Food & Drink, Libations

In defence of Barolo

A couple of weeks ago, after a lecture about the neuroscience of wine tasting, I ran into Nanette, another wine writer (@wineharlots). We promptly retired to the lobby bar for a beer.

Nanette was being pursued by a PR person intent on plying her with wine. The wine in question was Barolo. Not just any Barolo either, but an ‘04 Batasiolo. Technically I shouldn’t have been drinking it. It was too young. In my defence, allow me to point out I hadn’t had a glass of the Batasiolo since I served it to a number of RBC customers.

Not many of my RBC clients liked the wine. Nanette and everybody else in that bar that night in Portland – other than the PR rep – seemed to agree with them. I however, fell on that bottle like Dracula on a throat.

So why do I drink it? Well in a hot year, it makes for a robust wine, with solid tannins, a subtle bouquet of violets, and a surprisingly delicate finish. In cool years, a good one is balanced, slightly acidic (and avoiding this is apparently why people migrate to fat, sweet wines) with a lingering sweet finish that I particularly enjoy.

The collector’s end of the market is weird: The fruit is hidden by tannin and tremendous acidity. Despite this I tell you Barolo is a jewel in the crown of wine. In fact, to paraphrase Ben Franklin, I view Barolo as proof there is a God; the ’04 is proof is he loves us.

Barolo is from the eastern foothills of the Alps, the region known as the Piedmont (AKA Piemonte, consonants being what they are and slowly going extinct). The grape is Nebbiolo, a varietal which more than any other – excepting maybe Viognier and Corvina. Oh and Tempranillo. And maybe a dozen other Portuguese varietals. And of course Syrah. And maybe Grenache both Noir and Blanc. And also of course…. [ed: due to space constraints the balance of shopping list has been deleted. We now return to the main clause.] – gives the lie to the whole notion of the noble five. (Traditional French maintained the only great wines came from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling. In doing so they ignored that most of their great wines are blends that include other varietals.)

The wine is light in colour, a tell-tale brick red, but surprisingly tannic. Some of the tannins are due to the winemakersí arts. These days, most of them have realized constructing a wine to last a quarter century is rather like building a staircase to heaven, an interesting notion but not terribly useful.

So this is the first thing you need to know: If you rush out after reading this and acquire a case of collectible Barolo, you wonít much like it till about twenty years from now.

On the other hand, the consumer Barolo is released in a more or less drinkable condition. The ìmore or lessî in this case is because even consumer versions, those bottles that raise nothing but a wrinkled lip from collectors, can still cellar agreeably for ten more years.

If you run into a young version, say less than five years old, I recommend decanting the stuff, although I think this less necessary than for Bordeaux. (Barolo tannins arenít as gum scraping as Bordeaux.) The Italians agree with me, often extending the bottle to the dessert part of the meal or even opening the bottle then to consume with cheese and sometimes chocolate.

Pretty much every liquor store across the Prairies, including both the MLCC and SLGA make a point of stocking a couple of Barolo but usually doesnít make space for any more. My favourite Barolo shopping spot in Canada is La Boutique del Vino, at Taylor and Waverly in Winnipeg. They’ve got some great stuff in the temperature controlled back room. Usually once you ask for Barolo you will be taken back there to spend a moment with your head bowed before the alter. (And hey, while you’re there check out the Serrano ham in the deli next door.)

Assuming you don’t have immediate access to Nardi’s, you will have to make do with more workaday wines. Be not dismayed! They are excellent and drink all of ’em.

Anforio premiovini is widely distributed (and at the SLGA). It’s a riserva, spending a little more time in the barrel and bottle before release. The current Anforio is the 2004 version, an elegant wine with a touch of browning visible at the edge of the glass. The bouquet is just lovely, the fruit restrained and the finish quite long and slightly sweet.

Fontanafredda is the label that carries the banner of Barolo abroad. They are just about everywhere in the world, and they should be. Collectors and snobs will sniff at you for drinking their base silver label Barolo, but don’t let that stop you. It’s a great way in to the wine, and at worst it is still better than about 99 per cent of the wine produced in the world.

It is more robust, still thick although nowhere near the texture that aficionados of Californian cabernet require. The bouquet is more obviously herbal, but the palate and finish are still Barolo: Who needs more than that?

This is probably the easiest Barolo to get to know, but it may leave you slightly mystified as to why people like me pursue in Barolo. If you have a hard time understanding, I suggest letting the empty glass stand on the counter over night and then try to work out the bouquet the next morning. You will be surprised at the complexity left behind.

Willow Park carries a handful of Barolo – including the Batasiolo that began this column – some of which are aimed at collectors, but more and more are aimed at people looking for a fine dinner and post dinner wine.

Executive Summary

If you buy a collector Barolo hide it in the basement for 20 years

Buy the less expensive (less than $50 versions) until you’re sure you understand (love?) the stuff.

Travel Information
Piemonte is perhaps the most beautiful and least travelled area of Italy. Most people blast through on their way to Tuscany. Vineyards are not necessarily open to the public so do your research before getting on the flight.

Anforio Riserva Barolo, Italy, 2004. $38.30 *****
Fontanafredda Barolo, Italy 2007. $32.95 *****


James Romanow writes about Wine and all things Boozy for the Spectator Tribune. Follow him @drbooze

Follow us: @SpectatorTrib