Extract: The wines of Piemonte, by David Way

19 September 2023 by in Classic Wine Library, Extracts, Wine and spirits

In this extract from his new book, published on 4 September, David Way looks at how winemaking and wine regulations have changed in Barolo and Barbaresco in the last 40 years, and explains the effects this has had on wine quality, the popularity of these wines and the prices paid for them.

Approaches to Nebbiolo winemaking in Barolo and Barbaresco

When it comes to approaches to winemaking in Barolo and Barbaresco, the late 1970s saw the beginnings of what was to become a heady mix of challenging traditional practices, importing new ideas and the launching of a hugely successful if informal marketing initiative. Traditional Barolo was said to be made with uncontrolled fermentation temperatures and with very long maceration on the skins (several months) extracting all Nebbiolo’s abundant tannins. In turn, these wines had to be aged for years or even a decade in large traditional oak botti to make the wines drinkable. The result, it was said, was pale, often oxidized wines with high volatile acidity, little fruit and drying tannins. Producers and locals drank Dolcetto and Barbera while they waited for their Nebbiolo to become drinkable.

A younger generation, led by Elio Altare and Enrico Scavino in Barolo and Angelo Gaja in Barbaresco sought to make deeper coloured, fruitier wines with lower tannin levels, typically aged in French oak barriques which they had seen on visits to Burgundy. The wines could be ready to drink shortly after release. The way to get the full extraction of colour with moderate tannins was the rotofermenter, which produced a fast extraction by moving the wine within the tank. This genuinely modern device, it was said, could provide a better extraction of Nebbiolo in three to five days than the traditional long maceration. Scrupulous attention to hygiene in the winery created clean, fruit-expressive wines. The young wines were then aged in French oak barriques, which fixed the colour and added layers of vanilla spice to the aromas. However, the criticism of these wines was that the oak aromas overwhelmed the delicate perfume of the Nebbiolo variety, one of its most important characteristics. The wines were said to taste like any other modern high quality red wine and they lost their connection with the Langhe. By the turn of the century, the wine critics felt that they did not improve in the bottle as traditional Nebbiolo does.

Needless to say, the reality was more complicated than this. Slavonian oak botti can be excellent for the slow development of wine but dirty, leaky, badly-maintained botti only detracted from quality. The younger generation not only brought new techniques into the winery, they were also prepared to withstand the wrath of the older generation by lowering yields and carrying out green harvest so that the remaining fruit would ripen fully. Many winemakers today still tell stories about how this was deemed to be rejecting the generosity of nature or even its creator. The work of green harvest had to be done on a Sunday and the discarded bunches hidden to avoid scandal. Equally, the young generation were prepared to experiment with temperature control, the timely racking of young wine and trialling ageing in barriques to encourage the micro-oxygenation that fixed colour and made the wines ready to drink young.

As well as the changes in the vineyard and winery, Nebbiolo wines began to be promoted in foreign markets. Angelo Gaja was famous for his willingness to drive to Germany or fly to the USA to promote his wines to small and large groups. The Barolo Boys, the term for the 12 young producers (including Chiara Boschis, the one Barolo girl), worked with Marco de Grazia and went in person to the USA to promote the wines. Nebbiolo was no longer only revered in its home territory. Robert Parker also sparked considerable interest with the high scores he gave to Nebbiolo wines in the 1990s. All these factors helped to create the USA market which ever since has been the major destination for Barolo and Barbaresco.

Today, the so-called Barolo wars have long since been consigned to history; the traditionalist versus modernist dichotomy has largely been rendered meaningless. Nobody today regards hygiene in the winery as optional. Realistic lower yields are enshrined in the DOCG regulations. Temperature control is almost ubiquitous. The warming of the climate means that fruit is nearly always ripe, though tannin quality, fruit concentration and overall balance continues to vary. While vintage variation is still important, it is so within a much smaller range of good to outstanding. The cool and damp 2014 in Barolo resulted in wines that initially were criticized. A decade later they are drinking well. And, mercifully, wine critics and drinkers have come to understand that Nebbiolo wines are naturally pale and quickly tend to garnet in colour; the obsession of the 1990s with deeply coloured wines has passed.

