Traditionalist versus Modernist Barolo
By Gianpaolo Paterlini
Prior to the 1970s, most of the wines made in Barolo and Barbaresco were produced for local consumption, and many could justifiably be referred to as rustic wines of variable quality. Fermentation took place in large old casks made of Slavonian oak and fermentation was a slow, natural process, often lasting up to 60 days. The wines then spent years aging in cask before being bottled in a wide variety of vessels. A handful of wines were estate-bottled in classic 750ml bottles and 1500ml magnums, but most were bottled in huge glass demijohns that were sold to shippers who subsequently bottled and sold the wine themselves. Piemonte was a very poor region in the past, so quality took a backseat to survival for many decades.
The ‘modernist’ revolution began in the 1970s, when Angelo Gaja began experimenting with French oak barriques. Another experiment of Gaja’s was green harvesting, a practice that involves cutting and discarding some grape clusters to lower yields and help concentrate the remaining grapes on the vine. The locals thought he was crazy because from their perspective, he was throwing money away by not utilizing every grape possible. Other innovations, like harvesting ultra-ripe fruit, hot fermentations, macerations lasting only a matter of days, and rotofermenters, often went hand-in-hand with the small, new French oak barriques Gaja pioneered. His challenge to tradition paved the way for countless wineries to push the envelope towards modernity. This new style of ‘modern’ Barolo became wildly popular in the late 1990s because it made Barolo approachable to drinkers of new world wines. Whereas one needed to wait years, if not decades, to enjoy more traditional Barolos, the modernists could comfortably share the table with ripe oaky wines from California and Australia.
Regardless of one’s opinion of the modern Barolos, their quality was undeniable. This forced the ‘traditionalists’ to clean things up in the cellar and strive to manage the tannins in their wines. Climate change certainly helped the traditionalists, as it became easier and easier to harvest fully ripe grapes whose tannins were sweeter and less coarse. With traditional wines tasting more approachable in their youth, there was less reason to force ripeness and extraction, so by the 2010, much of the modern camp had started reevaluate their tactics.
While many in the wine industry still talk about traditional versus modern, I would argue that the vast majority of Barolo and Barbaresco producers are now thriving somewhere in the middle. Sure, a handful of wineries still use 100% new French oak barriques, but many that embraced this style in the 90s have gone back to utilizing large old casks in their winemaking in an effort to create wines of greater purity. The traditionalists who might have grown complacent in the past are now much more focused both in the vineyard and in the cellar. A common thread connecting most wineries today is a strong emphasis on transparency and terroir. The result is a vast selection of high quality wines that represent the Golden Age of drinking in Barolo and Barbaresco. It’s time to acknowledge that the idea of Traditionalist versus Modernist is an antiquated, polarizing narrative that fails to capture the beauty of all the wines that have found balance somewhere in the middle.