Culinary Arts

Learn About Barolo Wine: Discover the History, Characteristics, and Pairings for the “King of Wines”

Written by MasterClass

Jun 27, 2019 • 5 min read

In the pantheon of great wine regions of the world, the Italian wine Barolo sits alongside French Champagne, Burgundy, and costly Bordeaux. This “king of wines” is known for its forceful tannins and for its intriguing and contrasting aromas of both tar and rose.

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What Is Barolo?

Barolo is a red wine made from the nebbiolo grape. Nebbiolo vines cover the rolling Langhe hills of Piedmont in northern Italy, with the best vineyards situated on the slopes. The wines made from these vines have incredible complexity and structure, and are among the most age-worthy of any wines.

Barolo carries the Italian wine classification of Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG), which means the wine must be made from 100% nebbiolo grapes from the commune of Barolo and approved surrounding areas. Barolo wines have long aging requirements and must pass a government tasting panel.

What Is the History of Barolo?

Vinegrowing and winemaking has a centuries-long history in northern Italy, but Piedmontese wine was rustic and sweet until the mid nineteenth century. Barolo wine as we know it was created by Camillo Benzo, the Count of Cavour, who, with the help of French winemaker Louis Oudart, started fermenting his Barolo wines so they became dry. Cavour also worked with Pier Francesco Staglieno, who pioneered the use of closed fermentation tanks, making Barolo less susceptible to the flaws of oxidation and volatile acidity.

The Marquise of Barolo hired Louis Oudart to make wine for her as well, from her vines in the towns that now make up the Barolo Zone. The monarch of the era’s reigning dynasty, Charles Albert of Sardinia, liked her wines so much that he began planting vineyards around his castles in the region. This association with royalty lead to Barolo being known as “the wine of kings,” which eventually became “the king of wines.”

Barolo’s style evolved again in the 1970s and ’80s, when trends in international wine markets favored less tannic wines that did not need to be aged as long before drinking. Many young Barolo producers, including Domenico Clerico, Luciano Sandrone, and Enrico Scavino of Paolo Scavino Winery, switched to a “modern” style. This involved using shorter maceration and fermentation times as well as new french oak barrels to soften tannins and add vanilla flavors. Detractors say this style is initially appealing but the wines do not have the ageability of traditional Barolo. The stylistic tug of war between the modernists and the traditionalist producers, who include Vietti, Marcarini, and Giuseppe Mascarello, was dubbed the “Barolo wars” by the press. Much of the argument has dissipated, with some modernists going back to using large old oak casks and some traditionalists incorporating shorter maceration times. A few producers even make Barolo in both traditional and modern styles.

What Is the Barolo Zone?

The Barolo Zone is the area in which nebbiolo grapes for Barolo wine can be grown. It is located about 7 miles southwest of the town of Alba. The Barolo Zone is based on five main townships: Barolo, La Morra, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d'Alba, and Monforte d'Alba. Almost 90% of Barolo wine is produced in these five townships. Parts of outlying areas Grinzano, Verduno, and Novello were added to the Zone in 1934, although producers from Barolo and Castiglione Falletto protested this addition, which they felt diluted the Barolo brand. The official limits of the Barolo Zone were stretched even more in 1966, when the DOC law for the region added parts of the townships Diano d’Alba, Roddi, and Cherasco. Currently, the Barolo Zone covers about 3,100 acres of vines, making it about three times the size of the neighboring Barbaresco region.

The Barolo Zone includes two distinct soil types, which produce wines of differing characteristics.

  • In the western part, the townships of Barolo and La Morra sit on calcareous marl, soil which is compact and fertile. Grapes grown on this soil tend to make wines that are ready to drink earlier, with softer tannins and a more aromatic profile.
  • To the east, nutrient-poor, porous compressed sandstone makes up the soil of Serralunga d'Alba and Monforte d'Alba, which produce wines that are more tannic and intense, and take longer to mature. Castiglione Falletto’s soil is a mix of the two types.

Barolo as a whole is recognized by the Italian government with a Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) designation, its highest level of quality.

How Is Barolo Made?

Barolo is made from 100% nebbiolo grapes. The harvest takes place in mid- to late-October. Traditionally, the fermentation and maceration of the grape must takes as long as two months in large oak casks, which is necessary to soften the intense tannins that are inherent in nebbiolo. Malolactic conversion follows, which turns some of the wine’s harsh malic acid into softer lactic acid.

Next, Barolo must be aged for at least two years in oak barrels, either traditional large, neutral oak botti or the smaller, new French oak barriques used by the modernist producers.

  • An additional year of aging in bottle is required for Barolo DOCG wine.
  • Barolo Riserva must be aged for at least three years in oak and two years in bottle. In practice, the best producers age their wines longer than the requirements before release.

What Are the Characteristics of Barolo?

Barolo is a powerful, full-bodied red wine. It is high in both tannin and acidity, which is why it needs years of aging before it is ready to drink. It can be high in alcohol, up to 14.5% in a warm vintage. Barolo loses color rapidly as it ages, going from garnet to pale brick in color over time.

Barolo’s most distinctive aromas appear only after it has been aged for a number of years. These include:

  • Red and black cherry
  • Plum
  • Roses
  • Tobacco
  • Leather
  • Tar
  • Licorice
  • Leather
  • White truffle

How to Pair and Serve Barolo Wine

Pair bold Barolo wines with equally flavorful food. Avoid fish or mild poultry dishes, which will be overpowered by the wine’s tannins. Classic Piedmontese specialties like truffles, wild game, and aged cheeses will pair especially well with the wine of the region.

Try Barolo with:

Barolo can age for decades. The only mistake is drinking it too young, so wait at least five years past the vintage date. When serving Barolo, make sure to decant it and serve in large wine glasses. The aeration will soften the wine’s tannins.

Learn more about wine appreciation in James Suckling’s MasterClass.