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Episode #206: Barolo – King of Wines and its wonderful region

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Wine is an important part of Italian culture, with over 450 grape varieties grown across Italy’s 20 regions – and the wine produced is always designed to pair perfectly with local dishes. Barolo, affectionately hailed as the ‘King of Wines’, is one of Italy’s famous reds and is produced in the Piedmont region in Northern Italy. This humble yet regal red wine encapsulates the essence of Italian winemaking – the traditions and the care taken can be savored in each bottle of this rich, full-bodied red wine.

Show notes

In this episode, we extend our series on Italian wine with Untold Italy’s Olivia Windsor and her partner Andrea Mitti Rua from Italian Wine Tales by beginning to focus on individual wine regions. We head to Piedmont, where Andrea was born and raised, to discuss the deservedly famous Barolo wine. Liv is an Australian who’s been living in Italy for nearly 5 years and hosts our Untold Italy Tours all over Italy. She is an Italian food and wine expert and both she and Andrea are in the midst of studying to be qualified sommeliers in Italy. Now based in Rome, they previously lived in Andreas’ home region of Piedmont. Showcasing their passion for Italian wine, they run Italian Wine Tales, a great resource on Italian wine and for wine tour or winery recommendations. They introduced us to some of Italy’s sparkling wines in episode 179, some great white wines in episode 189 and fabulous reds in 196. Sign up for the Italian Wine Tales newsletter here.

What you’ll learn in this episode

  • Apart from obviously being a delicious accompaniment to a meal, wine is a hugely important part of Italian culture
  • There are over 450 recognized grape varieties grown across Italy’s 20 regions – used to create beautiful blends of wine that are designed to match perfectly with local dishes
  • Apart from the grapes themselves, there are other things that are key to winemaking and the different resulting wines, not least the terroir – each area’s landscape, soil and climate etc
  • Getting to know local Italian wines in each micro-region is a great touchpoint for getting to know places and a great way to travel around the country
  • Barolo is a wine that is famous worldwide and is known as the King of Italian wines
  • It is produced in the northern region of Piedmont. Piedmont borders France and Switzerland and can be found west of Venice and Milan and north of Rome and Florence. It’s a beautiful, hilly region nestled between the mountains
  • Barolo, where the wine takes its name from is a beautiful little village on top of a hill, it’s the heart of a hilly region called Le Langhe
  • Le Langhe is one of the most celebrated wine areas in Italy and it’s a gorgeous, fairytale-like place to visit
  • Andrea highly recommends a visit, but he is of course biased, as his family hails from there
  • When Katy was in Piedmont last year she was there with Olivia and Andreas mother. They visited a winery where Andrea’s grandmother had played with the winemaker’s children when she was small
  • Olivia also has strong wine connections in PIedmont having taken part in vendemmia (the wine harvest) there and also leads our food and wine-focused Untold Italy small group tours of Piedmont – which of course features plenty of Barolo tasting
  • Katy loved exploring Piedmont last year – for the landscape, the food and wine and the Northern Italian atmosphere. It is a very different feel to what you will find in the South. Not better or worse – just different. Aesthetically, you have vineyard-covered hills with the Alps in the background which is unique and very beautiful
  • The Barolo area is only about 2,000 hectares of vineyards and much of these scenic hills are covered by vineyards. To give you a comparison, the famous Burgundy wine region of France is 29,000 hectares of vineyards. It’s also quite small compared to others in Italy like Chianti which is pretty large and spread out 
  • Due to its compact size, a visit to the area which is full of vineyards with a few little towns sitting on top of the hills. The towns and very small and full of history and each one will likely produce a different wine, despite their proximity. You can visit a lot of different wineries in a short amount of time
  • Not only does wine from different towns differ, but you can make a wine from the grapes on one side of the hill, and it will taste completely different to the wine made from the grapes on the other side of the hill
  • The area where Barolo wine is produced is not just the town of Barolo – there are actually 11 towns or villages within the area. The most important towns being Barolo, La Morra, Verduno, Serralunga d’Alba and Castiglione Falletto
  • In each town, you’ll find little wine-tasting rooms. Ideal if you haven’t arranged or don’t have time to go out to one of the wineries

