Barolo Wine: The Best Dishes to Pair with This Italian Red
This November, we may not be able to travel to Alba for white truffle season, but that hasn’t stopped the coveted fungi from making their way to us along with their classic accompaniments Barolo and Barbaresco. However, long after the last truffle has been shaved down to a nub, there’s no reason to stop breaking out these exquisite bottles.
These are quintessential year-end wines: not heavy, but deep and soul-satisfying in a way that seems precisely keyed to the hearty flavours of any place that experiences winter. They’re also increasingly popular across Asia, where many collectors dismayed by soaring Burgundy prices and bored with Bordeaux have awoken to their idiosyncratic charms. Elegant and brooding in equal measure, these are complex wines that are not necessarily the easiest to pair with Asian-inspired dishes, but can produce imaginative, exciting pairings when they do work.
Barolo and Barbaresco are two villages in the northwestern Italian region of Piemonte (“foot of the mountain”) and also the names of two DOCG wines based on Nebbiolo––a grape variety that produces wines as replete with lilting perfume as with tannins and acidity––from regions that include those villages. Both regions are characterised by sticky, clay-based soils that have crumpled over the millennia into a storybook landscape of rolling hills. The resulting plethora of gradients and exposures means that individual sites, called “crus” or MGA (menzioni geografiche aggiuntive), produce profoundly different wines that demand very different pairing recommendations.
However, unlike Burgundy’s centuries-old classification, Barolo’s crus are comparatively young. Relatively few exceptional sites like Cannubi can claim a long track record of individual bottlings. The “classic Barolo,” now somewhat unfairly demoted to “basic Barolo,” was historically blended from vineyards across the region. Certain wineries like Bartolo Mascarello persist with blending, rejecting the Burgundian-inspired pyramid that privileges single-vineyard wines. Blended wines are, by design, usually less afflicted with extreme personalities and can often be relied on for balance and food-friendliness.
However, these days most wineries in both Barolo and Barbaresco have adopted the cru system whole hog. Bottles are proudly emblazoned with MGA names to imply both top quality and a particular style. Cannubi is known for its lusciousness, Vigna Rionda its power, Asili its lacey finesse and the newly red-hot Monvigliero its slowly emerging grace. This has to an extent replaced the notion that certain communes within Barolo and Barbaresco (or indeed the two DOCGs as a whole) can consistently be linked with particular wine traits. While Barbaresco was once characterised as “feminine,” and Barolo as “masculine,” this dichotomy has recently begun to sound as outdated as the descriptors themselves.
(Related: 6 of the Best Italian Wine Brands to Try Now)
Another either/or that will elicit eyerolls among the region’s connoisseurs is “modernist vs traditionalist,” the subject of the so-called “Barolo Wars” of the ‘70s and ‘80s. While once a debate that could fracture families, it has now largely been relegated to the history books as traditionalists have quietly adopted various technologies and the modernists have largely abandoned heavy-handed extraction and new oak.
These days anyone hoping to tease out style clues in order to choose an appropriate pairing needs more sensitive questions: what percentage of barrique is used vs botti (large oak casks that are less likely to contribute vanilla or sweet spice notes)? How dramatically are the yields reduced (in my experience, winemakers who obsessively discard fruit often produce wines almost implausibly thick and extracted for the translucent Nebbiolo grape). A final point to observe is the age of the winemaker; impolitic as this sounds, I’ve noted many middle-aged winemakers were slower to abandon whichever side they picked in the “Barolo Wars,” while many Gen X and millennial winemakers have forged a “third way” that prioritises a lightness of touch.
Modern-ish wines (with more new oak and lower yields like La Spinetta, Elio Altare and Roberto Voerzio) call for commensurately sturdy dishes. Traditional-ish wines (with less new oak, less crop reduction and often delightfully luddite winemaking like Bartolo Mascarello, Giacomo Conterno and Giuseppe Rinaldi) will benefit from dishes the evoke the earthy funk of traditional Piemontese cuisine, which is rich in organ meat. Wines that transcend this old debate (typically fresh and delicate with vibrant fruit expression like Roagna and recent wines from Paolo Scavino and Azelia) are altogether more versatile, although you still shouldn’t go overboard with challenging ingredients like chilis and garlic––underestimate Nebbiolo’s tannins at your own peril!
Pairing 1: LA Galbi
This is your cut of choice for modern-leaning Barolo. Its meatiness and bone-sticking savour will cosily enrobe itself in the sheared mink tannins of these hedonistic bottles. Even slopping on the soy sauce shouldn’t bother these wines, though I would steer clear of too much gochujang (sweet red chilli paste) unless you want an alcoholic fire bomb in the mouth.
Pairing 2: Deep Fried Pork Intestines
An acquired taste that many have yet to acquire but deeply beloved by its partisans, this Taiwanese street food classic echoes Piemonte’s Bollito Misto. Though the latter is often served with humble Dolcetto, Piemonte’s everyday wine, I enjoy the complexities it teases out of traditional Barolo, in which the perfume of flowers and fruit is always tinged with furtive whispers of decay. The unyielding tautness of traditional Barolo is also the perfect counterpoint for a chewy mouthful of offal. Double down on carnal savour with a clay pot pig liver, or just some pork belly (though ideally not hong shao rou, which is too sweet) to round out your Asian-Piemontese meal.
Pairing 3: Koi Soi
Modern renditions of “Korean steak tartare” aside, raw meat is not a mainstay in many Asian countries. However, in Thailand raw beef salad is reasonably popular (there is also a version thickened with blood and bile, which I can’t say I’m racing to try). Only faintly reminiscent of the Piemontese favourite Battuta di Carne Cruda, which dresses hand-chopped raw beef in a savoury-tart slick of olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper, this salad packs in all the typical Thai flavourings: shallot, fish sauce, chillis, lime and herbs. With a new wave Barolo or Barbaresco that brings a bright sheen of glossy red fruit and lively acidity, you have the makings of a truly contemporary combination (although for safety try to keep a relatively light touch with the condiments).