Barolo: Italy's Finest Wine Region?
There is no disputing the greatness of Barolo, an Italian region that can be divided into ever smaller unique parcels. Depending on the soil, these wines come with personalities as specific as the land. If you aren’t yet acquainted with Barolo, it is that enchanting elixir from the Piedmont made from the Nebbiolo grape and renowned for its ability, nay, necessity, to age. Barolo is high in just about every structural component of wine, from tannins to acidity to alcohol. While it looks to be a gentle garnet color redolent of roses and earth, dried cherries and licorice, on the palate it packs a punch unequaled.
So, what of the earth it came from? Well, that depends on which commune it hails from, as there are two main soil types in Barolo: Helvetian sandstone and Tortonian calcareous marl. Both are sedimentary soils, but vary quite a bit in their makeup and texture.
Tortonian soil references the Tortonian epoch, 11.6-7.2 million years ago. ‘Calcareous marl’ refers to a fact that it is a mix of limestone and clay. It is more fertile than Helvetian and contains more clay, making it more compact. It is found to the west of Barolo in the communes La Morra and Barolo. These wines are said to be fruitier, softer (if a Barolo can be thought of as soft), and swifter to mature, which can be a boon if you don’t want to wait as long for a bottle to reach its prime.
Helvetian sandstone comes from the Serravallian epoch and some assert that that would be the more accurate term for it—but the lion’s share of people still call it Helvetian. The Serravallian epoch directly proceeded the Tortonian one, 13.82-11.63 million years ago. Helvetian sandstone is a sedimentary soil with a beige appearance that is high in iron, but less fertile and compact than Tortonian. Found in the eastern communes of Monforte d’Alba and Serralunga d’Alba, it is said to produce wines of more power and structure that typically take longer to mature. Castiglione Falletto is another important commune in Barolo and lying right in the middle, has a mix of Helvetian and Tortonian soil.
Sometimes it may be the vineyard name touted on the label, so it pays to know some of the important vineyards in each region to understand what soil the winegrowing took place in. For instance, a bottle labeled as Barolo Ginestra is making reference to the vineyard Ginestra found in the commune of Monforte d’Alba. Sometimes there will be both the commune and the vineyard mentioned, although the practice varies.
Now for some producers to look out for. It is important to keep in mind that there are some producers who work in the old school manner, giving their wines long maceration times and aging them in large botti, (barrels). However, some more modern producers use a higher percentage of small, new French oak barriques. Of course, as trends rise and fall, some traditional producers have become or are leaning towards the modern style and vice versa. And some produce a range of wines in different styles, so take the following list with a grain of salt.
For traditional producers, look to Mascarello, Cavallotto and Rinaldi. For more modern styles, try Damilano, Elio Altare, Gaja, or Renato Ratti. Regardless of what soil the grapes grew in and the style the producer worked in, you can be guaranteed of a memorable glass of wine.
Read more in our Earth series here: