Barolo Boys: Tradition to Revolution to Tradition #MWWC14
Tradition, Revolution, Tradition
Is there any tradition in wine, really? I think not. Wines we drink today aren’t the wines made 100, 50, or even 25 years ago. Take Barolo, a favorite of mine.
The Nebbiolo grape has a long history in the Langhe region within the Piedmont in Italy. Until the mid-1800’s, Nebbiolo based Barolo wines were sweet red wines, sometimes even sparkling. They were noted as fine wines, but they were not what we drink today. Thomas Jefferson noted the “Nebiule” wine he tasted was sweet as the silky Madeira, as astringent on the palate as Bordeaux, and as brisk as Champagne. There are lots of stories, but it seems that Giulia Falleti, the wife of the Marchese di Barolo hired a French (!) consultant, Oudart, to improve the wines, producing what became the 20th century version of Barolo. An intense, highly tannic dry red wine worthy of long aging, it was a revolution in it’s time, becoming a tradition. Over 100 years, Barolo had not changed but the wine world around it had moved on.
A New Revolution with the Barolo Boys
A modern revolution in Barolo has recently been featured in a fascinating movie: “The Barolo Boys; the Story of a Revolution“. The movie tells the story of the modern Barolo revolution. In the 1980’s, Barolo wines weren’t recognized internationally. The wines were known to age beautifully, but couldn’t be enjoyed in their youth as they were so severely tannic. Without a real market, there was no money for investment, winegrowers couldn’t even afford tractors. Winemaking techniques weren’t up to modern standards of cleanliness.
As we see in the movie, a winegrowers of a new generation weren’t satisfied with their situation. Elio Altare, one of the young leaders, tells the story of driving to Burgundy to learn the secret of their success. He describes arriving at a well known Burgundy estate only to find the winemaker heading out to his Porsche, to escape to his yacht on the Côte d’Azur for the weekend. Elio couldn’t afford a hotel, he had to sleep in his car!
What to do? Elio and other young Barolo winegrowers formed a loose group who agreed to cooperate and share their successes and failures. As a group, they embraced modern vineyard and winemaking techniques. In the vineyard, they introduced the idea of dropping fruit to concentrate and fully ripen the remaining grapes.
In the cellar they embraced rapid temperature-controlled fermentation. Dirty old botti (huge slavonian oak barrels used for aging) were discarded and barriques were smuggled into the wineries. The patriarchs mustn’t know until it was too late! Elio’s actions resulted in him being disowned by his father, the patriarch of the winery. The other young guns experimented with similar innovations in their wineries, and collaborated to find the best results, hoping for better scores in the international markets. It’s great fun to see their success in the movie as they tour around the US in the early 90’s.
Of course, not everyone agreed with their approach. Even among the Barolo Boys, many found the modern techniques didn’t pan out for them in the long run. Lucky for us, it seems most embraced modern vineyard management techniques and more attention to cleanliness in the cellar. It would seem that even the staunch traditionalists are producing different wines today than they were twenty years ago.
Revolution to Tradition
One of my favorite characters in the film is Silvia Altare, Elio’s daughter who is now deeply involved in the winery. Early in the movie, she describes the old cellar as her father experienced it in the 1980’s. The cellar housed four botti, winemaking equipment, chickens , cows, and a gasoline furnace all in close proximity. Not the best conditions for quality winemaking and aging!
Later in the film, Silvia laments, saying she can decide to sell their wine in Ireland, a new country for them. But changing the Elio Altare winemaking approach, even a little? Forbidden! Elio has become his father, rigid in his approach to their “tradition”. Still, we see enough of his character to respect him and be intrigued by the accomplishments of the Barolo Boys.
Barolo Boys Movie
The movie is available as a DVD or download, and the trailer can be seen here. As a documentary, you’ll notice there are relatively few car crashes, sex scenes, or special effects. Of course, the movie is in Italian with English subtitles. If you’re a fan of Barolo, however, you will recognize many stars! I hope you’ll take the time to watch the movie, or come over to my house and we’ll screen the movie over a bottle of Barolo!
#MWWC14 – Monthly Wine Writing Challenge #14
This is my entry in our friendly group of wine bloggers willing to take on a monthly wine writing challenge theme. This month’s theme was “Tradition“. If you’d like to read the other entries, you can find them here.