Winefriend by David Way

Writing about the wines of Piemonte, Italy and France

Diary 34: ‘Barolo, tar and roses’, 30 years on

In 1990, Michael Garner and Paul Merritt published their groundbreaking book, Barolo: tar and roses, a study of the wines of Alba. It was the first full-length book in English to deal with the now world-famous wines of Barolo and Barbaresco. It remained the standard work on these wines until Kerin O’Keefe’s Barolo and Barbaresco of 2014. Looking back 30 years, it is difficult to remember how little was written about Barolo, or indeed any Italian wine, until very recent times. Garner and Merritt’s bibliography is less than half a page long, with 10 titles in total specifically on their subject matter. For the sake of comparison, O’Keefe’s bibliography ran to five and a half pages.

Barolo, tar and roses
1990 as a turning point in the Langhe

Publishing in 1990 meant that the Langhe was at an interesting point of development. The so-called modernists, fired up with zeal for better wine drawing on their visits to Burgundy, were less than a decade into their efforts. Yes, there were some new barriques to be found in a few cellars but there is no mention of rotofermenters to extract colour but less tannin from the demanding Nebbiolo grape variety. And of course, there was no experience of the long term ageing capacity of the new-fangled wines. Much more importantly, the bad times of hunger and poverty after World War 2 were still a common memory. It was far from obvious that Nebbiolo was going to bring wealth to the Langhe.

Climate change, obviously

Having recently spent time in the Langhe recently for my book, The Wines of Piemonte, it is fascinating to see what has changed over the last 30 years. The most fundamental change is of course the climate. Garner & Merritt remind us that the Langhe was a cool and marginal climate for the Nebbiolo variety, which requires a very long season to ripen fully. They point out that Barolo is on the same latitude as Bordeaux, 44.6 and 44.8 respectively, though obviously, their climate types are very different. Both regions have been net gainers from climate change, so far. Barolo producers may not always feel that is the case with the increased prevalence and intensity of spring frost and hail. However, the wider picture is clear. The most telling proof is that Garner & Merritt stated that there are on average two outstanding vintages in a decade in the Langhe. By comparison, if you look back at the last two decades it is easier to count the poor vintages. Since 2000, there has been one poor vintage per decade. The vintage chart on Robert Parker’s website marked the rainy Barolo vintage of 2002 with a miserly 73 and gave the hot 2003, 83. Every other vintage in this century is given 89 or above; indeed there are five with scores of 95 and above, a 93 and a 94. So, at least according to this authority, there have been seven very good to outstanding vintages in the last 18 years.

More consistent quality

The other big difference is the number of producers producing very good to outstanding wines in the Langhe. According to Garner & Merritt, there were a couple of dozen producers consistently hitting the heights in the 1980s. Today, it would be very difficult to put a number on that but a couple of dozen would now only cover the real stars of Barolo and Barbaresco. To the established wineries, have been added so many that have benefitted from rising standards in the vineyard and winery, and from the leadership of younger agronomists and winemakers, all of whom now have professional qualifications and have often had experience abroad.

Nebbiolo, Nebbiolo and more Nebbiolo

Another important change since the publication of Barolo, tar and roses has been the increased planting of Nebbiolo. The sheer amount of vineyard area has increased dramatically. This is partly because areas that were considered too cool can now be planted with Nebbiolo. In addition, the prices received for this variety make it enormously attractive to the grower. Further, there has been a decrease in the other varieties, above all Dolcetto but also in minor, but interesting, ones such as Freisa and Grignolino.

The detailed vineyard statistics are available for the 18 years from 2007 to 2019. The amount of Nebbiolo in the municipalities that make up Barolo DOCG* has risen from 1,945 hectares to 2,827 (a rise of 882 hectares or 45 per cent in less than two decades). This means that Nebbiolo accounts for about three-quarters of all vineyard land in the Barolo municipalities. By contrast, Barbera has dropped a bit (reduced by 32 hectares to 534, -6 per cent) and Dolcetto has gone from 278 to 181 (a reduction of 97 hectares or 35 per cent). Freisa, always a tiny amount has halved to a total of 12 hectares and Grignolino is less than one hectare in total! The white grape Nascetta is trendy but total plantings only added up to 25 hectares in 2019. Arneis amounted to 16 hectares. The municipalities of Barolo DOCG have become a near Nebbiolo monopoly. (All these statistics are from the Alba Consorzio.)

*There is an important clarification to be made here. While Nebbiolo for Barolo can be grown in 11 municipalities, this does not mean that all the vineyards in those municipalities are within Barolo DOCG. Thus, these figures are bigger than if only the land within Barolo DOCG was counted. Unfortunately, the raw figures for each municipality are just that. They do not distinguish between land within the DOCG and land outside of it. Having said that the municipalities of Barolo, Castiglione Falletto and Serralunga d’Alba are entirely within the DOCG. Of the big five municipalities in terms of Barolo production, only La Morra and Monforte d’Alba are only partly within the DOCG. To give a specific example, while 2,827 hectares of Nebbiolo were registered in the total vineyards of the 11 municipalities, there were only 1,982 hectares used for Barolo DOCG in 2019. The rest of the Nebbiolo would have gone into regional denominations such as Langhe DOC Nebbiolo or Nebbiolo d’Alba.

Changing reputations

Finally, it is fun to see how things have changed in terms of the reputation of some of the municipalities and the challenges that faced Barolo and Barbaresco. In 1990, Serralunga d’Alba, apart from the Fontanafredda estate because of its sheer size and history, was still seen as a bit of a backwater. It is not that our authors did not know about Vigna Rionda or Francia, they did. ‘Serralunga clearly has vineyards of splendid potential but as traditionally the poorest of the major five communes, it is still something of a forgotten land and lacks the air of purpose and quiet prosperity of the others…The arrival of Angelo Gaja [who bought a single piece of vineyard land of 28 hectares here in 1988] will no doubt bring about a shift in the balance.’ Nowadays, Serralunga d’Alba is regarded as a top municipality, its wines seen by many as the absolute peak expression of the denomination. Similarly, back then Donato Lanati, now one of Italy’s enologists with a worldwide reputation, was an exciting young consultant and only Gaja and Ceretto knew how to market their wines. My, how things have changed!

To finish on a positive note. This book was clearly well researched in its day and reads well. It is particularly valuable in capturing the history of the twenty years before 1990. It has excellent extended material on a small number of top producers in the Langhe and Roero: Altare, Ceretto, Aldo Conterno, Giovanni Conterno, Gaja, Mauro Mascarello, Produttori del Barbaresco, Prunotto, Deltetto, Angelo Negro, the much-praised Renato Ratti, Terre del Barolo and Vietti. If you come across it in a second-hand bookshop, it is definitely worth buying. And it gave us the standard Anglophone description of the aroma of Nebbiolo as ‘tar and roses’.

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