At its simplest, the debate between the so-called traditionalist and modernist schools of Barolo (and Barbaresco) might see two theoretical factions facing off with taunts that like; “bastone del fango - sticks in the mud, you are so set in your ways!” Or in return, “You guys, your wines taste like they could be anything and from anywhere, so rich, dark and oaky. Make Barolo!”
It is a still-relevant topic and something certainly worth knowing the background to...for background. And of course, there are no two factions only. The lines are blurred, and the truth, that is to say the current state of affairs, finds that things having met in the middle, are probably now leaning back in the traditional direction.
So what is a working definition of each of these ‘factions’?
Traditional Barolo and Barbaresco, might be handled (more or less) along the following lines;
Grapes crushed in open, concrete tanks or very large oak vessels and undergoing a long time of contact between juice and skins (maceration), with fermenting temperatures barely controlled. This might go on for as long as 30 days and sometimes up to temperatures of 30-31C. The periodic, or daily (some even more so) pump-over, which is the mixing of the cap (grape skins) and the fermenting must underneath, would typically be a manual affair.
For maturation, the wine goes into very large, old and multi-used oak – called botti and contains up to a 3000 litre capacity - often for 3 years or even more, well beyond even what the DOCG laws dictate. And this time in oak was, and is still, primarily for the purpose of controlled oxidation, a process which along with racking was the way to bring Nebb’s fearsome tannins into some sort of line. It is not intended to take in any oak character and particularly not vanilla or the dreaded coconut!
Then the bottles would be aged for at least another 2 years, again often longer even than law dictated.
Modernists – from around 35 years ago, led by Angelo Gaja, and Marc De Grazia (the Italian-American pioneer of taking Italian wines to the Americas), thought Barolo (and Barbaresco) needed to be more approachable, and maybe even a bit closer in character and appeal, to other richer, riper and often more oaky International wines. They were getting all the attention, higher points and importantly more $$$ and Italy wanted to be part of it. So between them they began to produce styles of wines using;
Riper grapes; where (when) this was possible and making more useof lower yields in the vineyard
Shorter and cooler fermentations and macerations, often in sealed and cooled steel vessels, which might have paddles, or even rotate to keep juice and skins in more continuous contact.
The maturing wines would often go into smaller and newer oak, with resulting ‘oaky’ characters seen as a desirable imprint.
The aim being to produce darker, more rich, relatively softer and more ready to drink wines. Something ready in more like 4-5 than 10-15 years, or even sooner?
So the criticisms of each might be summed up a like this; while the traditionalists continue to make wines which need time and appreciation, the modern consumer doesn't have time to cellar and decant and breathe these wines. Essentially, the modernist producers in Italy have corrupted the ancient art, the aromatics, taste and age-worthy characters of the true Barolo and Barbaresco. And there are indeed ‘arches’ at both ends of the spectrum. Firmly traditional producers like Roberto Conterno of Giacomo Conterno, continues to give his Barolo wines up to 7 years in large oak (plus extra time in bottle) before release – and his wines are sought out world-wide to the last bottle. Some modernists like Gaja and Scavino eg, still layer obvious oak across their wines, confident that time will knit the whole package together, and being happy too, that the oak flavour is attractive to some at any stage along that development.
Many more producers, however, occupy a middle ground, where they can still be identified as one faction or the other, but where their aims and results are actually not so far apart from one another. Two such names are Barale, of Barolo comune (being right in the village of Barolo), and the Revello family of Annunziata frazione (fraction) in nearby La Morra comune. Only a couple of kilometres apart, each family are essentially one faction or the other, but also use elements of the ‘other’ regime to get their desired results. Barale in dealing with Nebbiolo from two comunes, Barolo and Monforte d’Alba, and to emphasise the individuality of the top vineyards, the crus, still go for the long, but somewhat more controlled ferment/maceration. But nowdays they age the wines in small barrels. These though, have been leached of any hint of the vanilla (and cedar) characters that Sergio Barale loathes. He does believe these small barrels are best for Nebbiolo’s tannins. By contrast, his ‘normale’ Barolo and Langhe Nebbiolo level wines are chosen and blended to be plumper and more giving sooner.
Carlo Revello, working with the naturally plumper and more generous La Morra fruit, with its chocolate and raisins notes, likes a bit of obvious oak in his entry-level wines. And he’s still one for shorter, cooler and more vigorous ferments. But these days he uses far less of small wood for his crus – a decided difference to his early days as a full-on modernist!
So one nods to the market realities, while the other nods...to the market’s other realities. One that people need some more approachable Nebbiolo and the other that people really want – and will pay for - just the uninhibited personality of a producers top sites.
All this just serves to make the whole Nebbiolo experience even more interesting!