ALBA, Italy — Italian wine lovers feel Barolo is the greatest achievement of viniculture in this wine-loving country, wines they are convinced should be accorded the same stature as the best of Bordeaux.
Certainly these kings of the Piedmont region age as well; unquestionably they have as deep and complex a flavor when they are mature. In addition, prices for the best are generally a good deal less than the best of Bordeaux.
"And yet shipments of all Italian wine are off 30% this year," said Neil Empson, whose wine export company, based in Milan, specializes in Italian wines, most of them Barolo and related wines from the region around Alba.
Empson, a New Zealand native, is a savvy wine man. He's been involved in Italian wine for 21 years and he knows the present situation may well be transitory.
As we drove across the valley from where the house of Ceretto sits on an eastern hill to Marcarini, south and west on a hill in La Morra, Empson noted that Barolo still represents top value, despite some high pricing.
"It's being made better today than ever, and people still have the same feeling about it," he said, a note of exasperation creeping into his voice.
In three days of touring through a dozen properties here, I saw that Empson was right. It appears that the best Barolos have been made recently, notably wines from 1978, 1985, 1988 and 1989.
Tasted young, Barolo can be rough, tannic and tart for those unused to it. Barolo Riserva, which normally is aimed at longer aging in the bottle, is usually even rougher.
But given time in the bottle, the wines can be so amazingly rich and complex they are phenomenal, equal to the greatest red wines in the world.
In the last few years, however, a controversy has sprung up over the use of small barrels, called barriques, for the aging of Barolo. And thus have arisen two styles of wine.
Those who use small, new oak barrels made of French oak and slightly charred on the inside get a wine that is more complex, a vanilla/toast component that adds to the wine but covers up some of the natural fruit of the Nebbiolo grape that is the heart of Barolo. Those who feel Barolo should not be aged in small barrels adhere to the traditional use of aging in huge upright wooden vats, and they say this retains the true character of the Nebbiolo fruit that is unique when the fruit grows in this hilly region.
"I am against the use of barriques for Barolo," said Aldo Conterno, whose family winery on a hill south of Alba makes some of the best Barolo in the region. "Others have tried it, and they have had success. But it is a unique wine. It might make a 'better' wine for some people, but it would be hard to identify as Barolo."
Conterno, a feisty and direct man, admitted, however, that the name on the label means more to most people than the method of making the wine. He spelled out his philosophy in one succinct remark:
"Ninety percent of the people who drink wine know nothing about it, only what's great and what's bad, and (they get that) only from what they read."
In his opinion, if Barolo sales are flat, it may be because of the sale of the classic 1978 Barolos too early in their life. "You see," he said, "1978 was a great year here, but it was all wasted (in terms of publicity) because it was sent to market too young. The fault was all ours. We sold it too soon." Thus people who evaluated the 1978 Barolos early got the idea they were too hard and would not develop.
At Sebaste nearby, the young Mauro Sebaste is experimenting with small oak barrels. His compact, fast-rising property is loaded with small oak barrels, many of them new, and Sebaste's wines have received high marks from Gambero Rosso, a prestigious, independent Italian wine journal.
Sebaste is an emotional man who notes that wood is not the answer to Barolo, but it is a way to make the wine more interesting to the growing consumer base that seeks wine with that character. "I like what the wine is when it is (aged) in wood," he said.
I noted that Italian law requires longer barrel aging for wines designated riserva, and that if all this aging were done in new, small oak casks, the resulting wine would soon become too oaky. He said he doesn't follow the law.
"The law is made in Rome," he said. "Wine is made here. I take the wine out of the barrel when it is good for the wine, not when it is good for the law."
"I was the first one in Italy to use barriques, in 1953," said Alfredo Prunotto, "and I saw they were not giving the results I wanted. Our present and future is to make great wine using traditional methods."
Prunotto's wines are deeply rich, with more tannins than some of the Barolos I tasted, but wines made to age superbly for decades.
The most elegant Barolos I sampled, were at Renato Ratti. Owner Massimo Martinelli uses no small barrels, yet he achieves a degree of richness and warmth in his wines from the combination of vineyards he uses to assemble his wine.