Ask the world’s wine experts to name Italy’s greatest red wine, and chances are a sizable majority would cite Barolo. In the hills of Piedmont in the northwest of the country lie the world’s most famous vineyards growing the Nebbiolo grape. Along with neighbouring Barbaresco, these are “two of the wine world’s pinnacles,” according to Jancis Robinson. Without doubt Barolo is an Italian appellation that stands alongside the very best.
Quite what the region’s top producers like Bruno Giacosa or Elio Altare would make of it if they wandered into a UK branch of LIDL this weekend I do not know, because for two days, the 29th and 30th of April 2017, Lidl is selling bottles of its Barolo for just £4.99. At its regular £9.99 price it is already astonishingly cheap for such an exalted appellation, but a price of under a fiver seems almost inconceivable.
Barolo was one of the first Italian wine regions to be granted DOCG status. Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita is Italy’s highest level of wine classification, the wines not only coming from strictly demarcated zones (Origine) but passing an assessment tasting by a panel of experts to guarantee their authenticity (Garantita). And yet Barolo comes in many different styles and indeed qualities.
Partly this is down to winemaking with big differences between ‘traditional’ wines given a long maceration before ageing in big, old wooden casks, and ‘modern’ wines macerated for less time and matured in small barrels, often of new oak. But Barolo is also a region of great terroir complexity, the variations in soil, topography and aspect giving similar problems or opportunities (depending on your viewpoint) as in Burgundy, where knowing very specific producer and vineyard combinations is key.
I presume at £4.99 Lidl’s Barolo is a ‘loss leader’ – a product where profit is not as important as attracting new customers. So, what do we know about this £5 Barolo? It comes from the very good 2013 vintage (the 2012 might also be on the shelves, but it is regarded as a less reliable year and I have not tasted it) and was bottled in the commune of Cossano Belbo – presumably a local négociant or bottler. It has 14% alcohol by volume. Given the level of UK tax and duty, the most I’d ever expect of a £4.99 wine is that it’s inoffensive and palatable. So can this wine exceed those lowly expectations, let alone deliver the experience promised by its famous name?
Is it a bargain? Well, it’s so hard to judge a wine when it’s context is so unusual, but all I can say is that if I’d tasted it at its regular price of £9.99, I’m confident I would have rated it an honest 87, maybe even 88-points. Therefore, it has to be one of the best £4.99 wines in the country – for two days at least.
For many the bigger and more important question will be, “But is it Barolo?” And that’s a lot harder to answer: it doesn’t have the ‘tar and roses’ fragrance of great Barolo wines, but then plenty of examples at many times its price don’t achieve that either. It is a well-made, quite serious dry red for the money, and no matter what it says on the label, to deny that would be churlish.