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In this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers explores Barolo and Barbaresco. He begins the episode by warning fans that these styles encompass some of his favorite wines in the galaxy, but after listening to his explanation of the work that goes into these wines, Barolo and Barbaresco essentially speak for themselves.
Both styles are made from the Nebbiolo grape in Italy, though different areas produce wildly different wines based on factors like soil type, aging requirements, and winemaker style. Beavers explains that the focused Barolos available today took years to perfect, with experimentation beginning in the mid-19th century. Wine regions evolved through the sudden convergence of wealth, power, and winemaker knowledge and eventually gave way to intense, structured wines.
Back then, Nebbiolo was often grown only to be included in Barolo blends. It was not until 1894, when a co-op then named Cantina Cooperativa di Barbaresco began producing Barbaresco to be consumed on its own, that Barbaresco really made a name for itself. Today, consumers can still find affordable wines from this co-op, though Beavers warns that Barolo and Barbaresco can also be some of the most expensive wines on the market. That said, he insists they are well worth the price and can “probably change your life.”
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My name is Keith Beavers, and Disney just announced 10 new “Star Wars” projects and a new era of “Star Wars” showing up in novel form on Jan. 5, which is my birthday. I’m so excited, oh my God!
What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to Episode 30 of VinePair’s “Wine 101 Podcast.” My name is Keith Beavers. I am the tastings director of VinePair, and what is going on? I can’t express how excited I am to talk about what we’re about to talk about. Have you ever heard of Barolo? You’ve heard of Barbaresco. It’s red, it’s expensive, it’s from Italy. Let’s drill down on this, ‘cause you’re going to love stuff.
OK, wine lovers. This is a full-disclosure here before we get started. The wines we’re about to talk about today are my favorite wines in the galaxy. I would fight VinePair CEO of Adam Teeter for these wines. Maybe we have fought over these wines before. They are my favorite. So I’m going to be very excited. I love this stuff. I owned an Italian restaurant for 10 years, and Italian wine is some of my favorite wine in the world.
Let’s just get into this. In the northwestern part of Italy, there is a region called Piedmont. In Italian, it’s Piemonte, which means the foot of the mountain or the feet of the mountain because of its proximity to the Alps. In the southern part of Piedmont or Piemonte, there is a grouping of hills, just absolutely visually stunning hills.
And this is called the Langhe. In the old dialect of this region, the word langhe means low-lying hill. So this grouping of hills is the plural of that called the Langhe. Sometimes in English, we call it the Langhe hills, which is a little bit redundant, but whatever. It’s hard to describe how beautiful this place is when you’re looking at this, just Google it. It’s absolutely amazing. It’s actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s just stunning.
And in these hills is a very famous town called Alba. It’s a center town where people would gather from around the area. About nine miles southwest to the town of Alba is another town called Barolo, and the vineyards surrounding the town of Barolo and other townships consist of one grape, a red wine grape called Nebbiolo.
It is one of the most revered varieties in this region. It’s one of the most revered varieties in Italy, and the wine that is made from the Nebbiolo grape in this area is named after that town Barolo. About 15 miles northeast of Alba is a town called Barbaresco, and in the vineyards surrounding Barbaresco and a couple of townships is one grape. And that grape is also Nebbiolo. And the wine made here from the Nebbiolo grape is named after the town Barbaresco. The wines made from the Nebbiolo grape in these two towns are some of the most age-worthy wines in the world, some of the most expressive wines in the world, some of the most dramatic red wines in the world. But it wasn’t always that way.
We have to go back to Barolo, and we have to go back to about the mid-19th century before the unification of Italy. What’s interesting about this area is in Europe and especially Italy, there’s so much ancient winemaking going on. And then these regions evolve through this particular tradition. This area wasn’t like that. Wine in Barolo and the surrounding area before the 19th century was just sweet fizzy red wine. It was a bit unbalanced. But in the mid-19th century, there was a convergence of wealth, power, and wine knowledge that came together to create what we know today. It’s pretty awesome.
Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour, lived in Barolo on his Grinzane estate. He was a statesman. This area of Italy is very Francophile, and his mother was French. His father was Italian. Actually, his godmother was the sister of Napoleon. So this guy had money. He had power. He actually eventually became part of the movement towards Italian unification. He had a newspaper called Il Risorgimento. He would eventually become the prime minister of Italy and Sardinia — that’s a whole story — and then just the prime minister of Italy. So this guy had some power. He was also very well traveled, and he would go to France a lot and just learn about how they made wine there. And he would come back to his estate, which obviously had vineyards on it ’cause he’s Italian, and he saw an opportunity to change the way wine was made in his region.
He had a man under his employ, a retired general by the name of Paolo Francesco Staglieno. And this guy was a studied enologist as well. And in the research, this is where things get a little bit fuzzy, but what it feels is that Benso and Staglieno used knowledge they gained in France to reform and change the way wine was made in Barolo.
It was a lot of stuff. They changed the way wine was fermented. They changed the way the wine was aged. They changed the way the wine was grown. Where at one time it was all just field blends like it was back in the day in Bordeaux, they decided to do monoculture vineyards, meaning just one variety per vineyard.
