Barolo and Barbaresco are both made from the Nebbiolo grape in Piedmont, while Brunello di Montalcino is from Tuscany and must be 100% Sangiovese.
Together they constitute some of Italy’s finest and most long-lived wines. All come from vineyards in geographically-defined areas, and all carry the DOCG denomination.
That stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita and was designed as the pinnacle of Italian wine quality assurance, albeit there are caveats.
Top producer Gaja took three single-vineyard wines out of the Barbaresco DOCG for several years, for instance, although they returned to the fold in 2015.
Current releases to look out for
It’s an exciting time to be a fan of these wines. The highly anticipated Brunello di Montalcino 2015 vintage is emerging alongside a Barolo 2016 crop that was recently described as ‘exceptional’ by Decanter’s Stephen Brook.
The high quality of the Barbaresco 2015 vintage, meanwhile, has prompted many producers to release Riserva wines.
Not to complicate matters, but you could also try some excellent Barbera wines from Piedmont, too.
A matter of taste
On a very general level, Barolo traditionally has a more striking tannic structure matched by Nebbiolo’s signature high acidity with bright-yet-dense red fruit, such as cherries, wild strawberry or raspberry, and floral scents.
Earthy notes often come to the fore as the wines age, notably truffle, but the complexity of the best wines can also include herbs, liquorice and tobacco-like aromas.
Barbaresco has a reputation for making a slightly softer, more immediately approachable style.
It doesn’t have to be aged for quite as long (see below), yet critics have frequently commented in recent years that Barolo, too, has become more drinkable at a younger age.
Nebbiolo grapes in Barbaresco, lying to the north-east on the other side of Alba, and nearer to the Tanaro river, tend to ripen earlier than in Barolo – which can make a difference in some vintages, as Andrew Jefford noted in this in-depth look at the two Nebbiolo strongholds.
Brunello di Montalcino is produced in a warmer climate overall. You might find richer, dark fruit, such as plum or dark cherry, coming to the fore. But there is also an elegance to the best wines. They can display dried herbs and floral perfume, as well as develop incredible complexity as they age. You can expect serious structure and acidity; these wines are built to last.
Winemaking style: It’s complicated
All of that said – and you probably guessed this was coming – winemaking has arguably never carried so much nuance.
Battle lines were famously drawn in the 1980s and 1990s between the ‘modernist’ adoption of smaller French barrique barrels and the traditionalist use of large ‘botti’ made from Slavonian oak.
Yet, individual producers have their own methods, and vintages can require a flexible approach.
One significant trend to note is the development of single-vineyard wines. Vineyard sites, known as ‘crus’, have developed ever-greater prominence in Barolo, and this trend is also present in Barbaresco.
It’s not hard to see why some critics describe Piedmont as the Burgundy of Italy, and some producers will make several different crus in one vintage, as well as Barolos that blend grapes from different communes.
The last three decades of the 20th century also saw the development of single-vineyard Brunello di Montalcino wines. More recently, there has been debate about more formal recognition of different sub-zones.
Barbaresco must be aged for at least two years before release, with nine months in oak. Barolo must be aged for at least three years, with 18 months in oak.
For Riserva wines, producers must age their wines for at least four and five years respectively before releasing them.
While Barolo has a better reputation for ageing than its Piedmont counterpart, it’s worth noting that Barbaresco can still go the distance in a top vintage.
Brunello di Montalcino wines must be aged for five years before release, including a minimum two years in oak and four months in bottle. Riserva wines must age in total for six years before release.