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Barolo Modern or Traditional?

By Debra Meiburg MW

Are you a traditionalist or a modernist? Whichever you are, you’ll find satisfaction in Italy’s famed Barolo wine region. Both traditional and modern-styled “1st Growths” are produced in Barolo, with three key winemaking factors accounting for the disparity in styles.

Modern-styled Barolo is produced much the same way as most contemporary international red wines, with a brief fermentation period followed by couple of years aging in small French oak barrels to impart spicy nuances and enhance wine texture. The higher the percentage of new barrels used, the higher the impact upon the wine’s final character. Traditional Barolo producers, such as Giacomo Conterno (Altaya Wines), Fontanafredda (Valdivia) and Bruno Giacosa (Altaya Wines) shun the small oak barrels, preferring instead to age their wines rustic wooden vats that add little to the wine’s flavor or texture, but allow the red liquid to mellow and mature in a neutral environment.

Not only the vessel impacts the wine style, but also the winemaker’s choice of aging period. Traditional producers leave their prized Barolos to mature in old oak barrels for many years before bottling and releasing them into the market. Top producer Giacomon Conterno (Altaya Wines) used to leave his wine languishing in barrels for up to ten years before public release. With advances in vineyard and winery technologies these lengthy aging periods — once requisite to soften the wines – are no longer necessary with even Conterno now agreeing the wines show better and remain fresher with less time in wooden vats.

Another difference between the two production styles is the fermentation period and the length of time the wine is left soaking with the grape skins. Barolo’s tradition of lengthy fermentation developed primarily due to the chilly fall climate in northern Italy. Until the advent of temperature controlled fermentation tanks – which allowed gentle warming of the juice – fermentations were lengthy and stubborn in the cool environment. Modern-style producers, such as Angelo Gaja (Altaya Wines), Scavino, Elio Altare (Altaya Wines), Roberto Bava (Valdivia), Voerzio (Bluetree Ltd.) and La Spinetta (Italian Wine Merchants) have opted for brief fermentation periods (about a week) whereas traditional producers prefer leaving the grape skins in contact with the wine up to a month believing the skins enhance wine complexity and longevity. That may be the case, but grape skins also impart tannins into the wine – the substance that sponges up your saliva and roughs up your tongue – so traditional Barolo can be perceived as hard and tannic if not allowed to lounge in your cellar for a few years.

Modern-styled Barolo is ready to drink sooner and is less austere than the traditional Barolo, requiring only six to ten years aging before reaching an optimum state. Because traditional Barolo can be tannic and austere, they require twelve to fifteen years before reaching their full potential. If deciding whether you are a traditionalist or modernist puts you in a quandary, then open the two styles side-by-side and decide for yourself. You can’t go wrong with either.

Comments 8 Comments for “Barolo Modern or Traditional?”
  1. herve Leroux on 08.29.11 at 12:32

    dear Debra,

    FYI, our company, Sino Vantage Asia Ltd, is the official importer of Giacomo Conterno for HK-Macau-China.

    Altaya is definitely not the importer. If you check their website, they do not offer. they have a little bit of Aldo Conterno. I believe i do not need to explain the difference

    Beside, if it can help you, I think Gaja is imported by Maxxium and La spinetta by World of wines…but guarantee!

    Have a nice day!


  2. Debra Meiburg MW on 09.01.11 at 16:16

    Aiyeah! Thank you Herve. Debra

  3. Federico Ceretto on 10.10.11 at 17:34

    Hello Debra,

    nice to see your Barolo article and the picture of the Bricco Rocche “Cube”.

    Now that you did the first lesson on tradition and innovation in the style of the great Nebbiolo for Barolo we need more…….. your readers need more.

    I still would love to see a proper food and wine matching guide for the “top varietals” of the old world.
    You are one of the only 3 persons that can do this. I hope to work with you one day on this.
    We need always better, better, better, education.


  4. Kenneth Leung on 10.12.11 at 16:22

    To Federico Ceretto: Education is not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is finding Piedmontese wines in Hong Kong! The second biggest problem is finding authentic Piedmontese restaurant that will serve classics such as Vitello Tonnato, Tajarin, Agnolotti del Plin, etc. to go with a beautiful Borolo or Babaresco. BTW, I had a 2006 Asij at lunch today and it is beautiful! Grazie!

    To Sino Vantage Wine: Where can I find Giacomo Conterno in Hong Kong wine stores? Are you holding any wine tasting to introduce the Piedmontese wine? Please keep the Hong Kong Italian wine drinking community informed! Merci!

  5. Cyril Lam on 12.01.11 at 11:12

    Both styles work, so long and the extraction is not unnaturally accelerated… For consumers, finding read-to-drink, palettable & enjoyable barolos is not easy esp in HK as the majority of wines are sold relatively young (and understandably merchants want to move them and not hold much old inventory).

  6. Herve Leroux on 04.20.12 at 10:06

    To Kenneth, you can contact our company any time. Beside Giacomo Conterno, we import wines from 15+ wineries from italy like Massolino-Barolo, Villa Sparina-Gavi di Gavi, Fuligni-Brunello, Castello di Querceto-Chianti, les Cretes-Aosta, Umani Ronchi-Marche, Bertani-Amarone, Arnaldo Caprai-Montefalco,..
    our website is http://www.sinovantagewines.com, my email is info@sinovantagewines.com
    To Cyril, fyi, we hold some Bertani Amarone 1962, 67, 72, 81,..some Massolino 1999, Arnaldo Caprai 1997,..

  7. Fabian gjerazi on 03.22.13 at 04:37

    Caro Federico.
    In a conversation I had con la signora Bruna (Giacosa) she told me that Barolo is no longer made with the small barriques.
    Basically she told me that Barolo is made on traditionalist way.

  8. Alberto on 09.03.14 at 02:07

    Hi Debra, think this film about the “Barolo Boys” may interest you!

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