The Langhe is unspeakably beautiful. You may have seen Allessandro Masnaghetti’s 3D maps – a painstaking project by this now-iconic cartographer to translate these terroirs to paper. Their textured surfaces speak of Barolo and Barbaresco’s complex geology – and yet they don’t fully convey its endless curves and corners, winding roads and intricate jigsaw of villages and vineyards, nestled in amongst each other. This is a landscape carved and sculpted by nature over 15 million years; the vines cling to precipitous slopes, sweeping down toward the valleys. Like the effortless lines of Michaelangelo’s marble, it’s a masterpiece.
We’ve just returned from a trip to Piedmont’s most prestigious vineyards, dipping a toe in the waters of this fascinating area over three days. With the layers of region, village (11 in Barolo, three in Barbaresco), its Crus (officially known as MGAs, Menzione Geografica Aggiuntiva) and individual vigne or vineyards, Barolo and Barbaresco are often compared to Burgundy. These layers of complexity and nuance are what wine-lovers thrive on, the detail that allows us to indulge new levels of geekery. Add to this the finesse and aromatic perfume of Nebbiolo, and it’s easy to see why Pinot Noir lovers fall for the region.
While wine has long been made in the Langhe (for at least 2,000 years), the first dry Barolo is thought to have been bottled in 1844, with wines before that often sweet or lightly sparkling. It’s only really in the 1960s that the region’s reputation started to be built. Wines were – as in Burgundy – mainly made by négociants until this point, when individual estates started making their own wine. Traditionally wines from across the region were blended to create an expression of Barolo as a whole, but this too started to change. Prunotto and Vietti were the first to identify and vinify individual plots in Barolo, following a trip to Burgundy in the 1950s and ’60s (read more about the birth of Barolo’s Crus here); while in Barbaresco, it was Angelo Gaja who started to make wine exclusively from vineyards the family owned (from 1961) and then bottled the single vineyard Sorì San Lorenzo separately for the first time in 1967.
Traditionally the wines were made with long maceration times (leaving the wine in contact with the skins for 50 or more days) and several years in large oak casks, to extract colour, tannin and flavour from the thin-skinned Nebbiolo. These wines were immensely age-worthy, but their rasping tannins often needed time to become approachable – in some cases the fruit would fade while waiting for the tannins to come round. Winemaking – as elsewhere – was rudimentary, and the late 20th century brought with it modern technology and better hygiene. But the 1980s also saw Barolo divided.
This was the period of Parker and Parkerization, with rich, voluptuous wines with sweet fruit and vanilla tones from new French oak all the rage. Barolo couldn’t be further from this style – and its winemakers were humble farmers, with little recognition (financial or otherwise) for their work. But then a group of producers, led by Elio Altare, embraced the barrique (the traditional 225-litre French oak barrel), looking to put Barolo and its wines on the world map. These modernists, sometimes known as the “Barolo boys”, used new oak, and shorter, more vigorous extractions to craft wines that were fruitier, darker and more immediate – and received instant acclaim. The traditionalists of the region, however, fiercely defended the Langhe’s historical ways, the use of long macerations and large, old botte casks. Bartolo Mascarello famously released a label stating “No Barrique, No Berlusconi” (adorning the 1998 and 1999 vintage), decrying the use of new oak and Berlusconi’s right-wing politics.
Modernisation was essential – and better hygiene, with the arrival of stainless steel, was revolutionary. Today, as more and more producers around the world turn to large oak casks, it’s unsurprising that many in Barolo and Barbaresco are returning to their botti, and new oak has generally fallen from favour (at least in high proportions), yet the barrel certainly lives on, even if still controversial.
“Barrique… it’s an ugly word here in the Langhe,” says Dave Fletcher, the Australian producer who left the Yarra to make wine in Piedmont over a decade ago (under Fletcher Wines and Cantina della Stazione). He avoids new wood, but prefers barrels for the ability to vinify plots separately – something he feels is important for quality. There are also those who feel that the minimum ageing requirements (18 months in oak for Barbaresco and 24 months in oak for Barolo) are old-fashioned, forcing the production of wood-heavy wines that are removed from current tastes – even suggesting that there’s a movement for these minimum times in oak to be adjusted.
As in Burgundy, whole-bunch has become a divisive topic. Some wines have traditionally been made with whole-bunch fermentation (as with Burlotto’s Monvigliero), but now some producers feel a small percentage can help bring freshness in warmer vintages, while others feel it distracts from the terroir, and doesn’t suit Nebbiolo.
Climate change is seeing a shift in the most prized plots, with some producers now feeling south/southwest-facing sites (historically the most desirable) too warm, and north/northeasterly exposure better for the long term, or finding other ways to manage global warming. Land prices have been rising, and there’s an increasing amount of outside investment, as well an increasing number of producers arriving from beyond Piedmont – although there are still those, such as Vietti’s Eugenio Palumbo, Burlotto’s Alessandria or Gaja’s Gaia Gaja, who were born and bred here, and have been embedded in the industry, and often their family business, their entire lives. We dove into recent vintages, especially the very different yet both excellent 2020 and 2021s, the former open and approachable, the latter closed and needing time. We talked about clones and rootstocks, the persistence and suitability of Chardonnay in the Langhe, the pressure on the region’s biodiversity – and much, much more.
We’ll be publishing more in the coming weeks and months, as well as shining a light on the wines of the region – one that should be part of any collector’s cellar. But, as with the wines here, there is so much to consider. As Nicola Oberto of Trediberri told us, “It doesn’t need to be obvious – it needs to be interesting.” And that, the endless nuance and complexity, is what makes the region’s great Nebbiolo so enchanting.
Keep an eye out for more on Piedmont over the coming months or browse all current listings from the region