Wine journalism, as we know it, is a dying art. The reason is simple; most wine publications these days specialize in points – the ultimate sound bite – as a way to attract readers. They’re easy to understand and much quicker to peruse. The editors of these publications – in print and online – have clearly decided to limit traditional articles about wine regions and grape types, as they sense that readers prefer a quick fix.
That’s why it’s a true pleasure to read Barolo and Barbaresco: The King and Queen of Italian Wine by Kerin O’Keefe. It’s clear from the first chapter that O’Keefe knows her subject well and is passionate about these wines. While other authors have also contributed notable works on these iconic red wines of Piemonte, O’Keefe takes the extra steps necessary to inform the reader about the DNA of these wines, from their history to their soils to their styles, as crafted by dozens of the finest producers. The fact that she does so in such a well-written, well-documented and opinionated manner is all the more reason to acquire this book.
First things first – full disclosure. I have known Kerin O’Keefe for about ten years as I tend to see her at special events in Italy; we have tasted together not only in Alba for Barolo and Barbaresco anteprime, but also in Montalcino as well as Sicily. She has an excellent palate, is a first-rate writer and is professional in her discipline. For all the wine gurus out there who tend to gloss over too many wines, they could learn a lot from O’Keefe’s common sense approach to the great wines of Italy. (I’ll also note that O’Keefe and I also have very similar palates, as we tend to favor the more traditional, terroir-driven wines and not the splashy, overripe offerings made by some producers if only in hopes of gaining a big score for a wine publication.)
Last year, O’Keefe wrote an outstanding book titled Brunello di Montalcino: Understanding and Appreciating One of Italy’s Greatest Wines that was among the finest wine books I have ever read. She takes a similar approach in this new work, first giving us an examination of a history of these wines along with a detailed analysis of local terroir. To my way of thinking, this is the best part of this new book.
I mentioned that the author is a talented wine journalist and it is in this section that her talent shines, especially in the chapters “Noble Nebbiolo” and “The Barolo Wars and their Effects in Both Denominations.” In the former chapter, the author deals with several aspects of this grape that is the sole variety used to produce both Barolo and Barbaresco. How it was named, DNA analysis and several statistics on planting are detailed and there is an interesting fact about the Nebbiolo Rosé clone not being a clone at all, but rather a separate variety. I’ve never read that anywhere else; kudos to the author for doing her research and uncovering that piece of information.
Besides being remarkably well-informed about these wines, O’Keefe is opinionated, but in a professional manner (unlike certain famous wine critics). She was and remains opposed to too much oak (especially new) in these wines, believing that small barrels too often yield wines that are not representative. She writes of “mundane and ubiquitous sensations of toasted oak, vanilla and chocolate” in these wines. She also takes a jab at certain wine gurus who were only recently discovering Barolo and Barbaresco (especially with the warm 1990 growing season), writing that the flavors she mentioned above “put many influential critics in their comfort zone. Before this, these same celebrated palates either ignored Barolo and Barbaresco or slammed it.” Great insight here by the author!
I love her take on this subject, as she goes into great detail about the Modernist producers who made Barolo in a very different manner than the previous generations; she also notes that many producers, whom she labels Traditionalists, continued to produce wine in the tried and true manner of their parents. The various production methodology is an important theme of this book and it carries over into the descriptions of the producers in the second half of the book.
The latter half of this book consists of producer profiles in which the author gives us the necessary contact information (location, website, email – all very helpful) as well as her take on each vintner’s style – if they age in large casks or small, what are the specific vineyards they work with, etc. She organizes each chapter into communes, which is a very smart approach, as the Barolos from Serralunga and Monforte with their assertive tannins and muscular frame are much more tightly wound and need more time to settle down that their counterparts from La Morra, which are much more approachable wines upon release. Again, her insight into these wines is very impressive, almost encyclopedic.
There are tasting notes, including a vertical of eighteen examples of Gaja Barbaresco. Her section on this world-famous producer is quite illuminating, nicely communicating the tremendous influence Angelo Gaja has had on Barbaresco. O’Keefe’s work over the years earned her the right to be able to taste these wines with the producer – where else can you find such detailed notes about these famed wines?
This section of producer profiles is extremely well done, as the reader learns the names and styles of the finest vintners working today in Barolo and Barbaresco. One thing that is unavoidable about listing producers in a work such as this is that you can’t include everyone. In a private email about this book, O’Keefe admitted that she was given a page limit by her publisher, the University of California Press. This meant that she had no opportunity to feature every producer she wanted to. So while I would have loved to read about the Barolos of Giovanni Rosso and Luigi Baudana as well as Barbaresco from Serafino Rivella or Pasquale Pelissero (all traditional producers, incidentally), there are no descriptions or mention of these estates and their wines.
Well, you can’t have everything, but the author more than makes up for a few omissions by including text on numerous underrated producers that have not revived much attention elsewhere. This is especially true in the chapters about Barbaresco, where O’Keefe writes about the wines of Pier and Socré; I’ve not had the opportunity to taste the wines of these producers, so I was delighted to learn about them. Barolo and Barbaresco in general have never received as much attention as other renowned red wines of the world (such as Burgundy, Bordeaux and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons), so the very fact that the author has included several unheralded estates is another strong recommendation for the book.
A couple things to add: while there wasn’t enough room for every producer, there are a few that are missing from the book, namely Vietti (Barolo) and Marchesi di Gresy (Barbaresco). O’Keefe does mention their names at the end of their respective chapters (“other firms of note”). Yet even with this, there is no mention of the Barolos of Roberto Voerzio in La Morra. Perhaps the style of his wines is not what the author favors; regardless, it’s a strange omission.
Also, and this may be a personal thing, but after reading all the detailed tasting notes as well as information about how each producer makes their wines, I wanted a bit more. I don’t mean more in the sense of quantity – there is a wealth of information in this book and I can only imagine how many hours went into this book – but I mean more in the sense of a broad look at the subject. I would have loved to read a few quotes from the producers about what makes them tick. There is information such as this with a few important producers, but not as much as was possible (again, perhaps space limitation was a reason for this).
I think the reader would like to know how these producers view Barolo and Barbaresco in the larger world of wine – are the wines marketed well, are they priced fairly, how have the wines improved over the past thirty or forty years? Again, this is touched upon from time to time in the book, but not as much as could have been. The tasting notes are detailed as are the estate profiles, so clearly that is what O’Keefe wanted to write and has written. I have to review the book that’s been written and not what I want, of course. To that end, someone looking for an up-to-date analysis of what’s happening in Barolo and Barbaresco today will find a book that is as thorough and as informative – and as engaging – as anyone could want.
I would think that anyone who reads this book would want to taste many of these wines and perhaps make a visit to these marvelous wine districts. That is about as great a situation as could be possible for this subject. It’s one thing to write facts, but it’s another thing to make them come alive. Kerin O’Keefe has done just that and has written a memorable book.
Barolo and Barbaresco: The King and Queen of Italian Wine
Written by Kerin O’Keefe
Hardcover, 386 pages
University of California Press