Further, it is not the technology that defines the style, it is how it is used. In high volume winemaking around the world, rotofermenters are used for the rapid processing of inexpensive wines. They save time, labour and cost. However, for making high quality Nebbiolo wines, it is perfectly possible to use them to extract gently by reducing the speed of rotation that encourages the release of colour and tannin molecules. Nobody would regard Chiara Boschis’s wines, made in rotofermenters, as being clumsy or over-extracted.

Similarly, the use of oak containers has become much more nuanced. The general trend in this century has been a revival of large format botti, 10–30 hectolitres, but made from very high-quality oak, including Slavonian, French or Austrian wood. The producers who do use French oak barriques for their wines mostly do so for perhaps a year and then continue the ageing in a botte. There are very, very few producers using 100 per cent new French oak barriques for the entirety of the ageing period. It is more typical for 20–30 per cent to be new. As a result, the new oak flavours do not overwhelm the delicate Nebbiolo aromas. In short, top producers today are more likely to want to show off their Stockinger botti than their French oak barriques.

For decades now wine writers have criticized the use of the terms ‘traditionalist’ and ‘modernist’ to describe the winemaking approaches adopted by those making great Nebbiolo wines in the Langhe. Michael Garner and Paul Merritt did so as early as 1990. They called the practice self-deluding as no two winemakers do the same things. However, like everyone else, they continued to use the terms, because they have a certain limited value. Mauro Mascarello’s wines are clearly traditional in style, with their wonderful combination of outstanding fruit expression and the effects of a long, mildly oxidative ageing process in old botti. Rocche dei Manzoni wines just as evidently show the aromas of new oak. But the vast majority of wines sit on a spectrum somewhere in between these two. Today, it is better to ask how long maceration times are (and how the cap is worked) and how the wine is aged (the type of wood, how much is new, for how long).

Multi-vineyard classico blends, MGA, vigna

The biggest development in Barolo and Barbaresco in the last forty years is the importance of what are now known as MGA wines, wines from grapes grown in a defined subzone, explained further below. This contrasted with the older tradition of making a single Barolo from several different vineyards or subzones. Wines made by blending across several sites was standard practice, whether the wine was made by a merchant (buying grapes or wines from many growers, overwhelmingly the most common practice until after the Second World War) or by family wineries. Of course, this practice was driven mainly by pragmatic concerns: the small size of vineyard plots and the small volumes produced by most family wineries. It was much more practical to blend and age a single wine than to keep the wines of distinct vineyards separately. Further, Barolo did not reach the super premium prices of today nor, believe it or not, was there demand for it. In the late 1980s, Michael Garner and Paul Merritt continually lamented that there was just too much Barolo! As a result of all these factors, there was no financial incentive to have more than one Barolo in your cellar. With the boom in MGA wines, these Barolo blends are commonly called Barolo classico, a helpful if slightly unusual use of the term. Elsewhere in Italian wine regions, classico refers to the geographical area at the heart of a historic wine region, which does not apply here.

The trend for ‘zoning’ projects came about through several influences. Undoubtedly, the model of Burgundy with its famous villages and single vineyards and its conviction about terroir-expressive wines was hugely influential. This was particularly the case in the Langhe, where growers had long been aware that a few metres of difference in the vineyard could bring about a noticeable difference to the wine in the glass. And Burgundy seemed much like home with the tiny parcels of land that growers owned. Further, in the past, the merchants ruled the roost, buying grapes and wines from growers and blending and selling the wine. But this left the growers feeling that the quality of their wine was unrecognized and that they did not get a proper reward for their work. The alternative was to bottle your own wine and do the hard work of promoting and selling it. Once a market for Barolo and Barbaresco was established from the 1970s, the situation changed completely. The quality of the wines was recognized and it became a case of how to develop that market. Rather than just having one quality Nebbiolo to offer, a producer could offer a classico and several MGA wines, the latter often at a higher price.

