Barolo is a village of just 684 residents like countless others in Italy, but it holds the distinction of being world-famous. Barolo gave its name to one of the most prestigious wines of the Piedmont region, or rather, the Langhe, an area which is in a league of its own as an international tourist destination. It owes its importance to the local wine, the cuisine, white truffles…but also to Nutella, the product of one family’s entrepreneurial vision… and also to a bit of luck. Although in this piece (spoiler alert), we will not be discussing the wine itself, Barolo’s story begins before the Unification of Italy, thanks to the Americans, a multicolored chapel, and ends with the unbiased endorsement to come tour the “Barolo wine trail” strictly in the fall, when this unique terrain is bursting with colors, flavors, and scents.
A Balinesque landscape
You realize you’re approaching the Langhe from the changing scenery: the hills, previously punctuated by woodlands, vines, and fields, become a single vast expanse of vineyards. It is reminiscent of the rice fields in Bali (also a UNESCO World Heritage Site); the fruit of man’s labor where not a shade of the natural remains. Land in the Langhe can demand 2 million per hectare, just like in Champagne or Burgundy, and not a square centimeter is wasted on anything but vines. Nebbiolo grapes, prized among these hills for centuries, become Barbaresco and Gattinara in villages just a few kilometers away, but in Barolo they owe their fortune to a noblewoman, two politicians, and the first king of Italy, who together in the mid-1800s produced the first Barolo (the same we drink to this day) and introduced it to the courts of half of Europe. The wine enjoyed much success, until the phylloxera epidemic of 1930, a blight that decimated all the vines. Thus, the story of present-day Barolo begins after the second world war.
Wines that owe their thanks to Nutella
The hills of Barolo surround the town of Alba, home of Ferrero, where Nutella was conceived. Since the 1950s it has meant guaranteed employment, profitable hazelnut groves, and a commitment to the land that in other areas of Italy had been abandoned along with the poverty of the countryside. “Ferrero seeded hope, the idea that great things could be achieved” explains Roberta Ceretto, the third generation of a family who pioneered the resurgence of local winemaking in the 1960s. Barolo experienced their new wave in the 1980s, and in the 1990s the American, German and North European markets rediscovered it, and along with the wine, a destination. A bit of everything followed: a few kilometers away, in Bra, the Slow Food movement is born, castles like the one in Barolo are restored and opened to the public, and the Ceretto family began hosting artists in the style of “Chiantishire”, having acquired a building in the center of Alba like the grand French houses. Over the years, a vision developed, partly by chance and partly by skill, into what today is akin to a Silicon Valley of local wine, food, and regional advancement.
Slow Food and Slow Tourism
Barolo is named “Italian City of Wine 2021”, and in 2020, for the first time, Ceretto is named among the “World’s Best Vineyards”, an honor bestowed on the world’s top tourist wine destinations. But in essence, what is there to do in the area? One can’t “visit” the Langhe, it doesn’t boast a typical postcard beauty (no offense); it must be experienced. Over the years, the Cerettos have created a system that leads by example: tasting cellars designed by famous designers, Piazza Duomo, the 3 Michelin star restaurant in the town center, trattoria La Piola that grinds out traditional dishes, and a decade-long partnership with painters, musicians and sculptors. Back in 1996, they met renowned artists Sol LeWitt and David Tremlett, who in 1999 transformed the ruins of a former tractor shelter into the now-iconic Barolo Chapel. It’s not a temporary exhibition, there’s no entry fee, it’s there day and night, on a beautiful panoramic spot in the middle of the vineyards; it’s the most instagrammed image of the area. Brightly colored, it’s by definition pop art, so much so, that its likeness is found on magnets and postcards sold in local corner shops. The Langhe needed a symbol and today it has one: if you come here you can’t miss it, and if you see it you’re compelled to go to it.
The Barolo Menu Worth the Trip
“Worth the trip” is the designation the Michelin Guide gives 3-star restaurants, and to establish the Langhe as a destination, it only needed one such establishment: Piazza Duomo in Alba secured its stars in 2012 and is also one of the few Italian restaurants included on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. In 2021, its chef, Enrico Crippa, decided to bring the tradition back to his table, by dedicating an entire menu to Barolo featuring themed pairings; it has already been inscribed in the annals of unforgettable dinners. Following one of the most sumptuous amuse-bouche offerings honoring Piedmontese culture, we were introduced to Chef Crippa’s talent for elevating ordinary ingredients and flavors to perfection. Raw beef Albese style, an unforgettable winemaker salad inspired by farmers’ lunch leftovers, snails, risotto…the dishes recall big scale banquets, before the days of the abstract and minimalist concepts of fine dining. We eat kingly portions and we drink the “wine of kings”, which sommelier Vincenzo Donatiello plays with by mixing it in cocktails, combining it with beef broth (as was the custom in winter), or pairing it with salad. Great vintages are uncorked, but above all, the notion that Barolo is a wine only for special occasions is debunked.
The Green Renaissance
This is not an article about wine, but about territory and tourism, and the resolution is not found between modernists and traditionalists (as in the infamous “Barolo Wars”), concrete or clay, barrel or no barrel. The future of the 2,000 hectares in Barolo lies in what will be done for this distinctive land. The Cerettos are devoted to sustainability, as are the Farinetti family who run their nearby landmark winery, Fontanafredda. “The public is not as it was 30 years ago. The wine and the land need to constantly tell their story to new generations, in new ways” explains Andrea Farinetti, youngest son of Eataly’s founder, Oscar. They produce wine, but above all, experiences, and in addition to their restaurant and hospitality businesses, they’ve created Villaggio Narrante (Storytelling Village), a bio-natural preserve, where, aided by signs, an app, and audio guides, visitors are immersed in the world of wine, even if they don’t know anything about it – to then exit through the appointed gift store in pure Eataly style; taste, learn, and shop. These visionaries speak of a Green Renaissance because they feel strongly that, as the first Renaissance put man front and center, today we must do so with the Earth.
What to visit
Museo del vino WIMU, Barolo
Museo del Cavatappi, Barolo
The Saturday Market in the town center of Alba
Where to eat
Trattoria La Piola, Alba
Piazza Duomo, Alba
Enoteca Regionale del Barolo, Barolo
Ape Wine Bar, Alba