And with these techniques, they basically changed the way wine was made in Barolo. And this is really the moment where we start seeing the Barolo that we know today. So the thing is, I believe the quality of wine was improving in this area. And just north of the town of Barolo is a town called La Morra — a commune I should say.
And in that commune, there was a big estate from Giulietta Filetti. She was the marquee of Barolo. She gets wind of this quality wine, and she starts doing the same thing they’re doing on her estate in La Morra, which is a town about a little bit north of Barolo. So now it’s starting to spread.
And then, King Carlos Alberto of Sardinia has a resort in this area. He gets wind of it. He starts making wine in his estate, and then another count, Count Emmanuel Fiore, develops vineyards around his hunting lodge in that area called Fontana Alfredo, which is actually still there today.
And with this new style of wine gaining in popularity, down in the Goria — which is the region just south of Piedmont and Genoa, which is now Genova — there is a wine merchant by the name of Louis Oudart. Now, usually often he’s thought to be the guy that actually went and did all the consulting with everybody. But recently it’s shown that he actually didn’t. He had a house, he was a merchant, and he had a maison in Genoa because Genoa had a really thriving French community. And he would spend a lot of time in Barolo and Barbaresco and bring wine back and bottle it and sell it through his house, through his maison.
And I think that’s where everything started becoming popular outside of this area. So all this stuff was happening at once. And then at some point, Barolo becomes known as the Wine of Kings and the King of Wines. And all of this development of land and winemaking practices is what we have today in the Barolo region.
Barolo is such a fascinating wine. It’s elegant. It’s powerful. It’s tannic. It’s expressive aromatically, but it has just bracing acidity that will not allow the wine to overwhelm your palate. It’s incredible. And what’s really wild about Barolo and wines made from Nebbiolo, in general, is the alcohol is often 14 or 14.5, and that’s high.
And you would think when you had a wine like that in your nose, you would smell and feel the alcohol. But no, you don’t. Barolos are so balanced that you don’t even know what kind of alcohol is in it. You only know that it’s 14.5 percent because you look at the label. It’s just the most fascinating stuff.
And these wines can age for so long, and they actually have to age in barrel and in bottle for a long time before it actually gets to the market. It has to age 38 months, and at least 18 of those months need to be in the oak. And for the riserva, it’s 62 months, with at least 18 months in the oak.
And the color of this wine is just such a joy to look at. It’s almost like the color of a Pinot Noir, but it’s more ruby because it has this wild brickish, rusty tinge to it. Wines that usually have that are wines that have aged for a while, but this wine has it in its youth. And speaking of youth, it’s all cherries and plums, but as it starts to age, you get dried cherries and rose petals and tar and tobacco and licorice.
But all of that is very, very, very balanced. And it depends on where in Barolo the wine is made that gives you all the different variations of what I just spoke of, because Barolo is made up of five townships. You have the town and surrounding area of Barolo. Then you have just north of that the commune of La Morra, where Giulietta was doing her thing with her estate. East of Barolo, you have a commune called Castiglione Falletto. South of that commune is Serralunga d’Alba. And south of that commune is a commune called Monforte d’Alba. And the reason I mentioned these five townships is because the soil compositions are unique so that the expression of the Barolo is different depending on what township the wine comes from.
You’re not always going to see that in big letters on the label. You’re going to see Barolo, and it’s going to say who made it, and somewhere on the label, it’s going to say one of those townships. Or if the wine comes from a single vineyard, the name of that single vineyard will also be on the label.
And it’s a little bit weird because these townships aren’t front and center on the labels, but they’re important. Because wines coming from Barolo and La Morra, which is Barolo, then just north of that is La Morra. This area is a more fertile soil. And even though Barolo is always going to be powerful from these two townships, you’re going to get a little bit more aromatics. It’s gonna be juicier and fruitier. The wines are gonna feel a little more broad in the palate, and they actually age a little bit faster. So it’s one of those wines you can drink earlier than you would from other areas in Barolo. Going east from Barolo, you go down into a valley then back up into some hills.
And those hills are much less fertile than the soils over in La Morra and Barolo, and you have the Serralunga d’Alba, and then south of that you have Monforte d’Alba. The Barolos that come out of these two townships are very big, they’re structured, they take longer to age, and they’re not approachable as soon as you would want. They have little more oomph to them. They’re a little more intense, I guess.
And then the last township, Castiglione Falletto, is this very unique place, because it’s at a higher elevation. It’s on the spur of these hills. And because of the less fertile soil, it’s still very intense, but because of the sun exposure, it creates more fruity flavors.
So it’s the best of both worlds. You get a little bit of the Serralunga d’Alba, Monforte d’Alba, a little bit of La Morra Barolo in the Castiglione Falletto. I’m hoping you guys aren’t confused. This is a lot, but it’s pretty awesome stuff.
So to sum up, Barolo is made up of five townships. Each township has very unique soils. In two townships, you get fruitier Barolos. In three townships, you get more intense Barolos, and then one of those townships has more fruit than the other townships. The thing is, you’re just going to drink Barolo, and when you buy a Barolo, take a look at where it’s from, and then use that stuff.
