Barolo and Taurasi: Separated at Birth?

This post is for the really serious winos. Over the years, I’ve been intrigued by the many broad similarities and the few subtle differences between Nebbiolo and Aglianico, especially in their premier expressions, Barolo and Taurasi, and especially as those wines mature. Both varieties need very long growing seasons. Both can take heat but enjoy cool, not to say cold, weather.

Nebbiolo is obviously a northern grape, but even though Aglianico grows in the south, it grows high – above 400 meters – in the hills. Oldtimers in Campania can still remember harvesting Taurasi in the snow. Both grapes are rich in tannins and acidity. They have fairly similar flavor profiles, and they both obviously age long and well. You could say some of these things of other varieties as well, but not all of them, and it’s the weight of all those factors that urges the comparison upon me.

Most wine drinkers know Barolo well and Taurasi hardly at all, so many readers may be surprised by the juxtaposition. But Southern Italians have been irked for years by hearing Taurasi referred to as “the Barolo of the South,” whereas they feel that Barolo by rights should be called the Taurasi of the North. I’ve spoken to many Italian scientists of the grape, and more than one has told me that there may well be some Aglianico in Nebbiolo’s DNA – which is historically likely, given how the traffic flowed on ancient Italy’s trade routes and legionary roads.

Recently, it occurred to me there was a simple way to test the two wines’ similarities and differences as they play out on the palate: Taste a sample of each side by side, take notes, think, and enjoy. That, after all, was the basic structure of my first book, Mastering Wine: tasting two wines together tells you far more about each than any number of solitary tastings will reveal.

So, with the collaboration of wife, webmistress, and cook (that’s Diane: one person, not three), I set up two dinners around two chosen wines: a Barolo Parafada Riserva from Massolino, and a Taurasi Radici Riserva from Mastroberardino. Both wines were 1999, a very good but not spectacular vintage in both zones, and both had been kept in my usual far-from-perfect storage, so that made a pretty level playing field.

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two wines

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The dinners were designed to test different aspects of the wines. The first evening, we skipped an appetizer course and started with a plain broiled steak, baked eggplant slices, and sautéed zucchini; then went on to an assortment of cheeses, including a pungent, American-made Reblochon type that should test any wine’s mettle. The second dinner started with pâté de foie gras on toast and went on to pork chops braised with a shallot-and-mushroom gravy, flat Roman green beans, and boiled fingerling potatoes. Whatever else happened, we were going to eat well.

For the first meal, the wines had been uncorked just about an hour before drinking. For the second, the wine bottles had stood, recorked and half-full, in the refrigerator until about an hour before dinner. This was done by design, to see how they reacted to such long aeration. My hunch was they would be the better for it, and this comparison provided an opportunity to test that too.

And eat well we did, and very interestingly did the wines respond to the various dishes. At first opening, the Barolo was redolent of earth, dried roses, dried figs, and tobacco, while the Taurasi smelled of pine duff and underbrush, funghi porcini, and dried plums – quite clearly different, but hardly opposites. On the palate, the Parafada felt big and round and soft. It had some perceptible wood tannins, but mostly tasted of black fruit – a lot of it, powerful and deep. It finished long and tobacco-y/leathery. Elegant, it seemed to me. The Radici felt leaner and more muscular, lithe like a dancer. It also tasted predominantly of black fruits, along with mushrooms, and leather, with a finish similar to the Barolo’s: leathery and elegant. Both very fine wines, clearly, and clearly with some overlap of their flavor components.

Then on to taste them with the first dinner’s foods.

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First dinner

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The steak softened the Parafada’s evident tannins and brought up an abundance of black cherry flavors with sufficient acidity to support them. For the Radici, the steak likewise emphasized the richness of its fruit and the freshness and relative abundance of its acidity. Both wines handled the vegetables well but without a lot of enthusiasm, though the Taurasi seemed to pick up some bulk alongside them, while the Barolo got a touch austere.

The cheeses really fattened both wines – even the evil Reblochon-type, but especially a Bleu d’Auvergne. The Taurasi just loved the third cheese, Idiazabal, a Spanish sheep-milk wedge. By the time we were finished with food, the wines were moving in different directions, the Barolo growing more austere and powerful, while the fruit kept coming forward in the Taurasi.

Twenty-four hours later, the differences seemed much sharper. The Barolo’s aroma had grown much deeper and more mushroomy, while the Taurasi was showing more and deeper blackberry character. They seemed almost to have traded places from the first evening.

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Second dinner 2

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But on the palate, they were beginning to converge, both smooth and elegant and composed, both playing quite happily with the foie gras, both showing nice complexity. The only perceptible difference was that the apparently greater acidity of the Radici really made its fruit shine. Then the pork-and-mushroom dish bumped up the Parafada’s fruit too, just as it turned the Taurasi’s yet another notch higher, making both wines taste fresher and more lively.

By this point it was clear that while the flavor spectra of the two wines overlapped in many places, there was one sharp difference between them, and that hinged on acidity. Both wines were actually better – richer and more complex – the second day, with what most people would regard as a preposterous amount of aeration. But the generous and lively acidity of Aglianico kept the Taurasi vital, while the Nebbiolo wine needed a little help. Still a great wine, make no mistake; but by the end of dinner the Barolo wanted a little cheese, while the Taurasi wanted only to be sipped.

Let me urge you to try some matches like this on your own. As I learned many years ago in doing the research for Mastering Wine, any paired tastings are fun, and carefully selected pairs are informative as no other kind of tasting can be. If you try any of your own, I’d love to hear your results.

7 Responses to “Barolo and Taurasi: Separated at Birth?”

  1. tom hyland Says:

    Tom: Excellent post and one that goes far beyond how a wine tastes. The mistake that too many critics make these days is settling for instant pleasure, with a numerical rating a display of how much they liked (or disliked) a wine.

    Your story documents the absurdity of scores for a just-released wine such as Barolo or Taurasi. You show evidence that these wines are not only far more complex down the road, but also that they are different wines even over the course of a day or two.

  2. Jonathan Levine Says:

    My only negative comment was that I wasn’t invited Excellent post.

  3. Tomas Nilsson Says:

    Wonderful Reading…
    I really like how you stand up and write
    about Campanian wines.

  4. Ed Mccarthy Says:

    My experience with Barolo and Taurasi is that you cannot give them too much aeration. The more, the better, it seems to me. That’s why I never order them in restaurants. I just drink them at home.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Not a bad rule, Ed, and certainly one that will give your wallet a break! You seem to be right about Barolo and Taurasi (and some of the other wines made with the same grapes): for at least 24 hours, maybe 48, they just seem to get better and better. That’s also true — probably even more so — of classically made Amarone.

  5. John Wion Says:

    great post, Tom.

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