Barolo in the 21st century: transcending the modern vs. traditional binary

A radical change to an established order defines the typical revolution. Born from shared hunger, revolutions are the product of a disillusioned collective. Reactionary by nature, they are juxtaposed to established orders. True to their stated aims or not, revolutions often seek common gain. Their instigators, characterised by passion and pride, pursue new heights for their culture. Until the late 1900s, knowledge of Barolo’s wines, for the most part, stretched no further than a dozen miles from La Morra. The wines were often overtly austere, offering scant pleasure for several decades. Growers sold their crops to middlemen, frequently struggling to make a living. Following a chance encounter with Philippe Engel in Burgundy, a distinct disparity in notoriety and income outraged Elio Altare, who had been sleeping in his car. And so began the Barolo Boy’s. Motivated by the desire for Barolo to be considered among the world’s greatest wines, these revolutionaries expanded the region’s bandwidth and brought with them new ideas, practises and attitudes. Almost 40 years on, the aims and motivations of this revolution remain misunderstood by commentators and drinkers alike.

Economist, Thomas Sowell, wrote in Wealth, Poverty and Politics, ‘there is no single reason that can explain the differences in income and wealth among individuals, nations or civilisations’. Instead, Sowell explores several factors, namely geography, culture, and politics, that vary so greatly from one nation to the next it would be a miracle if resources were equally distributed throughout the world. In Burgundy, Cistercian monks had planted vines, mapped vineyard boundaries, and, supported by the vast resources of the church, devoted their lives to winemaking. In the 18th century, following increases in the quality of French roads, trading of Burgundy’s wines began. Napoleonic inheritance laws resulted in the continued subdivision of the most precious vineyard holdings, leading to the emergence of négociants as well as a profusion of increasingly smaller, family-owned wineries. A complex and extensive interplay of historical events not only advanced Burgundian knowledge of winemaking but catapulted the region’s wines to the highest levels of recognition. The same cannot be said in Piedmont where fortune had not favoured Langhe farmers.

Lifting the Langhe

Italy emerged from WW1 in a poor and weakened condition. Once Mussolini had acquired a firmer hold on the nation, laissez-faire economics was abandoned, replaced by government intervention and protectionism. During the late 1960s, the Italian economic boom represented a cornerstone in the economic and social development of the country as well as a period of momentous societal change. Throughout this period, Northern and Central Italy experienced substantial growth.

Amidst this boom, a generation of young, optimistic and passionate Langarolo grew restless. Despite wealth accumulating elsewhere, Silvia Altare notes there remained ‘little to no education for the average Piedmontese farmer, the entire region was mostly poor’. During the latter portion of the 1900s, it was commonplace for parents in Langhe to encourage their children to study further afield, hoping for them a more prosperous future. ‘Being a farmer back then meant your life was arduous, many were embarrassed to have the title of a winemaker, to the point it was almost challenging to find a wife!’ Silvia remarks. Her father, Elio, and a handful of his contemporaries, including Angelo Gaja in Barbaresco, were among ‘the first to travel, the first to see the world

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Elio and his peers were the product of a more connected world than their parents had known. They quickly became aware of their European neighbours’ success, particularly those in Burgundy. The Burgundians were in the midst of an explosion in generational wealth, growth in global demand allowed farmers to provide for their families and for the region as a whole to prosper. Elio’s frustration was further compounded following a trip to Burgundy where he had happened across Domaine René Engel. Here, Philippe Engel was loading his Porsche and preparing to leave for the South of France. Meanwhile, Elio had been sleeping in his car, unable to afford a hotel during his trip.

Chiara Boschis recalls the love she and her contemporaries had amassed for the celebrated wines of the day. She tells of how together they would spend whatever they could afford to buy and taste these wines. Regularly the group would taste them blind alongside Barolo and though showing immense potential, too often Barolo was overshadowed. To them its potential was untapped, in some cases, it was even harsh and unapproachable, tough to comprehend until several decades passed. Incensed by the widespread poverty sweeping the Langhe and enthused by an unwavering belief in the potential of Nebbiolo to outperform even the greatest of wines, the group were drawn to action. 

Expanding the realm of possibility

What this spunky bunch brought to the Langhe was, at its most simple, contemporary viticulture and winemaking. More exacting work in the vineyard, lower yields, dismissal of synthetic herbicides, shorter, and often warmer, fermentations, modern winery equipment, ageing in French barrique, the vinification of individual Cru, and cleaner cellars. Though this often produced wines juxtaposed to what Silvia refers to as ‘the original Barolo’, to consider as some commentators do, that the revolution can be characterised as stylistic, reducing its influence to use of oak and extraction, is far too simplistic.

Their desire, Silvia tells me, was ‘to create wines born in balance’ coupled with ‘a concerted effort to tame the tannins of Nebbiolo’. Chiara notes that to ‘add more fruit to Nebbiolo’s big body’ was their hope, to ‘interpret Barolo more gracefully’. Upon reflection, though graceful, fruit-forward, and competitive Barolo inspired them, their intent was never to make redundant traditional winemaking, but instead to reinterpret it and to expand the realm of possibility. For this they were labelled ‘modernists’, a slur which Chiara finds distasteful.

While the revolution was in part driven by ‘practical necessity to change the wines’, Silvia points out a more complex and profound motivation underpinning this period of change, the social aspect. Building on this idea, these two aspects, social and practical, can be considered together, a single unifying desire to bring about change in the Langhe by improving understanding of contemporary winemaking and by stretching the boundaries of what was possible for all. Isabella Oddero notes that ‘to this day this creative expression remains fundamental in the spirit of the younger generation’.

