Elio Altare & The Barolo Boys Revolution
Updated: Feb 9
Barolo is a very ‘political’ wine. How else? Aren’t we all seriously speaking about the ‘revolution’ that happened in a wine region and forever changed lives of thousands of people in the area, and, well, millions of somms and connoisseurs in the big world?
Barolo is a very ‘political’ wine.
Today I’m going to tell you the story the ‘Barolo Boys’ or Barolo Revolution from the perspective of one of the most rebellious members of the gang. Some of the ‘Boys’ are now quite moderate in their cellars, combining traditional and modern techniques, but his winery until the day it has his name on the label, will always use French barriques. Ready to discover Elio Altare and La Morra with me?
The Revolution of Barolo Wine
Just 50 years ago very little people knew about Barolo, or Nebbiolo as a variety. People forget fast, and they will write in bold now that Barolo is ‘the king of wines, and wine of kings’ wherever you read about this wine (by the way, this phrase is used with any more or less serious wine from Old World). All of a sudden 50 years ago Nebbiolo became one of the most important Italian varieties that ‘thrives in its’ native Piemonte where it actually comes from’.
Those were years of not starving, but almost.
Did god bless the Barolo DOCG finally with prosperity and someone dreamed at night the correct way of ‘cooking’ this wine? Nope. There were some people who did a tremendous work for making the whole region worldwide known today.
Those were years if not starving, but almost. No one wanted to date or marry a vigneron, children would go bird hunting to the woods, to occasionally eat meat. People in the area were farmers, poor farmers, that had chicken to sell eggs, cows to sell milk and cheese, and orchards that were more profitable than vineyards. Just 50 years ago, people were riding horses and ploughing with ox.
Nowadays a hectare of Cannubi (a Grand Cru from Barolo) is 6 million EUR. Every girl dreams to marry a Barolo winemaker. Visitors from all over the world are knocking the doors of the cellars day and nighttime. It’s really beautiful now. All the hills are covered with vineyards, you see Nebbiolo to the horizon. The winemakers are not starving anymore, they don’t hunt birds in the wood to eat meat. Some became millionaires as they sold their now prosperous businesses. Some decided to stay small and keep investing their lifetime to deserve the heritage they got from their parents. The ones that fought a lot for Today to be what it is.
But what happened in between?
Young people in their 20’s couldn’t agree with the fact that they’re destined to be poor, sell their grapes to merchants for free and hope that the following year they’ll get a miserable fee for it. Mainly, the disagreement happened because these ‘kids’ were the first generation among the farmers that could read. Books and newspapers were all about outstanding French wines that were twenty, or maybe, hundred, times more expensive than their Barolo. But how could an Italian believe that a Frenchman can make a better wine?
French barriques made Barolo drinkable today, not in 25 - 50 years.
The group, that was later on called the ‘Barolo Boys’ started to travel to France by car, visiting winemakers in Burgundy and bringing back home not only fine wines, but also innovations.
Hygiene - surprised to see it first? Well, locals weren’t keeping wines with temperature control, in fact, cows and chicken were living at the cellar, and those famous Italian botti weren’t really washed often. The Barolo Revolution finally brought plumbing down to the cellars.
Maceration - Nebbiolo is very astringent, tannic and acidic. This is the reason the Barolo you bought 50 years ago would be just just ready to drink. Elio Altare says great wines are to be enjoyed young and old. Short maceration was introduced to avoid excess astringency.
Yield control - you’ll still see old people swearing behind the back of already children of the Barolo Boys doing green harvest. Excess clusters of Nebbiolo are brutally cut down, while in ‘good old days’ it would be such a pleasant table wine (to drink in 25 years!).
French barriques - the biggest fight was around botti vs barriques. And the fact that they were French, didn’t help at all :) New oak ageing and small size of casks increases the contact of wine with wood, fine grain helps oxidation. The old centenary botti inherited from grandpa to grandpa were never properly cleaned and, sorry to say, it wasn’t a surprise to meet woodworms while making your wine. French barriques made Barolo drinkable today, not in 25 - 50 years, but just 3 years after they’re made.
Another important change that brought Barolo wine region to the world’s wine scene is that producers finally started to work together. Before, no one would drink the wine from neighbours (and we just said they brought French wine!), while in the 70-80’s these guys were coordinating their winemaking as a real consortium, experimenting and sharing all the details. As a winemaker you can have 40-50 harvests in your life. But when you are 10 winemakers you increase the number of harvests you experience by 10 times.
