Monday, November 24, 2008

Improving Barolo

(Photo) Danilo Drocco, Winemaker, Fontanafredda (Photo ©Tom Hyland, 2008)

Barolo has been around for more than 150 years, but there have been more changes to this wine over the past 30 years than in all the previous years. Traditionally aged in large Slavonian oak known as botti (vessels as large as 50 or 60 hectoliters), some producers beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s started to age their Barolos in small French barrels known as barrique, which are 225 liters in size. As these barrels were smaller, the wines took on more of an oak influence as well as a greater degree of tannins from the barrique and Barolo – at least from some producers – took on a new style.

Today, there are some outstanding producers of Barolo that continue to use only barriques for their aging in the cellar; these producers include Roberto Voerzio and Revello. Yet most producers either use a combination of barrique and large oak or use a third type of oak barrel known as tonneau, a mid-size barrel, often 500 liters in size. The thinking here is that aging a Barolo only in small barrels yields a one-dimensional wine where oak and fruit are the dominant characteristics. Wines like this can become too international in style and lose the specific terroir of the Barolo zone, whether from La Morra, Serralunga d’Alba or any of the other nine communes where Nebbiolo grapes are grown for production of this wine.

At Fontanafredda in Serralunga, winemaker Danilo Drocco uses both barrique and botti for aging his cru (single vineyard) Barolos. He begins the aging in barrique to ensure a deeper color, but finishes the wines in botti. This means that the wines will not have too much oak influence. “A little oak is fine for Barolo, but not too much,” he explains.

Of course, there are still many first-rate producers that use only botti to age their Barolos; these include such famous estates as Bartolo Mascarello, Maracarini and Giuseppe Rinaldi. Instead of ripe black fruit and aromas of vanilla, these wines offer notes of cedar, dried cherry and orange peel. Best of all, they are reflections of the local terroir.

Of course, the choice a vintner makes is personal and in the end, it is all about making the best wine possible, one that offers subtleties and not just ripe fruit and wood. Listen to Drocco talk about how his winemaking philosophy has changed. “I had a period during the aging where I was trying to have very large fruit and wine that was very open. But now for the last couple of years, I’m trying to come back to a wine that sometimes is a little closed, but one that is more elegant and complex.”

Continuing, Drocco reasons for finesse with these wines; “I think that with Barolo we have to make wine that give emotions little by little. So not everything at once, not all together, but like the great Burgundies that give to you sensations little by little.”

(Photo) Stefano Gagliardo, Proprietor, Gianni Gagliardo Winery (Photo ©Tom Hyland, 2008)

At the core of the great Barolos, no matter the style, is the aging potential. Do the modern wines with riper fruit age as well as the more traditionally aged Barolos? The jury is out, according to Stefano Gagliardo, proprietor of the Gianni Gagliardo estate in La Morra; “It’s almost impossible to tell what that aging potential will be,” he comments. "This new way to produce Barolo that provides Barolos that are extremely full of character and identity, but at the same time are easier to drink when they are relatively young, doesn’t have a long history. Today we can taste wines that were made in the ‘50s, but we need to wait a few years before we understand the new style of wines.”

For Gagliardo, exactly how long his Barolos will age is not that critical a matter. “For me, honestly, to know whether my Barolo will need 20 or 30 years is not that important today. It’s more important today that my customers can buy a bottle of Barolo and of course, they know that it can age for 15 or 20 years.

“If it can age longer than that, it’s a bonus. I think I can allow myself to say that because I know that Nebbiolo will have this bonus. With Nebbiolo I think that we have such a long aging potential that we can as well work a little bit for today as well as the future.”


2004 Fontanfredda Barolo “La Rosa”
Bright, deep garnet with aromas of truffle, red cherry, cumin and a touch of soy. Medium-full with very good to excellent concentration. Very good fruit persistence, lively acidity and ample oak. A bit tannic now, so give time. This will be at is best in 15-20 years.

2004 Gianni Gagliardo Barolo “Serre”
Garnet with aromas of red cherry, orange peel, rose petals and vanilla. Medium-full with very good concentration. Rich mid-palate and excellent fruit persistence. Lively acidity and a nice balance of all components. Lightly spicy finish. Best in 12-15 years.


  1. Dear Tom, some digits are missing here, 225 liters instead of 25, 500 instead of 50.

    Greetings from Poland!

  2. Andrzej:

    Yes, a silly mistake on my part- a barrique is 225 liters. Thanks for catching that.

    However, having just been in Barolo and having seen 50 and 60 hectolite casks, I know that number is right.