The distinct round tower can only be that of the commune of Castiglione Falletto.

It was Federico Ceretto who said it: “We’re very proud of our heritage, of what our fathers did and what our grandfathers did. But when we practise organic or sustainable viticulture, we are not going back to our roots. Absolutely not.”

This is heresy, is it not? Growers now are supposed to follow the narrative of returning to the simple, natural ways of earlier generations. But Barolo, for all its fame and reputation, doesn’t have that long a history. Oh, the communes in Piedmont’s Barolo zone have been there a long time, of course: the medieval castles with their vaulted brick ceilings, and the steep, winding, cobbled streets (don’t wear high heels) speak of centuries of land ownership.

Barolo has changed, and the latest changes make it clear that (like every other wine in the world) it is on its way from one point to another. It has evolved and will continue to evolve. It is now no longer massively tannic. It is riper, more precise, and at the same time, more delicate. The aromas of roses, peonies, violets and herbs are just as seductive, or more so; it’s the tannins that have shed their concrete shell and emerged velvety and unthreatening. Ceretto shrugs, “We drink Barolo with vitello tonnato and tagliarini. Barolo doesn’t need massive food.”

To understand where you are you need to know where you’ve come from. Back in the first half of the 19th century Barolo might be sweet or sparkling: nebbiolo ripens late, and by November, when the must is fermenting in the vats, the cellars are getting cold. Fermentation would stop because nobody understood then how to keep it going to the end; sometimes it would start again in the spring. Dry Barolo wasn’t the norm until the late 19th century.

Grapes at  GD Vajra.
Grapes at GD Vajra.

Fifty years ago, when Italian fine wine was at the very beginning of its journey to fame, few growers in the Barolo zone bottled their own wine. Barolo was also a completely masculine world, says Gianni Gagliardo. “Women had no role, apart from working in the vineyards. Cellar work, decisions on making wine, even drinking it, were for men only.” This benefitted him, he says, because he fell in love with a girl whose family owned lots of vineyards, but had “only” a daughter.

But the tannins, the tannins. They were the problem, and the solution. The furious battles of the 1970s and ’80s were over barriques and the techniques associated with them: did you have a shorter fermentation followed by new French barriques, to soften the tannins while keeping the fruit, or did you stick to big old Slavonian oak vats and rely on time? It was lots of oak versus lots of time: fancy imported French ways versus good solid local tradition.

Those battles, mercifully, are over. Most growers will use a bit of this oak, a bit of that, and not much of anything new. Oak is not the story any more.

What’s the story? Better viticulture, and less extraction in the winery. Wines with the potential for lots of tannins, like Monforte, now have the sort you might have found in the wines of Barolo 10 years ago. La Morra now is graceful, even delicate.

Earlier picking, encouraged by earlier sugar ripening, needs changes in the winery. “In general, in Mediterranean [warm] years,” says Ceretto, “we have to make more fruity wines, which are not made for such long ageing. The long-ageing vintages of the 1960s and ’70s were cold compared to now, and we picked easily a month later than now, and phenolic and sugar ripeness were closer than now.”

Trediberri’s Rocche dell’Annunziata.
Trediberri’s Rocche dell’Annunziata.

In 2015 it was like that; 2016, however, was cooler. “The mountain influence took over and the sugar ripening slowed. If we have a dry September we can wait for phenolic ripening, and then we can do a longer maceration in the winery. But we have to lose the idea that a great wine is a big wine. Now a great wine is a balanced wine.”

Ian D’Agata, Italian wine guru extraordinaire, adds that in the vineyard, growers “don’t deleaf all the time now, which they used to, and yields are lower. With nebbiolo, which has big bunches, you get some unripe berries in the bunch. But there’s better hand-sorting now, in the vineyard and in the winery – because prices are higher, they can do this. They’re also buying optical sorters at US$100,000 a go – five or six growers here have one.”

It’s like everywhere: to make really fine wine you need to invest, and in order to invest you need high prices. At Marrone, for example, they focus on oxygen in the wine as the cause of bitterness in the tannins, and have bought a piece of kit the size of an iPad that can measure oxygen at every stage, and enables them to use very little sulphur. It cost €8,000.