History of Elio Altare Winery
I could talk about Elio Altare for long long hours. This is exactly the ‘business’ model I look for in every wine trip I make. A family run business that chose to stay small, but independent from investors. A crazy story behind - Elio’s personal revolution at home was even more dramatic than the whole region’s. And, of course, outstanding wine - after all, that’s what they fought for.
endlessly humble people
Endlessly humble people - after their wine earned worldwide fame, and then the movie showed the faces behind the wine to millions of people, Silvia (Elio’s daughter) still warns - ‘Don’t expect much. Small family winery, simple production, short tour. I hope you’ll like it’.
they brought a priest to bless the car, meanwhile Elio was fighting to make better wines
The winery in La Morra was started by Giuseppe Altare - Elio’s father in 1948. They were farmers - while cultivating Nebbiolo, Dolcetto, Barbera, the main income was coming from hazelnut, apple, peach sales.
Elio’s first trip to Burgundy happened in 1976. It was a scandal, his parents couldn’t understand even the need of learning about making wine in a different way. They brought a priest to bless the car. Meanwhile, Elio was fighting to make better wines, but honestly, the reason number one behind all the revolution was to have a better life.
he either learns how to make wine that people want to buy and drink, or ends up selling grapes for bulk wine production all his life
A guy in his twenties decided that either learns how to make wine that people want to buy and drink, or ends up selling grapes for bulk wine production all his life.
He was lucky to meet worldwide known winemakers that were rock stars already those times. Seeing that being a farmer and a winemaker is a prestige just 5 hours drive from La Morra, that those people are sailing boats in Saint-Tropez and driving cabrio cars made him believe that himself and the whole Barolo region can end the poverty thanks to their wine.
being a farmer and a winemaker was a prestige just 5 hours drive from La Morra
When returned, Elio grabbed a chainsaw and chopped the centenary botti (large wooden barrels) in the cellar to make space for barriques. He throw out the chicken and cows from the cellar and introduced plumbing. And vineyards weren’t co-existing with orchards anymore. All the bet was on vine. Guiseppe, his father, thought his son lost his mind, as all these were against the common sense of the older generation. Guiseppe disinherited Elio, and the now famous Elio Altare had to buy out the land from his siblings.
Elio Altare now brings revolution to another region
The revolution wasn’t easy, and it wouldn’t happen if it was only him. Young people who didn’t want to leave their land to become workers in Fiat or elsewhere in Torino, but believed they can make a decent living out of farming, crafted the wine we all enjoy today.
Silvia Alare, Elio’s daughter is managing the winery today, while her father now brings revolution to another region - Cinque Terre. Abandoned vineyards, no young people left, difficult geographical conditions, obscure grape varieties… The history always repeats itself. I guess I know where I’m going to travel next ;)
The Barolo Cru Zones of Elio Altare
At Elio Altare they manage 10 hectares - 6 they own (in 2016 Silvia bought a vineyard in Cerretta) and 4 ha are rented. The family produces 3 important crus, all of them have very distinguished terroir.
Arborina (speaking French - ‘Premiere Cru’) - located just in front of the winery, this vineyard is shared by 6 producers. A mix of Tortonian and Early Messinian soils, or to say it simpler - 25-30% clay, lots of silt and some sand. The clay makes Arborina wine bloody delicious (and with so much irony notes, I really mean the ‘bloody’). Soil is 6 to 10 million years old here.
Cerretta (Grand Cru) - located on the other side of valley, near Castiglione Falletto, thanks god from the Altare family terrace you can see all the cru zones in Barolo DOCG :) The soil here is a blend from Tortonian and Serravallian epoches, that is from 8 to 11 millions years, the times when sea was retreating and the Barolo hills appeared on surface. The majority again goes to silt, which is normal as this is the fine sandy sediment that is carried by sea. But instead of clay, we get more sand here. Sand always helps the wine to generate more tannins. Elio Altare’s Cerretta for me was more of a powerful masculine wine, while Arborina was a perfection of female elegance (bravo, Silvia!)
Cannubi (Grand Cru) - is from Tortonian formations of 8 to 10 millions years, with equal quantities of sand and clay, and around 40% of fine silt. If you heard somms describing Barolo as rose petals and tar aromas, then you’ll finally find those in Cannubi. The vineyard is located near the village of Barolo, where wines are more complex with broader texture.
