Culinary Arts

Brunello vs. Barolo: Discover the Differences Between These Italian Wines

Written by MasterClass

Jun 24, 2019 • 4 min read

Barolo and Brunello have both been called the “The King of Wine.” Which wine has a better claim to the throne? The only way to tell is to drink them both!


What Is Barolo?

Barolo is the most famous wine from the northern Italian region of Piedmont. It is made from 100 percent nebbiolo grapes. Barolo was one of the first wines, along with Brunello di Montalcino, to achieve DOCG status when the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita designation was introduced in 1980. The Barolo Zone of production is based around the townships of Barolo, La Morra, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d'Alba, and Monforte d'Alba, in the Langhe hills outside of Alba.

Barolo as we know it began in the mid-1800s when winemaking techniques in the region improved, resulting in high quality wines that became popular with local royalty. The wine’s sobriquet, the “king of wines,” is a play on its status as the “wine of kings,” which it was called because King Carlo Alberto di Savoia planted many of the original vineyards in Barolo.

Barolo is a complex and age-worthy wine, notable for its intense tannins which take years of aging to mellow. The “Barolo wars” of the 1970s and ’80s refers to a period when some Barolo producers decided to use modern winemaking techniques, like the use of roto-fermenters and Bordeaux-style new oak barrels, to produce wines with softer tannins that could be enjoyed younger than the traditional style. Some producers, like Vietti, make wines in both styles to appeal to different tastes.

After decades of co-operative winemaking dominating production in Barolo, estate bottling is now the norm. Most top producers make single vineyard expressions from Barolo’s best sites, like Cannubi and Bussia.

What Is Brunello?

Brunello di Montalcino (known as Brunello for short), is a red wine from Tuscany in central Italy. It takes its name from the diminutive form of bruno, the Italian word for “brown,” and the town of Montalcino, which is located in the province of Siena. Brunello was once thought to be a distinct grape variety, but it is actually a clone of the popular Italian grape sangiovese. Brunello, which was also granted DOCG status in 1980, must be made from 100 percent sangiovese grapes.

Brunello di Montalcino originated around the same time, but unlike Barolo, Brunello was only made by a single family, the Biondi-Santi family. Its place among the pantheon of Italian wines stems from its relative rarity: between 1865 (its first vintage) and 1945, the wine was only produced during four exceptional vintages. These rare Brunellos commanded the highest prices of any wine in Italy. Following World War II, other producers started making Brunello and it became more widely available, but still held an aura of prestige.

DOCG regulations specify that Brunello di Montalcino must be aged for at least two years in oak barrels. Like in Barolo, some producers use traditional large oak casks, and some use a more modern regimen of small French oak barrels, similar to prestigious California cabernet producers. Between cask aging and bottle aging, the wine must have at least five years of total age before it is released, while wines labeled Brunello Riserva must age at least six years before release. Rosso di Montalcino DOC, a lighter sangiovese-based wine from Montalcino, only has to age for one year before its release.

What Are the Differences in Climate Between Barolo and Brunello?

  • The climate of the Piedmont region around Barolo is warm and temperate, with significant rainfall. The hillside vineyards get ample sunlight, while the cooling nebbia (fog) keeps the nebbiolo grapes from getting sunburned. In poor vintages, the wines can be fairly acidic, but increasing average temperatures have lead to a number of stellar recent vintages.
  • Montalcino is the warmest and driest area in Tuscany, which allows the sangiovese grapes planted there to achieve maximum ripeness. A cooling air current from the Tyrrhenian Sea brings the temperature down at night, which contributes to a balance of fruit ripeness and acidity in the grapes.

How Do Barolo and Brunello Compare in Flavor?

Both Barolo and Brunello wine have the classic Italian combination of red and black fruits, earthiness, and strong tannin and acid structure. Strong structure is common to both types of wine, but their relationship of tannin and acidity is inverted: Barolo wines tend to have high tannin with acidity that is just a touch lower, while Brunello di Montalcino wines tend to have high acidity with tannin that is slightly lower. Both wines need at least ten years of aging to integrate their tannins and flavors. In their aromas, Barolo tends to be more floral while Brunello has a more savory herbal quality.

Flavors found in Barolo wine include:

  • Plum
  • Raspberry
  • Tar
  • White truffle

Flavors found in Brunello di Montalcino wine include:

  • Cranberry
  • Strawberry
  • Espresso
  • Sundried tomato

Flavors common to both:

  • Red and black cherry
  • Licorice
  • tobacco
  • Rose petals
  • Dried herbs
  • Damp earth

How to Pair Barolo Wine With Food

Because Barolo and Brunello have a similar firm structure and high alcohol, they will both pair well with rich, savory dishes like roast lamb with herbs, hearty stews, or lasagna. Choose northern Italian cuisine to pair with Barolo, like cheese- and meat-heavy dishes such as venison stew, vitello tonnato, osso buco, risotto al Barolo, and fonduta.

How to Pair Brunello Wine With Food

Tuscan dishes naturally match with Brunello di Montalcino. Try it with pappardelle alla lepre (pasta with wild hare), or any of the wild game of the region, like boar or pheasant, especially in a rich braise. Brunello’s acidity and tomato-leaf savory notes mean that it can harmonize with tomato sauce dishes like Bolognese and pizza as well.

Learn more about wine tasting fundamentals in James Suckling’s MasterClass.