All this work on tannins means that most Barolo now (apart from Riserva) is drinkable after about three years. It will still age, though whether it will age for 50 years is difficult to tell. But if approachability and elegance, juicy, perfumed fruit with integrated, harmonious tannins are your thing, then you don’t need to wait. Most of the 2015s are drinking very nicely now. In its perfume and poise Barolo resembles great pinot noir more than ever.

harvest at Trediberri.
Harvest at Trediberri.

For Barolo to shed its austerity seems counter-intuitive, because this is not an ebullient place. The people are reserved. Friendly, but not extroverted. “When we first went on the road to sell our wines,” says Gagliardi, “we went there with this sort of reserved culture. Then we found the Tuscans would go on and on about how great their wines were, and we realised we were going about it the wrong way.”

Tuscany here is regarded as a bit showy, a bit shouty; the Piedmontese are mountain people, tough and probably more inward looking. When Elio Altare went to France in 1976 and brought back new ideas, and then the first barriques in 1983, “It was a scandal”, says his daughter Silvia. “He was disowned by his family.”

Now the generations are changing again, often with the daughters taking over: Silvia Altare, Elena Mascarello, Elisa and Enrica Scavino, Marta Rinaldi, Valentina, Serena and Denise Marrone. There are so many that it’s not remarkable any more. But it’s still not a showy place. They might buy bigger cars, but they don’t yet employ celebrity architects to design showpiece wineries, and there are no multinationals. Family companies are the norm, but they’re doing it now because they love it, not because there are no other options.

There are vines everywhere on the hills, except for those corners where hazelnuts take over (this is Nutella country). It’s a small place: 2,200 hectares of vines, some 14 kilometres north to south and 10 kilometres across: you can visit all the main towns in one day.

A vine leaf at GD Vajra
A vine leaf at GD Vajra.

These towns – the 11 communes that divide the Barolo zone between them – are mostly on the hilltops, and from one town you can always see several others. If you’re standing on a sunny crenellated castle with swifts screaming above you and lizards darting along the stonework and you’re trying to work out which towns you can see, here are some clues: the only round tower is in Castiglione Falletto; the others are all four cornered. The town of Barolo is the only one not on a hilltop. And that cedar tree all alone on top of its own hill? The hill is Monfalletto, and it’s in La Morra.

It’s a harmonious, graceful landscape; there’s nothing rugged. The soil is the colour of cappuccino froth. It can be chalky or clayey or sandy or rocky with iron-rich blue marl, but it takes practise to distinguish those different colours. The soil is also horribly prone to erosion, and in the last few years there has been a big switch to growing grass, lupins and beans, among other things, between the rows.

What was a beige, powdery landscape liable to wash away in heavy rain, is now a green one, and more firmly anchored.

GD Vajra’s Bricco delle Viole vines.
GD Vajra’s Bricco delle Viole vines.

It’s also mostly a nebbiolo one. Roughly speaking, south-facing slopes are best for nebbiolo, north-facing for dolcetto, and east- or west-facing for barbera, though obviously there are many sites that haven’t read the rulebook. Nebbiolo is just under half of the vineyard, and the name of the village and the cru rules. You want a big, powerful wine? Try Serralunga Ceretta or Monforte Castelletto. Something lighter? Go for Rocche dell’Annunziata or Brunate from La Morra.

These are single vineyards, or crus. ‘Cru’ is an imported term; before it arrived growers used to refer to ‘posizione’ – position. The position of those vines on that hillside. It feels both more precise and less dogmatically defined than ‘cru’.

The newest term, from 2011, is MGA – Menzioni Geografiche Aggiuntive – which rather explains why ‘cru’ is still the more popular word. Each of the 11 towns identified its own MGAs, and naturally they did not all use the same criteria.

Monforte d’Alba and Barolo got pretty much everything on to the list. Serralunga and Castiglione Falletto only listed their top sites. Castiglione Falletto has 20 MGAs, all under 25 hectares in size. But Bussia, a cru in Monforte, is nearly 300 hectares, and as big as all Castiglione’s sites put together.

Giovanni Cordero di Montezemolo.
Giovanni Cordero di Montezemolo.

Cannubi, a cru in Barolo which used to be five separate sites called Cannubi this or Cannubi that, can now all be called Cannubi. In all, it covers over 46 hectares along hillsides that turn in and out, and while it might face generally southeast, if you stand in the town of Barolo and look at where the shadows fall in Cannubi at the end of the afternoon, or where there are little valleys, and how the land rises and dips, you will not expect the wine to be uniform.