Generally speaking, wines that come from the area of La Morra (Arborina) are more perfumed, gracious and fruity, this is due to the high concentration of limestone. While on the other side of the valley, around Castiglione Falletto and Serralunga d’Alba (Cerretta) wines are intense, bigger in structure and require a longer time to age. The Barolo village itself (Cannubi) gives complex textured wines with classical aromas of rose and tar.
NB: don’t think that this is it! Barolo DOCG has plenty of cru zones with soils ranging from 5 to 12 million years. I recommend you Barolo ENOGEA app and (physical) maps by Alessandro Masnaghetti Editore if you want to dig deeper into this subject.
Wine tasting at Elio Altare
Would I be able to drink a Barolo from 2015 on a tasting in La Morra in 2019 if the Barolo Revolution has never happened? Hell, no! They’d make me wait with my ‘15 until at least 2040 or buy a bottle from 1990 (although they’d say it’s still too young).
Was all the Barolo in the region unsuitable for drinking those years? Of course, not. There were a few high class producers, but it wasn’t a cool wine region. It was a few great producers and thousands of farmers making ‘table wine’ that smells chicken poop.
So let’s taste the results of the Barolo Revolution!
Dolcetto d’Alba DOC 2017
Easy fresh everyday wine, not oaked, something that they call here ‘vino di tutti giorni’, put it in an ice bucket in summer to get a refreshment (they don’t make summery whites or rosés at Elio Altare). A wine to eat with pizza, panino, an easy wine. This Dolcetto has a medium body, light tannins, notes of wild berry, cherry, strawberry, eucalyptus and sage (sooo Mediterranean and refreshing the way it smells).
Making it requires only 2-3 days of maceration and ageing in stainless steel for 10 months.
Langhe Nebbiolo DOC 2017
An easy entry level Nebbiolo, an inexpensive replacement of Barolos :) Some used oak is present here, with wild strawberry and sour cherry, high tannins and medium finish.
Maceration goes on for 3-4 days in rotary fermentors, then it’s aged in used French barriques for 5 months.
Langhe Larigi DOC 2015
The Langhe is a very generic name, it doesn’t have rules about pricing, about how you should name your wines, it could be a 3 EUR Langhe table wine to a 500 EUR Langhe from Gaia. The rule is that it has to grow within the region.
So 40 years ago Elio Altare decided to call these wines Langhe in order not to be put in any box. He made his Larigi with 100% Barbera in 1982 with new oak. People couldn't believe it’s Barbera. And even more, originally at that time it was under Vino di Tavola category, as the Langhe appellation was born only in 1994.
Notes of vanilla and clove, Jesus, so pleasantly oaky, with high acidity, sour cherry and gentle medium tannins.
It ages in French barriques for 18 months.
Langhe La Villa DOC 2015
A Barbera and Nebbiolo blend, with new oak ageing, very high acidity and very high tannins with confit blackcurrant and cherry on the nose.
Again, 18 months in French barriques.
Barolo DOCG 2015
The entry level Barolo blend from Elio Altare with notes of strawberry gum, red and black currant, cherry confit. The acidity is medium to high (depending what to compare it with), the tannins are ripe and soft. 2015 was a generous year as you know.
Barolo Arborina DOCG 2015
My very favourite one with notes of liquorice (that I hate eating, but love in wine), clove, strawberry, raspberry, a bit bitter finish and medium tannin.
Just 4-5 days of maceration in rotary fermentors (comparing to 50 days with the ‘traditionalists’ of Barolo region), aging in French barriques for 24 months. The soil, as I mentioned before, is very specific, it makes wines sharp and pointy, brings sharper tannins with lots of floral perfume.
Barolo Cerretta Vigna Bricco DOCG 2015
Iron, limestone, leather, bacon, burnt matches, and, after all, blood! This wine has so much iron, that you really feel like drinking blood (don;t get me wrong, I loved it, even bought a bottle for home consumption). It has medium tannin with medium to high acidity.
Again aging in new French barriques for 24 months.
What else? Many more details that wouldn’t fit in an article format, but just one very important thing to note. Spending these 2 hours at Elio Altare made me feel like I lived through all the revolutions together with them :)
Read the 1st part of my Barolo Adventures and visit to Castiglione Falleto and Vietti winery here.