Old versus new in Barolo
 

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Alone among the great European wine regions, Barolo was created rather than evolving over time. Previously sold only in bulk, the first wines bottled under the name “Barolo” did not appear until the mid-18th century. Its catalyst was Cavour, also the architect of Italian unification: his family owned an estate in Grinzane, and he encouraged there the monoculture of vines and other French techniques he had observed on his travels. And so the original, or traditional, Barolo was born.

But since the early 1990s, there has been the idea that there is a polarisation between those who cherish the processes that evolved after Cavour’s support for the first innovations, and those who choose the modern trends of barrique maturation and fruitiness.

For context, the one constant of Barolo is that it is produced only from the Nebbiolo grape variety. This thin-skinned grape is early to bud and late to ripen, and produces wines high in acidity and, importantly, tannin. It is this component especially that has dictated Barolo’s traditional method of production: because of the level of extraction necessary to achieve the required colour and body, an extended period of maturation in large barrels was also required to allow the resulting harsh tannins to resolve.

Those who challenged this mantra argued that: too much tannin was being extracted, and that a shorter but more rapid extraction (usually with the dreaded rotofermenter, blasphemy for the traditionalist) made a wine that was more accessible; and that ageing in small barrels lessened the impact of oxidation, whilst replacing some of the missing tannic structure. This also chimed with a shift in wine-drinking tastes towards more accessible and earlier-drinking wine styles.

Rereading those last two paragraphs shows how much the region and its wine have evolved since then. It is true that overly traditional winemaking can produce wines that remain too tannic, and with fruit that has faded well before the tannins. Equally, Nebbiolo’s extraordinary and unique aromas, famously summarised as “tar and roses”, are diminished by faster extraction, and can be overwhelmed by new oak barrels.

If the essence of the debate was around how to best create wine that preserved Nebbiolo’s unique greatness but moderated its tannic footprint, then neither argument was definitive. And proof was evident in the unreliability of wines from the old school, and the frequent early oxidation of those from barrique. generosity of vintage expression is not at the detriment of longevity or complexity; these wines will reward you in the years and decades to come.

The answer lay in achieving phenolic ripeness at harvest, and not manipulation of the fruit in the winery, and two factors have been key. Firstly, intelligent and sustainable vineyard management has brought the vines more in line with nature, and the vines mature their fruit more effectively. The old mentality sought high yields; Nebbiolo, slow to ripen, was often harvested with green tannin. Add to this the more recent impact of warmer summers, and growers now have the luxury of choosing when to harvest, instead of praying for favourable conditions until the end of October. The 2017 vintage is a perfect example of this, with the harvest straddling the end of September and into October; growers chose, unforced, to pick earlier, and with phenolic ripeness.

To illustrate this, we can look at some producers who come from contrasting backgrounds. Alessandro Veglio joined his uncle Mauro in ’17. They share their courtyard with Elio Altare, a renowned proponent of the “new”. Altare was a major influence on Mauro, and the Veglio cellar has the rotofermenter and barriques from French coopers like Taransaud, Boutes and François Frères.

But Alessandro has overseen a transition to what he calls being a “modern modernist”, using these tools where he feels they are appropriate. But for his Barolo, Alessandro now only wants to use the traditional vertical wood fermentation tanks, and the rotofermenter is no longer used for his crus. In the vineyard, only natural treatments are employed, and Alessandro chooses his harvest date on taste, by the ripeness of the pips.

By contrast, Mario Fontana proudly declares that he does things come una volta: as it used to be. But on inspection, this statement refers to respect for the soil and the personality of Nebbiolo. It is true that here you will find 2,500-litre botte of Slavonian oak – the signature of traditionalism – yet Mario has his little tricks and adaptations. It is doubtful whether Mario’s grandfather Saverio used fibreglass, yet Mario finds it the best material for fermenting his grapes from Castiglione Falletto. Its wines are more structured, and fibreglass allows a faster heat dispersal.

And you will also find barriques in the tiny, low-slung cellar – but only for the Barbera, and in moderation. But it is in the vineyard that Mario, like every wine genius, weaves his magic. The vineyards are organic (but not certified – too expensive and bureaucratic) and the soil is lovingly attended with careful maintenance of oxygen levels, to ensure stress-free vine growth and development. Even the manure for fertilising is individually sourced from one herd of cows, exclusively grass-fed on mountain pastures.

In many ways, the iconic Sandrone cantina is the benchmark for all these developments, taking the best from all philosophies. In the vineyard, they constantly monitor the soil for levels of microbiological activity and have seen a huge increase over the years of their stewardship. In the winery, there are still long extractions and regular pumping over, but maturation is in 500-litre French oak barrels: not barriques, but not botte either, with about one-quarter new each year. Sandrone has never been a “modernist”, and there has never been a barrique or rotofermenter anywhere near the cantina. But Luciano did break the mould, although for all the right reasons.

In retrospect, it is clear that this was never a “war”, despite the media’s wish to stoke it, but more an obvious and necessary evolution in a region that had to wake up to the challenges of the modern wine market. Barolo is a small region, with less than 2,000 hectares under vine and about 1,000 growers. So some views will have been more entrenched than others, but there are few now who have been untouched by the ripples of the old-versus-new debate of the 1990s, and now it’s time to move on. Barolo is on a different, more aligned and genuinely exciting trajectory and guess what? It’s really just all about the quality of the fruit at harvest.