The geology and geography of the Barolo zone are both more complex than the boundaries of the MGAs might suggest, and a map with contour lines will give an idea of just how hectic they can be.

There are two main valleys: the Talloria dell’Annunziata and the Talloria di Castiglione, both of which rivers are tributaries of the Tanaro river. They form a ‘V’ with the apex in the north, and the vineyards are concentrated on the hills between and beside the rivers. The wines of Barolo and La Morra in the west are relatively lightweight, and those of Monforte and Serralunga d’Alba in the east, the weightiest, with the southeast of Monforte giving chunkier wines than the northwest.

Cordero di  Montezemolo’s  Monfalletto property.
Cordero di Montezemolo’s Monfalletto property.

Bussia, for example, is generally refined and graceful, if you can make a generalisation about such a big site. Serralunga was always the coldest part of Barolo, and in the past the grapes didn’t always ripen properly; with climate change, that is changing. The land between the rivers, where you’ll find Castiglione Falletto, can produce structured wines with plenty of aroma.

Novello, in the southwest, Verduno, in the northwest, and Grinzane Cavour in the northeast, are midweight, generally speaking. Giovanni Sordo’s Monvigliero from Verduno, close to the river, is beautifully accurate and violet-scented, Pelassa’s San Lorenzo di Verduno is creamy, supple and gently extracted.

From Castiglione Falletto, Giacomo Fenocchio’s Villero has some appropriate chewiness, as does Pio Cesare’s Ornato from Serralunga. In Ceretta, and many of the wines from Serralunga and Monforte, I often get a taste of blood. A little bit of blood goes well with tannins, and violets.

Giovanni Sordo’s barrel room, where he uses mainly Slavonian oak.
Giovanni Sordo’s barrel room, where he uses mainly Slavonian oak.

Wines & Wineries

Three switched-on daughters make beautiful, elegant wines at Agricola Marrone (agricolamarrone.com). Try Bussia, all incense and sandalwood. Favorita is creamy, opulent, layered. Excellent restaurant, too (in Places to Stay & Eat).

Managing the austere tannins of Serralunga is Ceretto’s (ceretto.com) biggest challenge, they say. Brunate is succulent and aromatic; Prapò big but harmonious. Also try fresh, tense Arneis Blangè.

Ciabot Berton (ciabotberton.it) makes pretty, delicate, floral La Morra – the family claims it has been in La Morra since 1200. A ‘ciabot’ is a vineyard hut where growers keep their tools. Somebody called Berton owned this one, and started making fireworks in it, with predictable results. The ruin gives its name to the company.

Cogno (elviocogno.com) is a producer made up of growers and restaurateurs- turned-winemakers, now going organic. Ravera is an excellent introduction to Barolo for novices: silky, harmonious, elegant. Langhe Nascetta is taut, long.

Cordero di Montezemolo (corderodimontezemolo.com) is a big estate (51 hectares) with a history going back 19 generations, making terrific, muscular, rose-scented Monfalletto and deep, serious Enrico VI, with a note of blood.

Elio Altare (elioaltare.com) makes floral, grippy, velvety Brunate and exuberant, opulent Cannubi from an estate that has been organic for 40 years. Indigenous yeasts, no filtering or fining, very low sulphur.

GD Vajra (gdvajra.it) makes assured, concentrated wines, especially harmonious, tight Ravera and elegant Bricco delle Viole. ‘Bricco’ means hilltop; ‘Viole’ means violets. Sounds as good as it is.

Giacomo Fenocchio’s (giacomofenocchio.com) Villero cru contains some of the rare nebbiolo rosé grape; briskly tannic, with good spice notes and a long, perfumed finish. Nebbiolo rosé used to be considered a variant of nebbiolo but is now known to be a separate variety.

Giovanni Sordo (sordogiovanni.it) is a great place to taste because he has vines in so many different crus. The cellar uses big barrels of Slavonian oak. Monvigliero (Verduno) is a beauty.

Gianni Gagliardo with his family.
Gianni Gagliardo with his family.

At Giuseppe Mascarello (mascarello1881.com), Elena Mascarello makes wines with very gentle extraction for maximum silkiness. Harmonious Monprivato.

Luciano Sandrone (sandroneluciano.com) makes accomplished wines – the family knows exactly what it is doing. The 2013 Aleste is from Cannubi Boschis, fermented with indigenous yeasts and aged in large oak. Benchmark Barolo, with powerful tannins, perfectly integrated; ripe, floral fruit and an enormous finish.