The wine

  • Barolo is a full-bodied wine made from the Nebbiolo grape
  • The name Nebbiolo comes from ‘nebia’ which means fog. Piedmont can often get very foggy, so the name comes from the grapes growing in the fog. It’s a special microclimate with the weather and the soil allowing the Nebbiolo grape in Piedmont to create this special Barolo wine
  • It’s quite a difficult grape to work with. They grow Nebbiolo in Australia and the US, but they will definitely not taste like the Barolo wine that you have in Piedmont
  • It is a full-bodied wine, but it is not as full-on as you might be used to with some new world wines – like a Shiraz or a Sauvignon in Australia/the US. It’s very much an old-world wine – a little bit more elegant and refined
  • To be considered a Barolo a wine has to be produced under very strict rules and regulations. Probably the most important is that it needs to be aged for at least 38 months. 18 of those months are aged in wood to be a Reserva. The most important precious wine will have been aged for a whopping 62 months
  • Barolo must have a high alcohol content of at least 13%, oftentimes higher, especially with the current hot summers naturally creating a higher alcohol percentage
  • In terms of the taste, you would expect flavors such as cherry, violet, rose, tobacco and licorice.
  • A special thing about Barolo wine is that it gets better with age. At the moment you can buy the 2019 Barolos and it is best not to open it straight away. Put it aside and maybe open for a later special occasion
  • It’s always delicious if you open it at any time, but it’s good to age it for a bit if you can. In 2024, we will have the 2020s Barolo and then in 2025, we can expect the 2021 to hit the market
  • The 2016 is considered one of the best years for Barolo. Other good vintages in recent times are 2010, 2013, and 2019
  • These wineries are constantly monitoring so many factors – the weather, the environment, and everything to do with the land and the environment. The wine production is symbiotic to what’s happening in their lives
  • It is even more difficult for organic producers because they can’t use any of these pesticides or things to help with the problems arising from climate change and extreme weather. It’s a lot of hard labor and relying on Mother Nature for producers

What to eat when drinking Barolo?

  • Due to the high acidity of this wine, you can pair it easily with fatty cuts of meat like duck, veal or rich sauces
  • In Piedmont, agnolotti is the typical pasta that you usually eat with a roast beef sauce so that goes perfectly with Barolo
  • Another typical dish is Brasato al Barolo, which is braised veal, lamb or wild boar
  • In autumn in particular, truffle dishes like traditional Tajarin pasta (similar to tagliatelle) with a rich topping of butter, Fonduta or other strong cheese
  • Barolo pairs very well with local cheeses generally, like Castelmagno which is typical of Piedmont or the blue cheese Gorgonzola

When to drink Barolo?

  • Barolo is described as a meditation wine. It’s perfect to have with food, but you can also just have it at the end of the meal – perhaps curled up in front of a fireplace and have a little bit of meditation time with your glass
  • You wouldn’t really want to drink a Barolo on a very hot day. It is a light aperitivo wine as it’s so full-bodied, tannic and high in alcohol

The different sides of the hill

  • The taste. of the wine really can depend on which side of the hill you get your Barolo
  • The different soil types can really influence the flavor. There are two main soil types in Barolo:
    • one is mostly clay mixed with a bit of sand and limestone. That is around La Morra and the town of Barolo itself. This produces a wine that’s somewhat elegant and easier to approach – a little less tannin, softer and fruity
    • the other soil type is really rich in iron. It’s comprised mainly of sand and stone. This produces more austere Barolos – a little bit more tannic and harder to approach. These wines need more time to soften with age. Those wines are from around the towns of Monforte d’Alba and Serralunga d’Alba. The wine produced in this kind of soil is easy to age. You can easily age them for 12-15 years even
  • It is traditional to cellar bottles of wine to celebrate events – marriages and births for instance
  • Andrea’s grandma had a little cellar where she had wine from when he was born and years of special occasions like life events, graduations etc
  • You get to celebrate it twice. When you buy the wine for the special occasion and when you open it, you celebrate again

Recommended Wineries/Enoteca

  • There are many delicious wineries around, but please be aware – you always need an appointment, you can’t just turn up as you can in many wineries in other places like in the US and around Australia
  • Borgogno is a famous winery in the town of Barolo itself. It is not the working winery itself but you’re visiting their cellar, right in the middle of town
  • It’s a beautiful experience to go for a tasting there – where they have a panoramic terrace that looks out over all the hills. Gorgeous scenery to take in while you sip your Barolo
  • They can also show you their cellars which are vast and beautiful
  • You can also visit the town’s castle afterward as that is nearby by
  • Cantina Mascarello, is a historic and famous producer also in Barolo, so if you want to visit the town itself, you can book them both
  • Massolino is in Serralunga d’Alba. Serralunga is a beautiful town to visit and it also has a castle you can visit after the winery
  • In La Morra, there is a fantastic place that is run by the local council called Cantina Communale where you can buy the wines that are produced in the area. Another gorgeous place to visit

Other things to do and see in Piedmont

  • In Piedmont, there is no shortage of good wine, restaurants, plenty of stunning scenery and lots of castles. You could easily spend a weekend or several days exploring because there’s so many beautiful sights to see
  • There’s a very colorful chapel known as the Barolo Chapel that can be found near Le Morra – at the foot of the hill. The Untold Italy tours always swing by. You can’t go inside the chapel, but this multicolored chapel with the vineyards in the distance is quite the photo stop!

