King of wines, wine of Kings

June 2021

No, I didn’t make it up, that title is taken straight from Barolo marketing hype.

I suppose real kings drink lots of great wine, and doubtless many wines might aspire to that title, but Barolo does have a unique and compelling case: the first king of united Italy, Victor Emanuel II, maintained a royal hunting lodge, Fontanafredda (Italian for cool fountain), just outside the tiny town of Barolo (population 731) in the Langhe hills of Italy’s Piedmont region. On that estate he kept (besides his mistress) some of Italy’s most prized vineyards. Today that royal estate is a luxury vacation resort, with sumptuous restaurants and spa, and remains an important producer of Barolo, arguably Italy’s finest wine, one you can buy right here in Thunder Bay.

Barolo is the name of the wine made in the commune surrounding that little town in northwestern Italy, at the foot of both the Alps and the Apennines, made exclusively from Nebbiolo grapes, named for a defining characteristic of the region: dense fog (in Italian: nebbia) that blankets the hills at harvest time. Nowhere else in the world has this grape been grown successfully – there must be some magic in that all-enveloping mist.

Traditionally, following the harvest, Barolo was aged for months on its lees followed by four or more years of further ageing in old oaken casks, making a tough, tannic wine unapproachable in its youth. Modern winemaking technology has softened that traditional style somewhat, but Barolo is still a wine for laying down in your cellar, to emerge after a decade or more to accompany your finest roasts and game dishes. With great age it becomes intense and laser-focused, with brick-orange hue, penetrating aroma and insidious persistence of flavour. Traditional descriptors include roses, mushrooms and tar. Recent trends show an emphasis on single-vineyard bottlings, and a system of cru rating – similar to that in Burgundy – is emerging. No binding classification has yet been established, but many producers will indicate a vineyard name on their label; some 170 vineyard sites have been so identified. The one legally required label term for all genuine Barolo is DOCG – Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita – the official government-approved certification of authenticity. Barolo pricing starts about $40 and climb rapidly into three figures for single vineyard bottlings. The finest Barolo I recall is Luigi Bosca vintage 1964 that was classically splendid and mature at age 34 in 1998. I enjoyed another bottle in 2014 – at 50 years old, it was still fragrant and focused, but fading – definitely past its glorious peak but still memorable.

If Barolo is king, it has its prince in Barbaresco. Made from the same Nebbiolo grapes grown in the neighbouring commune of Barbaresco (population 660) just twenty kilometers down the road, Barbaresco is similar in aroma and taste to Barolo, but somewhat less austere, just a bit lighter and livelier in style, maturing more quickly. I find Barbaresco often more accessible and easier to enjoy than Barolo.

You can sample the style at lower price and without the long ageing in Langhe Nebbiolo, a lighter wine from the same grape, produced outside the designated zones. Other towns in Piedmont and neighbouring Lombardy make wines similar in style but without the grandeur, the reputation or the price. Gattinara, from the town of that name further north in Piedmont, is often available here in Thunder Bay. There are other Nebbiolo wines to watch for, rarely found locally, but none can match the king, or the prince. All are worth laying down in your cellar, to dip into over coming decades.

© Paul Inksetter 2021

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