If you had to think of the most famous wines in Italy, there’s no doubt that Barolo or Barbaresco will cross your mind. The incredible King and Queen of Italian wines hailing from Piedmont are both made with the noble grape Nebbiolo and continue to dominate the world with their age-ability and elegance.
It is only natural to wonder what are the precise differences between Piedmont’s most esteemed wines, especially since they are made from the same grape. If you adore Italian wine, it's only best if you know the differences between these two exceptional wines. And, we’re breaking it all down for you.
The Historical Locations
In the majestic hills of the Langhe is where you find the production zones of both Barolo and Barbaresco. The town of Alba is the reference point to know - it lies right in the middle of the Langhe, with Barbaresco Northeast and Barolo southeast of the town.
History tells us that these two zones have been cultivating Nebbiolo since the 19th century. In Barolo, it was the Count of Cavour Camillo Benso who took initiative to begin making dry styles of Nebbiolo wines, which previously were sweet. Then, the Marquise of Barolo Giulia Colbert put Barolo on the map by sharing the wines produced on her estate with the wealthy families in Torino. The rest as we know is history!
Meanwhile in Barbaresco a couple of decades later, Domizio Cavazza took strides to protect the vines in the area. He founded the Cantina Sociale of Barbaresco, which was one of the first attempts to receive government protection for vineyards. This effort was extended to even safeguard Barolo wines as well.
To get a little more nitty gritty, Barolo and Barbaresco are broken down into different comuni or townships where the wines are allowed to be produced according to their DOCG (denominazione di origine protetta or Denomination of Controlled Origin.) Barolo has 5 main comuni: La Morra, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d'Alba, Barolo, and Monforte d'Alba. Barbaresco has 4: Treiso, Neive, San Rocco Seno d’Elvio, and Barbaresco.
The locations' influence on these wines can make up a whole lecture in and of itself. To keep it simple - Barolo has a slightly higher altitude and more south-facing vineyard exposures, leading to a slower ripening than grapes experience in Barbaresco to the north. In this Northern region, it is warmer, due to the lower altitudes and warm sea winds traveling along the Tanaro River, causing grapes to ripen faster.
With different locations come different soil types. It’s important to know the unique soils of Barolo and Barbaresco, as they are quite definitive of the wines in each region.
Ancient marine soils define Barolo and Barbaresco terroir. Both feature soils from either the Tortonian or Serravillian eras, which strikingly define each of the wines. The Tortonian - with its blue-gray calcareous marls - produces wines with elegance and finesse, while the more sandy Serravillian soils create fuller-bodied wines.
These soils aren’t in every township of Barolo or Barbaresco. For example, La Morra in Barolo rests on the more fertile Tortonian soils while Serralunga D’Alba is predominantly Serravillian soils (pretty easy to remember, right?)
So, is there a difference between the soils that dominate in Barolo and Barbaresco? Yes, there is! The soils of Barbaresco are slightly sandier, less compact, and have more nutrients. The result is wines with a softer character compared to the firmer soils found in Barolo, which create more tannic wines.
Barolo and Barbaresco of course have their DOCGS, which articulate precisely how and where the grapes can be grown. The DOCGs also state how the wines need to be aged.
For Barbaresco, the minimum aging requirement is 26 months, with at least 9 months in oak. For Barbaresco Riserva, it's much longer - 50 months aging with at least 9 months in oak.
When it comes to Barolo, the wines are aged much longer, for a reason. According to the DOCG, Barolo wines must undergo at least 38 months, with 18 months in oak. Then, for the Riserva, there must be at least 60 months of aging, with the same minimum requirement in oak as regular Barolo. These longer aging requirements are due to Nebbiolo’s more intense tannins in Barolo wines, which require a longer time in oak.
This is an excellent time to discuss the different aging styles of Barolo. Traditionally speaking - Barolo wines underwent a long maceration of at least a month. Then, the wines experienced slow aging in Slovenian oak botti or large barrels anywhere from 5000 to 10000 liters in size. This prolonged aging develops the character of the wine, usually in a very complex, structured, and vibrant way. Yet, a little revolution happened in the 1980s, where some folks took a ‘modern’ approach to Barolo's winemaking style. This approach involved a much quicker aging approach in small 225-liter French casks. The resulting wines have softer tannins at a much quicker rate, with much more spice. These wines are ready to drink much faster than the traditional style Barolos. However, they typically do not have the age-worthiness of the traditional Barolo due to their less tannic, structured nature.
Today, you can find Barolo made in both styles, although the traditional winemaking style seems to be prevailing once more.
Aromas, Flavors, and Tastes
Thinking about the flavor, we return to these wines' titles as the King and Queen of Italian wine. The reasoning comes from both wines being produced with the noble grape Nebbiolo. Barolo assumes the King title as it is the bigger, more structured of the two. Barolo - through vineyards, winemaking, and aging - makes it a fuller, more tannic wine. The flavors have been notoriously coined as ‘tar and roses.’ However, Barolo can boast a spectrum of aromas from plum to sour cherries to tobacco to even white truffles.
Barbaresco tends to be a lighter wine, with a more ripe fruit character. Despite being made with Nebbiolo, Barbaresco showcases precisely how soil, vineyard location, and winemaking approach completely influence how a specific grape tastes when made into wine.
Of course, it’s important to mention that Barolo and Barbaresco do vary in flavor between crus and also vintages. Certain crus of Barolo produce much more delicate styles of wine, especially those with sandier, marl soils.
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