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April 8, 2015

Barolo and Barbaresco

For some lovers of Italian red wine, the controversy stumbles on about the primacy of Nebbiolo or Sangiovese.  Which grape consistently produces Italy’s best red wine?  Is Nebbiolo-based Barolo superior to Sangiovese-based Brunello di Montalcino?

Most wine drinkers agree that both wines are at the top of Italy’s wine hierarchy.  So, you may ask, who cares?  Well, Kerin O’Keefe does, and she explains why in her latest book, “Barolo and Barbaresco.”  The subtitle is, “The King and Queen of Italian Wine.”  Her previous book about Brunello might lead the curious reader to wonder if O’Keefe considers that the famed Tuscan red the Crown Prince of Italian Wine.
That sounds a little snarky, I know, since O’Keefe has received praise for both of her books on the noted Italian red wines.  And her opus on Barolo and Barbaresco is, no doubt, of value to those with a particular affection for these two Piedmont reds.  But the readers most likely to get the most value from this book are wine drinkers and collectors who value traditional grape growing and winemaking.  In the Preface to her book, the author makes no bones, stating unequivocally, “I strongly prefer terroir-driven wines.”  But then, she also warns the reader not to be surprised at not seeing mention in her book of Barolos and Barbarescos “bestowed…by critics who reward only dense concentration and pungent oak sensations of vanilla and espresso.”   That disingenuous put-down of writers and critics implies that they give high scores “only” to big concentrated wines.

The basics of “Barolo and Barbaresco” follow the now-familiar format of publisher UC Press:  Introduction, history, background of grape and wine, profiles of Barolo and Barbaresco producers, a glossary and two appendices.  The 312 pages of text are supplemented with illustrations, including basic black-and-white maps and “Figures,” a collection of 31 black and white vineyard scenes, scenic views and wine personalities, photographed by O’Keefe’s husband Paolo Tenti and used by the publisher to break up long runs of grey text.  Granted, this is not a picture book, but Tenti cannot be too happy with the poor reproduction of some of his photos.

Following the book’s profiles of Barolo and Barbaresco winemakers and vintners are two appendices.  Appendix A is a vintage guide, starting with 1945 and current to the 2010 vintage.  Of those, O’Keefe deems just 15 worthy of her highest five-star rating, including 1945 and 2010.  In the preface to the vintage guide, she suggests that if you have aged Barolos, to open them “three to four hours ahead of time as opposed to decanting.”   If this sounds like the questionable advice handled out years ago by Franco Biondi-Santi when opening aged Brunello, you’re right.  I admit that I do not fully understand the principles of physics, but how does exposing a quarter-sized area of wine for three or four hours improve the wine any more than opening the bottle 15 to 30 minutes before pouring?  And shouldn’t the decision of whether or not to decant older wines depend on the age and known history of the wine? 

Readers wanting a snapshot look at Barolo and Barbaresco will appreciate “Barolo and Barbaresco at a Glance,” in Appendix B.  Both are nicely thought-out synopses of both regions, including DOC and DOCG dates, key points to the 2010-revised production code for Barolo, and star ratings of the most noteworthy vineyards in each region.

The great strength of O’Keefe’s book, though, is in the well-researched material leading up to the vintner profiles.   Part One is about Barolo:  Focusing on the Langhe as “the place,” Nebbiolo the grape of Barolo, the history of the region, and the wine itself.  Although O’Keffe leans heavily on numbers and statistics, which may be superfluous to those readers interested more in the wine, there are things to be learned, such as the uniqueness of the Langhe’s geology and how it strongly defines the character of Barolo.  I also found O’Keefe’s discussion of the similarities between Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir fascinating, while dodging the numerous blockades of acreage (stated in hectares) clones and other miscellany.  She gets back on track in, “The King of Wines, the Wine of Kings,” with the historical background of Barolo, a section that acts as a sort of preface to what might be the most interesting chapter in the book, “The Barolo Wars and Their Effect on Both Denominations.”

This chapter indicates that, until the 1980s, Barolo winemaking was stuck in the late 19th century.  “The Barolo Wars” is O’Keefe’s term for the disagreements that arose when young turks like Elio Atare in Barolo and Angelo Gaja in Barbaresco sought to re-vamp Barolo’s hide-bound winemaking processes, aligning them more closely to what was happening in France and the Napa Valley.  The old vs. new arguments simmered over the use of French oak barriques rather than the traditional large Slavonian oak botti or casks.  The account of Altare’s bitter battle with his father is--all on its own--worth the price of the book.

Perhaps the most contentious battle, though, was over winemaking styles.  O’Keefe says there were two camps:  The “Traditionalists,” led by Bartolo Mascarello, Beppe Rinaldi and Teobaldo Cappellano, who decried green harvesting of grapes, rotary fermenters, and short high-energy fermentations, whereas the “Modernists” wanted more concentrated, fruitier wines, aged in barriques rather than botti.  At issue was replacing the traditional Barolo characteristics of leather, tar and rose with coffee, chocolate and vanilla and swapping what O’Keefe’s calls “Barolo’s nervous acidity and bracing tannins” for lower acidity and harder wood tannins.  It is an argument that has reared its continuous head in other wine regions as well.  At the end of the day, as O’Keefe reports, a truce was agreed upon in “The Barolo Wars,” with most winemakers in Barolo and Barbaresco coming to believe that the newer-style wines were the best ever.  Of course, progress, attrition and the changing of the guard had a lot to do with the change of many hearts.

There are a few more niggling annoyances in O’Keefe’s book, such as her dogmatic belief in traditional grape growing and winemaking (she grudgingly gives a qualified nod to barriques), her choices for the profiles, and her blurring of the line between subjective opinion and objective assessment (which at times has a “my-way-or-the-highway” ring to it).  Overall, though,“Barolo and Barbaresco” is a must-read for lovers of the two wines and Italian red wine in general.

Barolo and Barbaresco:  The King and Queen of Italian Wine, by Kerin O’Keefe, University of California Press, hardcover, 368 pages, $39.95, ISBN: 9780520273269.

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Gerald Boyd, Wine Review Online Columnist Emeritus, contributes book reviews in this space on a regular basis from his so-called "retirement."

Posted by Gerald D. Boyd at 1:01 PM