Article - RareWine Academy

Barolo Wars: Traditionalists vs. Modernists

Barolo Wars is a term used to describe the war between traditionalists and modernists, starting in the 1980s. Read about the most prominent players and what triggered the war.

Tradition And Progress In Barolo

The war is over, and the winner is you!

Barolo Wars is a term used to describe the war between traditionalists and modernists in Barolo, starting in the 1980s. The "war" is still going on, and the question is, whether it will ever end. The only thing we can see is that a truce has been reached in some places along the front and that Barolo tastes better today than ever before. You can find out what triggered the "war" in the following sections, and the most prominent players can be found at the end.

The History Of The Barolo Wars

Historically, Barolo wines are actually not very "friendly". This is mainly due to the grape Nebbiolo. It is a grape that is naturally high in fruit acidity and tannin. These are two structural elements that settle well in the mouth when tasting the wines. The acidity gives freshness and feels like it cuts the side of our tongue. The tannin has a drying effect and causes the mouth to tighten. In a fierce combination of these two, the fruit comes off poorly.

It is also here that serious confrontation occurs. On the one hand, we have the conservative traditionalists, on the other the reactionary modernists.

The Traditionalists in Barolo

Local winemakers in Barolo and the surrounding area have always known that patience is rewarded. With time in the cellar, acidity and tannin will balance out, and the wine reaches a balance that tastes great, while the fruit gains traction over time. For the same reason, you often hear about old traditional Barolos that have developed a great balance and taste after many years of aging.

Traditionally, Barolo is made with a long maceration*, extracting large amounts of tannin into the wine. Often, traditional maceration takes place for up to 30 days. The wine is then traditionally aged in large old barrels - often made from Slavonian oak, ranging in size from 5,000 - 10,000 liters. This results in practically no barrel flavour, but slow oxidation of the wine. The result is a wine that is rich in tannins and has great flavor intensity. In the best cases, this production results in fantastically balanced wines, where the tannin and acidity are rounded off by the long storage on the barrel, and the fruit has grown to the point where it creates the balance.

“I'm making Barolo the way I always did, the way my father (Giovanni Conterno) did, and the way my grandfather (Giacomo Conterno, the founder) did!”
Roberto Conterno, proprietor-winemaker of the iconic Giacomo Conterno Winery, long the bastion of traditional Barolos

These classics can live on notes of rose petals and sour cherries, but also on notes that go towards dried fruits and mushrooms as a result of a long time on barrels. And in the worst case, the result is a pungent red wine with a drying effect and only a faint hint of fruit.

* Maceration or " soaking " is the first fermentation process in which the phenolic substances of the grape tannins, colourings and aromas are leached out from the grape skins, seeds and stems in the must.

The Modernists In Barolo

In the second camp are the modernists, who strive to produce wines that are ready to drink at an earlier stage. This can be done in various ways. In extreme cases, the must is pre-macerated to extract flavour and colour. The alcoholic fermentation itself is shorter and with better temperature control. This means that the tannin is extracted from the skins more quickly and in smaller quantities. The result is a wine drying more slowly and therefore quicker to drink.

The wine is then aged in small oak barrels, often French barriques of 225 litres, which we know from Bordeaux and some other places. This also helps to give the wine tannins, but also flavour. The wine will with this method gain more sweetness and notes of vanilla as well as tobacco. In many ways, it becomes a wine that is more modern and has a taste that is more along the lines of other great wines. These are also wines that are at their peak after 5 - 7 years and do not last 50 years like many of the old Barolos.

”I’m not interested in making great Barolo. I simply want to make great wine. And all the world’s great red wines are matured in barriques.”
Elio Altare, a pioneer among the modernists

The Names Of The Barolo War

The old traditionalists with Mascarello and Giovanni Conterno have had their work in the cellar well in hand. One of the ways to succeed with traditional Barolo was to pick very ripe grapes so that only ripe tannin was extracted from the stems and seeds of the wine. Other traditionalists include Rinaldi, Cavallotto, Giacomo Conterno, and Bruno Giacosa. Producers who have helped Barolo make a name for itself for decades.

On the other hand, it is not difficult to understand the modernists, who had the desire to produce wines that were ready to drink without a 50-year aging period. Angelo Gaja was the first to bring small barrels to the area, and Renato Ratti was the first to shorten the fermentation time.

Things picked up for the modernists in the early 1980s when a group of young producers formed a front. These included producers like Elio Altare, Luciano Sandrone, Domenico Clerico, and Scavino. They reduced the fermentation time to less than a week and introduced permanent small barrels in the cellar. Many of these wines were beautiful in the first years but did not hold the high level in the same way as the traditional Barolos.

Barolo Wars - Winners Of The War

Today we enjoy the "war". A producer like Domenico Clerico has turned around and let the pendulum swing backward. An increasingly typical example of a producer who has brought big old barrels back into the cellar and next to the small ones. The fermentation is extended a little, but not to 30 days.

The overall picture that you encounter today in many cellars in the Barolo area, is a combination. There are no longer many producers stuck in one camp or another. But the most traditional ones will probably never be able to move, and that is just how it should be.

Mascarello still makes one of the best wines in the area without having changed anything. In the middle, we have producers like Vietti, Ceretto, Aldo Conterno, and today also Renato Ratti. And today's modernists cannot get past Roberto Voerzio and Gaja, who make some of the most expensive and sought-after wines in the area.

It will be difficult to name a clear winner from either front. That is why we name the wine lovers of the world as the real winner of the war. Today you have the opportunity to explore the different styles and get a bigger and better selection of Barolo than ever before. Congratulations on the victory...

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