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 from Italy, and very few people knew about the grape Nebbiolo. But after the 1970’s things suddenly changed.
Before the 1970’s, winemakers in Barolo couldn’t even make a living out of making wine, they had to also keep chickens or cows in order to survive, and their children would hunt birds in the forests to eat meat. As Silvia Etare, daughter of Elio Atare, one of the Barolo Boys states, “Being a farmer back then meant your life was arduous, many were embarrassed to have the title of a 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 dad. Back then, the grapes were macerated for an extended time to add tannins and color to the wine, rendering the wine almost undrinkable when released.
This is where the ‘Barolo Boys’ enter the picture. Young people—known as Barolo Boys—destined to inherit their parents’ lifework, began to travel to France, particularly to Burgundy, where they learned shorter maceration, yield control in the vineyards, and ageing the wine in new French barriques, they could create a final product that was more drinkable upon release. The result of this discovery was a major conflict between the traditionalists and the modernists. One of the main points of disagreement was the question about botti vs. barrique.
The traditionalists were proud of the old botti’s that were used by previous generations, and they insisted on continuing to use them. Some modernists were destroying their family’s old casks to make room for new ones. As a result, some families were split apart by this ideological divide. One such modernist was Elio Atare, 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 resolve itself? The answer lies in the bottle. There are still producers insisting on making traditional Barolo, as well as producers making a more modern style of Barolo. In July 1980, when a presidential decree approved Borlo as one of the original four DOCG’s in Italy, the conflict started to change its hold. International wine magazines started showing their love for this new style and huge amounts of money were invested in the region.
The quality of the wine quickly improved as winemakers began to cooperate. Before the 1970’s, the producers saw each other as competitors and not as colleagues. But this experience of sharing their experiences and giving feedback on each other’s wines helped them to improve the quality in general.
Generally, the wines of Barolo have changed drastically since the 1970’s. The quality, complexity, and intensity of the wines are much higher and are improved with every vintage. These improvements are caused by technology as well as experience and a stronger focus on the vines. Now you don’t need to wait 30-50 years to drink your Barolo, but you can actually 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 has much more balance.
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!