By Debra Meiburg MW
Are you a traditionalist or a modernist? Whichever you are, you’ll find satisfaction in Italy’s famed Barolo wine region. Both traditional and modern-styled “1st Growths” are produced in Barolo, with three key winemaking factors accounting for the disparity in styles.
Modern-styled Barolo is produced much the same way as most contemporary international red wines, with a brief fermentation period followed by couple of years aging in small French oak barrels to impart spicy nuances and enhance wine texture. The higher the percentage of new barrels used, the higher the impact upon the wine’s final character. Traditional Barolo producers, such as Giacomo Conterno, Fontanafredda and Bruno Giacosa shun the small oak barrels, preferring instead to age their wines rustic wooden vats that add little to the wine’s flavor or texture, but allow the red liquid to mellow and mature in a neutral environment.
Not only the vessel impacts the wine style, but also the winemaker’s choice of aging period. Traditional producers leave their prized Barolos to mature in old oak barrels for many years before bottling and releasing them into the market. Top producer Giacomo Conterno used to leave his wine languishing in barrels for up to ten years before public release. With advances in vineyard and winery technologies these lengthy aging periods — once requisite to soften the wines – are no longer necessary with even Conterno now agreeing the wines show better and remain fresher with less time in wooden vats.
Another difference between the two production styles is the fermentation period and the length of time the wine is left soaking with the grape skins. Barolo’s tradition of lengthy fermentation developed primarily to due to the chilly fall climate in northern Italy. Until the advent of temperature controlled fermentation tanks – which allowed gentle warming of the juice – fermentations were lengthy and stubborn in the cool environment. Modern-style producers, such as Angelo Gaja, Scavino, Elio Altare, Roberto Bava, Voerzio and La Spinetta have opted for brief fermentation periods (about a week) whereas traditional producers prefer leaving the grape skins in contact with the wine up to a month believing the skins enhance wine complexity and longevity. That may be the case, but grape skins also impart tannins into the wine – the substance that sponges up your saliva and roughs up your tongue – so traditional Barolo can be perceived as hard and tannic if not allowed to lounge in your cellar for a few years.
Modern-styled Barolo is ready to drink sooner and is less austere than the traditional Barolo, requiring only six to ten years aging before reaching an optimum state. Because traditional Barolo can be tannic and austere, they require twelve to fifteen years before reaching their full potential. If deciding whether you are a traditionalist or modernist puts you in a quandary, then open the two styles side-by-side and decide for yourself. You can’t go wrong with either.