Some vineyards in Barolo and Barbaresco have demonstrated over decades and even centuries that the grapes from them produces wines of the highest quality. This was famously encapsulated in Renato Ratti’s map of historic vineyards of 1971. He was inspired by his visits to France and its tradition of crus and of classifying wines. Ratti, with his wine­maker, Massimo Martinelli, researched and selected what he considered to be the historic vineyards of the denomination. Later, in 1985, he also classified them to the extent that 10 were deemed to be the best (1° Categoria), 17 to be subzones with particular characteristics and 16 to be simply historic. At much the same time, in the late 1960s, Beppe Colla at Prunotto, Angelo Gaja, Bruno Giacosa and Elvio Cogno (then at Cogno-Marcarini) bottled their first single-vineyard wines. This has now turned into a major trend. After a wild west period when producers could label their single-vineyard bottles as they liked (and even invent names for the vineyards), the region put in place a process to agree official subzones and rules about their names. This produced the MGA plus vigna system we have today, with all its strengths and weaknesses. Barbaresco, smaller and less litigious, finalized its list of 66 MGAs in 2007 and Barolo followed in 2010 with its 181. Legal challenges to the ruling on the extension of Cannubi in Barolo DOCG went on until 2016, when the original 2010 rules were finally upheld. Roero DOCG joined in, defining its 135 subzones in 2017.

To complicate matters further, in Barolo DOCG each comune was given the freedom to decide on the size and number of its MGAs. Entirely predictably, they took different approaches. Castiglione Falletto and Serralunga d’Alba chose the route of smaller sites which can encapsulate genuine differences in aspect, elevation and soil type. By contrast, Monforte d’Alba has been widely criticized for the size of its MGAs. It managed to create the largest and second largest in Bricco San Pietro (380 hectares) and Bussia (300 hectares). With regard to Bussia, it included areas that would have been logical MGAs in their own right with historic reputations for quality, Bussia Soprano, Mondoca or Pianpolvere, to give just some examples. One of the criticisms of the creation of the MGAs is precisely that it led to the removing of historic names when they were subsumed within a larger unit. Similarly, the expansion of Cannubi was hotly contested in the court. The final judgement to allow any MGA which includes ‘Cannubi’ (Cannubi Muscatel, Cannubi Valletta, etc.) to be labelled simply Cannubi really does not help the wine buyer, nor does it reflect the continuing quality of the historic central part of Cannubi.

The other oddity is that Barolo and Roero decided to have MGAs for each comune, in addition to named subzones, while Barbaresco did not. In this case, Barolo made the better decision as a wine from the comune of Serralunga d’Alba is likely to taste different from one made from the comune of La Morra. And given the sheer number and obscurity of many subzone MGAs, in many cases it would help the consumer if producers used the comune name instead of the individual MGA. Unfortunately, producers are not allowed to put both comune name and the MGA name on the label as only one MGA name is allowed on any label. But, unless you have memorized all 170 subzone names in Barolo, it would help locate a wine if producers could write, for example, ‘Prapò, Serralunga d’Alba’ on the label.

In addition, registered vineyard names (Vigna X) can be added on the label as long as the MGA name is also used. This is helpful if long winded if the producer uses the full name. But (and there always seems to be a ‘but’), it is also legal to use a trademarked name, a nome di fantasia as they are often referred to in Italian. Kerin O’Keefe points out that Gaja was particularly active here, creating made-up names for what are in reality single-vineyard wines, trademarking them and thereby excluding others from using the name. Others, for example, Aldo Conterno, trademarked the names of famous vineyards whose names had disappeared within a larger MGA and continued to use them.

To what extent have these zoning exercises helped the final buyer of the wine? For the casual buyer of wine, not at all, except perhaps helping to spur the producers on to produce wines that reflect their terroir. For the lover of the great Nebbiolo wines of the Langhe and Roero, the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. The latter amount to the sheer number of MGAs/UGAs, adding to the complexity of the region, plus the missteps in the implementation of the system as detailed above. But the gains have been real. The MGAs in Barolo and Barbaresco really do highlight the importance of terroir in these denominations. The nature of the soils and subsoils, elevation, aspect, wind direction and more make a difference to the wine in the glass. Most MGAs encapsulate these differences. Further, it has really helped subzones that were not famous in the past, such as Ravera or Monvigliero, to get the recognition they deserve. Neither of these important sites were mentioned on Ratti’s map of 1971. Rabajà and Asili in Barbaresco have similarly benefited and contributed to the general recognition of the quality of the wines of the Langhe. Finally, it has allowed lovers of these wines to compare and contrast different MGA/UGA wines. It is inconceivable now that we would only enjoy generic Burgundy wines, not the villages and crus, and the same is the case with the Nebbiolo wines of the Langhe and Roero.

Extract from The wines of Piemonte © David Way (Infinite Ideas, 2023). To read more, buy your copy direct from the Classic Wine Library shop.