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The Barolo Wars: A Chainsaw that Changed the Wine World

I’ve written about what I call the Robert Parker effect a few times: this was an era marked by a fastidious attention to perfect ripeness, rich texture, and round body all rigorously kept in the fold of fashion by scores out of one hundred. There are winegrowers today who admonish the very scoring systems once used to carry out deliberate stratification amongst producers in some of the more scrutinized regions.

During the revitalization periods of the sixties, and seventies many Châteaux across France found themselves in desperate disrepair. The solution was modernizing wineries, winemaking processes, planting new vineyards, uprooting old ones and, more predominantly, hiring fresh enological talent. Many Bordeaux Châteaux that had been known for their quality offerings in ages past, were being upended by Cru Bourgeois, and lower growth Châteaux like Lynch-Badges that were acquiring quite a stupendous reputation for satiation.

Bottles of Conterno

A lot of this upending of the wine industry was due to the newer winemaking experimentation that was going on in the New World by younger winemakers, who were developing a palette for wines that could age well, yet be drunk young. These New World experiments in places like California, involved particularly Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot, but other varietals to a lesser extent. The resulting wines were smoother, riper, richer, rounder and more consistent than anything done in the past.

This type of experimentation birthed the Super Tuscans, and the oaky Châteauneuf of the late nineties. Some of the changes stuck around in the winemaking processes of late, and some, like pre-fermentation macerations, and new American oak, have largely disappeared. Regardless, it’s important to note that though a lot of modernization that turned up around this period hindered some winemaking areas by creating a monotonous, universally accepted wine of little distinction. Though a majority of these vices did serve a substantial purpose in the refining and updating of the process resulting in the culmination of better, more polished, immediately enjoyable wines of great quality.

The Barolo Wars did not happen overnight. They were not indignant. There were no skirmishes, or bloodshed, or any of the miseries generally associated with a war. But it certainly was a war; a war between the modernists: a name which hasn’t aged well, aided by the wine writers, and restaurant patrons of the United States, and the traditionalists: those who continued to follow in the methodology of their fathers.

After the second world war, the region known as the Langhe, the area surrounding the town of Alba, was circumspect to abject poverty, the vast majority of producers sold grapes to major houses like Marchesi di Barolo, and Fontanafredda. There was no market for wine other than those from well-established regions in France. This left a great disparity in quality of living for producers in developing wine regions.

TV host Julia Child: One of the First Celebrity Chefs.

The culinary boom spurred on by Julia Child and James Beard led to a resurgence in fine dining, and haut cuisine which had been all but forgotten by the depression, and the subsequent war. The United States economy was at a resurgence, and people had money to spend. They wanted to spend it eating out. French food was the cuisine of choice. While most Americans chose to drink mix drinks, a good amount of newly-christened fine-dining establishments had been offering some lackluster wine lists, which began to improve with time.

Slowly the American populace was growing accustomed to drinking French wine and eating French food. These new culinary inquisitions were beginning to make inroads to the foods consumed at home, and pretty soon, a burgeoning market for new culinary adventures began to spring forward. People wanted to try all sorts of new foods as restaurants sprung up. One of the key bastions of the culinary renaissance was Italian cookery, which had taken on an American flare. As palettes had adapted to eating Italian food, soon grew a craving for pairable Italian wines. People wanted Italian wines, but they wanted them palatable to their niche.

By 1978 the Baltimore Wine Advocate had sprung up, giving high scores to wines reminiscent of the nouveau California copies of Bordeaux. Robert Parker wanted nothing green about his wine, nothing too atune or complex. Big, rich, brassy, chocolatey-oaky flavors were en vogue during these early days of the renaissance. California wineries began to explore new ways to squeeze more fruit from their Cabernet, while lesser Bordeaux Cru were busy covering up their wine faults with wood chips. At the height of this misery, Brunello di Montalcino was made mostly of Merlot.

Perhaps the spark that lit the powder keg in the Langhe, was Angelo Gaja’s delivery of Barriques to Barbaresco. This eccentric spokesperson for the region went to France, and oversaw the formation of his own toasted oak barrels. These were carefully scrutinized by Gaja, and finally used, after much experimentation with size and ratio, on the 1978 vintage. These screaming new wines offered a flashy, modern image to a dusty region, and slowly began to filter their way back to the red checkered tables of Italian eateries, where previously stood a straw-covered bottle of Chianti. A market was born.

Barolo was not known for suitability to any niche except their own. This village had been producing wine the same way since Fontanafredda was called Mirafiore. The wines were considered harsh, wild, and brutish, with classic aromas of road tar, red cherry, fresh roses, and black truffle. Tannins were brisk, rough, and mouth drying to an extreme - yet functional: they acted as a long term preservative, allowing these wines to shine after evermore then often fifty years of storage, though often unapproachable before at least twenty.

Macerating whole bunch Nebbiolo.

