Do Consumers Even Like Barolo?

Above: Which way Barolo? A signpost at an overlook in La Morra showing the distance to neighboring communes.

So, do consumers even like Barolo? It’s a sad question to ask if you’re a nebbiolo obsessive, but I think there’s some truth to it. Outside of the wine trade, it seems like most people just don’t respond to nebbiolo the way they do to, say, pinot noir or even sangiovese. Whether that’s a good thing or bad thing for nebbiolo is an open question; but it most certainly has implications for producers in Barolo and Barbaresco.

I recently wrote an article about the current state of Barolo for the San Francisco Chronicle (you can read it here). And while it seems that producers in the region are moving beyond the (frankly tired) debate of traditional vs. modern when it comes to the identity of Barolo, there’s arguably an even bigger step necessary for the nebbiolo heartland: connecting with the people who actually enjoy their wines.

By enjoy, I don’t necessarily mean covet or collect, but rather the appreciation of Barolo (or Barbaresco) for what it is instead of as some sort of trophy. Sadly, the wines won’t ever be cheap but neither should the pricing continue to rise to levels where (most) wines are unattainable.

It’s unlikely that Barolo will ever develop an international high-end market (complete with knock-offs) equivalent to what Bordeaux has going on, and aside from a few rare bottles, Barolo winemakers aren’t anywhere close to the status enjoyed by their counterparts in Burgundy — a frequent comparison.

Happily, two recent trends suggest that there’s bright news for nebbiolo-lovers. First up, the current vintage in the market, 2006, seems to favor producers with a classical bent meaning that what’s in the bottle is an honest representation of the region’s terroir.

And perhaps even better news: after years of lavishing their attention on riserva-level bottlings or numerous single-vineyard ‘cru’ wines, winemakers in the region are turning a serious eye to their blended base wines, those labeled as Barolo, and often sourced from multiple communes. When I joined the Chronicle’s tasting panel for an overview of the 2006 vintage, we found several wines from this category in the $30- $40 range that showed the clarity and depth I love to see in nebbiolo. Good news indeed! You can read the results of that tasting here.

Wine Blogging Wednesday: Piemonte

(For background on Wine Blogging Wednesday, hosted this time by David McDuff, go here)

I’ve not done one of these before but since it’s about a quarter to midnight on the west coast–and thus just under deadline–what the hell? At the moment I’ve got a raging fire to my left and a glass of riesling in my hand. But this post isn’t about that wine, but instead the 1999 Barolo Massara from Castello di Verduno, a traditionally-minded producer located in the commune of Verduno at the northern end of the Barolo appellation, just before the Langhe hills stop at the Tanaro river.

Massara is a relatively young cru of nebbiolo, planted in the late 80s and early 90s in calcareous sand and limestone laden clay common to this Barolo subregion. Nebbiolo from here is often more approachable at an earlier age than say, Serralunga or Monforte, although we’re not talking about lightly structured wines. This is drinking well now, and you can get it for the relatively inexpensive price of around $40 at Arlequin Wine Merchant in San Francisco (about the only place in the US to carry this wine, or at least this vintage).

massara(Silly me, that’s the label for the ’01 vintage…)

Anyway, a tasting note: Aromatic, with notes of dried rose and cherry, this feels fine and elegant on the palate, with a lasting stony quality. It finishes bright and firm, the structure there for another 4 or 5 years in the cellar. Although it kicked ass with fresh potato gnocchi (gotta love my new potato ricer) topped with a wild mushroom ragù. Yum.

Arlequin has more of this by the way…

Politics, Italian Style

Between writing buckets of tasting notes and planning various trips this spring, my mind has been lost in Italy a lot recently. Like when is it not? But rarely do I think about Italian politics anymore (you really need to be living there to follow it, and even then nothing makes sense). Until of course, something like the collapse of the government happens, and then I just sort of sigh and mutter to myself, “Italia”.

And as people have been saying since Prodi won the elections not even two years ago, Silvio Berlusconi is lurking in the wings ready to pounce. In fact, he seems to be claiming that elections could happen as soon as April–just after VinItaly, which, interestingly enough, often happens. So on yet another trip to Italy I will perhaps witness another election (although it will be hard to beat the death of the Pope in 2005 for Italian style drama during VinItaly).

Oh Berlusconi. If he returns, I wonder if someone will take up the legendary Bartolo Mascarello’s crusade?


(Above: At a time when Berlusconi directly or indirectly controlled much of the media in Italy, therefore limiting any real critical look at him or his policies by mainstream sources, Bartolo Mascarello released his Barolo with a graffiti spattered label that read “No Barrique, No Berlusconi.” Can you imagine a venerable Napa Valley cabernet producer doing the same with the words “Impeach Bush” on the label?)