When to go

  • Olivia and Andrea recommend Spring as a time to visit Piedmont – when all the flowers are blooming and it’s really pretty but there are fewer people and it’s generally less expensive with crisp mornings, sunny days and you can see the snow sitting on the Alps in the distance
  • Fall/Autumn is the highest season when prices are obviously at a premium. This is because along with the wine harvest, it’s the white truffle season. It’s very expensive and things get booked out well in advance
  • Barolo is a big wine and it does get really hot in Piedmont in the summertime too, so summer is not the best time if you’re visiting with this wine in mind

Getting around

  • You do need a car to get around this area. The only place that you can visit with the train is the city of Alba. It’s a very nice place worth visiting but if you want to go to the vineyards and to the cute little towns, you need a car – either to hire a rental or get a driver
  • If you’re going to wine tastings then a driver or tour rather than driving yourself is obviously a great idea. The rules on limits of alcohol for driving in Italy have recently changed and the limit is now just 0.5mg of blood alcohol
  • The area is wonderful to include on a road trip. A road trip through Piemonte and Liguria and Southern France for instance. If you were driving, you could stop for the night in La Morra or Barolo or one of these little towns because they have these beautiful wine bars where you can try the cantinas
  • They also have lots of Enoteca (specialist wine shops), so you can pop in and buy a bottle of wine or do some wine tasting there

How much does Barolo cost?

  • You can get a 2019 Barolo for around €50
  • A 2017, for example, for a good bottle, you could spend up to €300
  • So if you buy Barolo when it’s first released and and put it away for a couple of years, you could then sell it for a profit – or just pop them open and  enjoy drinking them
  • They do need to be stored correctly though, so that needs to be considered

Other wines from the area

  • Langhe Nebbiolo is produced around the whole Langhe region, so extending the borders of where the Barolo region is. It’s the same grape, but there are different rules and regulations. It’s not required that this wine be aged for as long as Barolo. It is a little bit more approachable and more ready to drink straight away
  • It’s a really nice wine – Andrew loves it. It’s easier to drink than Barolo though is still very tannic acid and is good to pair with the local food
  • Barbera d’Alba is a medium to full-bodied wine at a much lower price point. It’s really fruity with tastes of cherries, dark fruits and herbaceousness. It’s more like an everyday drinking wine. You’ll find it on the table for lunch or dinner in every house in Piedmont
  • Barbaresco is perhaps overlooked and lesser known compared to Barolo but if you consider Barolo as the King, can think of Barbaresco as the Queen of the region. The Barbaresco area is just up from Barolo with the city of Alba sitting between the region of Barolo and Barbaresco. The wine is made from Nebbiola too, but is a little softer, more elegant and less tannic. So again, a bit more approachable than Barolo and also usually more affordable than the Barolo. It can be produced in just three little villages – Neive, Barbaresco and Treiso
  • Arneis (the White Barolo) – Piedmont is not renowned for its white wines, although there are some lovely ones if you like white wine. Within the Langhe, the white wine of choice is Arneis. It is known as the White Barolo and it’s quite tropical with flavors of stone-fruits, honey and apple
  • Piedmont is a red wine lover’s region, but don’t be put off if you struggle drinking Australian and US full-bodied reds – red wines in Italy are generally easier and especially in Piedmont

Royal connections

There are a couple of  versions about why Barolo has become known as the King of Wines:

  • Version 1 –  the wine was produced when Turin was home to the first King of Italy in the late 1800s. The story goes that Barolo as we know it today was produced under the tutelage of the first Prime Minister of Italy, Camillo Count of Cavour, who was  very close to the King. Barolo used to be a very sweet wine. Cavour asked a French oenologist called Louis Oudart to improve the quality of the wine and to create a dry version of Barolo. This wine then became popular with Piedmont aristocracy, and leading to the catch phase – Barolo, the Wine of Kings, the King of Wines
  • Version 2 – the wine comes back to Mthe arqués or the Marquesa of Baroloa, a woman called Juliette Colbert de Maulévrier who is known to everyone in Turin as Juliette de Barolo. She was a noblewoman and when her husband died, she inherited the Falletti family vineyards. She was used to drinking French wines which were a little bit more austere, thanks to the French nobility, so the sweet Barolo was not to her palate. She called the same oenologist that Cavour apparently used –  Louis Oudart, and asked him to make a dry version, which was more to her taste