This communal gain is most notable in the progressive hybridisation of the region’s winemaking. As Silvia rightly points out, ‘even those who claim to be the most traditional have adopted green harvest’. Vast swathes of farmers in the region took up organic viticulture and stopped using chemicals. As Elio once had, nobody was making wine in the stables with the animals any longer. Winemakers were cleaning their cellars more often; they were cleaning their equipment and although the ‘botti were big and old they were now cleaned and scrubbed inside after each vintage’ Silvia tells me. And now, even in the case of fermentation, some ‘traditionalists’ use rotary fermenters while some ‘modernists’ employ longer macerations.

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While it is true that for some, the revolution resulted in an atypical Barolo scarcely resembling that which the older generation had grown used to. Much less discussed is the pool of knowledge the revolutionaries brought to the region from which few refused to fish. Langhe farmers were ‘sitting on a treasure and did not know it’ Silvia remarks. In 10 years more money flooded into the region than it had received for a century, with both wealth and knowledge came a renaissance for all. The revolution’s main protagonists did not seek to deny the regions past nor to take credit for having invented anything. But as Silvia so eloquently asserts, ‘immobility is a double-edged sword’ and a march toward the future laid a path for all.

Barolo in the 21st century

Traditional or modern does not exist anymore’ Chiara tells me, a view shared by Isabella who believes this classification neither ‘makes sense’ nor is it an ‘interesting point from which to understand the region’. Speak to any number of local winemakers and you’ll realise that today this binary tells drinkers little-to-nothing of a producer’s individual style. Across the region each wine is the result of an amalgam of winemaking techniques. Those traditional to the region, those foreign and those introduced during the revolution. Today, as Chiara notes, ‘the new generation takes for granted those practises introduced and considered “modern” long ago’. There is unavoidable truth in this, from the widespread philosophy of low yields, to careful cleaning and intelligent use of oak, the revolution’s signature is prolific.

This notwithstanding, there remains commentators, sommeliers, and journalists who to this day speak derogatorily of the ‘modern’ movement. Yearning idealistically toward what once was, they often misrepresent the revolution, failing to recognise the underlying motivations of those winemakers who, in search of social redemption, rebelled against their families to re-interpret the traditions of their ancestors. These naysayers gloss over the undeniable truth that not only did all Barolo benefit greatly from the revolution, but also that many of those considered ‘traditional’ were also quick to adapt. There are also those who demonstrate unwavering allegiance to modernism, suggesting in their writing that innovation in all forms was unique to a select group of producers and that in contrast, traditional winemakers were comparatively static.

This profound flaw is where today, a now-defunct binary does the region a most egregious disservice. In having drawn a distinct binary characterised by oversimplistic qualities, it fails to adequately tell the story of the many ‘traditional’ producers who were neither static nor inexorable.

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Bartolo Mascarello was among the most vocal of the revolution’s opponents. A staunch defender of tradition, it would be easy to assume his opposition represented an absolute objection to change. This is of course false. Bartolo did not object to change per se, he objected to Barolo lacking typicity, an understandable concern in the early 90s. Alan Manley, the proprietor of Margherita Otto and employee of Maria Teresa Mascarello, explained to me that although there have been no stylistic changes in almost 102 years at Bartolo Mascarello, the estate has been far from static. In crafting Barolo, both Bartolo and now Maria Teresa embraced new ways of working and while still committed to her family’s methods and traditions, some believe Maria Teresa has herself elevated the estate. From changing out old barrels to purchasing a new destemmer, she is testimony that even when upholding tradition producers can be innovative and progressive. There were many other traditional-yet-innovative producers, Bruno Giacosa, crediting Luigi Veronelli amongst others for helping influence change, bottled single-vineyard wines introduced temperature control and embraced French oak, albeit botti, not barrique.

It is because of this collective dynamism that today the region produces better wines than ever before. In the space of little more than a decade, the Langhe winemaker went from being considered unintelligent and poor to being wealthy, respected and worldly winemakers. ‘The revolution contributed to this change, it restored the dignity of the profession and this is definitely something we should all be proud of’ Silvia concludes.

Oscar Wilde once said, ‘tradition is simply a successful innovation’. Displayed above the entrance to Silvia’s tasting room, this quote captures perfectly the internal inconsistencies in reifying this bootless binary. Today we live in the golden era of Barolo. What is commonplace today was once staunchly opposed as being ‘modernist‘, the work of younger winemakers, today considered pioneering, will be as influential in further emboldening the region as those now ageing. Together we ought to acknowledge that a mere snapshot of a single moment in time cannot adequately portray the intricacy of such a diverse, exciting and dynamic region of immense stylistic and professional diversity. The time has come for commentators, drinkers and those studious in wine to ditch this binary, acknowledge the far-reaching principles of the ‘modern’ revolution and expand their appreciation for the region in its current glory, not its former divide.

10 thoughts

  1. Well done Josh! This story is oft retold in many wine regions of the old world. Thank you for providing a platform for these leaders of Barolo to share their perspectives. Any wine author that quotes Thomas Sowell has my attention!

  2. Once again, your brilliant writing and clear passion for wine is on full display in this article. You deftly lead the reader through your argument, you perfectly contextualize the perspectives and wisdom of talented regional producers, and the execution of the topic is flawless.

    I have finished reading this article totally convinced the golden era of Barolo is here, and that the dynamism of learning from techniques old and new is what allows these wines to continually improve. But most importantly, you highlight the importance of human intervention in winemaking which shapes the boons of terroir through sweat, time and care into wines which deserve heaps of praise.

    1. Noel, you’re far too kind. Thank you for taking the time to read my work and for providing such flattering feedback. Barolo is a dynamic and vibrant region, one that has benefitted from a broad range of producers collectively propelling the regions forward, each in their own way. The best is yet to come!

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