When Aimé Guibert, a Parisian glove manufacturer, and his wife, Veronique, purchased an abandoned farmhouse formerly owned by the Daumas family deep in the South of France, wine was the last thing on their minds. A visit from good friend and famous oenologist Professor Henri Enjalbert changed their minds. Enjalbert noticed that the combination of red glacial soils and cool air currents that washed over the hills at night made this a perfect site for winegrowing.
As hard as it is for many Barolo fans (like me!) to fathom, most regular wine lovers really don't know much about Barolo and a good chunk have never even tasted the stuff. If you come to our free Barolo, Boar, Burrata, and Truffle Butter festival this Saturday, we'll fix both issues! Meanwhile, here's a quick overview of one of Italy's - actually, the world's! - most exciting wines.
A Village in Piemonte
Barolo is a village in Northeastern Italy, about an hour south of Turin in the Piemonte hills. For reasons lost to time, the main red grape here has always been Nebbiolo, a high acid, high tannin, high sugar, varietal that needs to hang on the vine until October to have any hope of ripening. So, for years, growers in the Piemonte picked their Nebbiolo grapes in the late autumn and started their fermentation in late October. When the weather turned cold, the fermentation stuck: leaving Barolo a sweet red for much of its history.
Barolo didn't start to get interesting until the mid-1800s, when the Marchesa of Barolo hired French winemaker Louis Oudart to come and figure out how to make better wine. Oudart helped winemakers clean up their cellars - removing fungus that was inhibiting fermentation - and add heaters, creating the region's first ever consistently dry, red wines.
Soon the rulers of Turin began to enjoy Barolo and it became a personal favorite of Vittorio Emanuele II, the first king of unified Italy. Soon after, Barolo became known as "the wine of kings, the king of wines."
Even after Oudart helped revamp winemaking, Nebbiolo remained a grape high in everything but color and sweet fruit. So over the years, winemakers took to letting their Nebbiolo wine sit on the grape skins and seeds for weeks and weeks after fermentation to extract more color and fruit. That they got, but they also got masses and masses of tough tannins to go with Nebbiolo's naturally high acidity.
The young wines were simply undrinkable, but with 10, 20, or even 30 years of cellaring they turned into magic. Light red with orange tints in color, these mature "old-school" Barolo sported fantastic aromas and flavors of black truffle, ripe cherries and red berries, fresh earth and the floral/earth hallmark of great Barolo: tar and roses.
While kings presumably didn't mind waiting 20+ years to drink Barolo their predecessors laid down, most of us have to work on a more limited time frame. So, in the 1980s and 1990s, winemakers in Barolo began experimenting with ways to make Barolo more drinkable on release and interesting after "only" a decade in cellar. Lots of new techniques were tried in cellar - rotofermenters, small oak barrels, cultured yeasts, variations in fermentation time and temperature, and more - as well as major changes to vineyard practices. The first attempts were pretty clumsy leading to wine that tasted pretty good, but didn't seem to have much to do with "Barolo." The "traditionalists" were outraged, the "modernists" defiant, and consumers were...confused.
Today it's clear that the modernists went too far and the traditionalists were too slow to make changes that make their wine taste better without sacrificing character or aging potential. By far, the most important and long-last change is better farming and closer attention to vineyard quality and character. Today the best Barolo estates first and foremost "make" their wine in the vineyard with low yields, natural farming techniques, and the courage to wait to harvest until the fruit is ripe...even if the snows are not far away.
What About Barolo Today?
So, after all the fuss of the past 20 years, what is the Barolo of today like? First, let's not sugarcoat this - these are still acidic, tannic, powerful wines that can rock you back on your heels when tasted young, especially if you're tasting them without food. And few of the very best Barolo will reach their peak in less than 10 years and, even then, may need 3-4 hours decanting.
But the best Barolo show off supple, even polished tannins that don't scrape your mouth raw and melt surprisingly well with a little rich food. And with more ripe, fresh, deeply flavored fruit than ever before, even just-released Barolo from the best addresses can be so delicious young that you won't worry about how it will taste in a decade - you'll have drunk up your stocks long before then!
The two Barolo we're featuring this week certainly qualify as "among the best." Unfortunately, like fine Burgundy, quantities of these wines are very limited. Well worth giving them a try!
That’s the question we know many of you are asking yourselves as you enter Day Three with no AC. For those who don’t know the term, we refer to wine as “cooked” when it has been exposed to excessive heat (either high heat or moderate heat for a long period). But, for a wine fault some think is the most common of all, there’s astonishingly little definitive research on how much heat exposure and for what amount of time is necessary to damage wine. S
After a quick visit to Burgundy and then a family week in the South of France, we planned to spend Saturday driving from our rental house in Minervois all the way North and East to Strasbourg. When he was in DC last May, Rhone winemaker Philippe Plantevin heard about our summer trip and invited - insisted, actually! - that we stop at his house near Cairanne for lunch.
Construction on our remodel and expansion project began this week! We're moving quickly, and it will make the next few weeks a little wild in the store, but it's going to be worth it. (Remind me of this while I'm tearing my hair out, will you?) Not only will we have more floor space and elbow room, but we'll also be expanding our cheese, food and beer selections. AND we'll have classroom space in the basement of the new space. Watch for some new classes in the fall. In the meantime, we'll be open for business as much as possible. Watch the web home page for updates on modified hours.
Just as construction begins, I'm taking off for France. (We didn't exactly plan it like this.) It's mostly a family vacation, but I'll also be tasting and doing vineyard tours with Gevry-Chambertin's Jean-Michel Guillon, sharing a family lunch with Philippe Plantevin, and making my first visit ever to Alsace to see Domaine Weinbach.
Probably the most important wine stop of the trip will be in the Puligny-Montrachet cellars of Sylvan Bzikot. Last January, I was swept off my feet by Sylvan's newest wine, a 2010 village Puligny-Montrachet from the vineyard Les Petite Nosroyes. Even though the wine hadn't finished malo yet, I was so enthusiastic by two of Sylvan's nine barrels of this wine that I bought them on the spot.
So, on Saturday morning while you're still sleeping, I'll be visiting Sylvan and tasting our young wine for the first time since January. If you sign up to follow our new Twitter feed, you'll be the first to know how it's coming along! And I'll get some info up here on our blog and/or Facebook page when I can as well.