This November, we may not be able to travel to Alba for white truffle season, but that hasn’t stopped the coveted fungi from making their way to us along with their classic accompaniments Barolo and Barbaresco. However, long after the last truffle has been shaved down to a nub, there’s no reason to stop breaking out these exquisite bottles.
These are quintessential year-end wines: not heavy, but deep and soul-satisfying in a way that seems precisely keyed to the hearty flavours of any place that experiences winter. They’re also increasingly popular across Asia, where many collectors dismayed by soaring Burgundy prices and bored with Bordeaux have awoken to their idiosyncratic charms. Elegant and brooding in equal measure, these are complex wines that are not necessarily the easiest to pair with Asian-inspired dishes, but can produce imaginative, exciting pairings when they do work.
Barolo and Barbaresco are two villages in the northwestern Italian region of Piemonte (“foot of the mountain”) and also the names of two DOCG wines based on Nebbiolo––a grape variety that produces wines as replete with lilting perfume as with tannins and acidity––from regions that include those villages. Both regions are characterised by sticky, clay-based soils that have crumpled over the millennia into a storybook landscape of rolling hills. The resulting plethora of gradients and exposures means that individual sites, called “crus” or MGA (menzioni geografiche aggiuntive), produce profoundly different wines that demand very different pairing recommendations.
However, unlike Burgundy’s centuries-old classification, Barolo’s crus are comparatively young. Relatively few exceptional sites like Cannubi can claim a long track record of individual bottlings. The “classic Barolo,” now somewhat unfairly demoted to “basic Barolo,” was historically blended from vineyards across the region. Certain wineries like Bartolo Mascarello persist with blending, rejecting the Burgundian-inspired pyramid that privileges single-vineyard wines. Blended wines are, by design, usually less afflicted with extreme personalities and can often be relied on for balance and food-friendliness.
However, these days most wineries in both Barolo and Barbaresco have adopted the cru system whole hog. Bottles are proudly emblazoned with MGA names to imply both top quality and a particular style. Cannubi is known for its lusciousness, Vigna Rionda its power, Asili its lacey finesse and the newly red-hot Monvigliero its slowly emerging grace. This has to an extent replaced the notion that certain communes within Barolo and Barbaresco (or indeed the two DOCGs as a whole) can consistently be linked with particular wine traits. While Barbaresco was once characterised as “feminine,” and Barolo as “masculine,” this dichotomy has recently begun to sound as outdated as the descriptors themselves.