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Book Review – Barolo and Barbaresco, By Kerin O’Keefe

By June 10, 2015No Comments

I thoroughly enjoyed Kerin O’Keefe’s book on Brunello di Montalcino (click here to see my book review in January this year), so it was a natural progression to purchase and read her book on Barolo and Barbaresco which was published last year. Kerin’s personal journey through wine and Italian wine in particular was fuelled by access to her father-in-law’s cellar which was stocked with wonderful bottlings of Brunello di Montalcino, and Barolo and Barbaresco, these wines generally acknowledged to be Italy’s cornerstone prestigious wines. This book ‘Barolo and Barbaresco – The King and Queen of Italian Wine’ follows the successful and logical format used by O’Keefe in her Brunello book.

One of the highlights of the author’s writing is her well-researched material on the history of growing wine in the region and the beginnings of the wines we know as Barolo and Barbaresco today. She points out the uniqueness and relative scarcity of the wines and their tie to the Langhe Hills around the town of Alba. In doing so, she takes the reader through a quick overview of the geology and the climate, and the nobility of the Nebbiolo grape, pointing out the variety’s particular affinity to the region. Viticulture is discussed and she introduces the topic of climate change and the effects of growing Nebbiolo in the region.

Though both Barolo and Barbaresco are very similar in many respects, Barolo has a longer history, with earliest mentions from the mid-18th Century. O’Keefe tells the stories of Frenchman Louis Oudart who is thought to have created the wine while advising for Giulia Falletti, the Marchesa di Barolo, and the more likely candidate Paolo Francesco Staglieno, the oenologist, who worked for the House of Savoy which championed the establishment of the earliest Barolo wines. The author continues the story of Barolo’s development through the 20th Century and discusses ‘The Barolo Wars’, the conflicting ideologies of the ‘traditionalists’ and ‘modernists’. This is a poignant period for O’Keefe’s perspectives, reinforcing her view that wine must reflect the land and terroir through the grape with minimal show of intervention. The terms ‘traditionalist’ and ‘modernist’ are now outdated, and generally the Piedmont region has progressed to a situation where the wines are made with greater sensitivity, understanding and utilising elements of either approach. As with Brunello di Montalcino, O’Keefe sees the concept of expansion as a threat to the integrity of both Barolo and Barbaresco, and sees the understanding of sub-zones as key to the world’s acceptance of the wines.

The chapter on Barolo’s history is also the basis for introducing Barbaresco, the earliest use of the name being in 1894. The development of the wine and the path to its official recognition is covered well. While the Barolo district is situated south and west of Alba, Barbaresco is north and east. O’Keefe clarifies the differences, such as the smaller vineyard area, the geology and geography, and the wine styles. While Barolo is the ‘King of Wines’ (and Wine of Kings’), Barbaresco is the ‘Queen’, referring to its more elegant expression.

Profiles of Key Producers by Village
As with O’Keefe’s book on Brunello di Montalcino, the major part of this book comprises the profiles of key producers, which she groups geographically by village. This is the accepted approach, as the influences of geography, geology and climate on the resulting wines is clarified, supporting her stance on sub-zones. Each of the producer profiles has the address and contact details and a background of the history and people involved, as well as a description of the general style of the wines, often with the mention of vinification and maturation techniques. The author provides tasting notes of the key bottlings, the descriptions evocative and easy to follow and understand.

O’Keefe’s preference for wines that express terroir and the variety came through very clearly in her writing. She makes no apologies for her disdain of faddish wines that have been made to capture the attention of influential wine writers by way of over-ripeness, excessive extraction and over-oaking from the use of new, highly toasted barriques. This style preference has come through in this book on Barolo and Barbaresco, and may be a failing, if one is after a properly objective assessment of these Piedmont wines. All of the producers who are profiled are those that she considers “making outstanding wines that beautifully express Nebbiolo” and their village origins. Producers of wines in styles she does not like are not included. So it’s a very personal selection, and a number of notable producers have been omitted making the book less than comprehensive and balanced. As long as the reader accepts this, the book remains useful.

There are around 30 black and white photographs, mainly of the producers, adding to the profiles. If they were in colour, they book would be lifted significantly. There are 10 simple, but effective maps showing the sub-regions of Barolo and Barbaresco. The book finishes with appendices including a vintage guide going back to 1945, and up to the outstanding 2010 vintage, and a breakdown of key facts of both the Barolo and Bararesco districts which includes information on production specifications and list of mentioned vineyards for each sub-zone. These mentioned vineyards are rated to a star system.

Kerin O’Keefe’s book on Barolo and Barbaresco is an excellent follow-up to her volume on Brunello di Montalcino, and indeed one must have both books, as they provide a wonderful understanding to what many regard are Italy’s most important and best wines. One cannot fault O’Keefe for her stand on what she regards as the best expressions of the wines, but the reader should be aware that there is a larger picture.

Barolo and Barbaresco, The King and Queen of Italian Wine, By Kerin O’Keefe
University of California Press, Oakland, California 2014 ISBN 978-0-520-27326-9
RRP USD $39.95

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