A lot of this old stylistic interpretation was due to the long extended macerations, that is, post fermentation aging on the skins, and pips, that in most wine regions are discarded quickly. Skins add color, and character to the wine, and also make spontaneous fermentation a possibility; which, can add further interesting complexities by the various yeasts that are cultivated in each individual vineyard. Macerations were known to last at least a month. Sometimes producers would let maceration continue for thirty-five or forty days. Nebbiolo skins would impart their extremely high tannin, and very brittle tannins on the wine, which would dry out the palettes of those attempting to drink too young.

To make matters arguably worse, often producers would then age these wines 300hl storage vessels for a requisite eight years. These large vessels, called botti, are made from chestnut or Slavonian oak, and impart very little oak flavor on wines if any at all. They also minimize the amount of oxygen exposure by expanding the surface are of wood in contact with wine, where French barrique, being smaller in size, and made of thinner wood, allow plenty of oxygen to soften tannin during aging.

Winery, and vineyard conditions were often a disparity as well. Because the scourge of phylloxera, and powdery mold had destroyed vineyards across the Langhe during the two wars, growers were apt to use whatever wartime chemicals would keep their vines, and chestnut trees, sterile. People living in the Langhe in the seventies were desperately impoverished, having usually only one barn where wine was fermented, macerated and stored. Often it was also occupied by livestock, chickens, various pesticides, and chemicals; gasoline, oil, and, of course, the family tractor. The majority of producers made wine just for their families, and sold the rest of their grapes to negoçiantes - very few growers had their own commercial wineries.

While Gaja would kick off the revolution with cannon fire, the first battle would be fought with a chainsaw. A young Elio Altare spent nearly two weeks abreast in hospital fatigues after a chemical injury while working out in the vineyards. Months earlier, he’d received a dower diagnostic about the condition of his yellowing vines: the soils were barren from forty years use of harsh chemicals. His father, a stubborn man, was unwilling to take the steps necessary to improve the conditions of the vineyard, or replace the rancid equipment in the winemaking barn, holding fast to tradition. To repay his father for his elderly arrogance, Elio purchased a chainsaw, and massacred all of the fruit and chestnut trees that had been plasticized by chemicals, before cutting up the infected old botti that were ruining the wines.

The town of Barolo.

With his father and him at great odds, Elio loaded up a cinque-cento and headed for the Côte d’Or, where he arrived in the town of Chambolle-Musigny in the early eighties perplexed by what he saw. Modern winery equipment, maceration in stainless steel, bunch thinning, and lack of harsh fertilizers. It was a very different style of winemaking, but a very similar approach to character. Elio famously knocked on one of the doors of a winemaker in Burgundy, with a beautiful silver Porsche sitting in the drive. A man answered the door in fine linens, and a cashmere hat, with two nicely appointed leather suitcases. Odd dress for a winemaker, Elio observed.

Stunned, he asked, “I’ve driven from Barolo, and I was wondering if I could trouble you for a tasting.”

The man checked his watch, shaking his head, and declined, saying, “I’m heading to the Côte d’Azur, and I’m late to sail my boat.” He packed his bags, and drove off.

Elio often talks of the extreme contrast between the winemakers in France, and those in the Langhe. As opposed to winemakers in Burgundy with their new Porsches and boats on the riviera, Elio was stuck selling grapes at shockingly low prices to negotiates, who would only be able to charge an average of $1.75 per bottle, far lower than the wines of Bordeaux. He tells of one harvest in 1975 when growers had the most beautiful grapes they’d ever grown, and were hoping to pick and sell quickly, and earn some decent money for their incredibly harvest. The negoçiantes waited to buy the grapes until they were rotting on the vines, paid less for them, and then offered them a check next harvest, after the bottles from this one had been sold. The younger generation of growers were fed up with living in the poverty of their fathers. Something had to change.

Having essentially free reign over the vineyards at that time, due to his father’s ailing health, Elio began turning the soils, and discontinued the use of chemical fertilizers instead opting for Bordeaux mixture, and other less harmful remedies to vine-borne pests, like bumper crops. He also began the controversial practice of green harvesting: thinning bunches of grapes so the vine can concentrate flavors on the bunches left over; something Château Petrus had mastered, and gifted to the vine growers all over the world. This was sacrilege in the Langhe, quite literally. Many people saw this as a waste of good fruit, and a bad omen. Priests were called in to stop the new wave of young growers attempting to create more internationally appealing wines.

Having cut down his father’s rancid old botti, Elio purchased brand new barriques, and loaded them into the barn. He moved the chickens to a coup and, the tractor to another shed. He and other young growers began meeting under the cover of night in a makeshift tasting club, where they would discuss the changes that would rock the Langhe. These producers drink red Burgundy, compare it to their latest experiments, and consider new techniques and tricks. By 1985, two years after Elio had begun his crop thinning experiments, his father passed away. These changes proved to be too much for the old man, and he’d unfortunately written his son out of his will. Elio began renting his winery from his sisters.