Why visit Piedmont

  • On a visit to Piedmont, you are not likely to be surrounded by a lot of English-speaking tourists, which is part of its charm
  • It’s a place to experience where they’re just doing what they’re doing because they like doing it
  • Katy had just found a little souvenir of her time in Piedmont, a chocolate gianduja (little nugget) from the chocolatiers Gobino. Find out more about Piedmont’s chocolate-making tradition in episode 200
  • If you want to get under the skin of Piedmont, meet local wine-makers and other artisans and visit these beautiful hilltop towns and casltes (and of course taste some amazing Barolo wine), then consider our Untold Italy Spring and Fall tours of beautiful Piedmont led by Olivia. You are introduced to elegant Turin where Andrea grew up and Liv spent a couple of years getting to know. If you’re someone who likes European elegance and the finer things in life – this trip is for you

More on Italian wine from Andrea and Liv

The fantastic website that Andrea and Liv have created is www.italianwinetales.com. You can also follow them on Instagram for some more inspiration @italianwinetales, or join their new Facebook group ItalianWineLovers. You can connect with Liv on @livguine, or meet her in person on an Untold Italy Tour.

SUBSCRIBE: To the Italian Wine Tales newsletter here.

About our guests – Olivia Windsor and Andrea Mitti Rua

Olivia, an Australian who moved to Italy in May 2019, and Andrea, an Italian from Piemonte, Northern Italy are based in Rome and have recently launched the Italian wine site Italian Wine Tales, where you’ll find not only the best wines to try, but also information on all the Italian wine regions, the best wine tours and wine clubs you can join. Follow them for Italian wine inspiration on Instagram @italianwinetales, join their Facebook group Italian Wine Lovers or sign up for the Italian Wine Tales newsletter here.

Olivia writes a blog called Livguine, named after her love for pasta and her nickname Liv.  She has explored the country south to north, working in agriturismi and organic wineries before settling in Turin, Piedmont for a time after meeting a local Piemontese Andrea. They are both now based in Rome and Olivia hosts various Untold Italy Tours throughout the year in Piedmont, Liguria, Tuscany Capri and Puglia.

You can find Liv and Andrea on these channels:

Untold Italy Tours

Join Liv on one of the many Untold Italy Tours she hosts around Italy. Untold Italy Tours helps you discover your authentic Italy and discover the Italian places, faces, stories, and tastes whose memories linger for years to come.

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Places mentioned in the show

  • Le Langhe – a hilly area in the province of Asti in Piedmont, northern Italy
  • La Morra – a small town in the heart of the Barolo wine-growing region where it used to be illegal to cut down a Nebbiolo vine (penalties ranging from a fine to hanging!)
  • Verduno, Serralunga d’Alba, Castiglione Falletto Monforte d’Alba,,- small towns which make Barolo
  • Alba – nearby town famous for it’s truffles
  • Neive, Barbaresco and Treiso – villages where Barbaresco is made
  • Grinzane Cavour Castle – UNESCO World Heritage castle in Piedmdont first dating from 13th/14th century

Recommended wine/wine makers

Food & Drink

  • Barolo – famous Piedmont red wine
  • Nebbiolo – grape variety
  • Agnolotti/agnolotti al plin – a stuffed pasta usually with a beef filling with pinched edges and often served with the sauce of the meat cooked for the filling great in brodo or with truffles
  • Brasato al barolo – braised veal, lamb or boar cooked in a bottle of Barolo wine – a decadent treat
  • Tajarin pasta (Tagliolini in Italian) – a ribbon pasta, halfway between spaghetti and tagliatelle (great with a ragu)
  • Fonduta – a rich and creamy sauce made with Fontina and mascarpone cheese
  • Castelmagno – a semi-hard, half-fat cheese from Piedmont made from the milk of the Piedmontese breed of cow
  • Gorgonzola – Piedmont blue cheese
  • gianduja – paste mix of chocolate and hazelnut
  • Guido Gobino – chocolatiers originating from Turin – you’ll find a few stores in the city as well as Milan
  • Langhe Nebbiolo – another type of red wine from Piedmont

Resources

  • vendemmia – the wine harvest
  • Camillo Count of Cavour – a leading figure in the movement towards Italian unification and Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Sardinia
  • Louis Oudart – French oenologist believed to have involved in the invention of Barolo
  • Juliette de Barolo – a French Roman Catholic philanthropist and the founder of the Sisters of Saint Anne and the Daughters of Jesus the Good Shepherd and said to have been involved in the creation of Barolo as we know it today

Resources from Untold Italy

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