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The Mystique of Barolo
The Mystique of Baroloby Maurizio Rosso photography by Chris Meier
Omega Arte, June 2002
ISBN 978-8872414026Hardcover. 288 pages, 400 photos $75.
Available through www.artisanideas.com
This is quite an accomplishment as a book. It sets out to deal with the ancient, recent and modern history of one of Italy's iconic wines. It succeeds fairly well. If the reader is interested in knowing about Barolo, this is a terrific overview and compendium. There are the labels of most of all the producers: the famous, the infamous, the not so famous and the up-to-now, unheard of producers.
One very useful part to this book is the map of the subzones of Barolo, the so-called "cru." It is this notion of sub zones of production that has led a lot of small grape growers to now start selling their own production in bottle rather than selling grapes as was done as recently as the late 1980s.
There are historical facts in abundance and bits of historical minutia that warm the cockles of any wine geek's heart. It is a substantial and substantive book.
However, there are some shortcomings. Some are of historical interest: The Marchesa Giulia Vittorina Colbert of the Marchesi di Barolo, was from Normandy, not Paris. I don't think that Thomas Jefferson was a native of South Carolina. Some of the etymological discourses seem to go off in unrelated fashion to the topic at hand. Nebbiolo in north-eastern Piemonte is nicknamed "Spanna," not for the reason given in this work. The term refers to the length of the cluster, the "span" of a man's hand, not the growing length of the vine.
The use of dialectical words is nonexistent. Piemontese is a written dialect of Italian, having a good sized body of literature. The word "Chiaretto in Italian is the "vin ciaret" in Piemontese, clover to "clairet" of the English claret. Wines in the 18th Century were like much lighter in color than now, hence the popularity of the word. Sometimes it is still used by small producers to distinguish their production.
Technology is not this book's strong point. I doubt very much that a nebbiolo wine that had not undergone malolactic fermentation would go sour over time. It may referment, break bottles, if bottled, but sour? Possibly volatile, but sour? It is stated the General Pier Francesco Staglieno, working for Camillo Benso, count Cavour, in 1836, was the first to use closed vat fermentation (I wonder how he did it?), sulpher, and different sized casks. However, the history is interesting and shows that we are not too far away from wine making prehistory if all of the history of making Barolo begins early in the 19th Century. Even the founder of Italian Swiss Colony winery in California, Pietro Carlo Rossi, gets mentioned.
Better knowledge of both viticultural and enological technology and terminology would stand this work in good stead. An example: The term "mildew" is quite specific in viticulture. There is both powdery and downy mildew. In English, devatting is commonly called "racking." It probably is a question which has more to do with which English speaking country is being addressed.
I also doubt whether or not that the early attempts in 1908 at protecting the name Barolo really did lead to the creation of the DOC system of appellation control which was instituted in 1963.
Translations into English leave something to be desired, as do proof readings. A Cantina Sociale is not a "Social Cellar." It is a cooperative cellar. Grenache is translated as "grenage." The family name of Mirafiore is generally misspelled Mirafiori. This is a shame, since it appears to be a hyper correction. It is also one of the most famous names in Barolo, since it belonged to the last private owner of Fontanafredda.
The vicissitudes of nebbiolo and Barolo are well documented: its poor color, excessive tannin, late ripening and general difficulties of production. The "tricks" of the trade are described by some producers, merely hinted at by others. Photographs of the soil and vineyard exposures show the labor intensive viticulture necessary for the production of Barolo, both today and yesterday.
The interviews with the 35 producers who represent the flower of Barolo production are the highlight of this work and its greatest achievement. The interviews really show how some want to continue in a traditional mode; others to become more "international." However, one thing that is really pervasive is the fact that Barolo is a special wine with special characteristics and possibly not for everyone. Fair enough, all wines do not have to be the same, with the same characteristics and taste. Some can be different. It is the drinker who has to come to the wine, not the wine to the drinker. Otherwise, what would be the use for appellations, notions of "terroir," and the reason for having wine growing areas? Everything could come out of the same pot, so to speak.
Some of the verities spoken in the interviews are wonderful. Angelo Gaja, probably the most dynamic of the producers, comes out with a zinger. "Never forget what Enzo Biagi said of the Italian people. 'They forgive everything but success.' "
From the promotional, technical and historical work done in the late 1970s by my old friend Renato Ratti, sadly missed these days, to the traditional methodology explained by Bartolo Mascarello, and the newest Bordeaux styling used by Elio Altare, The Mystique of Barolo shows a wonderful wine in all of its lights: good, bad, indifferent, warts and all, humanizing it and showing that wine is more than a grape, soil technology. It is a culture; a way of life; a philosophical ideal and can be a delicious tasting experience.
--reviewed by Darrell Corti