Last week, an invitation to dine with Ceretto. I went hoping (too optimistically perhaps) to be introduced to a few of the famous Barolos made by this celebrated Piedmont producer, but dinner was structured along very different lines.
Opening the batting order was an intriguing Arneis, which Ceretto ferments under pressure to trap a little bit of carbon dioxide in the wine to compensate for this fruity local grape's lack of acidity. Strong hints of butterscotch, a kind of powered-up Chardonnay. Next arrived the opulent Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated Langhe Rosso Monsordo. Very Bordeaux in style and execution, a kind of Super-Piedmontese.
The Barolo was the third man in. It was a disappointment in the sense that it was not from Ceretto's famed top drawer. Still, the excellent entry level Ceretto Zonchera (2003) enjoys a Wine Spectator 91-point rating.
Polished, elegant and easily approachable in the style of the new international wines, it was beyond reproach. But the question that agitated the palate was - is this what you expect from a Barolo? It was so light-medium in body and had such a soft tannin bite that the gentleman on the table to my right, an Italian from the Piedmont region, said he may have mistaken it for a Pinot Noir if he hadn't known.
His comment goes to the heart of a debate between two styles of making Italy's greatest wine - a new style that is far friendlier on the palate and an old style that is demanding but extremely distinctive. (In truth, there is a range of styles, and Ceretto would probably like to position itself as taking the best from both or straddling the traditional/modern divide.)
Winemakers began changing the way Barolo was made in the 1980s - a result of the availability of new technologies that made it possible to tame the fickle and demanding grape that constitutes it, the Nebbiolo. The new style was directed at ridding Nebbiolo of its volatile acidity, its harsh tannins and its arguably grubby aromas to arrive at a wine that is approachable and ready (or almost ready) to drink at the time of release.
Horizontal roto fermenters and temperature control are used to weed out harsh tannins and reduce maceration time, which sometimes extended up to 30 days in traditional Barolo. Traditional botti (huge old oak casks) have been replaced by new French-style barriques (barrels) to soften the wine.
The new wines are far more consistent and easy to drink. But the traditional style - which produces a full-bodied chewy wine high in alcohol, acidity and tannin that is virtually unpalatable when young and mellows to reveal aromas of tar and truffles only after a decade or more of ageing - is possibly a truer expression of Nebbiolo. Interestingly, classic Barolos seem to be back in fashion thanks to the efforts of men such as the late Giovanni Conterno and Bartolo Mascarello (who kept the traditional winemaking practices alive), and a renewed interest in the individuality of wines, which is threatened by the fruit-forward oaky international style that has influenced winemakers all over the world.
It would be pigheaded to defend tradition for the sake of it, after all, even old style Barolo, as we know it is only 150 years old, before which it was a sweet wine. And it would be blinkered to deny that the new style has produced some great wines.
The best reason for celebrating traditional Barolo is because it is so distinct. Very few wines, if any, resemble anything like this big and gentle beast of a wine that seems too preoccupied to be aware of its own power and retains a beguiling softness.