Barolo Wars: not-so-long ago in this galaxy

Barolo Wars: not-so-long ago in this galaxy
By Craig Camp
Friday, September 5, 2003

THE WAR had dragged on for decades. So long nobody even seemed to remember when the first shot was fired. At first it was underground -- just a few revolutionaries calling themselves The Modernist Party -- but soon their numbers had exploded and eventually they controlled almost the entire region. The Conservative Party, which had ruled for generations, was overwhelmed before its leaders knew what hit them. Perhaps they deserved this revolution. They had become set in their ways and the economy had declined as the old infrastructure rotted away without modernization. The Conservative Party was satisfied with the way things were and wanted nothing to change, even if everyone could see that change would make things better -- fertile ground for a revolution.

The Modernists had been encouraged by support in the international community fueled by sensationalist press reports published throughout Europe. Soon it became more of a fashion to join the Party than a statement of true beliefs. It wasn’t long before the Modernists had enough of an army to invade the United States. Led by Generalissimo Marc De Grazia’s brilliant tactical moves it wasn’t long before they overran the whole country -- all with the adoring support of the American press. Only recently have both sides realized that war would ruin them all, and an uneasy truce has been signed. Today you can even find them dining at the same table.

This brings us up to date in the ongoing story of The Barolo Wars, the battle between new wave producers and believers in traditional methods. Barolo, with its grand tradition, has long been recognized as the greatest Italian red wine. Certainly, the conflict between old and new is a battle that has occurred in all the important wine growing regions of the world. But the speed and the totality of the change in the aristocratic, conservative Barolo region has made this transition very controversial and divisive.

The Barolo region is located in Piemonte, in Northwestern Italy, only a short distance from the French and Swiss borders. The name Piemonte (Piedmont in English) literally describes the area: piedi monte means foothills, and indeed this region of steep hills is at the foot of the Alps.

The legal restrictions on growers and winemakers in Barolo are strict and clear: Barolo can be produced only from the nebbiolo vine grown in specifically delimited areas in the Cuneo province of Piemonte. It must be aged for three years in barrels of oak or chestnut before release (or five years if designated as Riserva). There's a long list of other rules regarding what you can and can't do.

So what’s the problem? How can there be such a battle between styles if there are all these rules?

First you have to see the way things were -- no not the movie -- the way things were in Barolo. When I first traveled there in the early 1980s it was like going to a winemaking museum. I was accustomed to all the sparkling stainless steel in California, and it was hard to believe that people still actually made wine in such a seemingly primitive manner. They would ferment the nebbiolo forever on the skins at high temperature, leeching out all the harsh tannins, and then they'd age it for another forever in huge (30 to 50 hectoliters), old, and often not very clean barrels. When modern professors of oenology see this in their nightmares, they wake up screaming. What you ended up with were brownish, semi-oxidized wines with little fruit and lots of screaming tannins that needed years of aging in bottle to mellow out -- if they ever did before what little fruit that was there disappeared. I’ve got some bottles from the early 70s that will still take the enamel off your teeth. (I bet you can’t wait to get a bottle.) Wines produced in great vintages and grown in the finest vineyards, however, could not only survive this abuse, but prospered from it. They were in fact some of the most complex and interesting wines on the planet. These are the wines that made Barolo famous. The problem was that the weather was only good enough in about three vintages out of a decade to make wines like this, and in weaker years the wines were, to be kind, well, weaker.

There was another problem. What if you where a winegrower in Barolo, but did not own one of the hotshot vineyards that would make the great wines in great vintages? The owners of famous vineyards could sell their wines in the lesser vintages because of their fame, but you were stuck with wine you couldn't sell easily. Well, a couple of sharp growers thought they saw the answer in a style of winemaking that was spreading over the planet at the time. Led by winemakers in Australia and California the so called "international style" of winemaking produced wines very dark in color, with huge sweet fruit flavors, soft easy tannins, and strong oak flavors from aging in small barrels of new French oak. All of these combine to make easy-drinking, consumer-friendly wines that don’t require long aging. These sharp growers realized that with these techniques they could replace the complexity that their vineyards could never give with the charm and fruit that this new fashion in winemaking would provide.

Before long, a couple of these producers got rave reviews from wine critics whose palates were attuned to this modern style -- and the buyers beat a path to their door. The rush was on and the salesmen of French oak barriques (224-liter oak barrels) got rich. Nobody wanted to be left behind and even producers with great vineyards rapidly adopted these modern techniques. Only a few traditionalists have survived. Fortunately, the traditionalists that have survived are some of the best winemakers in Barolo.

But it's really an overstatement to say that any traditionalists have survived. Even the staunchest conservatives don’t make wine like they did thirty years ago. Winemaking in Barolo is a cleaner, more scientific endeavor these days. There have been dramatic advances in vineyard techniques, and growers in all the communes are re-planting with a more balanced blend of the three allowed clones of the Nebbiolo vine. All of this means that the winemakers have much better grapes to work with than in the past.

There are great wines in both styles and which you prefer will depend on when and how you're drinking Barolo and, of course, on your own palate. I confess to being a lover of the more traditional style. I like my wines to taste of the place, and the ultra-modern Barolos lack varietal intensity and the flavors of the region where they were grown. This is not to say I don't enjoy some of the modern Barolos made with a lighter touch.

Although the war itself has calmed down there are still battles. The battle of the moment is over the aging potential of the new style. Aging ability is considered a crucial characteristic of Barolo by many lovers of this wine who believe that, without proper aging, you can't release the full range of nebbiolo's complexity. Many people now complain that the modern Barolos they bought in the early 1990’s have aged badly and do not now have the structure to support all that oak and alcohol.

It's convenient to say that there are two Barolos today: one modern and one traditional. But in reality there's a continuum of styles ranging from the ultra-modern on one end to the ultra-traditional on the other, with most falling somewhere in between.

You are the final victor in this war. Barolo as a winemaking region has improved dramatically. There are more outstanding Barolos available than ever before and they come in a myriad of styles that can please almost every palate.

In Piemonte, Barolo is served at the climax of the meal: when the meat comes. With earlier courses, the lighter Barbera and Dolcetto wines are served. A classic accompaniment for Barolo is Brasato al Barolo (beef braised in red wine), as of course is almost any dish made with the famous white truffles of the Alba region. Barolo is a rich, complex wine with a firm tannin structure. Match it with grilled and roasted meats, game birds, and complex dry cheeses like Parmigiano Reggiano. Serve Barolo at cool room temperature. Several hours in a decanter will bring out the flavors in younger wines. Older wines should be also be decanted well before serving because they usually have sediment. Traditional style wines benefit from long decanting times -- some people open them five or more hours before serving. (I recommend at least two hours.) By the way, just opening the bottle doesn't count. You have to decant the wine for it to get the required air. Decanting is not as essential for modern style Barolo, but I recommend it whenever possible.

Although I prefer the traditional style, I also admire the new style and which wine I drink depends on the situation. It's also important to realize that the leading producers of each style are equally dedicated and passionate about winemaking. Having both styles is a great situation: I drink the modern wines when they're young (5 to 10 years old) while I'm waiting for the traditional wines to reach maturity. What a great world: a nebbiolo for every season.

Watch out, though. Somebody is going to take a shot at you no matter the style you choose. War is hell.