Michele Chiarlo’s (michelechiarlo.it) 2015 Cerequio was my favourite in a good line-up recently: perfumed, exotic, roses and spice, complex and eloquent. You can stay at the Palas Cerequio (in Places to Stay & Eat) if you’re feeling flush.

Paolo Conterno (paoloconterno.com) makes succulent Dolcetto d’Alba and exuberant Barolo Riva del Bric among an impressive line-up. Ginestra is the star cru here: a big, blood-and-iron wine.

I love the ethereal aromas and weightless power of the Paolo Scavino (paoloscavino.com) wines. Lovely Langhe Nebbiolo and Barbera, and glorious Rocche dell’Annunziata Riserva.

Poderi Gianni Gagliardo (gagliardo.it) has handsome cellars and excellent wines, especially elegant, tight Castelletto and perfumed 2015 Lazzarito, the latter being a site that does well in dry years, which ’15 was. Favorita is also a winner.

Renato Ratti (renatoratti.com) is one of the great names of Barolo, with a good museum to visit. Rocche dell’Annunziata, from 75-year-old vines, is dense, supple and rich.

Trediberri (trediberri.com) is a newish company (first vintage 2011). Yes, it really is called that: Berri is the name of the hamlet.  It makes balanced, well-judged wines. Deep, structured Rocche dell’Annunziata.

Vietti (vietti.com) makes top Arneis – powerful, steely and juicy – as well as Dolcetto, Moscato d’Asti, Barbera d’Alba and Barolo. Ravera is another harmonious, perfectly knit example from this cru.

Ceretto’s Bricco Rocche Cube Winery in Castiglione  Falletto.
Ceretto’s Bricco Rocche Cube Winery in Castiglione Falletto.

Places to Stay & Eat

The food is meat based, and focused on beef and the pig. Salami and coppa are ubiquitous, and you’ll often find steak tartare and ox cheek on menus – and they’re exceptionally good. Summer brings vast quantities of strawberries, cherries, peaches and apricots.

Agricola Marrone (agricolamarrone.com) is a go-ahead winery with excellent traditional food. Have the ox cheek if it’s available. Or explore the local tradition of merenda sinoira: a post-work, pre-dinner snack of salami, cheese, fruit and wine.

Antica Corona Reale (anticacoronareale.it) is a Relais & Châteaux restaurant with lots of local produce: snails, truffles in season, cheese, goat, rabbit, pigeon, mushrooms. Top-class cellar and a beautiful, flower-filled garden. The sommelier recommends Gorgonzola ravioli, pears and creamed almonds with moscato passito.

Corte Gondina (cortegondina.it) is a boutique family hotel/agriturismo in La Morra. Chic and beautiful. There’s a pool and a spa, and they can arrange all sorts of amusements for you – like exploring in a classic car, buzzing around on a Vespa, taking balloon trips, biking, golf or chocolate tastings.

La Morra is one of the prettiest towns in Barolo, and the lively Osteria More e Macine (+39 0173 500 395) is where you’ll see lots of producers, who go there for the great cooking and the excellent wine list – and the sheer fun of it all.

third-generation Ceretto siblings.
Third-generation Ceretto siblings.

Palás Cerequio (palascerequio.com) is Michele Chiarlo’s luxurious hotel of nine suites in the middle of the vines. There are tastings every day, of wines from many different producers; there is a focus on art, books and music as well as wine, and there are sculptures in the vineyards.

Ristorante Guido (guidoristorante.it) is updated 19th-century elegance in a lovely location in Serralunga. Dishes are the likes of roast eel with wild rice and sage pesto, or salt cod with ricotta, beans and peas. Nobody does salt cod as well as Italians.

Ristorante Repubblica di Perno (repubblicadiperno.it) is a small, family affair in the pretty town of Monforte. Traditional local food much enjoyed by locals. Closed Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Villa Cornarea (villacornarea.com) is a delightful, small, peaceful, art-nouveau agriturismo perched among the vines, overlooking Canale in the Roero. They have their own wines, and there’s a pool.

Vinoteca Centro Storico (+39 0173 613 203) is the Langhe’s liveliest trattoria/wine bar, in the centre of Serralunga d’Alba. Plenty of locals go here: the food is simple and good, the wine list terrific. The owner loves Champagne as much as nebbiolo, so there’s plenty of that, too.