cavour, Barolo DOCG
How much should a good Barolo wine cost?
The cost of a good Barolo will depend on how old it is, and if it’s ready to drink:
5 years old
A 5-year old bottle of Barolo, from a respected vineyard in the Barolo DOCG, may well sell for about £40-50. The price of a particular bottle of Barolo will depend on a few things:
- Where it was made: is it one of the five premium cru-vineyards?
- Vintage – was it s a “good year”?
- Awards and recognition: how do Decanter, James Suckling, Tre Bicchieri by Gambero Rosso rate it?
A couple of things to be aware of: some high-volume producers use second-class grapes, which were discarded by premium wineries. They produce high volumes of cheap Barolo which is sold in supermarkets at high volumes. Even if you’re not a wine expert, cheap Barolo will not taste as good. It definitely pays to spend a little extra.
Over 10 years old
Barolo gets more expensive over time. While the 2010 vintage from a top cru will sell for £60-75, a Barolo 2005 with a proper pedigree would sell for £150-300 per bottle. Because of that, premium Barolo is sometimes regarded as an investment asset. Pop it in your cellar and sell it on in a few years time for profit – if you can bear to part with it.
Why is Barolo wine so expensive?
Barolo wine is exceptionally high quality and there’s only a limited supply of it. Everyone wants to get their hands on the good vintages, so the law of supply and demand pushes the prices up even further.
Barolo is a great wine to drink – if it is aged properly for at least 7-10 years in the bottle – and can give a transcendental experience to wine lovers. After all, it’s called “the wine of kings” for a reason. It’s rarity has turned it into a collectable and an object of investment, with prices for 15-20 year old Barolo accelerating at a rapid pace.
The full 2016 vintage only amounts to around 3000 bottles in this small, award-winning vineyard in the Barolo DOCG area, showing the limits of supply
What food goes with Barolo wine?
Barolo is the perfect wine to enjoy with a good meal, and many Italians choose it for special occasions. If you’re looking for some dinnertime inspiration, our favourite food bloggers shared their favourite Barolo-friendly recipes with us:
- Braciole di maiale alla brace (Grilled Pork Chops)
- Bistecche alla Pizzaiola (Beef Filets with Tomato Sauce)
- Beef Roast Simmered In Red Wine (Brasato Al Barolo)
- It’s grilling time! – Braciola alla griglia (Grilled beef roll)
- The original “Ossobuco alla Milanese”
- Meatballs with lemon and fennel
- Roast Boneless Leg of Lamb stuffed with Herbs and Garlic
Want more? Check out our article on Delicious dishes to pair with Barolo, Barbaresco and Barbera.
How long should you keep Barolo wine for?
Hold your Barolo for at least 7 years before opening. Nebbiolo has a remarkably high level of tannins, and if the wine is opened too early their harshness may overwhelm you. After 7 years of softening in the bottle, the wine will give you a far more enjoyable experience. The hard tannins will have become velvety, melting into aromas of smoke, cinnamon, leather, chocolate and sweet tobacco.
Good things come to those who wait, and Barolo will reward you if you decide to hold it for longer. Its flavours will continue to develop for 15 or 20 years, and the wine will age beautifully. After that, the fresh fruitiness will start to fade and be replaced with the aroma and taste of dried black fruits.
Where can I buy high-quality Barolo?
Now that you know a little bit more about the legendary Barolo wine, why not pick up a bottle or two? We’ve got some truly fantastic Barolo and Barbaresco wines in stock: