The town of La Morra crowns a hill of Barolo vineyards in Piedmont, Italy. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

Study Guide to Barbaresco and Barolo

Everything You Need for Our Upcoming Virtual Tasting

10 min read

On Saturday, February 19, 2022, subscribers to Opening a Bottle will have access to our Virtual Tasting Seminar on Barbaresco and Barolo. If you are logged in, this is where you can access the event: the Zoom credentials are copied below.

 

There is little dispute that these wines, particularly those from Barolo, are the most esteemed in all of Italy. Among collectors, only Burgundy and Bordeaux have more cache as far as European regions go. But it wasn’t that long ago that this corner of Piedmont was beset with startling poverty and a real “brain drain” as agricultural workers left for better opportunity in nearby cities.

In this virtual tasting seminar, we will cover the history of this vaunted place, touch upon the basics of Barbaresco and Barolo, then go a little deeper. I do not mind saying that I have more passion for this corner of the wine world than any other. It resonates with me, to the point that I’d gladly forgo learning about other wine regions just so I can get to know these two deeper.

Below you will find everything you need as a paying subscriber to access the event: a description of the class, how to understand Barbaresco and Barolo at a basic level so you can purchase the two (or four) wines you need for this event, producers that I think are worth the extra effort to seek out, and lastly — and perhaps most importantly — some simple serving tips so that your Barbaresco and Barolo wines open up and say something to you during the tasting.

Help us get a headcount: RSVP for this class.

Now, on to the Zoom credentials to access the event!

Navigate This Study Guide

 


Zoom Credentials

To join the virtual tasting, use the following log-in credentials to Zoom. We will begin at 8:00pm EST/5:00pm PST (U.S.) sharp on February 19, 2022. I am looking forward to it.

Topic: Barbaresco and Barolo
Time: Feb 19, 2022 08:00 PM Eastern Time (US and Canada)

Join Zoom Meeting

Meeting ID: 858 3116 4597
Passcode: Barolo!

 


Barbaresco and Barolo: A Deeper Look

Many people have claimed that Barbaresco and Barolo are the two greatest wines in Italy. From the sturdiness they show in aging to the wonderful and unique complexity they offer, these red wines make a compelling case that the assertion is correct. Made entirely from the Nebbiolo grape within two small districts in the Langhe Hills near Alba, Barbaresco and Barolo often reveal the main thing wine obsessives pursue: terroir.

It is one thing for me to say this and quite another thing for you to encounter it. And believe me: I want you to encounter it! This virtual tasting seminar’s syllabus will cover the following:

  • A brief history of Barbaresco and Barolo
  • The production code and why the wines are made the way they are
  • Barbaresco vs. Barolo
  • Classico vs. Cru
  • Profiles of the villages
  • Noteworthy cru vineyards to seek out
  • Aging and consuming these wines
  • Things to consider if you visit
  • Three open forums for tasting and discussion

For all their charms, Barbaresco and Barolo can be stern, unrelenting wines in their youth. That’s why, for this Study Guide, please read the section below called Serving Tips, which will offer some ideas on how to get more oxygen into the wines before tasting them. What follows is guidance on which wines to buy for this tasting

 


Shopping for Barbaresco and Barolo

Attendees seeking to get the most from this seminar are advised to purchase two to four wines independently. At a minimum you will want a Barbaresco and a Barolo wine as a comparison. These two wine regions sit side-by-side, but they have real differences. Barbaresco is lower in altitude, close to the Tanaro River and releases its wines a full year before Barolo after they’ve spent a minimum of 9 months in wood barrels or casks. Barolo is hilly, has more complex soil, and demands 36 months of aging with 18 of those in wood.

My hope is that by tasting these side-by-side, you’ll get a feel for their differences … their strengths and character. However, it is preferable to ensure they are from the same vintage (e.g. year). That may be difficult given that Barbaresco is released one year before Barolo, but because these two wines are highly vintage-sensitive, it is possible that differences in the glass are more attributable to different weather conditions — such 2017’s heat vs. 2018’s cool, damper conditions — than territorial differences.

Here’s what you ought to know when buying Barbaresco or Barolo.

Vintage

As noted, the year’s weather conditions are vitally important to the style of Barbaresco and Barolo. Speaking in general terms, hotter weather yields a higher alcohol, more powerful style of wine (e.g. 2017), while cooler years lend more elegance and delicacy (e.g. 2018). I prefer the latter style, not just in Barbaresco and Barolo, but worldwide. That’s a personal preference, although hot vintages are presenting real dangers to the identity of places like Barbaresco and Barolo. Post-budbreak frost and hail events are also big problems as they reduce the amount of yield from the vineyards, resulting in less wine and higher prices.

The current release of Barbaresco is the 2018 vintage (2017 for Riserva), while in Barolo it is the 2017 (2016 for Riserva). You may see a few earlier vintages still on the shelves. I will likely be comparing the 2017 Produttori del Barbaresco to the 2017 Pio Cesare “Barolo Pio” Barolo.

I’ll provide some guidance on decoding recent vintages during our class. You are welcome to ask your wine merchant what they think. If you can’t find the same vintage for both wines, don’t worry too much. The important thing is to find a great producer at a price you are comfortable with. There is an old adage in the wine industry that certainly holds up in Barbaresco and Barolo: “there is no such thing as a ‘bad vintage’ just ‘bad winemaking.'” In other words, the most talented winemakers consistently produce great wine. That doesn’t mean they make wines non-indicative of vintage, but rather they can handle the conditions and coax what they need to out of the vineyard.

Here, in Piedmont, you have one of the most talented collections of winemakers on the planet. You’ll do fine, but if you choose to collect these wines and spend ample amounts of money on them in the future, you owe it to yourself to understand recent vintages. (Again: we’ll cover this in greater detail).

Cost

Expect to pay between $30-$75 for a bottle of Barbaresco. For Barolo, that price range is generally $50–$85, though you can sometimes score a bottle for less. There are numerous examples in both appellations that exceed those cost ranges, usually because they are single-vineyard wines in small supply, or they’re from a “cult winemaker” whose devotees clamor for their blend of various vineyards (as is the case with Bartolo Mascarello), or sometimes it is a bit of both.

Producers

As noted, there is a plethora of talent in Barolo and Barbaresco. I have very rarely encountered average wines. That said, these producers rise to the top.

  • Bartolo Mascarello – The cream of the crop, but you’ll pay mightily for these uber-traditional wines.
  • Vietti – Always top-notch winemaking. Their Castiglione Barolo is a superb value. Single-vineyard Barolo wines, however, can reach into the $200 range. Vietti has holdings in a vast array of great vineyards.
  • Oddero – A personal favorite. Traditional winemaking, organic and with great vineyard holdings. Also look for their amazing Barbaresco wine from the Gallina vineyard.
  • G.D. Vajra – Look for “Albe” (pictured at right or below) a blend of plots and widely considered the best value in Barolo. The single-vineyard cru wine from Bricco delle Viole is supremely elegant.
  • Cavallotto – Yet another exquisite traditionalist producer.
  • Brezza – Classic and polished wines from the heart of the zone.
  • Guido Porro – The producer to turn to for a sense of Serralunga d’Alba’s terroir. Potent and powerful, yet very refined.
  • Elio Sandri – Another great choice to showcase Serralunga terroir.
  • Ferdinando Principiano – A small, indy producer and a great value.
  • Fratelli Alessandria – There are only three producers of note in the village of Verduno, which is red-hot right now. G.B. Burlotto is the most famous, but ridiculously expensive. This family estate makes sublime renderings, and manages to fly under the radar.
  • Trediberri – Great wines! The first of two examples of upstarts upsetting the apple cart …
  • Giulia Negri – … the other example. Known as “Barolo Girl,” Giulia is an up-and-coming talent making beautiful wines in La Morra.
  • Roberto Voerzio – A modernist who helped redefine the appellation in the 80s and 90s, but who has shifted back toward the center in terms of approach.
  • Ca’ del Baio – Barbaresco specialists, and beautifully wrought versions from top cru, including an affordable version from Asili, widely seen as Barbaresco’s top vineyard.
  • Produttori del Barbaresco – The legendary co-operative winery of Barbaresco. Their standard bottle is a great buy, but in special years they release single-vineyard riserva bottlings that quickly become collectors items. However, despite their cache, even these wines are reasonably priced.
  • Roagna – The hottest commodity in Barbaresco. Beautiful wines, but expect to pay handsomely for them.
  • Cantina del Pino – Some of the prettiest Nebbiolo wines around come from this Barbaresco estate.
  • Marchesi di Grèsy – Sole owners of the great Martinenga cru vineyard. Producers of a more modern style (e.g. oaky) than most.
  • Giuseppe Cortese – Their wine from the Rabaja vineyard is a benchmark.
  • Cantina Glicine – Small, indy producer with an avid following from cost-conscious connoisseurs.
  • Bruno Rocca – Delicate and on-point wines.

Again, this list only scratches the surface, but I can personally vouch for any wine from this list. The quality levels in Barbaresco and Barolo are so high!

If you buy four wines, the comparison tasting is multidimensional: you could try to get a standard Barbaresco and Barolo and a single-vineyard from each, or you could simply do 2 and 2 and compare producers and compare the villages with a larger sample size. Since I’ll be talking so much, I plan to have only two wines open.

 


Serving Tips

These are colossal wines, and we’ll be drinking them young. Barbaresco tends to reach its optimal drinking window a little sooner than Barolo in part because of its slightly different climate and also its shorter aging regiment in the cellar. Typically, Barbaresco shines from the 5-year to 15-year mark after the vintage, while Barolo hits its stride after 10 years. But such is the quality of these wines that they can provide complexity and intrigue at any stage. And it is not like they fade much after 20 years (as long as they’ve been properly stored!).

So, what should we expect drinking these young? Well, they might have their arms crossed a bit like a pouty teenager, so they’ll need some coaxing at this early stage. We often say the wine is “closed” when it seems wound tight: I detect this less on taste and more on my difficulty in analyzing individual details in the wine. It is a sensation of being overwhelmed by all that’s happening on the nose and the palate. In poor quality wines, this can happen too, but the difference is a lack of balance. Young Nebbiolo-based wines (which Barbaresco and Barolo are) can present “closed” but the overarching balance is there. This is a good sign! It just means you need to be patient and let the wine “breathe.” Oxygen exposure will break apart the components in the wine: it smooths out the edges you feel on the palate, and separates the aromatic compounds so your senses can process them.

Here’s how you can coax your Barbaresco and Barolo wines:

  1. Open them early – On Saturday, February 19, consider opening the wines after lunch so that they’ve had ample oxygen exposure before the tasting.
  2. Decant – Steadily pouring the wine into a larger, open glass vessel such as a decanter or pitcher will accelerate the breathing process. You can do this up to 2 or even 3 hours before the class. I frequently decant Nebbiolo-based wines, but especially young Barolo, and especially young Barolo from Monforte d’Alba and Serralunga d’Alba, the two villages that yield the most powerful wines.
  3. Most Importantly, The Right Glass – For those of you who have joined a virtual tasting with me, you know I start each class with a callout for the right stemware to fully appreciate the wine. I always say “you do what you like; this is a judgment-free zone,” and that will stand on February 19, too. But if ever there was a time to get the glassware right with a wine, it is with Barbaresco and Barolo! These are not thirst-quenching wines, so drinking them from a thick-sided wine glass might actually have the inverse effect of making you dislike these wines. Because they need to breathe, Barbaresco and Barolo requires (yes, requires) a thin-sided wine glass that is preferably bell-shaped (i.e. a Burgundy wine glass). So much of the action is on the nose with these wines, and a Burgundy wine glass does two things: it helps to release them with its spread-out shape and easy-to-swirl-but-not-slosh design, and it helps to contain those aromas under the rim so you can enjoy them. Get thee a Burgundy glass. It will help you enjoy these wines so much more.

We will see you on February 19!

The village of Barbaresco with its iconic tower. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle
G.D. Vajra's Albe Barolo ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle
Swirling a glass of Barbaresco. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle
Sunrise over the vineyards of Barbaresco, Italy. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle
Large oak casks filled with Barolo and Barbaresco — some of them more than 40 years old — line the cellar at Oddero. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle
Harvested grapes on the ground in Barolo
The Cannubi vineyard outside Barolo, Italy. ©Kevin Day/Tanager Photography

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