Barolo vs. Barbaresco - Who's the Boss?
"It wasn’t even a Barolo (or Barbaresco) that first did ‘it’ for me. No, I think I’d had, and been intrigued by, three Nebbiolo wines from outside Barolo country before I even got to try one from the heartland. And indeed, the first of those three was an Oz wine, from Mudgee, way, way back....
There you go, I’m already doing it...again. Calling the Piedmont’s Langhe region, the area immediately around the town of Alba and acknowledged as the HQ of Nebbiolo, ‘Barolo country’. It’s not really correct terminology, no, but it’s just what we’re used to doing. Why is this, is it justified and is it at a cost to the reputation of the other senior Nebbiolo wine, Barbaresco?
Well yes it does seem to leave Barbaresco completely unjustifiably in my view, in the shadow of Barolo – but only because it’s been better known for longer. Simple as that.
Barolo is the larger of the two, producing roughly 11 million bottles compared to about 4.5 mill in an average vintage. Barolo is comprised of 11 comunes (sort-of council districts in our lingo), compared to Barbarescos spanning just 4. Barbaresco is usually harvested a little sooner than nearby Barolo and it’s rules allow for slightly lower minimum alcohol and less time in oak and overall aging. This imlies it’s a bit softer and in general, ready to use a bit sooner. There is a greater variation in the soils of Barolo’s various communes, and more dramatic and arguably noticeable differences from comune to comune amongst Barolo wines, in comparison to Barbaresco. The two zones got their DOCG recognition at the same time (1980), but by then Barolo was the headline act and it took the boldness of Barbaresco’s greatest champion, the legendary Angelo Gaja (incidentally the Italian Patron of our club nebb) with ambitious pricing and tireless promotion to make the first real attempts at catch-up. Gaja probably succeeded more in making his name more famous, and ironically actually took his top (and very pricey) Barbaresco wines out of the DOCG. These formerly Barbaresco Crus, namely Costa Russi, Sori San Lorenzo and Sori Tildin (each fabulous wines) reverted to using the Langhe appellation – although they can in turn, revert back to Barbaresco DOCG, if desired.
I’ve never been sure why he did this, and one explanation was to allow his top wines the ability to blend in from other places, or to use a little of other varieties, such as Barbera, which might add a bit of richness? This firmed up Gaja’s iconic and luxury status, but probably left the heavy-lifting to Bruno Giacosa, who seems to have coped pretty well as doyen of Barbaresco. It’s hard to argue that a Giacosa Barbaresco ‘Asili’ – or particularly the Riserva - is not the equal of any Barolo. Nevertheless, it’s also fair to say that the reviewers mark many more Barolo wines with high points and the market buys and values them more highly.
So does this all constitute some superiority for one over the other? Not for me. There are times when the chunk of an earthy, smoky, darkly-fruited, more grippingly tannic Barolo (a reliable generalisation), is what’s wanted. At other times we desire the grace, fruitiness and more supple style of Barbaresco. In the Bordeaux realm the comparison might be Pauillac or Graves to Margaux? In Burgundy maybe Vosne-Romanee to Musigny? In the local context could it be Barossa floor Shiraz to Eden Valley or Canberra eg or Langhorne Cabernet’s darkness to Coonawarras style?
All makes for ongoing debate. However, lest there be any, any doubt about the sheer thrill factor that good Barbaresco can provide, do a road test. Treat yourself to one of Giacosa’s Asili or Santo Stefanos (although you’ll likely need to do this in syndicate, or just dont pay the power bill quite yet). Much more affordable and still outstanding examples can be had in Marchesy di Gresy’s supremely elegant Martinenga, or the Castello di Neive’s Santo Stefano-derived collection of beautiful wines. Classic and authentic Barbaresco can be easily found among Bruno Rocca’s and Sottimano’s fruity, fleshy wonders. Very affordable wines can be had from the red-fruity Bera Barbaresco and from the gorgeous aromatics and raciness of Barale’s Serraboella, while the wines of Prunotto and Patrizi still retain their authenticity at quite bargain prices.
Time to settle the argument for your self?"
- David Ridge