Maybe don’t think, OK, I’m going to go get a Monforte d’Alba because of the pizza. Just go and buy Barolo and drink it, and then look on the label, see where it’s from and go, “Oh.” Take a note in your head, write a note on a piece of paper, go buy another Barolo from a different township, take notes on that. That’s just that’s really how to do it.
So like I said, Barolos are always powerful. Wines made from Nebbiolo are always powerful. It’s the nuances that change and define wines made from this grape. And earlier, we were talking about a town 15 miles northeast of Alba called Barbaresco.
And the reason why I didn’t talk about that in the beginning is because in Barolo, there’s the history in Barolo. For a long time, the wine and grapes in Barbaresco were used to blend with Barolo. This was back in the day, and it wasn’t until 1894 that the word Barbaresco started showing up on wine labels.
And that’s because a guy named Domizio Cavazza, who was an enological professor at the school of Alba, he founded a big co-op in Barbaresco. It’s called Cantina Cooperativa di Barbaresco. It was a different name then, that’s the name of it now, but it’s still around. It is a really good source of very awesome affordable Barbaresco on the American market. It’s easy to find, it’s awesome stuff.
And from 1894 into the 1960s, that was the thing that was going on. And then it wasn’t until the 1960s that we had winemakers who started doing the things like Barolo did back in the day in Barbaresco to focus this place. Giovanni Gaja, Bruno Giacosa, and Alberto di Gresy: These three winemakers, with their individual companies, redefined what Barbaresco was into what it is today. And you can find these wines on the market. They’re all over the place, they’re very expensive these days, but they’re absolutely stunning wines, and they started basically everything.
And Barbaresco is a small place. It’s a third of the size of Barolo. They have townships as well. But there’s not as many. There’s only four. There’s Barbaresco, there’s Treiso, there’s a commune called Neive, and then a little slice of Alba.
But the thing is, the wines made from Nebbiolo here, ‘cause they’re all made from Nebbiolo, they’re different. Because there’s a unique type of soil here that is a fossil-based soil, but they’re also very close to the Tanaro River. That actually helps moderate temperatures and how these vines mature through the growing season.
And the result of those conditions is a powerful wine. Nebbiolo is always powerful, but here, there’s a little more leanness to it. Just a little more elegance. There’s such a “lift” on the palate of Barbaresco, and it still has the intensity of tannin — actually more so because of that soil — and it still has that vibrant acidity and it still has that dramatic fruit.
But the expression is just a little bit different. You can actually sense all three of them on the palate where Barolo, it all comes together in a blend, which is beautiful. But there’s something separate about Barbaresco. There’s the tannin, there’s the acidity, and there is that beautiful perfumed fruit.
It’s a little bit more perfumed than you get from Barolo.You get violets, you get bright cherries, and when it ages, that tar is still there, that tobacco, but you get this undeniable note of orange peel, and it’s just very refreshing, very beautiful.
And you can tell in the aging requirements, Barbaresco is released earlier. It’s only 26 months required to age with nine months in oak, as opposed to the 38 and 18 month for Barolo. And for riserva, it’s 50 months instead of the 62 months for Barolo. So you get a sense of it’s a little lighter, more elegant wine.
None of these wines are better than the other wines. They’re all phenomenal, amazing wines. It’s just that these two towns, and the wines made in these two towns, are these beautiful, intense, structured, phenomenal wines that age for a very long time. And all you have to do is explore them. And every township has a uniqueness to it, but every township is awesome.
So I hope you guys are getting a little bit of a sense of the wines from these two regions, I am head over heels for these wines — they’re the best in the galaxy as far as I’m concerned. So I’m waxing on and off here and getting very passionate about it. I’m hoping I’m not too crazy, but I just want to convey to you the wondrousness of these wines.
And these wines can be expensive. They start around $30, $40 at the way-low end, but $50, $60, $70, that’s how much these wines are going to be. But there’s a reason for that. Barolo is one of the most intelligent, focused wine regions in Italy, if not the world. And it is just a very confident place with very good, focused wine, and the yields are very focused as well.
So you’re paying for something that is going to probably change your life. Well, it changed mine.
If you’re digging what I’m doing, picking up what I’m putting down, go ahead and give me a rating on iTunes or tell your friends to subscribe. You can subscribe. If you like to type, go ahead and send a review or something like that, but let’s get this wine podcast out so that everybody can learn about wine.
Check me out on Instagram. It’s @vinepairkeith. I do all my stuff in stories. And also, you got to follow VinePair on Instagram, which is @vinepair. And don’t forget to listen to the VinePair Podcast, which is hosted by Adam and Zach. It’s a great deep dive into drinks culture every week.
Now, for some credits. How about that? Wine 101 is recorded and produced by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin. I also want to thank Danielle Grinberg for making the most legit Wine 101 logo. And I got to thank Darby Cicci for making this amazing song: Listen to this epic stuff. And finally, I want to thank the VinePair staff for helping me learn more every day. Thanks for listening. I’ll see you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.