Home > Editorial > Understanding Barolo: the label, the styles, the fabric of the region
Mark Pardoe MW, Wine Director
The wines of Barolo come with their own lexicon, which may seem complex at first glance. Wine Director Mark Pardoe MW breaks down some of the key terms you should know.
On the face of it, understanding a Barolo label should be straightforward. The region is small, measuring 9km by 11km. There are just five key traditional communal centres of excellence, even if their names can be a bit of a mouthful: Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba, Monforte d’Alba, La Morra and the eponymous Barolo itself – although the other six named communes, Verduno, Novello and Grinzane Cavour, are growing in importance. There is a beautifully researched cartography of the vineyards, and there is no classification system, as exists in Bordeaux and Burgundy. As far as that goes, things are straightforward. But this is Italy.
Barolo Classico is shorthand for a wine that is blended from more than one of the named communes – this is the traditional way of making a Barolo. Most producers have vineyards in more than one commune and if you are a négociant, you have access to grapes from across the region. The thinking goes that each of the communes has its own distinct personality (structure from Serralunga, body from Monforte, finesse from Castiglione etc.) and so the most authentic expression of Barolo harnesses and blends all those characteristics.
However, you will rarely see the word “Classico” on a label. This is because, after the arrival of the Barolo Commune label – denoting wines that originate from vineyards in one commune – a Barolo without a commune (or vineyard name) is, by default, Barolo Classico.
Because the concept of blending across communes is traditional and historically felt to be the most representative of Barolo’s quality, it should not be assumed that Classico is the simplest, or least complex, expression of Barolo, in the way that a wine blended from different sites in Burgundy might be. There are many Classico wines that are made from outstanding vineyard components and the quality of the raw material can be the equal of the best of Barolo. Indeed, we chose this expression for the Berry Bros. & Rudd Own Selection Barolo. That is a blend from vineyards in Serralunga d’Alba, the commune of Barolo and Castiglione Falletto.
Barolo’s MGAs (Crus)
A refinement was introduced in 2010 to allow producers to use individual vineyard names on the label. The rigour with which the vineyard boundaries have been set varies a little between communes. Monforte has some large designations, whereas Castiglione’s vineyards are very precisely defined.
But it is more important to understand that these 170 MGA – menzione geografiche aggiuntive (additional geographic mention), often referred to by the French word cru – do not have a hierarchy of classification (such as Premier Cru or Grand Cru). They regularly encompass different altitudes and aspects in the vineyards. The great La Morra MGA Brunate starts mid-slope, running all the way down the hill until it crosses over in the Barolo commune.
Of course, the most prestigious producers use the vineyard name when it represents the best expression of that site. Needless to say, there have been a few attempts to create a classification, but these are all informal. It is unlikely that internal politics will ever allow its adoption. But within these independent assessments, certain vineyards – such as Vigna Rionda in Serralunga or Bricco Rocche in Castiglione – do carry the reputation of being Grand Cru, if not with any legal status.
La Morra. Photo: Jason Lowe
Barolo Commune Wines
In addition to the 170 MGAs approved in 2010, further communal MGAs were also approved at the same time.
The idea of “commune wines” was approved for use in the 11 established communes of Barolo: a recognition of the growing awareness of commune, and vineyard, character; but also to encourage an understanding of Barolo within a Burgundian context, where wines are known by the name of the local village.
As long as the wine is made exclusively from fruit grown within the boundaries of that commune, the name can be displayed on the label. These include labellings such as Barolo del Commune di La Morra, Barolo del Commune di Verduno and so on – including, confusingly, Barolo del Commune di Barolo.
Although available from the 2010 vintage, its momentum was slow and many producers did not begin to adopt this option until the 2017 vintage. This is an excellent way to become acquainted with the characteristics of each commune – the gentleness of La Morra, the power of Serralunga, the opulence of Barolo – but there is no obligation to apply the commune name even if all the fruit is from that provenance. It is possible for a commune wine to be labelled simply as Barolo, just like a Classico. So, how would you tell the difference? Unfortunately, unless it’s declared on the back-label or the producer’s (or wine merchant’s) website, you can’t.
But producers do use this increasingly popular option. The idea that Barolo is a mosaic of different styles, echoing Burgundy, is understandable and holds appeal for most customers.
The Riserva epithet harks back to the days when Barolo needed to be aged for a long time to soften the harder tannins which were much more prevalent a generation ago. A Barolo Riserva has spent longer in barrel and bottle before release. The reason that the 2018 Baroli are only being offered now is because, in order to be granted the DOCG for the region, the wine must be matured for at least 38 months, including a minimum of 18 months in barrel. For a Riserva, the minimum ageing period is extended to five years, with two years in barrel.
The implication of the term Riserva is that it will be a better wine, but legally, there are no controls over what level of quality wine can be used. Quite simply, it can mean that a Barolo Riserva is just a wine that has been aged for longer. The best producers use this category to give their finest and most powerful wines a longer maturation, because the structure of the wine requires it. But the wine is not higher quality because of it – rather, better integrated on release. It is more accurate to think of this as a way of identifying a “late release” selection.
This is a very interesting category for those looking for value in the region. It is an appellation for wines grown in the Langhe region, which includes Barolo and Barbaresco, but it also encompasses land outside those regions. It is probably easiest to understand this category as an approximate equivalent to Bourgogne Rouge in Burgundy – an appellation that can be blended from vineyards across the region. It can represent a single vineyard or include wines declassified from higher appellations.
In the Langhe, for example, Mario Fontana’s Langhe Nebbiolo is made from a vineyard in Sino. This lies just outside the Barolo appellation, but close to Serralunga d’Alba, while also including fruit from his vineyard in Castiglione Falletto. The latter could be sold as Barolo but, as it is from a north-west section of the vineyard, he prefers to use it in his Langhe Nebbiolo. By contrast, Davide Rosso uses the appellation to make a wine from the young vines in his great Vigna Rionda vineyard, and with a price to match.
In general, these should not be thought of stylistically as “mini-Barolo” wines. They do not have the structure or power of Barolo, and are made with a gentler touch. At their best, they offer a delicious and earlier maturing example of each cantina and winemaker’s style, and a gentler, easier-going expression of Nebbiolo.
Davide Rosso. Photo: Jason Lowe
Dolcetto and Barbera
It is not only Nebbiolo that is planted throughout the region. Most producers have parcels of these two other grape varieties. These are usually grown outside the heart of the Barolo region, on lighter, sandier soils or in less favoured sectors of their Barolo vineyards.
Dolcetto (usually sold as Dolcetto d’Alba when made by a Barolo producer) is an early maturing, extremely juicy and deeply coloured wine. It can have a vivid black cherry aroma and flavour, often laced with almond and liquorice. It is naturally high in tannin and low in acidity (hence its name: “little sweet one”) but the good examples are refreshing and immediate. Marcarini has an astonishing parcel of pre-phylloxera vines. His Boscha di Berri can age well, and a Dolcetto from Dogliani (its own DOCG) can be exceptional.
Barbera is the opposite of Dolcetto – high in acidity and low in tannin. These are deliciously juicy wines, full of red fruit notes, that often benefit from some time in small barrels, to add a bit of structure. Its best wines come from the Barbera d’Asti appellation. When grown alongside Nebbiolo, it is the latter that is given the most favoured sites. The best are rounded, joyous, bibulous wines, with a spicier side to their fruit than Dolcetto.