Barolo - History - The Barolo Wars

The Barolo Wars

In the 1970s & 1980s, trends in the worldwide market favored fruitier, less tannic wines that could be consumed at a younger age. A group of Barolo producers, led by the house of Ceretto, Paolo Cordero di Montezemolo, Elio Altare and Renato Ratti, started making more modern, international styles of Barolos by using shorter periods for maceration (days as opposed to weeks) and fermentation (usually 48–72 hours or at most 8–10 days), less time aging in new small oak barrels and an extended period of bottle aging prior to release. By using modern technology, including specialized tanks that allow the wine to be pumped out from underneath the cap of skins and then pumped over, they found ways to maximize color extraction and minimize harsh tannins. Prior to this "modernist" movement, Nebbiolo was often harvested slightly unripe and at high yields which left the grapes with harsh green tannins that had not had time to fully polymerize. To maximize color extraction, producers would subject the wine to extended periods of maceration, taking up to several weeks, and then several years aging in large oak casks to soften the wine. Through the long slow process of oxidation, the perception of tannins would lessen (such as occurs when decanting wine), but the fruit would also fade and become oxidized. The decline in fruit would no longer be able to balance the remaining harsh tannins, leaving a bitter, astringent wine with withered fruit. To counter this change, some producers would blend in other grape varieties such as Arneis and Barbera to add color, fruit or softness to the wine.

Advances in viticulture has helped bridge the gap between modern and traditional producers. Better canopy management and yield control have led to riper grapes being harvested earlier with more developed tannins in the grape skins. Today's winemaking for both traditionalist and modernist Barolo producers include strict hygiene controls and the use of some modern winemaking equipment such as temperature control fermentation vessels. Rather than fall into one hardline camp or the other, many producers take a middle ground approach that utilizes some modernist technique along with traditional winemaking. In general, the traditional approach to Nebbiolo involves long maceration periods of 20 to 30 days and the use of older large botti size barrels. The modern approach to Nebbiolo utilizes shorter maceration periods of 7 to 10 days and cooler fermentation temperatures between 82-86°F (28-30°C) that preserve fruit flavors and aromas. Towards the end of the fermentation period, the cellars are often heated to encourage the start of malolactic fermentation which softens some of Nebbiolo's harsh acidity. Modern winemakers tend to favor smaller barrels of new oak that need only a couple years to soften the tannic grip of the wines. While new oak imparts notes of vanilla, it has the potential to cover up the characteristic rose notes of Nebbiolo.

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