Barolo: revolution and tradition

Barolo Boys

Let's look together at an important episode in the history of Barolo: the rise and fall of the Barolo Boys.

Who are the Barolo Boys?

The "Barolo Boys" were a group of young wine producers from the Langhe who revolutionized the Italian wine industry between the 1980s and 1990s by changing the way Barolo was produced.

The group was made up of Elio Altare, Chiara Boschis, Giorgio Rivetti, Roberto Voerzio, Paolo De Marchi, Marco de Grazia and other very young people.

What was it like to be a winemaker in the Langhe?

The situation is well told in the film of the same name by Paolo Casalis and Tiziano Gaia (Joe Bastianich is the narrator), where the poverty of the Langhe countryside until the 1960s clearly emerges.

It was plowed with ox, the grapes were sold loose, the winemakers were poor and few made Barolo, a wine which on average was made rather poorly. The mentality of the Langhe tended to be very closed, non-communitarian, and "langhetto" is in fact synonymous with a conservative approach.

- Read also: why Nebbiolo is so special

How did the Barolo Boys' breakthrough happen?

During a trip to France spent sleeping in the car, Elio Altare wondered why no one knew about Barolo, whereas the wines were well valued beyond the Alps.

What changes, then?

The desire for change and redemption is great. Elio Altare and a group of winemaker friends equally tired of the situation decide to experiment with new techniques: thinning the grapes in the vineyard, use of barrique in the cellar, general attention to quality.

The narrative, in fact, has it that the change of pace occurred with the adoption of the French barrique, in reality the theme was broader and concerned above all the lack of oenological science, which translated into mostly imprecise cellar practices.

What do the Barolo Boys do?

We are at the beginning of the eighties. They begin to do collective blind tastings, experiment, compare and together understand how to improve Barolo. If in the course of a lifetime each winemaker has around fifty harvests ahead of him, in a group that experiments and compares twice a week the experiences multiply.

How does Barolo change?

BB's Barolo becomes a very fragrant wine, with a rounded flavor (the first vintages made in this way were 1985, 1986 and 1987).

Meanwhile, the methanol wine scandal of 1986 gave further impetus to the search for quality. This is a tragic event involving the sale of adulterated wine containing methanol (a highly toxic substance that can cause permanent organ damage and even death if consumed in large quantities). At that time, several dishonest companies and producers mixed methanol with wine to increase its volume and maximize profits. This led to a large number of poisonings and 19 deaths among consumers who drank the contaminated wine. The event sparked outrage and led to a strengthening of control regulations in the production and sale of wine, in order to ensure consumer safety.

How did the international rise of the Barolo Boys happen?

With the arrival on the scene of Marco de Grazia: a young Italian American who brings the group to the United States. We are in 1993, they are baptized "Barolo Boys", their glory is consecrated and American critics love them very much. Big investments are starting to arrive in the Langhe, the land costs more and so do the bottles.

The controversies between traditionalists and modernists in the Barolo style

We then began to outline the contrast between the modernists (the Barolo boys) and the traditionalists (Angelo Gaja, Marco Ferrero...), who accused each other of bowing to international fashions and of having betrayed local savoir faire , made up of longer refinements and of adopting the large barrel.

How are the Barolo Boys seen today?

Today the Barolo Boys are considered extraordinary revolutionaries by some, megalomaniacs by others.

In the most benevolent of interpretations they gave a shock to the Langhe by finally producing a good Barolo and bringing it to the crest of the international wave.

In the most balanced way, they provided an acceleration to a process aimed at quality which had already begun in medium and large wineries and would soon spread to the homes of the poorest farmers.

The interesting point in our opinion is another.

The reasons for the success of the Barolo Boys are probably due precisely to their ambition and the strength of a close-knit group, capable of bold choices. Also because when personalities emerged the Barolo Boys began their descent. They broke up as a "group" and some made choices that went against the trend, especially with regards to refinement, which in some cases returned to being in large barrels (starting from around 1998). Today, finally, they seem to be the ones shadowing young people.

But the role of the Barolo Boys remains fundamental for having demonstrated that the techniques and the way of producing wine can be modified, improved, innovated

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