Tuesday, November 24, 2009
The Barolo Wars
Did you know that during the 1980's there was a fierce civil war raging in the Piedmont region of Italy? On one side were the old school vintners of Barolo, a wine made from the immensely tannic nebbiolo grape, who made their wine by making the ‘must' (freshly pressed juice of the grapes) undergo a minimum of three weeks of fermentation upon the grape skins. The result was a massively tannic wine that, even after aging in Slovenian oak casks, could still be virtually undrinkable at the time of bottling. These old schoolers' or "traditionalists" as labeled by the press insisted that only this process would yield the famous Barolo wine. Following bottling, the wine had to age for roughly ten years before the tannins softened sufficiently to make the wine enjoyable. At fifteen years post-bottling, the wine may become stellar. Flavors of rose petals, big drying cherry, licorice, anise and tar combine to make a very unique wine drinking experience that cannot be copied elsewhere in the world.
Pitted against the "traditionalists" were another group of Piedmont vintners in and around the town of Alba (the only place in the world where the nebbiolo grape produces this incredible wine). This group of vintners, well aware of the world wine appetite for fruit-forward wine styles, wanted to take Barolo in this direction. They claim for the love of the wine, but I suspect more for the love of increased sales. In any case, these Italian vintners, including Poderi Luigi Einaudi, discovered that they could produce a Barolo with a more fruit driven flavor profile by reducing the fermentation period from a minimum of three weeks to a maximum of ten days! The result was a Barolo that could be drunk five or six years post-vintage. These innovating vintners were labeled the "modernists" by the press.
The press declared the clash between the traditionalists and the modernists to be the ‘Barolo wars.' The traditionalists declared the modernists were traitors and producing a wine that was not Barolo. The modernists spewed vitriol at their opponents calling them dinosaurs.
A ‘Modernist' Barolo - Introducing the 2004 Poderi Luigi Einaudi Nei Cannubi Barolo
The 2004 Poderi Luigi Einaudi Nei Cannubi Barolo is a beautiful example of a modernist Barolo. On the nose, you will experience the equivalent of a bouquet of wild violets and roses, a floral scent that will bring you back again and again to the rim of your wine glass. On the palate, you will be very pleased by a big aromatic cherry mouthfeel, delivered on a bed of smooth, ripe tannins, followed by rose petals, tar, tobacco, spice and a little anise. The finish is stellar. Lingering in your mouth are flavors of red fruit, oak, spice box, and tobacco which cover the entire palate and seem to pucker dry in a wonderful fashion. This wine has it all. The word "perfume" comes to mind, a "perfumed" wine, but not in a cheap way. Think Armani.
Drinking well now and can be enjoyed up to 2020. Yes, "2020." This is one of the few wines in the world that has the ability to improve with time, a long time. As it ages, the fruit orientation will become less prominent and the tar, anise, and rose aspects of the flavor profile will become increase.
Decant, Decant, Decant . . .
Never uncork, pour and drink. This is a big wine, actually one of the most robust red wines in the entire world (I am not exaggerating). Decant for a three hours, and time it so that your dinner of rosemary encrusted leg of lamb, osso busco, or homemade lasagna is ready at the same time. This is a wine of great acidity that needs a heavy rich, meat based or tomato based entrée.
Horribly expensive. No doubt about it. This is not a wine that I would recommend for the casual drinker. You must love red wine, having tried a wide variety, over a number of years, before you can properly appreciate this wine. I know this sounds incredibly arrogant, but it is indeed true. Even though the 2004 Poderi Luigi Einaudi Nei Cannubi Barolo is made in the modernist style, meaning it is fruit-forward, remember, it is fruit rich when compared to traditional Barolo. If you put the modernist Barolo next to a Napa cab, you will correctly regard the Barolo as austere, dark, and certainly not fruit driven. Some people try Barolo, and don't understand what the fuss is all about. Others are obsessed. If you are only a casual wine drinker, I would stay away from this one. It's very expensive and has a flavor profile that is not mainstream.
Part of the reason for the very high price is due to the fact that the Nebbiolo grape has not been successfully cultivated anywhere else in the world, outside of Alba, Italy and a couple of close surrounding Italian communes. The Cannubi vineyards are among the best if not the best in the Barolo producing area. The price reflects this scarcity.
So, Who Won the War?
There was no clear victor. There are still Piedmont vintners making wine in the very traditional way. Their wine takes much longer to mature than the modernist's wines. But even at maturity, the traditionalist Barolo is more austere, much less cherry fruit than the modern style. Who won? Well, that is for you to decide!
© Jason Debly, 2009-2010. All rights reserved