On Drink

The King of Italy

A fragrant modern Barolo is royalty among Italian wines

This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s epic tale of the Risorgimento, The Leopard, young Tancredi tells his uncle, Prince Fabrizio, “If everything is to remain the same, everything must change.” Imperfectly translated, what he is really saying is if we are to preserve the best and most important things of our traditions and culture, we must make a few important adjustments. The Prince, whose dignity is unbending, balks at the prospect and retires to his memories.

Thankfully, there were other aristocrats, and not fictional ones, who struck a more pragmatic posture. One of whom was Count Cavour, neither a Neapolitan nor a Sicilian but prime minister of Piedmont and master of the “trasformismo”. His invention and innovation extended beyond statecraft and state-building to viticulture. The architect of modern Italy — not to mention the most complex and convoluted political imbroglio of the day, The Roman Question (eat your heart out Schleswig-Holstein) — Cavour was instrumental in the development of modern Barolo. When not negotiating with France’s Louis Napoleon, he was corresponding with Louis Oudart, the eminent French oenologist who had perfected the technique of fermenting the grape skins, stems and juice (the must) without excessive sugars and residual sweetness.

Until this point, most wines had been sweet, but this new “dry” brew soon became a favourite of the families fortunate enough to afford it. The craze caught on and spread fast from the Brenner Pass to the heel of Puglia. As Victor Emmanuel became king of the united Italy, Barolo won the crown of Italian wine. It was inevitable, therefore, that soon the king of Italian wine became the wine of the Italian king.

And who came blame him? For anyone who has sampled the delicious delights of this dry vino, drawn from the nebbiolo grape, is sure to cry out “Dio salvi il Re”. Rich in tannins, which take ten years to tone down, the deep red hue has a wonderful clarity which is worth waiting a decade or more to gaze at in its glass.

For the king of wines is a diners’ drink, not a midday glass — it packs a punch unsuited to lunch

The nose, too, has a depth which only time ageing in oak can deliver. The 2010 Pelassa Riserva is an excellent example of a modern Barolo. The cool climate of that summer made for a slow ripening and later harvest, heightening the intensity of its aromata.

The first sniff finds fragrant roses and a gentle fruitiness. The first sip suggests plenty of spice (some say tar, but I suggest a more mellow liquorice or toffee) and an earthiness which belies the absence of opacity. But it slips over the tongue, warming its way to the throat with an easy astringency as the plum and black cherry flavours flower to full blossom.

Further sips confirm the sensation making a Barolo an ideal accompaniment to manzo all’olio, pampanella or some other traditional and heavy meat dish served in the evening when work is done and pleasure crooks her forefinger. For the king of wines is a diners’ drink, not a midday glass — it packs a punch unsuited to lunch.

Over the last 30 years the “Barolo Wars” have driven further developments to the barrelling and the ageing of Barolo. Things now happen much more quickly. The crus’ geography too has been circumscribed; for if everything is to remain the same, everything must change.

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