1966 and all that

Italian flagReading through Bonhams auction notes for today’s wine sale makes me wish I had four-hundred pounds lying around to buy lots 736 and 737. Buying then comparing a 1947 Barolo against its younger 1966 counterpart would not only be an education for someone who’s never tasted a wine made before 1982, but also help prove whether Italy’s 1963 wine laws had any effect.

A pre-1963 Italian wine label must be read with caution - it may say ‘Barolo’ but there is no guarantee that the wine was made there or produced from the expected one-hundred per cent Nebbiolo grapes. After 1963 what could, or could not, be written on a wine label became controlled by the demoninazione di origine controllata (DOC) wine laws -  Barolo wine must now be produced in the Piedmont region of Barolo and made exclusively from Nebbiolo.

Not being able to examine the 1947 Barolo myself, I asked Richard Harvey, Bonhams European Head of Wine, whether it was possible that grapes other than Nebbiolo were in the wine. He told me quite openly that “some north-facing vineyards in Barolo were planted with Freisa, but it would be impossible to tell now if any was included in the bottle.”

So it’s too late to be able to tell whether the 1947 wine is made from anything other than Nebbbiolo, but what would it taste like? At a guess the wine wouldn’t taste as fruity and chocolaty as a Barolo made today.

Before 1970 Barolo winemakers would extract as much colour, flavour and tannin from the Nebbiolo grape skins as they could by leaving them in the fermenting juice for anything up to two months. The resulting hugely tannic young wine was then aged in huge Slovenian oak botti for between 4 and 7 years. Barolo made like this needs at least another 20 years aging in a bottle before the mouth-furring tannins break down and the wine becomes drinkable.

“There is a tendency for Nebbiolo-based wines to lose colour with age”, says Harvey, “although all these bottles are still red. They will have undoubtedly lost much of their initial fruit character with age, as is the case with most wines, but should still prove interesting to those who appreciate the typically dry style of traditional Barolo.”

Barolos made now have grape skins left in for just ten days and are aged in small oak barrels for the 2 year minimum allowed by the DOC laws. The lower levels of tannin extracted break down and become drinkable after just 5 years. A Barolo at its best might taste of tar, chocolate, prunes, smoke and violets.

It seems my queries made Bonhams wonder about lots 736 and 737 too. Bonhams consulted their Italian wine specialist, who came back with this nonchalantly understanding reply;

“Anyone in the region will have to use one-hundred per cent Nebbiolo. What happened in practise in the dark days post-World War II is anyone's guess but it is unlikely that DOC status would have changed that. Look at Chianti and Pinot Grigio today - does anyone follow the rules?”