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The Langhe Hills lie southwest of Turin on an ancient sea bed with vast sedimentary deposits of fine clays and carboniferous fossils, originating 36 million years ago. 6 million years ago the basin was disconnected from the Atlantic and the whole lot evaporated before filling up again 700,000 years later. Then, 5.3 million years ago strong seismic activity pushed the Langhe Hills out of the ocean into the ‘Cuestas’ – ridges formed by tilted sedimentary rocks – we see today. Over time the hills were eroded, depositing the younger sediments at the valley bottoms creating a very complex geology. The final geologically significant event happened a short 60,000 years ago when the local great river – the Tanaro – changed course, separating the lower hills of Roero and the cuestas of Barolo and Barbaresco. This event accelerated erosion of the higher hills, sending the younger, sandier sediments down to the Roero.
Winemaking in the region goes back to around 500BC
From the 1300s onwards, and as the political control of Piedmont changed hands a number of times, the Falleti family (the Marchesi di Barolo) became large landowners and it was under the last Marchesi’s wife in the 1830s that Barolo as we now know it was born. Legend has it that a Frenchman called Oudart was hired to ‘perfect’ the local wine which at the time was sweet and sparkling. This story is disputed and it now seem likely that a local man called Staglieno at another noble estate (Grinzane Cavour) actually perfected the dry, still red which is now consider the king of Italian wines.
Barolo and Barbaresco are made from the local Nebbiolo variety
The first to flower and last to harvest, Nebbiolo needs all the heat of an Italian summer to fully ripen and even then, the formidable tannin and acidity in the grapes requires extended aging in cask (or smaller barrels as some use) to soften. The law requires Barolo to be aged for 38 months before release, 18 months of which must be in wood and, to be called a Riserva, a total of 5 years aging is proscribed before release. Barbaresco, which is at slightly lower altitude than Barolo needs just 2 years aging before release, including one year in wood; ambitious growers in Barbaresco however will normally age theirs according to the Barolo rules.
Barbera has little tannin and can produce wonderful silken, blackberry-fruited wines
Producers with ambition (like Fiorenzo Nada and Roberto Voerzio) produce ‘super’ versions of Barbera to which the same respect and aging they would offer to a Barolo or Barbaresco is given. Dolcetto (little sweet one), the third red grape of the district was long favoured in Piedmont because it is easy to grow, crops well and ripens early. In the right hands it can be a joyful wine, easy to drink, light in body, perfect with simple pizza and pasta. Roberto Voerzio in particular makes a fantastic Dolcetto d’Alba. Many growers make a simpler wine from Nebbiolo too; Langhe Nebbiolo comes from the same communes as Barolo and Barbaresco but is aged less and fermented without the same extraction as the top wines. In the right hands (again Voerzio, Nada) Langhe Nebbiolo can be magnificent.