Barolo is a traditional hillside village in the rolling hills of Piedmont, north-western Italy. The vineyards and cantine (wineries) there have long been famous for producing some of Italy's very finest red wines – predominantly from the region's signature grape variety, Nebbiolo. Fragrant, tannic Barolo wine is so revered that it was one of just three wines awarded DOCG status on the day that the classification was introduced in July 1980 (the other two were Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano).
The Barolo vineyard zone covers the parishes of Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d'Alba and Barolo itself, and also spreads over into parts of Monforte d'Alba, Novello, La Morra, Verduno, Grinzane Cavour, Diano d'Alba, Cherasco and Roddi. The soils and mesoclimates vary slightly between these communes, creating subtle differences between the wines produced from their vineyards (although it must be remembered that the skills and preferences of the individual winemakers also has significant influence over these differences).
In La Morra and Barolo the soil contains a high concentration of limestone-rich Tortonian marl. The more aromatic, fruitier styles of Barolo typically come from these soil types; La Morra is considered to produce the most perfumed and graceful Barolos, while those from Barolo tend to be a little more complex, and broader-textured.
In Castiglione-Falleto, Serralunga d'Alba and Monforte, the vineyards are planted on looser and less fertile, Helvetian soils, which include both sandstone and limestone. This leads to a brick-coloured wine which is more intense, bigger in structure and requires a longer time to age. Serralunga d'Alba is well structured, long lived and the most tannic of the five, while Castiglione-Falleto is renowned for its full-bodied, rich nature and good balance and aromas. Monforte d'Alba offers rich, concentrated characteristics and a serious intensity.
Despite the differences between the wines from these various terroirs, they all retain the key qualities which define the classic Barolo style; the famous "tar and roses" aroma, a bright ruby colour (which fades to garnet over time), firm tannins, elevated acidity, and relatively high alcohol.
To earn the name Barolo, the wines must undergo at least 38 months' aging prior to commercial release, of which 18 must be spent in barrel (the remainder in bottle). For the added designation of riserva, the total aging time increases to 62 months. As the tannins soften over time, the complexity shows through with hints of earth, truffles and dark chocolate.
Classic Barolos have traditionally required at least 10 years cellaring to tame their tannins. Today, however, some producers are moving towards more "international" styles, with reduced fermentation times (meaning less extraction of colour or tannin from the must), and the use of new French barriques in place of the traditional large wooden casks. This has resulted in a fruitier and more accessible style which is approachable at a much earlier stage in its life. Many believe this modernisation detracts too severely from the classic character of Barolo. Some go so far as to say it makes the wines unrecognisable as Barolo. The ongoing debate between Barolo's modernists and traditionalist has become known as the "Barolo wars".
There are various Barolo vineyards which have achieved a sort of informal "cru" status, based on the official, structured model used in Burgundy. Esteemed winemaker Renato Ratti played a significant role in this, and created a map outlining the various crus: Cannubi, Sarmazza, Brunate, Cerequio, Rocche, Monprivato, Villero, Lazzarito, Vigna Rionda, Bussia, Ginestra and Santo Stefano di Perno.
To the northeast of Barolo, just the other side of Alba, are the vineyards which produce another stellar Nebbiolo wine, Barbaresco.