The Three Big Bs of Italy

ammiraglia-1A comparative tasting of Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello wines during “The Wine Fine Affair” recently held at the Oberoi Gurgaon, inspired Mukul Manku share his experience with Sommelier India readers

Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello are today amongst Italy’s best-known and most expensive wines. Whereas Barolo and Barbaresco from the Piedmont region in northwest Italy are made from the Nebbiolo grape varietal, Brunello comes from Tuscany in central Italy and is synonymous with wine produced with 100% Sangiovese grapes. In 1980, Brunello di Montalcino was awarded Italy’s first DOCG designation.

The reputation and stature of these three wines has grown so much over the years that it’s not uncommon to pitch them in the same league as wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy in France. And such is their aura and popularity the world over that they are often referred to as the “Three Big B’s of Italy”.

Personally I, too, find these wines to be wonderful and living up to their repute, and have often wondered what makes them so special. An opportunity came my way recently, not only to taste these wines together, but also to attempt a comparative appreciation.

I tasted Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello DOCG of different vintages from the wine houses of Marchesi di Barolo and Marchesi de Frescobaldi. The occasion was “The Fine Wine Affair”, a unique wine event organized in mid October 2016 by the Hotel Oberoi, Gurgaon and La Cave Fine Wine & Spirits, Delhi to showcase premium selections from over 100 labels from USA, Italy, France, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, Australia and Japan. With Sommelier India wine magazine as their media partner, the event was widely attended and appreciated by Delhi’s and NCR’s wine community.

Although Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello have many similarities in terms of wine structure and style they also possess a distinct expression and individuality. Described below are the differences between these wines and their wine regions, duly related to their attributable terroir characteristics.

Geography and Climate In Piedmont, cool winds flowing down from Alps meet the warm Mediterranean winds to produce a fog mass. Anyone living around the vineyards here would wake up to a dense foggy morning with the fog lifting by noon, making way for a sunny afternoon and revealing the spectacular beauty of the Alps in the background. Picture postcard, perfect! A very natural phenomenon that is also an oenological boon. The daytime heat assists in ripeness and sugar development in the grapes and the cooler, fog-filled nights and mornings ensure that the grapes retain acidity and freshness, thereby promoting balanced flavours.

Compared to the Barbaresco growing area, the Barolo area is cooler and located at slightly higher elevations. With temperatures in Barbaresco a few degrees warmer than Barolo, the grapes tend to ripen earlier. So, the tannins in a Barbaresco are not as harsh as in Barolo, where the grapes are harvested about two weeks after Barbaresco.

Turning to Brunello, Montalcino is a small medieval village located 120 km south of Florence. This, too, is scenic and picturesque area but with gentle rolling hills unlike the steeper slopes up in Piedmont. Monte Amiata, the highest peak in southern Tuscany has a sheltering influence providing a warmer and drier wine growing area. This ensures gradual and complete maturation to take place producing the concentrated fruit-forward flavours of Sangiovese grapes.

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Soil Profile The towns of Barolo and Barbaresco are only about 10 miles apart and share almost similar soil composition with a lime rich clay soil, imparting higher acidity, an important component of high quality wines. However, Barbaresco being closer to the Tanaro river has an alluvial soil whereas Barolo being a bit further away, has a more clayey soil. Clay makes for sturdier wines and the lighter alluvial soils make for more elegant, slightly more aromatic wines. It is for this reason that Barbaresco wines are usually lighter and less tannic than Barolo. In Montalcino, Sangiovese thrives in soils with a high concentration of limestone, thereby producing elegant wines with forceful aromas.

Maturation Barolo, because of its stronger tannins, requires wines to be aged for three years before being released and five years for Barolo Riserva, whereas Barbaresco only requires two years (four years for Riserva). A recent trend has been towards the use small French barriques for ageing wines in lieu of the traditional botte or large Slavonian oak casks that impart little oak flavour and produce more austere wines. Brunello di Montalcino is traditionally aged for a minimum of three years in botte. However, here too, some winemakers use small French barriques which impart a more pronounced vanilla oak flavour.

Barolo Boys – The Story of a Revolution  Historically, Barolo was synonymous with fierce acids and harsh tannins, but after a decade of ageing in botte, the tannin would mellow producing a lush and opulent wine. But a group of young winemakers, called the Barolo Boys, dumped the older longer maturation technique and introduced the use of French barriques for faster maturation, much to the dismay of the elders. However, since this brought in the profits it is now an accepted norm. (The story is covered in the famous movie “Barolo Boys”. Watch the trailer here

Brunellopoli In 2008, reports surfaced that that several major Brunello producers were adulterating their wines by using foreign or domestic grape varieties in violation of the DOCG regulations, which stipulate that only Sangiovese may be used to make Brunello. In response, the U.S. government blocked imports of Brunello that did not have proof that they were in fact 100% Sangiovese. The scandal was described by the term Brunellopoli coined by the Italian wine press.

The Fine Wine Affair provided a wonderful opportunity to taste and compare these three fine wines from Italy – Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello. From the intense and tannic Barolo to a gentler and more approachable Barbaresco and finally to the elegant and fruit driven Brunello – all three were enticing leaving me greatly impressed by the three Big B’s of Italian wines. So much so, that I feel tempted to compare them with their not so distant cousins from France – Bordeaux and Burgundy. But that’s a story for another day.















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