Will the Real Barolo Please Step Forward?

Food & Wine, in its Wine Matters column, has tackled the somewhat obscure and absolutely fascinating struggle over Barolo, a variety of wine that many feel is Italy’s finest.

The article dives into the essential heart of the struggle. Traditionalists make a wine that is bottled at an almost (or actually) undrinkable level of acid and tannins, which then mellow out after years of barrel and bottle aging. New-guard Barolo makers, by contrast, have begun utilizing techniques such as shorter grape macerations and rotary fermenters, both of which contribute to a softer wine.

The problem with the modernists’ approach, according to their traditionalist opponents?

The result was a wine that was fruitier and easier to enjoy in its youth (sometimes even upon release), but one that Traditionalists argued lacked much of what made Barolo distinctive: its classic structure, powerful tannins and distinctive aromas. The modern wines were more like a lot of others and smelled mostly like French oak. They were also more pleasurable and less ‘intellectual’—the one word that Barolo Traditionalists invoke a lot.

Thus we get to the meat of so many compelling arguments over food and drink: Go too far toward the insipid end of the spectrum, and you have Wonder Bread, offensively inoffensive and difficult to eat because of its artificial approachability. Go too far toward the challenging end of the spectrum, and the few people who eat or drink what you’re offering basically do so in order to make their friends seem uncultured.

Between the two poles is a vast, undulating land of trade-offs between smooth flavors and exciting edges, stiff tannic attacks and gentle mellowness.

The Food & Wine story turns out to be an epic wallowing in this middle territory, in search of Barolo’s innate “greatness,” or lack thereof. Like most big trips, the fun is in the travel—it’s a tale well worth the read.

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