Updated: May 5, 2018
Did you know? Barolo, before uprising as one of most popular and perharps best wine in the world, used to be a sweet, sometimes also sparkling 'everyday wine'. I am hereby quoting an article written by Mariagrazia Orlandi, that explains the beautiful story of this great Italian Red: protagonists of the love story are french noble-woman Juliette Colbert and Italian banker Mr Tancredi Falletti, that involved great figures such as french oenologist Odar and Italian Mr Camillo Benso Count of Cavour(key figure of unification of Italy in 1861, former mayor of Barolo)
The story of Barolo -- that sublime wine of the Langhe hills in the environs of the Piemontese town of Alba -- begins with the marriage of Carlo Tancredi Falletti, marquess of the village of Barolo, to Juliette Colbert, a French noblewoman. It is from this couple, key figures in the Piemontese chapter of the Italian Risorgimento, that the wine, whose roots in this zone go back much further, took the name of Barolo.
Those traditional roots of the great Alba wine are to be found in the vine that informs it: Nebbiolo. Surprisingly, prior to the involvement of our protagonists and their associates in the first half of the 19th century, Nebbiolo is thought to have made a sweet, sometimes sparkling wine, very different from that of today. Certainly the grape had been planted in the vicinity of Alba for centuries, as Maurizio Rosso observes in his excellent book Barolo: The Jewel of the Langhe, noting that the annals of La Morra for the year 1512 contain a reference to Nebiolium. (And he points out that this was not the first mention of a similar name.)
The success of the "king of wines and the wine of kings," as Barolo has come to be known, was assured by the efforts of Juliette to promote it in the court of Turin and in various other royal courts in Europe. The story goes that one day in Turin, the king of Savoy, Carlo Alberto, asked the marchioness jokingly why she had not yet offered him a taste of the famous wine, of which he had heard so much spoken and which was being produced, rumor had it, in the environs of the Castle of Barolo, the vacation residence of the marquesses of Barolo.1 A few days later, writes historian Domenico Massè in Il Paese di Barolo, the city of Turin was witness to an extraordinary spectacle: The streets of the capital were full of the marchioness's ox-drawn carts, heading in the direction of the royal palace and carrying barrels of wine -- 325 of them, to be precise, one for every day of the year, minus 40 for the days of Lent.2
Thus did the marquesses promote "Barolo" wine, gifting it to reigning monarchs, offering it to their guests, and supplying friends from all over. As a personality constantly in the spotlight and much appreciated, Barolo wine benefited greatly from this positive publicity campaign. Juliette, for her part, was personally motivated to provide her wine with a lasting prestige, to which end she asked her friend the Count of Cavour (now synonymous with the unification of Italy in the mid-19th century), to allow her to consult with his French enologist Oudar, who from 1843 had been collaborating with the count in producing Barolo in his cellars at Grinzane. And it was Oudar who provided the next significant leap forward for Barolo, vinifying it in the French manner -- though it is known that certain meaningful improvements had been made in recent years by others, notably by General Francesco Staglieno, who adopted France's Gervais method to regularize the fermentation. These people worked either at Verduno, in the cellars of the castle of King Carlo Alberto of Savoy, or at Grinzane Cavour, in the cellars of Count Camillo Benso of Cavour.3
As we have already indicated, Barolo had previously been a sweet wine, sometimes lightly frothing and pink. Nebbiolo is a notoriously late ripener, and one might hypothesize that in those times the first frosts interrupted the fermentation, leaving a wine with varying quantities of residual sugar. Prior to the interventions of Juliette, fermentation had taken place out of doors. Later, subterranean cellars were built, creating a protected microclimate and allowing the wine to finish fermenting through temperature control, rendering it still and of notable structure.
One testimony is worth citing -- that of the aforementioned Massè, who in Il Paese del Barolo wrote, "[T]he first to create that type of wine which today goes by the name of Barolo were the marquesses Falletti in the early 19th century, producing it with great care at their extensive holdings in Barolo." He adds, "After them, the most significant contributor to the wine's fame was Count Camillo di Cavour." It was by these methods that Barolo became a dry wine refined in barrels prior to bottling. In the search to establish the complete identity of Barolo, we come across another testimony -- that of Count Giorgio Gallesio (a noted 19th-century ampelographer), who wrote in his travel journal (I Giornali di Viaggi) of his visit to Barolo on September 19, 1834. The count describes the feverish activity involved in perfecting this wine, and the faith and energy invested by Juliette and Tancredi in the work:
The grapes in Barolo (the zone) are Nebbiolo and Neiran; with these two grapes are made the famous Barolo wine, of which however Neiran only accounts for about one tenth. Barolo wine lasts many years and the marquesses of Barolo conserve it with the aim of sending it to the Court of Turin and to others. In this village, indeed, there is a belief that in order to have the finest wine it is necessary to make it entirely out of Nebbiolo; otherwise it is mixed with Neiran to give it color, Nebbiolo alone being too light and sweet. I have visited the cellar of the marquesses of Barolo: It is a great semi-subterranean area with vaults for the keeping of large barrels, above which is the cuverie. There were 30 botti [large barrels], most of them containing wines for aging: I tasted the 1833 vintage and it was harsh and ungiving; that of 1832, on the other hand, was soft and succulent.
Following Juliette's death in 1864 (Tancredi had died long before, in 1838, and they had no children), the entire patrimony, including the cellars, were bequeathed to the Opera Pia Barolo, a charity set up by the marchioness to administer the huge fortune of the family and the various works and activities that the couple had initiated. Today in the Agenzia della Tenuta Opera Pia Barolo, overlooking the Castello Falletti di Barolo, is situated the company called Marchesi di Barolo, a medium-sized winery controlling about 110ha (272 acres) of vineyard for a production of about 1.5 million bottles per annum. It was Pietro Abbona who, around 1895, established wine production in the Barolo cellars on behalf of his family, acquiring the cellars and part of the vineyards of the marquesses and, thus, maintaining continuity for the brand Antichi Poderi dei Marchesi di Barolo ("ancient wine farms of the marquesses of Barolo"