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Steven Burgess heads to Barolo

by Steven Burgess

Visiting a wine county for the first time involves intrigue, background knowledge, research, then questioning previous knowledge, and exploration of new knowledge as one sets foot in the lands.  

Like first-time visitors to Napa I figure, I had some background knowledge on Barolo prior to a recent visit only to find myself with the overwhelming task of picking a route and who/ where to visit. The language barrier and other issues made research more difficult too. I soon imagined myself in a parallel world to a first-time Napa Valley visitor trying to make the best of a day!  Sorting through commercial nonsense and paid ads, flipping back and forth between maps and websites, trying to retain and apply what I did know with what I was finding, all the while, only here and there did the facts and notions agree. How little I knew.  

I had worked for a wholesaler in the 1990s, and got to work a few brands of Barolo. They were starkly different from one another stylistically, inconsistent, and mysterious in origin. I have since learned that historically, most of the best Barolos were blends, not single vineyard. This adds to my frustration, I want some concrete intelligence to go off of to guide my visit. Then, there’s the marketing spin put on by the importers and “representatives” of said brand. If anyone has ever worked with a wholesaler, they undoubtedly have seen the research that goes into atypical salesperson’s presentation- it is reading the back label just before walking into the account and posturing. Back to my point, information second hand is Terrible, with a capital T. 

The importance of visiting wineries and wine regions of interest is paramount for gaining true understanding, and that understanding helps calm the mind while adding value and joy. In still another life, I was a high school teacher. One quick and invaluable lesson we young instructors were taught was that “there’s no learning in F.A.T. City.”  Frustration. Anxiety. Tension. Surely a more PC acronym has been put in place since then, yet it is clear as is. The frustration of not finding applicable and accurate facts. The anxiety of knowing my trip was on a timetable, and time waits for no one. The tension of having to keep my wife and kids happy while being unsure of so many things. (This is where character saved me!  I am a happy, decisive, and curious traveler.)

The night before, we got a map from the hotel we were staying at in the Langhe, in the community of Bra.  We asked the staffer to highlight some suggestions, I read an article by Lettie Teague on Barolo’s status, and flipped through countless websites. It was hard to sleep as my mind worked in new observations and intel to old ideas and hearsay. The morning included admiring Alessandro Masnaghetti’s map of Barolo too, but I still didn’t get it, why all the gaps?  All the while numbing my thumb on my iPhone, scanning various maps.  Every map app has its strengths and weaknesses- the topography visual of MapQuest was most handy, but I should have bought a Michelin map. After breakfast, it’s time to go, no excuses, no reservations.

A quick look at the aforementioned highlights in the hotel parking lot, and I pushed the very European turbodiesel through its gears up, up, and up. With growling and hissing from the turbodiesel to confirm we were climbing, I was relieved to see the topography change as we left the valley floor of the Lange. Honestly, the corn, chestnut, bean, zucchini, rice, tomato, and hay crops in a steer manure haze reminded me of Bakersfield- an intense agricultural area surrounded by choking mountains, crossed with the green of the Willamette Valley.  To climb out of it into the hilly region with the distant Alps across the top of the haze was both reassuring and enlightening.  I had always been led to believe Piedmont’s Barolo region was literally the foothills, right at the foot of the alps. Wrong. The wrinkled landscape and rolling hills are truly on their own, with higher, rugged Alps Merritime far away and seemingly disconnected.  The whole area drains to the Po, which in turn meanders east to the Adriatic near Venice. 

Our first stop in La Morra, with a scenic overlook of so much of Barolo and beyond was the perspective I needed. I kept thinking how beneficial it is to visitors of Burgess looking off our porch!  The parallels…  Looking around, chatting with a tour guide and his clients, getting perspective. Had some espresso, mind grasping things, and the day now seemed manageable.  NOTHING beats personal experience. The size, aspects, slopes, altitudes, and biota all are now part of my Barolo notions. The wines are more comprehensible- the differences between style, terroir, vintage, and age make more sense and tasting wines are a journey. 

There’s less “wild” in bewilderment now, it’s a navigable and pleasurable journey where the aroma, flavor, and texture snapshots make sense.  Barolo is now a tamed wilderness with many unknowns and secrets offering curiosity and thrills. 

Steven Burgess heads to Barolo

The biggest takeaway for me is understand the gaps in Barolo’s DOCG, unlike Napa Valley, the floors, riversides, marshes of Barolo are not permitted to be in a wine labeled “Barolo.”  Only hillsides and mountain tops. What a fascinating contrast!  Something like 80% of Napa Valley wine is from the floor- with some of it being marginal land.  (Marshes converted to vineyards, etc)  Makes me even more proud to be a mountain vintner.  If there were a DOCG system here in America, with our integrity, we’d be sure to be approved.  Like Barolo, there is simply more complexity, texture, and structure from hillside wines. Unlike Barolo, Napa Valley and its mountains are significantly farther south, with influences that include the Pacific Ocean compared to more inland atmospheric conditions. Barolo, Barbaresco, the Langhe as a whole also grow different grapes of course, suited to the terroir.  Nebbiolo and Cabernet Sauvignon are different breeds of cat. 

Most first-time Napa visitors express the same joy from their new perspectives. So fun to feel it for myself!  Even better to enjoy wine with knowledge.  Hit the road!