Ever seen a wine lover fall to their knees? If not, just say Grand Cru Red Burgundy and watch what happens next.
Yet Burgundy may be getting a little too big for its boots. James Hocking, a major wine importer based in the U.K., observes that, “Stratospheric Burgundy pricing of the top wines is seriously putting off all but the wealthiest global collectors.” Propelled by a mixture of arrogance and avarice, the region’s leading brands now ask for the moon — a bottle of 2018 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is a bargain at approximately $30,000. Even oligarchs are starting to wonder if red Burgundy is worth the money. A new diamond-encrusted super-yacht, or six bottles of Leroy Musigny 2005? These are the difficult choices in life.
Fortunately, there is a brilliant alternative waiting in the hills of Piedmont. It’s called Barolo.
The home of Barolo
Barolo’s vineyards are found southwest of the city of Alba, on the right bank of the River Tanaro. Growers work in 11 communes divided between the Langhe hills; Piedmont is renowned for both delicious truffles and ethereal red wines. The autumn mists that envelop the undulating landscape present one of the most striking scenes in viticulture.
In every sense of the word, Barolo is Italy’s answer to Burgundy’s Côte d’Or. Like their Burgundian counterparts, Barolo’s winegrowers are obsessed with their dirt. Carefully delineated single-vineyards produce Barolo’s most prestigious wines; the named vineyards of Cannubi and Ravera are the Italian equivalents of Chambertin and La Tâche. As in Burgundy, the same family that tends the vines in Barolo makes the wine. The best vintages from these two superstar regions can age for decades, revealing a mosaic of tertiary flavors.
And, of course, they also begin with the same letter.
However, while Burgundy is the mother ship of Pinot Noir, Barolo is exclusively based on the Nebbiolo grape. There are numerous parallels between the two: Nebbiolo is a mercurial and fussy late-ripening grape variety, transmitting the characteristics of a particular site with clinical precision. If it is mishandled or cultivated on inferior terroir, then it produces nondescript plonk. Conversely, the sensual pleasure delivered by a good Barolo is incomparable. Aromas of violets, tar, incense, leather, and black truffle fill the glass, supported by racy acidity and fine tannins. Custom-made for local gastronomy, Barolo is one of the most hauntingly beautiful red wines on earth, leaving many critics speechless — the others, unfortunately, can’t stop raving.
And yet, many of the top wines can be had for $100. The question is: why?
“Over the last five years, as the availability of red Burgundy diminished and prices rose, the wine trade and connoisseurs found much to love in Barolo: excitement, quality, and value.”
An underpriced wonder
Although Barolo is universally respected, it does not command the global prestige of Grand Cru Burgundy, apart from Giacomo Conterno. Barolo is generally made in larger quantities, and was later to the fine wine party than Burgundy. As a result, pricing of all but the most iconic wines has remained relatively competitive.
“Over the last five years, as the availability of red Burgundy diminished and prices rose, the wine trade and connoisseurs found much to love in Barolo: excitement, quality, and value. We saw a tremendous increase in demand for Prunotto Barolo Bussia, and a great interest in the newly released Barolo Cerretta 2017,” says Emanuele Baldi, brand manager for Prunotto.
It’s a sentiment shared by many in the region. “I’m a big fan of Burgundy, but the cost of my favorite wines has increased a lot in the last 15 years,” says Daniele Gaia, winemaker and sales director at Réva winery. He adds, “If you are looking for an elegant wine with great aging potential, Barolo can certainly be the right choice, at the right price.” Gaia also observes that the secondary market has yet to fully embrace the style, except for a handful of brands.
“There are a whole host of producers putting out great wines that for my money absolutely slay Premier Cru Burgundy. I continue to be surprised at what a $50 bottle of Barolo can deliver in comparison to a $150 bottle of Burgundy,” says Matt Cirne, beverage director at Quince restaurant in San Francisco.
There is just one fly in the Barolo ointment. According to the region’s growers, Piedmont is expecting a small harvest in 2021, due to the challenging growing season. “We had a delayed frost in early spring that caused lower yields,” reports Alessandro Veglio, winemaker at Mauro Veglio.
Daniele Gaia agrees. “Unfortunately, the volumes will be reduced, but the health of the grapes is perfect,” he says. Nevertheless, the reduced quantities are bound to cause some price inflation in the near future, albeit they will probably never ascend the heights of Burgundy blue chips.
Better safe than sorry, however — these wines offer amazing value today. They might be gone tomorrow.
3 Barolo to try:
Suave and very approachable, Prunotto’s Barolo offers silky tannins and bags of ripe fruit. Richly scented, the wine is open and seductive, with aromas of sour cherry, plum, violets, and garrigue. This is Barolo designed for the dinner table. Try it with Ossobuco.
Domenico Clerico is producing exceptional Barolo wines at very fair prices. The 2017 vintage combines ripe fruit with powerful, if not overblown tannins. At its core is a saline, mineral note which keeps the ripeness in check. Beautiful today, this is nevertheless built for the long haul.
One of the region’s most respected growers, Réva scarcely puts a foot wrong. The family’s 2016 Barolo is delicious and very open, with a beautiful perfume and impressive concentration. A bouquet of black fruits, thyme, leather, and black truffle will keep you busy for hours. Yet as with all great Barolo wines, a supporting act of fresh acidity keeps the exoticism in check.