The History Behind the Legendary Barolo Wine

The revolution of Barolo wine making

Barolo wine is one of the world’s most beloved wines, renowned for its brilliant crimson color, unique aromas and intense flavors. The history behind the legendary Barolo wine originated in the Piedmont region of Italy in the 1800s.

Today’s modern Barolo wine is the result of a long history and recent revolution that has transformed how the powerful Nebbiolo grape varietal is grown and aged.

The revolution of Barolo wine dates back to the late 1970s when the young son of one of the many farmers of the region understood that Barolo needed a new identity.

In fact, Barolo wine was not appreciated by international wine critics, it was not well marketed and it did not live up to the expectations of modern consumers.

This young farmer was Elio Altare, who in 1976 drove his Fiat 500 to Burgundy – France – known to be the point of reference in the world of first-class wines. Upon his arrival at the first winery, he was astonished to see the cellar owner packing suitcases in his fancy sports car. He was leaving for the French Riviera where his own boat was docked.

That was the lifestyle of wine-makers in France, in contrast with the poor Piedmontese farmers.

How Barolo wine making has evolved

The history behind the legendary Barolo wine is one of adaptation and transformation. Wine has been made in the region for centuries when local growers began using the indigenous grape variety called Nebbiolo to make table wine.

Then, in the first half of the 1800s, Juliette Colbert, newly married to the local aristocrat Carlo Tancredi Falletti, brought to Piedmont the art of aging wine in barrels. This was a technique already in use in France, in the region of Bordeaux, where she was originally from.

The wine tasted differently and it was named after the town where the couple lived in their castle: Barolo. It soon became the favorite of the House of Savoy but it required many years before the taste could significantly improve.

Farmers’ hardships in Piedmont

In the Barolo wine region, since the 1950s, younger generations would have not hesitated to move to Turin. A full-time job at the car factory was seen as the greatest redemption from struggling rural life.

Barolo winemaking was not profitable and it was common for most farmers to keep a barrel or two in their cellar, enough to satisfy the family’s needs.

Making wine at home for sale was not considered an option. It was common to sell grapes to a handful of large and wealthy wine producers.

I vigneti di Barolo oggi tra i più costosi al mondo, grazie ai Barolo Boys.
The Barolo Boys revolution led to the increased value of the land. Photo by Sebastian @bicio

The work and passion of the Barolo Boys

Barolo was, until then, awfully made in moldy cellars where a barrel inherited from the grandparents was treasured because it was too expensive to be replaced but too old to add anything to the wine.

Aging Barolo in French barrels was the first innovation brought to Piedmont by Elio Altare and his friends – known as the “Barolo Boys”.

The “Barolo Boys” were a group of Italian winemakers in the Barolo region who, beginning in the late 1950s, revolutionized the area’s winemaking methods and culture. They worked to make Barolo less tannic and more approachable, using new methods like reducing the number of grapes harvested and using a new type of barrel.

Known as barrique, the new barrel only contained 225 liters, and was much smaller than traditional ones, resulting in having more liquid in contact with the inner surface of the barrel itself. Consequently, the wine would absorb more flavors from the toasted French oak and the tannin of the Nebbiolo grapes would evolve more easily.

Their passion for creating the best expression of Nebbiolo defined the style of modern Barolo that is well-known today.

Innovation in the vineyard: the green harvest

The revolution of Barolo wine involved new work not just in the cellar but in the vineyard as well, such as a new pruning technique.

In addition to the regular pruning session held in winter, clusters were now cut off the vines in August, a few weeks before harvest. This so-called “green harvest” aims to redirect nutrients from the vine to the fewer clusters left and to concentrate the final stages of ripening.

The generational conflicts that followed shook the region as older farmers struggled to understand and accept these innovations brought from France.

Chiara Boschis, the only girl of the Barolo Boys, had to face family turmoil after being seen cutting grapes off the family’s vines in summer.  Elio Altare got to the point of destroying with a chainsaw the old family barrels and  his father signed him off from the inheritance. The old man died two years later thinking his son went crazy.

La rivoluzione dei Barolo Boys
The revolution of Barolo wine making involved the summer “green harvest”. Photo by Andrea Cairone

The Great Barolo Revolution of the 1990s

The history behind the legendary Barolo wine and its revolution, which involved Elio Altare, Chiara Boschis, and others, has been a steep journey made of several attempts and experiments.

During the 1980s these young wine producers worked together to improve the quality of the wine. They engaged in blind wine tastings with each other’s wines, sharing what was done differently. Their aim was to get the best wine in the shortest time possible, ready to be drunk much sooner compared to the twenty years or so of aging time needed until then.

Another significant step forward in the Barolo Boys revolution came when a young Italian-American wine importer joined the team and arranged a marketing tour in the US. He made both the wine and the producers an instant success.

Today, about thirty years since the Barolo Boys had begun their mission, hostilities seem to have ceased, and it is hard to tell who won. Both the traditionalist Barolo (aged in large, non-toasted barrels) and the modernist Barolo (aged in toasted French small barrels) co-exist. Many winemakers play with both types of wood, balancing shades of flavors and giving personality to their own wine.

Is Barolo a good wine?

Barolo is a good wine because it is controlled and guaranteed by the highest appellation that wine can get in Italy, known as the DOCG appellation.

Our Barolo Wine Tour takes you to a renowned cellar for a tasting of award-winning labels and a deep understanding of what it takes for a Barolo to be a good wine.

Barolo is produced by 360 wineries which all comply with the strict rules of the DOCG appellation.

Some consumers may find a Barolo wine just released on the market after the minimum 38 months of aging to be still too young. Others may prefer a specific single vineyard. The sensitivity of the palate and the personal taste would also influence the perception of a bottle of wine.

The identity of a wine is an interpretation. Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food, said 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”.

The story told in this post has been inspired by the documentary “Barolo Boys – the story of a revolution” available on several online platforms and winner at the Vancouver Italian Film Festival and Wine Country Film Festival of California.

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