Posts tagged ‘kerin o’keefe’

A Splendid Examination of Barolo and Barbaresco



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


Buy here


January 6, 2015 at 10:54 am 2 comments

The Real Story of Brunello di Montalcino

Brunello di Montalcino, one of the world’s most celebrated red wines, is particularly loved and appreciated in America. Approximately one in every four bottles of this wine is sold in this country, as consumers seemingly have identified Brunello as their favorite premium Italian wine. The fact that it’s from Tuscany doesn’t hurt, but it’s also become a bit of a status symbol among American wine drinkers, even more so than its Italian counterparts, Barolo and Amarone.

Yet few consumers really know a great deal about this wine, the territory where it is produced or the individuals who make it. The Brunello marque is so strong, the identity of this wine so associated with grandeur, that few consumers can name more than a handful of estates that craft this wine. The fact that they can drink a bottle of Brunello is what’s most important in the eyes of many.

Given this view, it’s wonderful that Kerin O’Keefe has just written Brunello di Montalcino: Understanding and Appeciating one of Italy’s Greatest Wines (312 pages, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, $39.95). O’Keefe, an American who has been living in Italy since 1991, began writing about Italian wines a few years after that and today, is one of the world’s leading journalists on the subject, contributing articles to such publications as Decanter and The World of Fine Wine among others. Personally, I have known Kerin for about a decade, when I first met her – appropriately enough – at a tasting in Montalcino. She is a trusted colleague and someone who willingly shares her knowledge and opinions.

O’Keefe’s book is worthwhile on so many levels, combining an introduction to the area and its wines in general to a look at recent events and finally, detailed descriptions of a few dozen estates that she considers important as well as influential. One of the primary themes that she drives home in this work is that over the past three decades, the style of Brunello has undergone a serious change, at least with some producers. She writes about the introduction of French barriques – 225 liter barrels – that became fashionable for maturing Brunello in the 1980s and ’90s (and still continues today to some extent). These casks are much smaller than the large oak barrels known as botti that were the traditional vessels used to age the wines in this area. As botti range in size from 20 to 60 hectoliter – or 2000 to 6000 liters – these casks gave far less wood influence to the wines, allowing for greater varietal character (Brunello di Montalcino must of course, be produced entirely from the Sangiovese grape).

The reason why some producers made the switch to the smaller barrels, according to the author, was to try and earn a high score from one of the influential wine publications that were rewarding California and French wines – as well as the infamous Super Tuscans made from international varieties – for their dark colors and super ripe fruit qualities. O’Keefe describes the characteristics of these barrique-aged wines as having “intense chocolate, vanilla and toast influences of new oak;” for the author, this was not beneficial for a wine made with Sangiovese, as the oak flavors “weighed down the variety’s vibrant cherry-berry and mineral sensations.” She is clearly opposed to barriques – she labels this trend in Montalcino as “the dark side” – and she also quotes area producers who explain why barriques significantly alter the true character of a Brunello, resulting in a loss of tradition as some producers opted for instant fame. (The author is also quick to point out that thankfully, there are still many estates that have stayed with the time-honored ways of producing Brunello.)

O’Keefe also goes into great detail about the infamous Brunello scandal of 2008, when it was reported that the prosecutor of Siena had charged four producers with using varieties other than Sangiovese in their Brunello. Given the deep ruby red and purple colors of some of the examples, journalists had been suspecting this for several years, but now here it was officially out in the open. Much was written over the past three years about this sorry affair (not all of it true); O’Keefe’s account of this situation is the best version I have read, not only for its attention to detail, but also in its fairness (she lets one of the accused producers have his say about his winery’s involvement).

Francesco Marone Cinzano, Proprietor, Col d’Orcia  – Col d’Orcia is one of the leading producers of Brunello in the traditional style and one of the author’s favorites. (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

The author takes a close look at the best producers of Brunello, organizing them by subzone and explaining why the best wines take on a sense of the local terroir. Among her favorites are companies such as Col d’Orcia, Poggio di Sotto, Lisini and Biondi-Santi (the author had previously penned a book on this last producer.) She writes about their particular conditions, both in the vineyards and the cellar and contributes a nice summary of the characteristics of each particular wine from these vintners. I love the fact that O’Keefe has omitted several famous Brunello producers, as they favor a modern approach not in step with her likes, while for some producers (such as Banfi), she includes them for their influence, but at the same time, takes them to task for their business practices as well as the style of their wines.

O’Keefe ends the book with a section entitled, “Beyond Brunello,” in which she describes other wines of the area (Rosso di Montalcino, Sant’Antimo, e.g.) as well as lending some valuable tips on pairing Brunello with local foods. This section alone, particularly the food and wine recommendations, should prove to be of invaluable help to anyone touring this area or trying to impress friends at dinner.

In an era where there is so much misinformation about any number of wines and wine news, it’s refreshing to read the work of an author who not only knows her subject in great detail, but one who is opinionated and tells her story in an engaging fashion. Whether you are just discovering Brunello di Montalcino or have been enjoying these wines for decades, this book is highly recommended.

April 28, 2012 at 1:26 pm 8 comments

tom hyland

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