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Barolo - The Old-Fashioned Way...

Vinnie and I are back in the Langhe in southern Piedmont. Italy is a country blessed with some outstanding landscapes, but the scenery here is so distinctive. The geometrical precision of the lines of vines meets the softly curving contours of the hills in a fusion so unique that it has been granted UNESCO World Heritage status. The last time we were here, in autumn, the countryside presented an almost breathtaking seasonal kaleidoscope of reds, yellows, and oranges blurred by the morning mists that often last well into the afternoon. Then, in late September, it was a visual feast but in August it displayed a different banquet. Now the vines are heavy with grapes awaiting the arrival of the moment of the vendemmia and the bright sunshine lends a clarity and depth of perspective that was previously lacking.

But we are here with a particular purpose in mind. This is the land that produces Barolo, a wine that has earned the epithet, ‘the king of wines’. Barolo has a long history and to understand it better read my article On our last visit we met Silvano Bolmida, a producer who is happy to experiment and, within the production rules, to explore what the Nebbiolo grape is capable of becoming. However, on this trip we are looking at the other side of the coin and visiting the cantina of Francesco Rinaldi where the wine is produced using a traditional approach.

We were shown around by Piera Rinaldi who explained the history of this long-established family business that produces around 70,000 bottles of wine a year - from 11 hectares of vineyards - of which 40,000 are Barolo. The origins of this enterprise go back to Piera’s great-grandfather, Giovanni. In 1870 he inherited a small patch of land on the Cannubi hill and, sensing the potential of the area, also purchased the farmhouse that, with extensions, is still the cantina of the business today and was lived in by the family until 1930. Cannubi hill is today recognised as one of the most prestigious wine-producing sites in this world-famous area. 

In the cellar, history meets the present day. One of the most amazing sights is the huge 55-year-old 110hl botte. This now-retired monster, when in use, held the equivalent of 14,500 bottles of wine. And if you look up you will see, hidden in plain view amongst the beautiful brick vaults and embossed in stucco, the date of construction, 1870, and various masonic symbols. But this is a working cantina where the grapes are brought after a manual harvest that is generally in mid to late October for the late-ripening Nebbiolo grape. The fermentation lasts for around 25 to 30 days with a pump over initially every four hours to ensure that all the goodness is extracted from the grapes. Then begins the long period of traditional maturation in 50hl botte made from Slovenian oak that is so necessary to allow the tannins of the Nebbiolo grape to begin to soften. The wine will remain in these huge barrels for at least 36 months before it is ready for bottling and it is this length of time that explains why the cellars have to be so large.

On the upper floor of what used to be the residential part of the building is the tasting room with views to one side over the Cannubi hill and to the other the area known as Brunate. It is from their vineyards on these two hills that the best of the harvest from each is selected and separately vinified to produce the two DOCG Barolo wines that bear their names. 

The wines we tasted were from 2017. This was a very hot year that enabled the grapes to ripen early and this can cause problems if not skillfully managed. One technique to alleviate this issue is to leave more leaves on the vines as cover to protect the grapes from the sun.

We first sampled Brunate, a wine with the typical deep garnet colour that is the signature of the Nebbiolo grape. The bouquet was a delicate and complex combination of plums, herbs, and figs. On the palate it was full of tannins but these had softened and promised a long life for this wine that Piera says can last up to 30 years. The acidity provides a pleasing balance and the finish is long. This is a wine that would go very well with local dishes made with the white truffles that this area is famous for.

Barolo wines are often described as austere and I think that is fair for these examples. By using the traditional Slovenian oak botte the grape is set centre stage and for those that like their wines ‘in purezza’ these are perfect examples of a traditional Barolo.

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