Italy's Barolo and Barbaresco wines are putting French Burgundy to shame

Chances are, the average Australian wine drinker, even if they aren't a serious collector, has heard of Château Margaux or Château Latour.

But are you familiar with the name Conterno? Or Gaja?

These are the names of some of the top producers of Barolo and Barbaresco, arguably Italy's most premium wines, which for complex reasons have only very recently been recognised as holding their own against the best French Bordeaux or Burgundy.

But these drops are fast becoming household names outside the Italian community, with wines from these producers can fetch upwards of $700 a bottle.

But what's so good about Barolo, and what do you need to know about these premium wines?

Message in a bottle

Barolo and Barbaresco are the names of two small villages in the Langhe region of Piedmont, in North-western Italy.

Both wines are made exclusively from Nebbiolo grapes, which are known to produce red wines light in colour but extremely robust in terms of body and tannin structure. Wines labelled as Barbaresco must have been aged for a minimum of two years, while Barolo is aged for three. Both must have aged for an extra two years to acquire the additional 'Riserva' designation.

They're famous for their unique and refined perfume (expect to find notes of roses, tar, white truffles, leather, woodsmoke and violets in a good Italian Nebbiolo, in addition to the more standard red fruits) and their exceptional cellaring potential. A top Barolo will continue to improve over thirty years or more in the bottle.

Assorted temptations

Matt Paul has been visiting the Langhe region for many years as a partner in Trembath & Taylor, one of Australia's top Italian wine importers. He describes the World Heritage listed region as "a theme park for wine (and food) lovers, with local eateries offering tartufo bianco (white truffles) in early winter, tajarin (egg noodle pasta) and then let's not forget the amazing hazelnuts.

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The wineries (most without a designated cellar door) welcome visitors enthusiastically," he tells me, "so it's no wonder the region has become so popular."

And does Paul believe that Barolo and Barbaresco can truly claim to stack up against the kinds of top-end French wines that have become synonymous with luxury across the world?

"Assolutamente!" he says, wryly. "There are some wine brands from the region that have reached luxury status, but there is still incredible value nestled in these hills as well. Most wineries have small land holdings across many vineyard plots where they make a few thousand bottles of a specific wine. These wines have consistently delivered a track record of successful cellaring for decades."

Top dollar drops

What should Australian drinkers expect in terms of price and profile when buying Nebbiolo here?

"The top-priced Barolo is Monfortino, at $1000, with Gaja Barbaresco around $700. But a great bottle from a lot of top growers can be had for $150-200," explains Paul. Some of the top names, according to Paul, in Barolo are Elio Grasso, D Clerico, B Mascarello, Burlotto, Altare, Cappellano, Massolino, Marcarini, Chiara Boschis, and Conterno Fantino. In Barbaresco, try Produttori del Barbaresco, Fiorenzo Nada, Marchesi di Gresy, and La Ca Nova.

Even outside the Barolo and Barbaresco appellations, there is top quality wine available that is labelled as Langhe Nebbiolo.

"There is Nebbiolo to suit many budgets," he assures me. "Some wines retail for around $30-$40 and they are fresh and juicy to drink right now, or they can be cellared over the short term. Many of the top names in both Barolo and Barbaresco make great Nebbiolo labelled wines and they are more widely available. Look for Sottimano and Albino Rocca in Barbaresco and Mauro Veglio and Vietti in Barolo."

A vine investment

Although the demand for Barolo and Barbaresco has increased "exponentially year on year," according to Paul, these wines still remain an incredible investment.

"Prices, for now, are a fraction of First Growth Bordeaux or Grand Cru Burgundy. For now!"

Barolo and Barbaresco may very well be the Bitcoin of the wine world… you'd better get in while you can!