Barolo: The King of Wines, the Wine of Kings

November 17, 2007

There are two regions in the world that use this phrase labeling their wines. Both are absolutely fantastic and both are among my favorites. One of them is the Tokaj region of Hungary, which produces some of the best dessert wines in the world. The other is the Barolo region in Piemonte, Northern Italy.

Barolo is arguably the most highly prized of Italian wines. It is generally quite a fruity, big heavy wine with lots of tannins. In some ways it is the Italian equivalent of Bordeaux, though in actuality, the nebbiolo grape that is used in Barolos is more similar to Burgundy’s pinot noir. Nebbiolo is just as finicky and hard to grow as pinot and it requires similarly cold nights and sunny days. It is also as many sided as pinot noir, wines made from nebbiolo can have completely different tastes, such that you would have a hard time determining that the varietal is identical. You will also not find it in many places outside of Piemonte and a little patch of Sardegna. Some wine makers have recently experimented with nebbiolo in California but I do not know of other regions.

There are two schools of making Barolos, if you will: traditional and modern. Traditionally they left the grape’s skin on during the fermentation process, which lasted a long three weeks. This process extracted a huge amount of tannins from the skin of the nebbiolo, which is a varietal that is already extremly high in tannins. As a result, traditional barolos were literally undrinkable for the first 10-12 years, which is about how long it took them to start to soften up. During this time, according to traditional methods, the wine spent at least 4-5 years in large Slavonian oak barrels and then continued to be aged in bottles. Barolos are, as a result, some of the best aging wines in the world.

The new school is quite different. Partially to cater to modern taste and partially because of market pressures to get to sell wines earlier than the required 10-12 years, many wine makers in the Barolo region have changed the old methods. These days the fermentation process is much shorter and the aging is no longer in large Slavonian oak casks, but predominantly in small barriques from France. The French barrique softens the wine quite a bit and because the skin is only left on for a shorter period during the fermentation process, the tannins are not as dominant. Still, Barolos must age at least three years, mostly in oak barrels, and five years if the wine is labeled Riserva. As a result, modern Barolos are drinkable after a few years. They also taste much different, much heavier and complex than traditional ones.

Tonight we tasted a modern Barolo from the Prunotto wine house (vintage 2001.) This wine spent 24 months in small oak barrels, combination of French and Slavonian, and then another 12 months in bottles before it was put on the market. The wine is bone dry, still very high in tannins, full of black fruit and liquorice. As soon as you smell the wine, it hits you over the head. Once you taste it, the wine just takes over. It is one thing to call this a big wine, sure, but it is aggressive. It dominates everything else that may be hitting your taste buds and not just when you drink it but for many minutes afterwards. Barolos are different. They really are a category by themselves and this Prunotto is a fine example of that. Pair them with heavy meat stew, a fillet mignon with gorgonzola, or game such as wild boar or something else that stands up to it. You will feel like a king.

Name: Barolo Prunotto, 2001

Rating: 9 out of 10

Body: Full

Price: 33 euros

Got it at: Bortarsasag, Budapest, Hungary

Barolo Prunotto, 2001

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