The wine Elio was making had his own name on it, which meant he was free to make the type of wine he liked to enjoy. His weekly meetings with the young producers of Barolo continued, and they were eventually deemed, the Barolo Boys: Elio Altare, Domenico Clerico, Luciano Sandrone, Renato Corino, and Enrico Scavino. This new breed of Barolo being crafted was darker in color, flashier, more polished, more internationally palatable and often lacking in the rose, tar leather, and truffle aromas characterized by Nebbiolo. Critics began to take notice.

Elio Altare Barolo

By the early nineties, the trends for austere, brash and oaky wines of extraordinary color had com to full tilt. The Barolo Boys were invited to take a tour of the country that was importing vast quantities of their new wines: the United States, They rented coaches, and toured Napa Valley, the region whose trendy winemaking practices so inspired their own. They were of cult status when they began to receive great reviews from James Suckling, and Robert Parker among other major names. The wine made by Barolo Boys ended up plastered all over the wine racks of glitzy New York eateries like Windows on the World.

The secret to their new wines was short fermentations, often in rotary fermenters. These are machines that spin the pips and tonic material out of the fermentation vat. Cold macerating prior to fermentation to extract color was also done - this is the process by which fermentation is halted by chilled temperatures, and juice is left to sit on skins to collect a much color as possible before being transferred to a fermenter. A vast majority of producers began using cooled fermenters, to control the temperature during fermentation, and using inoculating yeasts, which also keeps temperatures low. Controlling the variable temperatures during fermentation can preserve complexity, as there’s no risk of boiling alcohol esters. In the vineyard growers were certainly over-thinning to say the least. Hoping to extract the most intensity possible, green harvesting was often cutting yields drastically, resulting in very concentrated grapes.

Winemakers would use the French pump-over method during short macerations after fermentation, essentially pumping juice from the bottom on top of the cap. This method often extracts some of the harsher tannins, that never soften, but stratify better with the overall richness of the wine. But the most egregious sin, was their use of new French oak barrique. These small barrels would impart toasted almond, chocolate, and vanilla flavors, as well as those of intense spices and cedar: flavors not associated with traditional Barolo, that often would cover up some of the wines natural nuance of tar and rose petal.

Bartolo Mascarello No Barrique No Berlusconi

Not everyone was a fan of these new trends. Bartollo Mascarelo is often called a traditionalist: a winemaker conditioned to the processes of his upbringing. Bartollo stayed true to the often weeks-long macerations aided by wood shouldering the cap, rather than pumping over. Winemakers like him became a dying breed. Along with Giovanni Conterno, and Renato Ratti; the so-called “traditionalists” were ridiculed as old-fashioned, or out of date by the wine press, and that was really a shame, because they were making some really beautiful, and timeless wines that really show the character of their prized grape.

The traditionalists shunned barriques more than any of the other new changes Bartolo added, “No Barrique, No Berlusconi,” to one of his famous ’99 vintage bottles, in which the artwork on the label features the former Italian prime minister ripped from campaign flyers strewn about Barolo. It is a collector’s piece in and of itself. The three traditional Barolo producers were often lauded by fans as, “The last of the Mohicans,” because they were the only three during the height of the Barolo craze that seemed to produce traditional wines.

Around mid-2000’s we see the Sideway’s effect, and the slow death of the big rich, and round wine. Though a lot of palettes still prefer a show stopping wine, it seems the majority of more refined tasters were craving something new: complexity. With its newly established reputation Barolo was one of the major regions that people looked to to satiate their palettes. But it wasn’t the modern winemakers that people craved - finally the traditional style Barolo, meant to be aged for thirty years and beyond, was making a comeback. The market was flooded with new customers hoping to try a Bartolo Mascarello, or Conterno, or Ratti wine.

But consumers also wanted wines that were consumable now, and smart thinking winemakers in Barolo, and Barbaresco began dialing back their experimentations and reverting back to the old 300 liter oak casks. The solution seemed to be universal: though the race had no clear-cut path: Make a natural colored Nebbiolo that expresses its own terroir, rather than oak and overripe berry, but make it enjoyable sooner.

A lot of wineries seemed to have answers that differed from each other. Some were using rotary fermenters, but very gently, Some were macerating in neutral oak, some stainless steel. Some winemakers preferred a pump-over, while others like the old system of wood shouldering the cap. Almost all are organic now, and almost all opt for spontaneous fermentation, which means no added yeast: this seems to be a general growing trend in a region harmed so badly by industrial fertilizers. This new style of approachable Barolo that speaks of its sense of place, is truly welcome and a wonderful development for the region, and it’s lovely to see winemakers taking steps to maximize their terroir, and it in term pain them handsomely.

Giacomo Fenocchio is a smaller winemaking operation located in making what one would call classic Barolos from traditional techniques: but ones that are more immediately approachable. These wines are made in Slavonian oak casks, and are spontaneously fermented from wild yeasts. The vineyards are cared for organically, and the winery offers a lot of different options from different vineyard around Barolo. These Barolos express the terroir beautifully, especially their Bussia. They have a reserved sense of refined tannin, with delightful expressions of black truffle and cardamom, roses and asphalt.

That's all,


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