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Spirit Guide: Get to Know Bitter, Spicy Barolo Chinato

In "Spirit Guide," Wayne Curtis demystifies the ever-shifting spirits landscape one bottle at a time. This round: spicy, quinine-inflected Barolo chinato.

Barolo chinato may well be the most noble of bitter aromatized wines, claiming wine made from the hallowed nebbiolo grape, sourced from its home in Piedmont’s Barolo region, at its base. It thus combines the deep richness and floral, tarry complexity of Barolo with a bit of citrus tang and the bitterness (by way of quinine) of an amaro.

Barolo chinato, like chinatos or quinquinas made from other wines, didn’t arise until the late-19th century, long after the emergence of other bitter liqueurs and aromatized wines like fernets, vermouth and gentian liqueurs. The reason being that Calisaya bark, which is the source of quinine, had to be imported and thus arrived later to market than locally grown wormwood or gentian. While it was initially touted for its curative qualities, as modern medicine produced better cures, the marketing of Barolo chinato evolved, according to Fulvio Piccinino, an expert on aromatized wines, to be touted as luxury product.

Over time, Barolo producers tweaked and perfected their recipes. “In the late-19th century, makers of Barolo chinato would each have their own style, like they did with wormwood back to Roman times,” says Jake Parrott of Haus Alpenz, which imports Cocchi. “Every house had its own recipe.”

But, since Barolo chinato is complex to make, expensive to buy and appealing to a niche set of drinkers, they started to fade from the market as producers focused on their wines. Still, a handful of estates and blenders continued to produce Barolo chinato. Today, the process and ingredients still differ from maker to maker, with many guarding their recipes as house secrets. While all involve imported Calisaya bark, other ingredients vary in presence and proportion. The same is true of production technique: some macerate directly in the wine; others infuse herbs in a neutral spirit or brandy, and then blend that with the wine. Once infused, many are further aged in barrels.

Chinato’s quinine-based bitterness is the sort that makes you smile—much different than, say, the bitterness from gentian, which leads you to suspect you’ve been poisoned. It arises on the finish, gently emerging like the aroma of a night-blooming flower. When well-crafted, its bite leaves no mark, just an uncommon dryness as it trails off in a long, complex flourish. Think of it like vermouth—turned up to 11.

The Original

Cappellano Barolo Chinato

Cappellano is often hailed as the original Barolo chinato (some outliers suggest Cocchi was first), having been created by Giuseppe Cappellano, a pharmacist in Turin and the son of a winery owner. The most recent family head, Teobaldo Cappellano, who died in 2009, remains legendary in the region for his irascible, sometimes combative approach to running his small, family estate. (No journalist was allowed to visit unless they agreed to not give his wines with a numeric score, which he thought drove a wedge between vineyards.) So it’s perhaps appropriate that Cappellano’s chinato comes off a bit like it has something to prove—big and vegetal and floral. It’s made according to the original, secret recipe, with cinchona bark and (likely) wormwood, clove and cinnamon, along with some edge-softening sugar. It’s as if it were crafted to be enjoyed with a sizable chunk of dark chocolate.

  • Price: $60 (500 mL)
  • ABV: 17.5 percent

The Standard-Bearer

Cocchi Barolo Chinato

Cocchi is the Barolo chinato you’re most likely to find at your local liquor store. It’s imported by Haus Alpenz (which also imports the now-ubiquitous Dolin vermouth), and it’s distributed in about 40 states. It’s made with grapes grown in Scarrone, at about 1,000 feet above sea level; it is warmer than most Barolo sub-regions and results in a bigger, bolder flavor for the herbs to tame. “It was always more of an opulent style,” says Jake Parrott of Haus Alpenz. Still, it’s brighter and more citrusy than the robust Vajra, and dances lightly on the palate with a terrific balance of tart and sweet.

  • Price: $55 (500 mL)
  • ABV: 16.5 percent

The Mystic

G.D. Vajra Barolo Chinato

G.D. Vajra launched in 1972, when the Vaira family established their vineyard the highest village in the Barolo region. Their version of Barolo chinato has a mysterious aroma and taste, which brings to mind souks and camels laden with herbs and spices (particularly clove). I can’t exactly explain this—especially since the family says it chiefly uses alpine herbs native to Italy. It’s a strongly herbal drink, but expresses itself as a counter to an herbal liqueur like, say, Chartreuse. Chartreuse is all piccolo; Vajra is all sousaphone.

  • Price: $55
  • ABV: 18 percent

The Sophisticate

Roagna Barolo Chinato

Roagna Barolo Chinato begins with a high-quality wine—in this case, the estate’s ten-year-old Riserva made from old-vine nebbiolo. With a wine this good as a starting point, you don’t want to overplay the botanicals, and the producer wisely holds back. The recipe started as one passed down through generations, but has been more recently tweaked to suit modern tastes. With some 33 herbs and spices, it’s complex, but the hints of anise, cardamom and cinnamon take an uncharacteristic back seat to the wine. It’s fortified with grappa, and floral infusions contribute an added ethereal quality. Overall, it comes off with a gentler, softer quality than most other Barolo chinatos, and seems more closely related to a pure wine than to an amaro.

  • Price: $90
  • ABV: 16 percent

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