A story of barrels
A wine tasting in the Barolo region is a tough task to accomplish. Firstly, there are about 500 different wine producers squeezed in about 4500 acres of land, pretty hard to pick one. Secondly, each winery is bottling an average of three types of Barolo and they all taste differently. Some are made from the so-called “single vineyards” – grapes from a specific vineyard whose soil and exposure characteristics are unique; some other made from a blend of Nebbiolo grapes, coming from different vineyards. It is evident that the choice gets as intricate as ever, especially for first-time visitors.
One of the questions travelers should ask themselves is “do I like oaky wines” and if yes, then the next question should be “am I willing to try a wine that will probably taste very different from what I’m used to drink at home”? Who ever thought that behind the name of a wine, Barolo in this case, there was so much going on. Well, the element which can considerably influence the final product is the aging or, to be more accurate, the type of wood and barrel used and the length of aging.
Until about 30 years ago or so there was not much of a choice. Barolo was simply aged in large oak barrels, big enough to let a man stand in it. Then, a big revolution took over, two opposite life visions begun to fight against each other.
Everything started back in the 1970s when a young farmer, son of one of the many small wine producers of the area, understood that Barolo needed a new identity in order to be appreciated by international wine critics. Barolo was not known, it was not well marketed and it did not live up the expectation of the modern time.
This young farmer, Elio Altare, in 1976 drove its Fiat 500 car to Burgundy, France, known to be the kingdom of first-class wines. Once he arrived at the first winery, he was surprised to see the owner of the cellar packing suitcases on its fancy car, a Porsche, about to leave for the French Riviera where its own boat was awaiting: that was the lifestyle of wine-makers in France.
In La Morra, Barolo and other villages around Alba, life was much harsher: most of the younger generations were emigrating to Turin, looking for full-time jobs at the car factory. Farmers in Piemonte were poor and profits coming from the cultivation and sale of grapes were barely enough to get by. Making wine at home was not considered a job one could rely on and no one, besides a few larger wine companies owned by wealthy families, would ever thought to sell their own wines. Most farmers kept a barrel or two in their cellar, enough to satisfy the family’s need but their wine was awful made in moldy and dirty barrels inherited from grandparents which were kept as a treasure but too old to give anything to the wine.
It took efforts and many risks to change things around but Elio Altare along with its friends, known as the “Barolo Boys“, today they can say to have completed a revolution. During the 1980s these young wine producers got together, working to improve the quality of wine. They would do blind tastings with each other wines, sharing what was done differently to improve the product. They were looking for the best wine as possible, enjoyable soon after bottling, not necessarily after 25 years of aging.
The revolution consisted mainly of two far-reaching changes. Firstly, the pruning of the vines was now more focused on reducing the grapes quantity after noticing that less gives higher quality: in addition to the regular pruning sessions held in winter, more grapes were cut off the vines a few weeks before harvesting, in August, aimed to help the plant concentrate the final stages of ripening on lesser fruits. Chiara Boschis, the only girl of the Barolo boys team, got in trouble with his father after being caught cutting healthy grapes off the vines.
The risk and vision taken by the younger ones were seen by the older generations as an offense: the beginning of a cultural and generational conflict. “We have worked this way for over seventy years, who are you now to tell us how to make wine” was one of the most common comments the Barolo boys would get. Elio Altare got to the point to destroy with a chainsaw the old family’s barrels: his father legally disinherited him and he died two years later with the idea that his son was crazy.
Barrels play an essential role in this story: the second big revolutionary change was the introduction of the so-called “barriques“, smaller barrels (225 liters) of toasted French oak that gives a complete different taste to the wine, not only due to the oaky flavor but because being a smaller container, more wine gets in contact with the wooden surface of the barrel.
The Barolo Boys flew to NYC in the early 1990s after the last member of the group joined the team: a young Italian-American wine importer who organized a tour of the US turning these Piedmontese wine makers into celebrities and surely the newly barriques-aged Barolo, turned to be an instant success.
Today, about 30 years since the Barolo Boys begun their mission, hostilities seems to have ceased, and it is hard to say who won. I say everybody did. Actually the first big winner is the region, Piemonte: tourism, especially in Alba and Barolo is booming, the price of land has skyrocketed, old farmhouses were restored and the area is as beautiful as ever before. There is a new, cosmopolitan energy and Barolo is now a big name next to Burgundy and a few others.
As far as the wine making goes, we can say that most producers nowadays have mixed the two types of barrels, often aging in the big ones for a few months and ending the wine for a short period in the barriques. Very few wineries strictly follow either the traditional or the modern technique but everyone got benefits from the experience of the Barolo Boys. Quality is higher all around Piemonte including in the Monferrato hill district where Barbera is now aged in similar ways.
The main lesson learned is that wine is absolutely a personal affair. Sure there are wines better than others but then our own taste changes with time, with our age, with new trends that, just like in fashion, is evolving. The identity of a wine is an interpretation. Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food, says it all: “…some wines that were top rated in the 1990s and that I loved, now I would probably not like them at all. It’s the human factor“.
I invite you to watch the full documentary “Barolo Boys – the story of a revolution” because it is really well-done. It is available on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Reelhouse and in Italy on Netflix too. It last just over 60 minutes and it won awards in several international competitions like the Vancouver Italian Film Festival and Wine Country Film Festival of California.
Written by Marco Scaglione