The Revolution of Barolo From Traditional to Modernist Methods

Today, we think of Barolo as ’The King of Wine”—but it hasn’t always been that way. Fifty years ago, the iconic wine from Northern Italy was considered nothing more than a standard wine, and very few people knew about the grape Nebbiolo.  But after the 1970’s things suddenly began to change.

Did You Know: The grape Nebbiolo, used to make Barolo is known for being lighter bodied similar to Pinot Noir with a hefty dose of tannins.

Before the 1970’s, winemakers in Barolo could barely make a living from selling their wine, they had to also keep livestock or have other forms of income in order to survive. As Silvia Etare, daughter of Elio Altare, one of the Barolo Boys states, “Being a farmer back then meant your life was arduous, many were embarrassed to have the title of winemaker, to the point it was almost challenging to find a wife!” Her father, Elio took his first trip to Burgundy two years after taking over the winery from his father. Back then, Barolo grapes were macerated for an extended time to add tannins and color to the wine, rendering the wine almost undrinkable upon release.

This is where the ‘Barolo Boys’ enter the picture. Young people—known as Barolo Boys—destined to inherit their parents’ wineries, began to travel to France, particularly Burgundy, where they learned to use shorter macerations, yield control in the vineyards, and the benefits of aging the wine in new French oak barrels. Using these methods they were able to create a final product that was ready to be drunk upon release.

These new winemaking methods were a source of major conflict between the winemakers in Barolo. Winemakers were divided into two group; traditionalists, who continued to practice the old methods and modernists, who embraced the new techniques. One of the main points of disagreement was the use of the traditional large old Slovenian oak barrels called botti vs. the use of the modernist’s barriques, newer and smaller French oak barrels.

The traditionalists were proud of the old botti barrels that were used by previous generations and preferred to work with them. The modernists were opposed to them, some even went so far as to destroy their family’s old botti barrels to make room for new barrique barrels. As a result, families were split apart by this ideological divide. One such modernist was Elio Altare, a man who was forced to buy land from his siblings to grow wine after he threw away his father’s old casks.

How did this conflict get resolved? The answer lies in the bottle. There are still producers who make traditional Barolo, as well as producers making a more modern style of Barolo. In July 1980, when a presidential decree approved Barolo as one of the original four DOCG’s in Italy, the conflict started to change. International wine magazines started praising the new style and huge amounts of money were invested in this region.

The quality of the wine began to improve as winemakers began to cooperate. Before the 1970’s, the producers saw each other as competitors instead of colleagues. But they slowly started sharing their experiences and giving feedback on each other’s wines, which helped improve the region’s wine quality.

Overall, Barolo’s wines have changed drastically since the 1970’s. The quality, complexity, and intensity of the wines is much better and is improved with every vintage. These improvements are caused by technology, as well as experience and a stronger focus on the grapevines. You no longer need to wait 30-50 years to drink your Barolo, instead you can drink most of the wines when they are released. Most wines still have the oxidized character you could find in the 1970’s, but now it is more balanced with other flavors in the wine.

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So, what are you waiting for? Get yourself a bottle of Barolo and when you smell and taste the wine, think about whether it is made in the traditional style, modern style or if it is a great mix between the two. Enjoy!

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